Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag Gamescom 2013 preview: First play of next-gen piratey bits

We've posted quite a lot on Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag before here on Pocket-lint and if you're a seasoned Assassin's Creed player you'll instantly recognise and understand the land game mechanics. Although they've been enhanced and, in the case of the PS4 and Xbox One versions, tarted up, they are reassuringly familiar to fans of the franchise.

For us, it is the seafaring aspects of the game that have been most improved and rejigged. Assassin's Creed III added ship battles to the mix, but IV takes it to a whole new level. And it is the new sea-based gameplay that Ubisoft was focusing on in our hands-on with the PS4 version of the title.

First, we got to sail around on the Jackdaw - main protagonist Edward Kenway's impressive pirate ship - engaging in battles and spotting areas on the map that we can enter into other mini-games.

Almost immediately we were set upon by a couple of smaller vessels, which offered up an ideal opportunity to play with some of the new ship-to-ship warfare features. You can now dump barrels out of the back of the Jackdaw to help scupper enemy craft, the bark of the cannons - with whatever type of shot you favour - is more pronounced, and the individual focusing engine is far more accurate and devastating. It is also now easier to board an enemy and fight hand-to-hand.

The spoils of a battle are important this time around. Sail close to them and you can pick up treasure and surviving sailors who will join your ever-expanding crew, so you will find yourself just sailing around for hours building your overall strength.

There's actually an intricate pirate simulation game inside Assassin's Creed IV, with trade also an important part of the role-playing aspect. Find or buy barrels of goods and trade them at locations that are willing to pay more than at their source. This cash can then be used to build and power up your craft.

Another new feature that we love is that, when sailing around, you can bring up a sailor's shanty as part of a - excuse the pun - pseudo pirate radio station. If you enter the more remote third-person sailing view, this is quite haunting and invokes memories of famed pirate movies from the 1950s and '60s.

As previously mentioned, scattered around the map are mini-games and events that can earn you items or money to help in your quest to beef up the Jackdaw. The best of those we played at Gamescom is the harpooning section.

It is a controversial addition as you effectively go harpooning and killing ever bigger sea creatures from sharks to whales and it will no doubt invite criticism, but it's historically accurate of sorts - in that sailors of this period did it - and actually well implemented.

When you see birds flying over a section of water it is likely that a shark or whale is in the area. Enter that zone and you are offered the chance to take part in the hunt. You will then find yourself in a small rowboat with a finite number of harpoons to get the job done. We were faced by a bull shark and once harpooned the first time it was attached to us by a rope. We then had to keep firing harpoons at the shark until it died, but because it will weave back and forth and you have a shaking reticle it escaped and attacked the boat in Jaws-esque fashion to get the heart pumping and to increase the tension.

An underwater swimming section was our final destination. You can find treasure in the depths around sunken ships, so it's worth diving overboard occasionally, but when you do you are not able to fight at all, so it's more a stealth style game. This is where the sharks can get their revenge.

Crew help out by dropping barrels that contain air - as you obviously won't survive for long without taking in gulps of fresh air before seeking the next cache of cash. But the best part of the underwater sections is simply the beauty of it all. On PS4 it looks stunning, with the sea teeming with fish, creatures and seabed foliage. It is simply stunning.

And that's our overall feeling of the pirate sections of AC4. While the mini-games and sea fighting gameplay are much more thought out than before, what we can mostly take from our Gamescom playtest is that this latest chapter in the hugely popular franchise could well be the best-looking yet.

Assassin's Creed IV will be available on Xbox 360 and PS3 from 1 November, PS4 from 29 November and Xbox One as a launch title when that date is revealed. It is also coming for PC.



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