Comfort. That’s not a word often associated with pirates. Or Assassins. But when it comes to the companion app for Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag, that’s exactly the word that Game Director Ashraf Ismail uses to describe the second-screen gaming experience.
“The philosophy behind the companion app is that it’s an extension of the game and a comfort tool,” Ismail says. “Comfort in the sense that you can have the world map out and it’s directly connected to the game, so it’s not just a static map. It’s actually updating live with what’s happening in your world.”
Having seen it in action, we can attest to the straightforward (and, dare we say, comforting) charm of having a fully functional real-time map on a second touchscreen right by our side. During a recent hands-on session with the game, the companion app’s interactive map showed us everything from ships sailing the seas to myriad events happening around us. The best part? We were able to tag stuff in the app – anything from a cluster of combative ships to a deep-sea diving location to a shark-hunting opportunity and more – and the marker would then appear as a waypoint in the game. Or, to be more precise, our host from the Ubisoft Montreal development team was able to do so, since he was controlling the app during our session. Which, interestingly enough, lent our gameplay experience a equally comforting feeling of collaboration, with our developer host spotting and then directing our attention to all kinds of interesting gameplay opportunities.
“There are a lot of these small comfort tools where instead of having to go into a menu you can just have it next to you and do stuff really easily,” Ismail says. “Or you can have someone else do it for you. It’s kind of like your first mate next to you.”
That “first mate” experience wasn’t what was originally intended – not in the my-real-world-best-friend-is-seated-next-to-me sense, at least – but after seeing how people were using the companion app, this quickly evolved to be part of the development. “We know a lot of the time when people play they will have their significant other, friend, brother or sister in the room,” Ismail says. “Maybe they really enjoy the story and they’re just watching – but to actually have them involved is really cool. It’s not an intense experience, but they can see stuff you might not be paying attention to and they can highlight it for you and tell you, Hey, something is happening over there.”
And it’s not just the world map that can be explored via the app. Want to immerse yourself in Black Flag’s deep lore? Now you don’t have to pause the game and wade through the menus to dive into what you’re seeking. Seeking out a collectible? Go ahead and call up the full list on the second screen so you know what trinkets of buried treasure you still need to hunt for. And speaking of treasure: those handy treasure maps are perfect for viewing via the companion app, too.
Having the comfort of a virtual first mate might be more than enough, but the companion app doesn’t stop there. One of the key features in Black Flag is the ability to capture enemy ships, after which you have three options: salvage the ship to repair the Jackdaw, recruit the crew, or add the vessel to your fleet. That final option is where the companion app also shines.
But before we jump back into the app, a quick primer on how the fleet metagame works. In the game you can access your fleet and send it out on missions (think of the training missions from previous games). Depending on the mission objectives, you’ll want to customize your fleet to include, say, lighter, faster ships or heavier, more powerful ones. Ships can also be upgraded, repaired… and lost. Much of the work of fleet management can be done from the safety of Edward Kenway’s in-game hideout, a little pirate cove that Black Flag’s hero sees as his sanctuary. (Even this hideout can be upgraded to allow for more ships in your fleet.) “There are many layers of strategy we want the players to think about when capturing ships,” Ismail says.
Here’s the neat part: “With the companion app, you can actually delve deeper into those missions and you don’t have to be in the same room,” Ismail says. “It’s not just a second screen. You can be on the bus and jump into the minigame, which can gain you more resources and loot if you jump into the action. Because you’re putting more into it, we reward you more.”
Wait, hang on: jump into the action? Yep. In the app, “you can jump into those missions and actually do the fight for them,” Ismail says. All you need to do is pull up the list of active missions, click on one, and in you go. You’ll not only see how your ships are progressing and where the enemies are, but you’ll also have the option of actually playing a combat minigame – and by doing so you can increase the potential rewards you earn.
Ismail isn’t sharing more details on the combat – and not just because he’s being coy. “We’re not talking about that just yet,” Ismail smiles. “It’s something we’re still pushing deep, but the one thing we’ve seen from a lot of playtests is that people are really digging the fleet metagame way more than we had anticipated.” After numerous playtests, the team found that gamers actually wanted more tools, more depth and more strategy in the metagame. So while the missions have been scripted, the system has been built, and the app is fully functional, the team is now adding even more to the fleet metagame – especially since the reward loop of the metagame is proving to have such a positive effect on the game’s open-world exploration. “People are now spending way more time in the ocean looking for more powerful ships and then figuring out what they need to do to get a certain ship,” Ismail says.
Keep in mind, though, that if you want to jump directly into the fleet metagame minigame (phew, that’s a mouthful), you’ll need to do so via the companion app. That’s by design, in order to help keep the app experience unique. “On the console you can send your fleet on missions, you can choose who you want to go, and you can choose what missions you want them go on, then the mission itself is simulated,” Ismail says. “If you want to actually do the action yourself and not go through the simulation, you use the companion app.” After all, if the companion app is indeed your first mate, then it needs to spread its own sails now and again, too.
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