Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag was an unexpected high point in the ongoing series. I must admit that I personally had low expectations of the game before release, but lo, I was proven wrong. With Black Flag designed across current (last?) generation systems, as well as PC and the new release of consoles, a major emphasis would always be placed on the look of the game. We plan to have a rundown of the next-gen upgrades the game has received sometime next week, including graphical enhancements, so look out for that.
Presenting the Caribbean through the lens of 18th piracy, Black Flag was widely praised for its distinctive, beautiful look. Key to developing that look was artwork developed by Ubisoft Montreal’s core art team, under the watchful eye of the Assassin’s Creed series’ art director Raphael Lacoste. Drafting and producing concept art is critical to a game project like Black Flag, and throughout the development process countless pieces of concept art were created by a talented team of artists worldwide.
The Art of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, published by Titan Books, collects 190+ pages of that artwork, adds some interesting commentary, and gives a hint of a glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes of making a huge game like Black Flag.
The book itself, as a physical object, is quite beautiful. The quarto sized hardcover comes with a pretty dust jacket featuring Kenway posing dramatically in the surf spray, Jackdaw in the distance. The title is gold and embossed white. It’s pleasant enough for a dust jacket, but the real elegance comes from the actual cover underneath. The black hardcover takes inspiration from the titular black flag, featuring a black background with black stylisation of the Jackdaw’s Assassin and gold skull symbol. It’s a perfectly understated image, evocative of the game itself, and I much prefer it to the motion and colour of the dust jacket.
Inside, all the art is rendered on premium quality thick glossy pages, ensuring tactile strength, durability, and a classy hand feel emphasises all the art. It looks and feels like a high quality product, and that is important for a book of art.
The content of the book itself is divided into seven parts, each one dedicated to a different theme of concept art. Each chapter delves into a key element of the game, from Abstergo, to cities and exploration, pirate life and people, and sea combat and the underwater sections of the game.
The scant words are written mostly by Paul Davies – a former games journalist with twenty years of experience with online and print publications. There is nothing too fancy, but all of the descriptions and introductions are perfectly functional. There is a foreword by Raphael Lacoste, too, outlining the art goals of Black Flag. It’s a nice introduction that places the subsequent art into a wider context of game development. Smattered throughout the book, mostly explaining individual images, are comments from individual artists that have worked on pieces for Black Flag. Each one offers varying insights, and it’s nice to see those concept artists continuing to interact with their audience and explain their artistic choices, such as the mood they were trying to create by making certain places and objects look the way they do.
The main course, however, is the art. The art itself is gorgeous. From quick black and white ideas roughly hammered out onto paper, to mood sketches, composition pieces, shape studies, and colour work, the art comes in different stages of the concept process. Occasionally – and not nearly frequently enough for my eager eyes – the book will show one composition in various stages of the concept process. What begins as a black and white sketch becomes an eclectic landscape becomes a detailed piece of artwork. Each piece is a snapshot of the development process, and it is always beautiful art.
It’s obvious that the concept art had a very clear driving vision, shaping the direction of the art. Using the painterly, watercolour style demanded by Lacoste for this project, the various artists have all created art with a distinct thematic feel to it. That’s not to say the art is homogenous – not at all. Each piece has its own identity, but an individual identity that forms part of a cohesive whole – a clear position within the world of Assassin’s Creed IV.
That probably comes down to the research the artists did in preparation. The art book briefly touches on the depth of research the artists embarked on, from diving in Thailand to explore an underwater ecosystem to visiting Caribbean islands to capture the environment and its features. Artists travelled to these places to capture an authentic feel and realistic look. Most impressive to me was the work that went into ship blueprints, which faithfully recreated period ships, labelling the individual parts. Each ship has its own design, based on historically accurate ships from the time with a decent slab of artistic license thrown in for visual flair.
Another detail I found interesting was the amount of content that was cut from Assassin’s Creed IV. Whole areas were concepted, such as Port au Prince and Sandiago de Cuba, yet were removed during production. Rather than being shown as a flaw, the art book reveals the amount of focus on the areas that were kept. While details about why areas were cut are glossed over, the unuttered suggestion is that the final game is a better experience for it. Additionally, it really emphasises the ephemeral, transient nature of the concept art process.
And the process is transient in so many ways. While the sheer amount of quality artwork in the book seems trivial to the uninitiated, each finished piece of artwork must have taken most of the day, more for the most complex pieces. Not every piece of art that was created as concept is in this book, and yet it must have taken years and years in total combined time to create what you see. And on top of that, not all pieces of art created were even used in the final game. Some pieces, such as the entire Port au Prince area, were cut, rendering weeks of hard artistic work next to pointless.
Of course, all the art serves a greater purpose. Even if concept art is not directly utilised to create a level design or an area or an encounter, it all adds to the mood the art team and developers were aiming to create. Early sketches of Abstergo, for example, look a long way away from the final product as designed in the game, yet elements appear here and there. One idea is Martin Deschambault’s glass floor in the Abstergo building. While the rest of the originally concepted room was altered drastically, one feature that was kept to the final iteration of the concept art was that one feature of the reflective, smooth glass floor.
It’s not all roses, though. Some of the artistic ideas couldn’t be realised by the design team. A small caption above a small picture reveals Lacoste’s thoughts that “[t]he jungles in the game are unfortunately less open than in this concept art. I wanted to have trees with stylized silhouettes to help image composition and have memorable moments in the forests.” What the conflict here was that meant the closure of the gamespace is not revealed, but it does hint at a greater tension between concept art and practical game design – and a story about the design process that I would have loved to have heard in full.
I suppose the few criticisms I can level at The Art of Assassin’s Creed IV lay with the words. I know it’s an art book, but I can sense a great story behind each piece of art. Whether it’s diving in Thailand looking at real shipwrecks, or flying over the Caribbean islands mapping out the landscape, or learning how to distinguish a taffrail from the mizzenmast – all these personal stories of discovery and adventure that the art team could tell, are left untold. Hinted at, yes, but not nearly as detailed as I would have liked. And that’s fair enough, considering it’s an art book and not an artist book, but I’m sure some fascinating stories have been left untold.
From a more technical standpoint, some of the images lack captions, or clear distinctions regarding which caption belongs with which image. I’m the type of person who loves putting the words with the pictures with the final product so I can see the progression along the way, and the not irregular skipping of some of those picture descriptions was a little disappointing.
But the art. The art itself tells its story strongly. It has a sense of place, and a clear style, and that all the pictures could be so thematically similar and expressive of a singular vision is a testament to the art team’s artistic calibre and the art direction of Raphael Lacoste.
The Art of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is a gorgeous companion to a gorgeous game. If you’re a fan of Black Flag, a fan of the Assassin’s Creed series, a fan of the visual aspect of the game design process, or a fan of art in general, The Art of Assassin’s Creed IV is a worthy addition to your collection.
(Review sample provided by Titan Publishing. Thanks.)