Take a look at the trailer for the upcoming Assassin’s Creed movie – all slick production design, overlaid with a pounding Kanye track. Then we’re thrown back to dusty 15th century Spain with Oscar nominee Michael Fassbender.
The games are like this too – an oil-and-water mix of present day sci-fi and historical settings ranging from the Crusades to the American Revolution.
From a marketing point of view, how this series conquered pop culture is beyond reasoning.
Assassin’s Creed flails around like a young history professor, achingly hip, desperately trying to fire up bored students by dramatizing the blood-and-guts action of eras like the Golden Age of Piracy.
“I wanna be a pirate!”
Which brings me to a belated review of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag (2013), Ubisoft’s most ambitious entry in the series. Assassin’s Creed IV expands on the naval warfare side-missions from the third game, providing the player with a pirate brig and a scaled down version of the 18th century Caribbean to pillage.
In Black Flag, Assassin’s Creed meets The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, and that’s a good thing. In taking the player to the high seas, Ubisoft has delivered a stunning, atmospheric experience. Your voyages around the islands are accompanied by sea shanties sung by your crew (expect these to get stuck in your head). Day turns into night and the lanterns on your ship are lit. The British Empire and the Spanish Armada battle on the horizon. Your ship will be buffeted by squalls and rogue waves. Like The Wind Waker, the ocean feels alive.
But then you dock, and the gameplay starts to grind. The realistic depiction of the Caribbean is technically astounding: the towns of Nassau and Kingston, the forts, jungles, and swamps are all beautifully rendered. But remember all the old issues with Assassin’s Creed? Black Flag suffers from some choppy framerates, and this is a busy game with a cluttered HUD.
Ubisoft can’t help but remind you with every instruction that you’re playing a video game. Missions are overly busy – onscreen directions pile up, confusing you in the middle of the action. And for a game built on stealth, the mechanics of sneaking around and silent kills are often more tedious than challenging.
On a Rail
Ubisoft doesn’t trust the player enough to give you full control. In a series with free-running as a selling point, your character sticks to an invisible rail. The running and jumping still seems stiff – you’re never at risk of actually falling from a rooftop. Super Mario Galaxy this is not – your 18th century brig heaves, but feels more natural.
A complex interface is also marred by familiar open world issues. Basically, there’s too much going on: side quests, fetch quests, assassination missions, light strategy with a trading mini-game, and pointless map mopping.
There are far too many items. Weapons can be upgraded, but fundamentally you can pick between swords and pistols. One neat addition is the blowpipe: sleep darts can temporarily knock out bad guys, and berserk poison darts send enemies into a rage against others, offering endless potential for creative chaos.
Unlockable costumes add nothing to the gameplay. In a bizarre convention of the genre, Assassin’s Creed allows you to loot fallen enemies – but never gives you the option to steal their uniforms for a disguise!
Simply sailing around is more fun than shuttling from one task to another. And the main missions are impressive: Ubisoft stands up there with Naughty Dog in creating big set-pieces. In one mission, your character takes part in a desperate naval battle alongside ally Edward Teach – better known as Blackbeard.
Victory at Sea
There’s always the sea to return to. You can scan the horizon for ships and islands using a telescope (perhaps another Wind Waker influence). Engage in tense warfare against frigates that match or outgun you, board ships and take on crew members in swordfights, and launch attacks on forts that bombard you with mortars. See that glint on a faraway island? A hint of a hidden pirate cove to explore. And mini-games have you hunting sharks, and diving to sunken wrecks to plunder treasure. As with any great game, the simple act of roaming around is a pleasure in Assassin’s Creed IV.
Edward Kenway, this game’s pirate wannabe, is occasionally charming, but mostly a drunken boor (he’s only in this for “a bit of coin”). Not as principled as his grandson from Assassin’s Creed III, Kenway has the farthest to travel – and in keeping with the iconoclastic theme of the series, Assassin’s Creed IV sees Kenway grow, offering assistance to the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean, helping beat back racism and sexism wherever he encounters it (which, being this is the 18th century, is everywhere).
And Assassin’s Creed IV provides a fascinating history lesson. The game depicts Kenway’s efforts to support a pirate-run republic in the Bahamas, moderating his fellow corsairs’ excesses. Incredibly, this actually happened – from 1706 until 1718, a band of privateers took control of Nassau after the British abandoned New Providence following a Franco-Spanish attack.
Under the Black Flag
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag’s problems are the problems of the open world genre, and modern gaming generally: endless missions, repetitive quests, constant leveling up, busywork. Over-produced on-screen instructions, with a mini-map and warnings and health bars and icons and timers. The OCD of collecting every useless item. The handholding.
There’s also no real progression here – Kenway is as skilled at the start as at the end. Only your ship, the Jackdaw, can be upgraded with heavier cannon and tougher armor.
As a history nerd, I want to love Assassin’s Creed. But like other super-massive open world games, had this been winnowed down to a main campaign of 20+ hours, with a few secrets tucked away here and there, Assassin’s Creed IV would be a leaner, more enjoyable experience.
As is, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag represents the series at its flawed best – a huge step forward in design (while buggy, unambitious sequels take us two steps back).
This sounds like a negative review. But I enjoyed Assassin’s Creed IV – the set-pieces are undeniably epic, the quiet moments as Kenway corrects the course of his life are believably acted, and creeping around the islands of the Caribbean to steal rum and plunder treasure are well done. And of course there is the wonderfully designed sailing and naval combat.
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag succeeds almost in spite of itself, with its seafaring adventures a high point in the series.