Me, at the end of last year’s Assassin’s Creed 3 review:
I’m certainly not looking forward to the next game — not unless somebody at Ubisoft has the nous to recognise that after the heyday of Ezio Assassin’s Creed 3 seems like a bloated mess scripted by a collection of twelve year-olds. Somehow I don’t think that’s going to happen, and so I’ll probably give next year’s AC release a pass.
Me, slightly further up the Assassin’s Creed 3 review:
The boat sections are outstanding – and in fact I’d be more than happy to see a full game based around them a la Pirates!
Me, upon learning that they’d made the next Assassin’s Creed game all about sailing a pirate ship around the Carribbean.
I’m honestly not sure what goes on with the development of AC games. They come out at the rate of one per year so it’s not the same team that works on all of them, but with those teams being firmly embedded within Ubisoft’s corporate structure rather than the rather more obvious situation we had with Call of Duty for a few years (a “proper” CoD game was developed every two years by Infinity Ward, with understudies Treyarch filling in the gaps with less-memorable titles1) it’s harder to figure out just why the Assassin’s Creed series is so inconsistent. Specifically how exactly they’ve managed, in the space of one year and a single game, to go from the series low that was Assassin’s Creed 3 to Black Flag, which is really fucking good.
Oh, there’s elements of personal bias in that assessment, I’m sure. I like boats. I like pirates. I like games about boats and pirates. I also have something of a soft spot for the Assassin’s Creed series since I’m a massive history buff and they’re the only AAA series I’m aware of that caters to historical sightseeing. But then all of this was also true of Assassin’s Creed 3, and I hit that game several times with my Hating Stick when I played it this time last year Despite making several of the same mistakes Black Flag is a genuine improvement, and this is almost entirely down to its embracing the ship combat gameplay that was trialled in 3 to a degree that I don’t think anyone was expecting; Black Flag is no longer an Assassin’s Creed game with boats, but rather a game about boats with light Assassin’s Creed elements. While the open world and urban exploration aspects of the series are as strong as they ever were, they’re now built around and on top of sailing your pirate ship around the Carribbean ocean, blowing the crap out of other ships and stealing their cargo.
This is an unconventional and brave move for the series, and its one which pays off handsomely by giving it a massive shot in the arm. Black Flag is not without its issues, but as long as you don’t do the main storyline all in one go putting the boats front and centre has made it into an astonishingly strong game. It helps significantly that a great amount of care and attention has been lavished onto the boat gameplay itself; the combat is rather arcadey as you’d expect – even more so than in Pirates!, with cannon that reload in a couple of seconds and swivel guns that target “weak points” on enemy ships for massive damage – but it feels good and looks stunning. That goes for all of AC4, actually; it’s an extremely good-looking game that saves its best efforts for when you’re saililng at full tilt from one port to another, skipping from wavecrest to wavecrest. Or when you get caught in a storm and have to evade rogue waves and waterspouts, with rain beating down and forked lighting striking the sea alarmingly close to your ship. Or when you’re exchanging broadsides with a British frigate and have to take your best guess as to where exactly the enemy ship is because the smoke from the cannon fire has gotten so thick that you can’t see a goddamn thing. It’s all awesomely atmospheric and absolutely the last thing I expected from the AC franchise, of all things. I hope other developers look at this and realise that while shaking up their formula is a risk, it’s potentially a very rewarding one.
Of course a life of piracy on the high seas wouldn’t have much point if you couldn’t spend your ill-gotten gains, and in this case what you mostly do with them is plough them back into your ship, the Jackdaw. It’s a small-ish brigantine that starts out with very few cannons, almost no other weapons and a hull that could be penetrated by a particularly determined woodpecker, but the vast plethora of upgrades available mean that this state of affairs doesn’t last for long. Pretty soon you’ll have added more cannon, more armour, better cannonballs and a ram on the prow which is easily capable of taking out smaller ships in one blow, but unlike previous AC games upgrading your weaponry isn’t a simple matter of amassing a huge pile of money. Instead you need materials as well – there are five different types of cargo in the game; rum and sugar having no purpose other than being sold for money, but metal, wood and cloth are all used in ship upgrades of one kind or another. Metal and wood in particular are usually to be found on top-of-the-line warships, which provides a nice incentive to go after these tougher targets and engage in combat with an adversary several times larger than you are. Since you’re stuck with the Jackdaw and can’t ever trade up to a more powerful vessel you have to rely on your speed and manueverability to stay out of broadside range, which is of paramount importance since one salvo from a man of war can easily shred a third of your hull armour. The Jackdaw handles well, with very little attention being paid to realism or historical verisimilitude in terms of navigation, but wind and waves are both a factor when you’re jockeying for position in a fight and keeping control of your ship while simultaneously aiming and firing your cannon can be quite challenging at times. This ensures that the combat never really gets to the point where you’re just going through the motions; there’s always the potential that one slip will leave you eating up a broadside, and suddenly things are looking a lot more dicey.
Winning a ship combat is only half the battle, however. Once you’ve crippled your prey you still have to board and capture them, which is where the usual AC swordfighting mechanics come into play. The criteria for winning a boarding action are pseudo-random; you’ll always have to kill a certain number of enemy crew, but there’ll be additional objectives involved such as blowing up powder reserves or eliminating snipers situated on the mast-tops. This latter one involves clambering up there yourself to dispose of them, and since the free-running system is a little bit too free you really have to watch your step lest you find yourself inadvertently hurling yourself to the decks below. In the cities this is a frustration since it’s rarely lethal; here, the potential for instant death simply makes you bloody careful.
Aside from the excellent ships there’s the usual smorgasbord of open-world gameplay, with plenty of uncharted islands to explore, naval forts to take over (by demolishing them with the Jackdaw while they try to hit you with a terrifying amount of firepower) and new Carribbean themed minigames such as diving and harpooning. The incomprehensible trading post system from AC3 has been replaced with the Kenway’s Fleet feature where you send your captured ships out to clear sea lanes and trade goods with distant ports; this also gets next to no explanation but is at least easier to figure out from first principles, and this alone makes it a huge improvement. The only times Black Flag starts to drag, in fact, is when you alight from your ship and enter a full-on city, since this usually means you’ll be doing a story mission of some kind.
Historically the AC series has done well with theme and character but has been saddled with bloody awful writing and plot. One of the reasons AC3 was so bad was that it was a rare example of the series failing on both counts; not only was the plot particularly nonsensical that time around but the main character, Connor, was an angsty idiot with all the wit and charm of an elephant’s arse and a man I actively rooted against all the way through the game, which is probably not the ideal outcome for your character development. The good news is that as far as the protagonist goes Black Flag at least swings the pendulum of quality back towards the “good” end of the spectrum; Edward Kenway isn’t as instantly likeable as Ezio was, but that’s kind of the point. When he starts the game he’s a pirate, driven purely by profit, and this leads him to do a lot of questionable things during the course of the story. Unlike Connor, though, the game’s writing acknowledges that he’s being a dick via several of the other characters outright telling him so, and his quest for booty ends up being so self-destructive that he (gasp!) undergoes a gradual and believable character arc spanning many years during which he slowly becomes A Better Person. It’s still a bit frustrating to watch him do some very stupid things during the game because he thinks there’ll be money at the end of it, but Edward at least has the personality and charisma to make me put up with it.
The same can’t be said of the story, unfortunately. It’s the usual incoherent Templars vs. Assassins claptrap, and all the historical cameos in the world can’t hide the fact that the main plotline of Black Flag looks just as tattered and full of holes as the actual skull and crossbones flying from the Jackdaw’s mast. Just like AC3, things happen not because they make any logical or narrative sense, but because the plot and structure of the game needs them to happen now and it’ll strain its narrative credibility to breaking point in order to do so. Edward gets captured and disarmed by his enemies on no less than four separate occasions, but instead of putting a pistol ball in the back of his skull they imprison him on a ship, or in an actual prison, or maroon him on an island. With just one single exception their reasons for doing so are never explained, which means the supposedly-subtle Templars come off as incompetent villains straight out of a James Bond movie. Similarly these situations are used as an excuse for one-off missions which depart from the status quo of sailing and pirating, but those one-off missions don’t ever resolve how Edward gets back to his ship and crew. Instead the story cuts to several months later where one of the other characters says something along the lines of “Wow, it sure was awesome how you stole that fishing schooner and retook the Jackdaw from the clutches of your enemy!” Yeah, I bet it was, except for some reason this interesting-sounding sequence isn’t in the actual game, likely having being cut because they couldn’t finish it in time – or because it would have taken development resources away from the godawful modern-day segments.
The plot device of the Animus is both the Assassin’s Creed series’ greatest asset and its most critical failing. Having each game be based around somebody in the present revisiting ancestral memories allows so much flexibility in terms of characters, settings and time periods, and the AC games have been pretty good at exploiting that flexibility to its fullest extent. Total War is the only other franchise which bounces around history as much as Assassin’s Creed does, and that’s a series with a very different focus. The core gameplay of AC hasn’t really changed significantly since the first game – at least, not until Black Flag – and with yearly releases it would have gotten stale long ago if not for its ability to chop and change who and where you’re playing. It’s a fantastic setup, but the reason it carries such a bad rap is because Ubisoft just cannot get away from the idea that they have to break up these enjoyable historical vignettes with deeply tedious interludes set in the modern world. This time around these interludes are, if anything, even more obnoxious than the travails of Desmond and his motley crew of Assassins. I actually liked Desmond and still hated his gameplay segments, so now that the Desmond storyline has been resolved you can imagine my reaction to being placed inside the skull of a mute, characterless cipher working at an “Entertainment Company” based in Canada that’s actually a massively self-indulgent parody of Ubisoft Montreal itself. It’s one of those awful ideas that should never have made it out of the brainstorming sessions; not only are these newly first-person missions as braindead as ever but they now smack of self-satisfaction and over-indulgence, like the developers actually think they’re being clever by Mary-Sueing themselves into their own game. It’s all the more annoying because of the obvious holes in the historical game; instead of filling those in Ubisoft decided to treat us to the game development equivalent of onanism.
Still, unless you mainline the whole of the story in a couple of evenings this isn’t a fatal flaw. AC4 is a huge, huge game, and just finishing the story will take you a good 12-15 hours2. Like all AC games it’s very possible to burn out on it, but as long as you take your time to enjoy everything the game has to offer I don’t think this will be a problem. Main plot aside, Black Flag is an excellent return to form for a series that badly needed the shake-up the naval gameplay provides. Usually I’d say something along the lines of “Worth picking up if you like AC games”, but I actually do think the novelty of seeing boats and ocean done this well turns Black Flag into a must-buy if you’re even remotely interested in the subject matter. Perhaps not now, and probably not for full price, but you should probably take a look at it at some point since it’s a rare example of a series adopting a brand new mechanic almost flawlessly. I’ll certainly be interested to see where Ubisoft take Assassin’s Creed next since this is a trick that’ll only work once and they’ll have to find something else to shake up their next game, but as far as Black Flag is concerned it’s a really good one.
(Oh, and your crew sing period-appropriate sea shanties while you’re sailing the ocean waves. This alone makes it a contender for Game of the Year in my book.)
- I was about to say this is doing Treyarch something of a disservice but looking back on it I’m really, really not. Rather I’m giving post Modern Warfare 1 Infinity Ward far too much credit. ↩
- Which is why you’re reading this now rather than on Wednesday – it took me longer than I expected to finish the thing. ↩