Lord of Death
Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag Review [No Spoilers]
My relationship with the Assassinís Creed franchise has been complicated. I adored the first game which, despite being well reviewed, I could never get anyone to admit they liked. I played the second game for a few hours before I just had to stop. Ironically, in a game where you play as assassins obsessed with the idea of freedom, the second game stripped the freedom of the original away to replace it with cut-scenes and scripted sequences. With the exception of the dumbass meta-narrative involving Desmond Miles, the original was very good about letting you do what you wanted, and I canít recall the story ever getting in the way of the actual game.
That whole meta-plot thing is still here, but it seems like Ubisoft figured out that nobody plays the game to walk around an office building doing nothing, so those moments are quite short. You can, however, spend as much time as you want walking around hacking computers if you do care about the overarching plot of the series. For everyone else, letís talk about pirates.
Edward Kenway is an actual ideal protagonist for a game where you murder people as a profession. Not necessarily because heís a pirate, but because his singular focus on money is an actual relatable motivation, and it really highlights how outside of the whole Templar/Assassin conflict a serial murderer can be.
Without reading through the database, we can assume that Edward was one of the many sailors that found himself penniless after the wars, and thus became a pirate to make his living. What we know for certain is he left home to amass a fortune for his wife, but somehow lost sight of this goal as it twisted into pure greed. Eventually he sees the opportunity to steal the identity of an Assassin-gone-Templar to make a bit of coin.
I want to set an aside here to say that I applaud the series for its depiction of racism. I can only assume itís because the games werenít developed in America where people are afraid to talk about race, but itís nice to see the developers werenít simply using racism as window dressing like Bioshock Infinite did. Slave trading was a very real thing, and those prejudices still exist today. The game has an extremely diverse cast and seems to be aware that more than just white people exist and have lives of their own, so bravo. The accents are also extremely accurate, though Iím not sure if they actually found voice actors that fit the nationality of the characters. Regardless, a lot of talent was brought into the game in the form of voice work.
The overarching conflict between the Assassins and Templars is sort of pushed into the background for a while, which is a nice change. The problem is that they have to explain why Edward can do crazy assassin shit without ever being formally trained. Itís implied that heís related to assassins through what we know about his lineage, and the fact that he has magic eyeballs. Violence and climbing are skills that overlap between pirates and assassins, but I could never get over how strange it was that Edward was storied for this stuff while the rest of the pirates were relatively normal people. Edward is truly superhuman, which fits considering how the list of things that can kill you in this game is extremely short.
His story ties into history very well, and I have to admit that I think the historical value of the series makes these games relevant. In 20 years I doubt people will be impressed with the clumsy free-running, or the laughable fail-state, but I wouldnít be surprised to see this on a top 10 list of historical games, alongside 9 different version of Dynasty Warriors. Your favorite pirates are brought to life here, and you watch the rise and fall of the pirate republic of Nassau. Edwardís relationship with the pirates is better written then most of the game. It seems like a minor detail, but as the story unfolds you the end of an era and the transformation of a man spurred on by the death of charismatic piracy, and the game were just about that itíd be truly great. Unfortunately, we have to introduce Templars, and ancient Mayan runs and shit. This game has so many plot points, I found myself not even knowing why I was killing certain people.
Despite me spending so many words talking about the narrative, there is an actual game to be played here sometimes. Sailing is smooth and responsive, and seeing your ship bounce on the waves is strangely satisfying. The ocean itself is an actual threat to you, as rogue waves and water spouts appear seemingly randomly around you. My only complaint with the sailing is that the seas wasnít dangerous enough, but thatís what Assassinís Creed is about, isnít it? Nothing is dangerous enough. Itís like this off-balance relationship between wanting the player to feel badass but truly challenge them, and the developers could never figure out that overcoming challenges makes people feel badass all on its own.
When the game does choose to step it up, it feels unfair because youíve been coddled for so long. The first appearances of maníoíwar ships is impressive and ominous, but soon when you actually have to fight them you realize what a grind the whole pirate ship thing is. While you could reasonably beat a massive galleon without enough luck, the game really banks on you upgrading your ship. At first this is an exciting prospect, but devolves into a grind almost instantly. Boarding frigates becomes routine, and youíve taken the funnest thing about being a pirate and turned into a chore. Thanks, game.
There are island scattered about, and numerous collectibles to acquire. I really got a Wind Waker vibe while searching for uncharted islands, and the game rewards you for finding stuff by asking you to find even more stuff in the form of treasure maps. Itís really proper pirate stuff, and a glimpse of what the game could have been if it werenít so tied down by its legacy as a story-driven game. Finding new islands is fun, as is whales and sharks. Admittedly, youíll probably just start fast travelling around as sailing becomes a pain in the ass once enemies start shooting you on sight.
The real problems here is that this is an Assassinís Creed game, and a lot of obnoxious things were never addressed. While free-running you will still get caught on random things, and youíll struggle to climb up on rocks or even walk into doorways on occasion. You are essentially invincible in combat, and I found myself wondering why I would ever run away and just fought my way through the last few hours of the game. Even the most casual player will realize that you can press the guard break button twice to trip a guy and then instantly kill him. If there are more than a few guys, the smoke bomb is a win button. It seems youíre intended to use it to run away, but it lets you instantly kill anyone that is coughing. Getting outed in this game never seems like a legitimate failure, but a minor annoyance. Truly, the best way to be sneaky is to just murder everyone. You canít be caught if thereís nobody left to catch you.
By far the biggest issue with the game is the amount of time you spend following people. This is a major point of contention with me, because it shows an obvious lack of awareness by the developers. At least one person thought following people around and eavesdropping was super interesting, because you are asked to do this constantly. Itís hard to articulate why this is so obnoxious, but I will try. The devs seemed to want to simulate the legwork involved with being an assassin. Information gathering is expected, but its like they conceded the only possible way to gather info is to follow people around or eavesdrop ó usually both. This is probably the only legitimate challenge in the game, as getting caught is a sorta instant failure. You have entirely too much time to escape the sight of your charge, but it seems that time allowance is there as a concession that the AIís omniscient and spends too much time stopping to turn around, or look up at rooftops. Better find a better hiding spot! Decisions! Gameplay! The pace of the game is controlled by the AI at this point, as if you get too far ahead youíll simply fail the mission. The only way I could tolerate these segments is to try and be as obvious as possible without being caught. At one point I killed all the guards that were escorting a diplomat, and he continued to talk to himself. He would even turn around to address people that werenít even there.
If this game were 4 hours long, it could have been great. The opening moments are strong, the freshness of the sea is inspiring, and firing 4 pistols in succession is energizing, but then the rest of the game happens.