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Posts Tagged ‘Assassins Creed’

I’ve just finished three delight-filled weeks of gaming with Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag.

This was entirely expected. AC4 was pretty much guaranteed to be a good time.

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Hijinks on the high seas

For starters, as the title of this blog may indicate, I love pirate games in general. Over the years, I’ve managed to enjoy some pretty mediocre pirate games – including almost all the Pirates of the Caribbean movie tie-ins, simply because they reminded me of Monkey Island.

So suffice to say, AC4 was set up to succeed. It was my first game on the PS4 so it was almost certain to be a stunning game, showing off rich tropical environments on the most powerful computing hardware I’ve yet connected to my TV. Furthermore, I already knew that I enjoyed their sailing/naval combat mechanics from ACIII.

I’m sure I was not alone on many if not all these points.

For many games and game designers that would have been enough, but unlike many of its pirate protagonists Assassin’s Creed 4 does more than profiteer from easy wins.

The gameplay is excellent. Tight, focussed and with enough high-seas swashbuckling to keep me interested for 50 hours. I can’t give it any higher commendation than to say that this was the absolute first game where I’ve gotten 100% across all the challenges and collectables. Quests, location of collectables, reasonableness of the additional challenges and the level design were all extremely well designed and executed.

I really have to talk about the shanty system too. Simultaneously one of the best collectables and music implementations I’ve ever seen in a game. The shanties are essentially little pages strewn around the world that you have to chase through the wind, it’s basically a test of your parkour skills as you sprint across rooftops and tree-branches to catch them. But, best of all, once you catch one you have a little double-entendre laden sea shanty to read. Even better, your sailors sing from the list of the shanties you’ve collected while you sail around! I’ve never come across a collectable that contributed to an audio cosmetic before.

Beyond the level design, they also deserve massive commendation for the world they have created. The game steers clear of pirate cliché’s, hardly an Arrr! is uttered as the game instead sticks to a quite historical portrayal of the period – including a cast of characters straight out of the seminal 1724 tome A General History of the Pyrates.

While many characters seem motivated, pretty much unavoidably, by gold, booze and women, the game does also make some effort to fall on the right side of social issues. It deals with the slave-trade history of the Caribbean, including a substantial part of the main story and making the liberation of slaves the central focus of both the single-player DLC extensions that currently exist to the game.

AC4 even does a decent job at having a pair of strong female characters, and just, barely, passes the Bechdel test. And importantly, despite being a sailor, the main character doesn’t make cringingly lewd passes at every lady he sees. It’s not enough to call it a feminist game by any stretch, but it’s not a laddish game like GTA either.

It does somewhat undo its good work in the moral/social conscience stakes by encouraging you to harpoon whales.

Moving on to the storyline. As pirate yarns go, it starts out a little dull, but really picks up as it goes along. It’s the classic tale of man finds ship, man wants treasure, man meets shark, man finds treasure, treasure turns out to be different from what man expected, man needs to save the world from what he unearthed by finding the treasure. It’s a good enough tale, and putting the Assassin’s Creed twist on top of a pirate yarn prevents it from being too derivative.

One of the problems is that I found the main character Edward Kenway to be a bit of a cardboard cut-out. He has very simplistic motivations that don’t really develop much through the game. You never really feel like you ‘know’ him, although to an extent that does make it a little easier to project yourself into the role. Fortunately, the other major characters are much better and you develop quite an attachment to some of them. Setting up Blackbeard, who by most accounts is one of history’s great psychopaths as a sympathetic character was an interesting, brave and ultimately quite rewarding decision.

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Just some of the motley cast of characters in AC4

But something irked me. Unlike Arkham Asylum, where I really felt like I was Batman, or the Saboteur where I felt I was back in wartime Paris, I never felt like I was a pirate of the Caribbean. This was surprising because on paper a game which allows ample opportunities to unbuckle your swash in a historical world should have been an easy sell. While I can’t quite put my finger on why, I attribute this primarily to two things, the overall feel of the world, and the way the central character progresses.

As I’ve indicated earlier, the game world is probably the most beautiful, historically accurate representation of the golden age of piracy ever developed for a game. Yet somehow, it still doesn’t quite feel alive? This is a game that has largely missed the current trend for ambient/environmental storytelling. While the larger locations like Havana, Kingston and Nassau do have distinct and recognisable architectural styles which contribute to the overall feel of the Caribbean, the little villages around the world felt very same-y, existing only as a source of collectibles and side missions. This was not a Bethesda or MMO-style game where every town has a storyline and progression of its own. With the exception of Nassau which does transform along with the main storyline, none of the other locations were really anything more than a place to visit.

The shipping suffered a similar malaise of pointless presence. Aesthetically it was amazing, you sail along and see ships with their national colours, occasionally even engaged in combat with each other. But as you watch them more closely the illusion is quickly broken. Ships seem to just be sailing aimlessly around, you never really get the sense that the various treasure fleets were going anywhere, or that you’d be able to get more rum by striking shipping near a port with a rum distillery rather than somewhere else. Instead there is a simple mechanic that the various regions of the ocean have ships of differing type, nationality and level, and that’s basically the extent of the variability. Even Sid Meier’s Pirates back in the black and white days had a treasure fleet which had to be tracked as it travelled across the Caribbean.

And then there’s the progression. Both your character and your ship develop in a very quick, linear fashion. You acquire resources, mainly gold, from quests and piracy and then purchase upgrades like better swords and pistols for yourself and cannons and hull siding for your ship. Within about 10 hours of playing the game both I and my ship were far superior to anything around me, meaning that there was little tension. So much so that I wound up accidentally taking one of the toughest forts in the game really early on. It shot at me, I shot back, 10 minutes later it was all over.

Character and ship customisation is a similar story. There’s a reasonable amount of options for outfits, sails and ship figureheads, which normally would allow me to make a character feel like my own, but I just never got there. This may have been partly because it was very much a case of choosing from pre-set options, rather than being able to do anything really creative like design a flag, or choose a combination of hat and coat. Not to mention the fact that it is simply impossible to find an outfit that looks equally at home behind the wheel of a ship and on top of a church steeple.

Assassin's Creed 4 outfit inconsistency

I can only assume the hat is glued onto his head.

So overall, it’s a great game. If I was scoring it on the traditional graphics, story, gameplay type categories then it would seriously be hard to give it anything short of perfect scores across the board. But unfortunately it’s like playing a game on the set of a movie. Everything looks perfect, almost too perfect, but inhabit the world for any length of time – something that you really want to do with this game – and you quickly start to see that there isn’t quite as much behind the façade as you initially thought.

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