Wednesday, December 11, 2013

A Game About Pirates in the Caribbean: Black Flag

I've never cared about the Assassin's Creed series.  I guess as a history major, I should be more interested in finally having the chance to visit theme park versions of the Crusades or Renaissance Italy or the American Revolution*, but these games never quite interested me.  Ubisoft had to focus on the most preposterous and legendary portions of the Crusades, with Knights Templar and Ismaili Assassins*, rather than the more meaty political conflicts and individual betrayals and power grabs which make the Crusades so fascinating.  Part of it was that this franchise seemed tired and over-milked by 2010, which is amazing since the first game only game out three years prior.  But mostly it was the future simulation gimmick.  You're not really playing a Renaissance rooftop hitman, you're playing some bland Canadian guy who is playing the Renaissance rooftop hitman.

Anyway, that's no problem at all, because "Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag" is a game about pirates.  Yeah, the Templars are here, and the Assassin's are here, and the future bullshit is here, but that doesn't matter.   Because in this game, you're a pirate:  you sink ships, you fight the great colonial empires of America head on, you battle redcoats and Man-of-Wars, and drink rum.  We all know the stories of the romance of the high seas, living free and wild as a filthy scallywag, whoring and thieving your way across the blue-green ocean, singing songs of high cheer.  Why did this need to be an Assassin's Creed game?  Is simply the idea of playing a game as a buccaneer firing salvos into innocent merchants to steal their cargo not exciting enough?  You have to be a ninja too?  You also really needed a boring frame story in an pretentious Montreal computer company where you get bossed around by some jerk in IT?

If you're one of those true fans of the Assassin's Creed series, well... keep having fun.  You're as entitled to care about the overarching plot line of the future timeline and the First Civilization and the French Canadian supervillains as I am entitled to completely ignore it and just be a pirate in an open world adventure game.  Though on my side, I think Ubisoft has kinda stopped caring about the Assassin's Creed mythology as well, because the future stuff has only the slightest relevance to the real gameplay and even in the early 1700s era, the Templar-Assassins conflict is given only occasional lip service.  You could - and will - spend hours engaging yourself in the business of piracy, not battling to save the world from a New World Order crew.  Because that's where the fun is!  Its open freedom, dashing out into the waves, destroying entire convoys of British naval ships who really only wanted to put sugar in their tea.  Well, fuck their sugar, fuck their tea, I'm a damn bloody pirate, its my sugar now!  And I'm going to rule this ocean.  I'm going to rule this review while I'm at it, damn the Assassins, damn Ubisoft, and damn the fans!   ARRRR AHARR HARRRR!!!

The time is the early 1700s, the Golden Age of Caribbean Piracy.  You play as not a trained master within Old Man of the Mountain's secret order, but rather just a regular Welsh pirate named Edward Kenway, who looks like a dark eyed mixture of Chris Hemsworth and the late Heath Ledger.  Kenway basically stumbles upon the battle between the Ḥashshāshīn and the Temple Knights by murdering a rogue Assassin and stealing his robe - I guess because Eddy really likes the Hooded Emo Look.  There is a long running storyline involving Templars and Assassins looking for something called the "Observatory", not that I particularly cared, but more interesting is Kenway hanging around with a kind of league of super pirates in Nassau, which at this time actually was ruled by a motley Pirate Republic, consisting of Blackbeard, Benjamin Hornigold, Anne Bonny, Calico Jack, Mary Reed, and Charles Vane.  These are all colorful personalities heartily living life to their fullest (which is good since basically all of them are doomed within the game because they all died within a few years of each other).  Meanwhile the game introduces a few Templars as villains, but they're barely given screentime and they make for terrible bosses easily dispatched by a single stabbing.

The central gameplay mechanics of "Black Flag" is a mixture of the older Assassin's Creed stealthily stabbing your way through enemies and open world sea battles on your pirate Brig, the Jackdaw.  The two modes seem somewhat incongruous as there is nothing less stealthy than flying a Jolly Roger and putting holes into the hulls of any ship who refuses to surrender, but they actually mix together rather well.  The ship battles conclude immediately with the paralyzing of the enemy craft, allowing you to jump on board and slaughter your way through the crew until what few are left nicely surrender.  On land, however, you have to leave your crew and colors behind in order to become an individual assassin, silently cutting the throats of Redcoats and guards under you reach your mark.  I guess your crew has some sort of paralyzing allergy to dry land, as they never come along for your stealth missions.  Its fine though because even when they are around, they mostly get in way of your shots and are of very little help.  But it is interesting that finally a video game company has created a game where you can be a pirate and ninja at the same thus finally answering that age old question of 'who would win a fight, a pirate or a ninja?'  The answer is:  a pirate-ninja with chain shot and tiny knives in his sleeves.

I have to say, the ship combat is extremely fluid and loads of fun.  Your Brig is well equipped with cannons in all directions, so the strategy is a basic maneuvering around trying to angle your weapons around to shatter their hulls.  Certain cannons slow down the enemy, other deal incredible damage at close range.  It all works well.  You sail around, looking for targets, take them down, and sell your booty.  All of this adds up to upgrading your ship, so you can get stronger weapons, better armor, larger crews, and more options, all to then take on larger and larger targets until you're the scourge of the Caribbean, a demon of the sea that makes widows of every wife in Europe.  Gaining money from sidequests and other nonsense all reaches the ultimate point of having the very best pirate boat in the Seven Seas.  And once your ship is mighty enough, you can even sail right in the jaws of death by barraging heavily entrenched Spanish fortresses.  You fire every cannonball in your deck shattering fortifications until the Colonial power has been crushed in this part of the ocean, piracy rules the world, and crew can merrily sing Sea Shanties for hours while counting their bundles of gold.

Less impressive, unfortunately, is the Assassin's Creed part of this "Assassin's Creed 4", which is why I like to pretend I'm not even playing one of these games.  Theoretically the combat system is built around sneaky stealth, as you slither around, stabbing guards in the back to tear apart an enemy force entirely unseen.  The reality though is that your stealth and combat options are relatively limited.  You can only hide in pre-arranged clumps of tall grass; you cannot even crouch unless Ubisoft lets you.  There's a very impressive parkour engine that allows Eddy to dance across rooftops and climb towers to stay out of sight or assassinate from the air.  But enemies can see anything in front of their eyes, even when you're on top of a building where they would never ever look.  You can't crouch, so when inevitably you get caught, its not even worth the trouble of trying to run away.  Just dash in and slaughter the enemies.

This leads to the main combat, which is an often frustrating affair of just three buttons.  You press one button to stab or shoot with your guns, one button to break defenses, and one button to dodge or counter.  Sometimes you'll Errol Flynn your way through five guys at once, countering everything, and destroying them rapidly.  Or sometimes you'll get stuck between three twats in powdered wigs who can block every move you make, and as soon as you try to break one's defenses or actually stab one, the other guy is attacking, so you have to block that.  So now our free marauding adventure is transformed into a very frustrating game of wack-a-mole, when cannot wack a single mole because the other varmints are trying to stab you.  I'm reminded of the "Batman Arkham Whatever" franchise, which had similar combat (though much more satisfying and varied) and even there the combat felt like a punishment for screwing up.  This time its much worse, and you basically have to fight these battles every time you raid a ship.  So instead of that, when you have to Creed up your Assassin and actually do some killing, I would suggest you work stealthily and just shoot your target when they get in range.

The sheer size of "Black Flag" is one of the most impressive features of the game.  You only sail through the western half of the Caribbean, but nobody is going to complain about lack of territory to cover.  The game includes three full-scale major cities in Nassau, Kingston, and Havana, along with countless other small towns, floating fisherman villages, and islands.  At any point there are hundreds of ships in the sea, a full constellation of red dots, all potential targets for Eddy Kenway and the Jackdaw.  It really is amazing that a game can hold so much territory at once, and hold such huge finely crafted municipalities full of detail.  It would take hours to sail all around the Caribbean.  Obviously this is all possible thanks to a massive use of cut and paste, and many of the locations start to feel like the same structures just put in a different shape.  But even so, "Black Flag"'s size and scale puts "Wind Waker" to shame.  Remember, the Zelda game had only really three towns (if that) and they were absolutely tiny.  That game had far more polish on every individual part, but if you want something huge to sink thousands of hours into, "Black Flag" is your best bet.

However, all is not perfect here on these seas.  The story is nicely unobtrusive to the high adventure, but its so insignificant at times that when it actually does come back, it just seems annoying and unwanted.  Rather idiotically, Ubisoft decided that instead of having exposition and scenes with most of their villainous characters, they would make those story portions all part of the gameplay.  So instead of simply watching an evil slaver discuss the morality of his job, you have to hide in the trees and follow in increasingly-frustrating tailing missions.  About half the levels in this game are tailing missions, or 'follow close behind to overhear the conversation' missions, or tail, overheard, and kill guards at once missions, all while not getting caught.  So what would just be an exposition cutscene is instead an annoying nightmare of awkward gameplay, and you can barely hear what these fuckers are saying!  If you don't turn on the subtitles, you will be completely lost for the entire game.  Worse, the villains are introduced almost immediately and murdered just as quickly.  Maybe that slaver guy had a really interesting personality and could have been a deviously cunning nightmare - I won't know because five minutes after he appeared I shoved my sword into his bald head.

The other issue is that there are hundreds of hours worth of gameplay to experience, but even only after a quarter of the adventure over, I get the sneaking suspicion that I've seen all of Ubisoft's tricks.  One tense battle with two British frigates is the same as any other tense battle with two British frigates.  All of the assassination missions seem to be entirely identical, which is odd since you'd think they could have been far more creative with the designs of these levels.  There are lots of other side missions such as whaling and deep sea diving, but it just all feels like a grind.  Maybe the ocean is just too big, the game is too long.

Oh and the glitches, aye, the glitches.  For a game pumped out in about a year and of such massive scale, glitches seem to be inevitable.  Mostly I've suffered a few minor issues with clipping and getting stuck in walls, but then there are a few show stoppers.  My favorite so far was after a grueling battle with an English fleet, I moved on to finish off the flagship.  Eddy jumped onto the enemy hull, and was about to climb up and stab a sailor from behind (which never works by the way, they always see him somehow).  But instead of jumping onto the boat he actually leapt backward 2,000 miles, ending up soaring into the ocean near Cuba, all alone.  I had to doggie paddle the endless leagues back to the Jackdaw but unfortunately my crew were utterly helpless without me, and were completely massacred.  Game Over, British ship and cargo escapes, most of my crew is gone, and Edward's pride is forever ruined.

To conclude:  do you have a song in your heart?  Do you ever inexplicably yell out "yo ho ho, me hearties" after drinking Captain Morgan?  Have you ever seen a "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie and said "I would like to play a game about that life"?  Then "Black Flag" is your game.  I imagine a true blue fan of the previous stabbing franchise might be annoyed to see the story and gameplay focuses they love so heavily marginalized, but since - again - I don't give a fuck about Assassin's Creed, this is a perfect game for me to jump in on.

Now since Ubisoft is producing these AssCreed games faster than most of us can even keep count, this means that the adventures of Edward Kenway end in this very game, because the universally-hated "Assassin's Creed 3" happened to focus on his son or grandson, a boring Indian dude with a constant scowl.  Technically these games could go anywhere with "Assassin's Creed 5" - we could be Chinese Pirates or Moroccan Pirates or Roman Corsican Pirates, but I think this dalliance into privateering has concluded.  So good luck to Ubisoft and the Assassin's Creed fans in case this franchise ever reaches a point and actually finishes its myth plotline, but I'm fairly certain I won't be along for the ride.  I came in for the pirates and I'm leaving with them.


* Curiously the Assassins in this universe, who in our universe were focused on nothing but a militant jihad to spread Nizari Ismaili Islam throughout the Middle East, using assassinations as their main method of defeating rival factions and states, in this series has no particularly religious function at all.  The battle throughout history between the equally non-religious Templars and Assassins appears to be just a idealogical battle between vaguely defined "control" and "liberty".  Do the Assassins look for mystical truth in meditation, search for the hidden understandings of Allah?  No.  Are they led by the Nizari Imam, the successor to the Prophet?  Nope.  Do the Templars care at all about the Holy Temple of Solomon from which they take their name?  Nope.  The series doesn't even really follow the typical Templar legends, such as finding the True Cross or the Holy Grail or some other great holy secret.  The Templars are not reborn as Freemasons or the Illuminati or the Elders of Zion or whatever the topic of Dan Brown's latest book is.  Instead the overarching plot is a far less controversial plotline about some nonsense with Immortals or an ancient civilization or something, who cares?

Okay, its fine if you just want pulp conspiracy theories and don't really care who the Assassins were and don't particularly care about Shi'a Islam or the Imamate or the search for the divine spark within yourself.  You can ignore all that.  I just need to complain about it because I took a course in Muslim Studies for several thousand dollars, and I might as well get something else out of it other than crippling debt.


  1. The first two games had much stronger religious themes (that's why before the games there's that text saying the game was designed by a team with various religious and ethnic backgrounds), but people complained there was too much story and that it was too complex and it became more about killing people and chilling with historical figures.

  2. Oh, and Ubisoft has been talking about possibly spinning this game off in to it's own franchise, leaving Assassin's Creed to be about the Assassins vs Templars plot line and doing an entire series just focusing on pirates.

  3. "Why did this need to be an Assassin's Creed game? Is simply the idea of playing a game as a buccaneer firing salvos into innocent merchants to steal their cargo not exciting enough? [...] Well, fuck their sugar, fuck their tea, I'm a damn bloody pirate, its my sugar now!"
    Hahaha, you still got it Blue. I gotta admit that the whole assassins vs the Jedi is kind of dumb if you think about it, and it really has lost its shine after a couple of games of silly conspiracies.
    I really love the whole pirate setting, its probably one of most fun settings Ubisoft could have come up with. Are there really no other settings you would love to see? I'm asking because I lack the imagination or the historical knowledge to think about a cool era and place for the next game. Loved the review by the way.

    1. Well, I would probably just twiddle off my favorite historical periods, but screw it, here are ten eras in the past that I would love to see a game made out of:

      1) The Byzantine Empire, specifically the period just after the first wave of Muslim conquests. That period was far less of a clash of civilizations and cultures than how modern religions like to look at it, Byzantine architects built the Dome of the Rock, after all. But really any Byzantine period is awesome.

      2) Ancient Arabia just before Muhammad came along. There is no way in HELL that any game company would do this, but it was still a really cool era in history. Arabia was a huge trading territory, but it was also something of a satellite battlefield in the greater war between Persia and the Byzantines. Only a century before Muhammad was born a Jewish kingdom almost formed along the eastern side of the peninsula. It was really a rich area with lots of different practices and mixing of faiths, no surprise it would birth such a massive cultural force as Islam.

      3) Hellenist Afghanistan. Most people don't realize that Afghanistan has an extremely long history and was actually the base for any number of major empires. Having Greek culture would make it more appealing to the Western diet.

      4) Samarkand under the Timorids. The was an empire founded by Timor the Lame, a successor to Gengis Khan, who was both a Muslim and a Mongol invader. Samarkand in its later days was deeply fractured politically but was a major flowering of culture and art, amazing stuff.

      5) Thirty Years War Germany. One of the bloodiest battles Europe ever saw, and one of the longest and most confusing. Not exactly a nice time to be around - George R. R. Martin has nothing on the Thirty Years War.

      6) Meiji Era Japan, or pre-Meiji. Whatever. We all love Rurouni Kenshin for a reason, the mixing of East and West was definitely part of it.

      7) The Russian Civil War. This was almost as confusing as the Thirty Years' War for awhile. Right after WWI Russia really fell deep into chaos with Red fighting Whites fighting Greens fighting Blues fighting Blacks, with the Western allies interfering. The early 1920s wouldn't be a bad period either, since it was such an exciting moment of possibility and reform that was mostly ruined by Stalin (and the fact that Communism is a stupid idea).

      8) Ancient Egypt, just Ancient Egypt.

      9) Tang China. I like how Buddhist it was. Probably with more of a focus on the far frontier in Central Asia where they open battled with Muslim empires.

      10) Basically anything in India. The entire subcontinent is one of my biggest holes in my historical knowledge. I'd say just around the time the Gupta Empire was forming in the ancient times and it defeated Hellenist Persia, one of Alexander the Great's successor kingdoms.

    2. Cool! Ancient Asia and the Middle East sound like really exciting places to have a game...but will it work with AC? The whole Templar (Yuck) conflict with the Assassins will have to happen after the whole Jesus/Rome/European thing. It would be a lot more awesome to have a game about those periods in time just for the sake of it.

  4. As someone who has played every other game in the series (haven't had a chance at this one yet), I have to say: the whole future/present day storyline is a load of dull, ancillary crap that the series would have been better off without.