It’s hard to remember now, but the original Assassin’s Creed was a fairly big disappointment. After being hyped to the moon as one of the first next-gen blockbusters the game met with a fairly lukewarm reception. Like many early console generation titles it came off as a good idea that the developers hadn’t quite gotten a handle on yet. For a while it was looking fairly dicey that the game would get a sequel.
Then it did, Assassin’s Creed II was much better received and there are now so many sequels and mobile spin-offs I’m having trouble keeping track of them all. I haven’t played any of them since the second game, since I had some fairly fundamental complaints with the core gameplay of the series that none of the sequels looked like they were interested in fixing. Then I started to hear some absurdly good reactions to Black Flag, which got me interested enough to see if my gripes with the AssCreed formula had finally been fixed.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the series, the Assassin’s Creed games play out as historical adventures that are presented as the ancestral memories of people in the near future, accessed via a machine called the Animus. Each game both tells a stand-alone story set in its respective time period while also advancing an absurdly complicated meta-narrative about a millenia-old conflict between shadowy secret societies for possession of the technological leftovers of the ancient precursor race that created humanity (no seriously, that’s actually what the franchise is about).
In all of the previous games the bits set in the future cast the player as Desmond Miles, the guy whose memories you were playing through in the old-timey bits. That story arc was completed in Assassin’s Creed 3. This game is both simultaneously a sequel and prequel to AssCreed3, as the future sci-fi parts take place after the future sci-fi parts of that game but the historical parts take place before the historical parts of 3. If at this point you’re thinking it would be much easier to ditch the framing story and just make historical adventure games then you’re on the same wavelength as myself and roughly 85% of the gaming public, but Ubisoft seems really committed to this idea for some reason.
This time around the Animus has you in the shoes of Edward Kenway, a rogueish ne’er-do-well from either Wales, London or Ireland depending on what accent his voice actor has decided on in any particular scene (officially he’s Welsh) who travels to the West Indies initially as a privateer but ends up becoming a pirate. After the crew he was hanging with are all killed in a violent sea battle he fights and defeats the Assassin who was on board the enemy ship- marking him out as a grade-A badass- and assumes his identity in order to complete the mission the assassin was on and collect the reward. Unfortunately for him it turns out the assassin was a turncoat on his way to join the Templars, the assassin’s villainous counterparts, and Edward finds himself unwittingly blundering into a struggle to claim ownership of the Observatory, an ancient technological artefact that could grant its owner the power to rule the world. Or in Edward’s case, tons of cash-money after he sells it to the highest bidder.
There’s a scene early on where Edward listens to a group of Templars spouting the sort of alt-history sci-fi nonsense the franchise has become infamous for with an obvious “what the fuck are they talking about?” look on his face, a tacit nod to how dumb a lot of the overarching AssCreed mythos can be and a sign that this game isn’t going to be taking itself quite as seriously as its predecessors. This also applies firmly to the historical narrative- Black Flag makes absolutely no attempt at historical accuracy, acting purely as a simulation of Errol Flynn swashbuckling Hollywood pirate movies. You’re going to spend a lot of time swinging from ropes and finding buried treasure in this game, as opposed to murdering innocent people and dying of scurvy.
(Although on that subject the game does include some surprising historical depictions- I initially scoffed at the game’s presentation of Blackbeard as mostly avoiding violence, but this is apparently based on fact)
Which isn’t to say Black Flag doesn’t get up its own ass at times, particularly when it comes to the pirate’s stated goal of building some sort of libertarian pirate republic in the West Indies to be free from the tyrannical rule of kings and oppressive governments. I have no idea if this is at all based on reality or if it’s just something Ubisoft made up, but the game presents the idea with a level of po-faced seriousness that was somewhat hard to accept.
Edward himself is that rare example of an amoral videogame antihero who actually works most of the time because the developers wisely realised that people don’t want to play as complete assholes. When not championing pirate-democracy he’s motivated entirely by base desires- greed and the obviously delusional hope that he can impress his estranged wife into reconciling with him- and makes no bones about the fact that he really doesn’t care about the assassin’s conflict with the templars except when it can profit him in some way. But at the same time he has a genuine camaraderie with his crew, doesn’t go around murdering people just for the hell of it and generally comes across as a basically okay guy with a violent streak that he never intentionally directs at innocent bystanders.
The Golden Age of Piracy was also the Golden Age of Slavery and I was kind of impressed to see the game address this in a way that’s a bit more direct and nuanced than most other games would, by which I mean it addresses it at all. Early on Edward escapes from captivity with Adewale, an escaped slave who eventually becomes his Quartermaster. Upon stealing a ship our hero immediately assumes the role of captain without discussing the issue with Adewale. Both of them later acknowledge that the crew wouldn’t have accepted a black captain in any case, but it’s clear Edward also considered himself automatically entitled to be the leader. I hate it when writers tackle difficult historical periods and then have their protagonist magically espouse 21st century views that would likely never even have occurred to them, so it was kind of heartening to see that Ubisoft doesn’t do that here. Kenway is never overtly racist (although many of his pirate friends are) but at the same time he doesn’t come across as particularly liberal or egalitarian even by the standards of his own day, let alone ours. This is a man who has grown up with the idea of slavery as a matter of course, and who (at least in the significant portion of the game I played) never really questions that view. That would be a problem if the game expected us to uncritically like and admire Edward, as is so often the case, but it’s made clear in flashbacks that he’s kind of pathetic when you get down to it and not really worthy of adoration. In an industry that seems to expect us to view Kratos and an endless parade of emotionless government murderers as heroes this is pretty refreshing.
Meanwhile the sci-fi near future stuff (which takes up far less time here than it ever has before) casts you as a nameless, faceless developer newly arrived at Abstergo Entertainment, a branch of the Templar’s sprawling front corporation that develops Animus-powered historical movies and videogames as a cover for delving into the genetic memories of dead assassins and templars to search for clues to lost precursor artifacts. This quickly gets meta to the point of outright surrealism- the game loads up with an Abstergo Entertainment logo, previous Assassin’s Creed titles are presented in-universe as Abstergo simulations complete with promotional posters and action figures, Ubisoft is directly mentioned by name as their publisher, at one point the characters discuss the awesome trailer they’re cutting for the pirate-themed movie your character is “collecting footage for” which is clearly just the first CG trailer used in Black Flag’s announcement. Again, it’s a nice change of pace from how dour the series had gotten in its last few installments.
In terms of gameplay these future segments, which are accessible at any time and only rarely forced on you, have your character wandering around the Abstergo office in first-person hacking computers and eavesdropping on conversations at the behest of a mysterious agent who clearly knows more than he’s letting on about this templar business. Over time it predictably turns out that the Edward Kenway memories are valuable as much more than fodder for pirate movies and your character becomes an unwitting dupe in the present-day Assassin/Templar conflict. In terms of writing and gameplay it’s all leagues ahead of what the previous games did with their framing stories and presents a nice little diversion from the main game.
Said main game, once it finishes with the four+ hours of tutorial all open world games are for some reason required to begin with, throws you out into a huge island-strewn ocean so you can sail around swashbuckling and raising mizenmasts in whatever way you choose. There’s still plenty of the trademark AssCreed sneaky-stabby parts, about which more later, but the freshest and best part of Black Flag take place at sea. British and Spanish naval ships can be freely attacked and plundered, leading to pitched sea battles followed by hectic boarding raids. The ship combat is a lot more strategic than I expected and takes a bit of getting used to. Even early on enemy ships will take you apart if you’re careless and a successful piratesassin will need to stay on their toes and think about manoeuvring and positioning to succeed. Along with plundering rum and sugar for money and materials to upgrade your ship you can also dive down to shipwrecks to look for sunken treasure, attack and take over naval forts, harpoon all manner of large sealife, navigate through massive storms and upgrade your hidden pirate cove.
The naval combat never stopped feeling exciting, but boarding enemy ships very quickly got repetitive. You can thankfully skip this, but you only get half the booty if you do. Apart from that Black Flag’s maritime component is remarkably entertaining. Part of this has to do with how astonishingly good the virtual ocean that Ubisoft have crafted looks, at least on PC. This has been sold very much as a next-gen experience and in many ways falls short of that moniker (the character models in particular have the same craggy-faced scarecrow hair look that’s plagued attempts at photorealism since 2007) but when you’re watching light refract through transparent waves as your ship crashes through the surf it really feels like this is the Future of Video Games. There’s a weight and depth to Black Flag’s water that I’ve never seen before, to the point where ocean battles can sometimes start to resemble the sort of CG spectacle we’ve come to associate with big-budget movies.
Once you set foot on land the cracks start to appear, in terms of both visuals and gameplay. The jungles of Black Flag are nice enough, but have a curious feeling of repetition to them, as though they were generated by some sort of algorithm. The West Indies circa the first half of the 18th Century obviously doesn’t provide the sort of sprawling ancient metropolises the series has become known for, but cities like Havana and Kingston offer some scope for clambering around and are meticulously detailed.
The problem is with the core gameplay mechanics you’ll be using to do that clambering. I started this review by wondering if the problems I had with the previous Creed games had been ironed out and the answer is unfortunately “no”. Free-running still largely consists of holding down a shoulder button and moving toward obstacles and then hoping the game correctly divines that you wanted to jump up the wall and not the flag-post right next to it. Despite supposedly being a graceful and agile assassin Edward feels strangely sluggish and unresponsive, frequently getting stuck on pieces of scenery or doing things I didn’t want him to do. At least once during every chase scene (there are a lot of chase scenes) I’d grab onto a rooftop only to have him hang there until I furiously mashed buttons on my controller enough to make him slowly haul his ass over the edge. Even something as simple as stepping off a small ledge is needlessly complicated and finicky because the game doesn’t allow you to just walk off a drop most of the time, probably to alleviate the problem the earlier games had where leaping off of buildings and into the meticulously rendered void was far too easy to do accidentally. A better solution would be to ditch this entire control system and replace it with one that allows the player to feel as if they’re actually in control of the protagonist, but Ubisoft seems to be stubbornly attached to the broken mechanics they made more than seven years ago.
Not only does Black Flag not fix what was wrong with the earlier games, it actually adds new problems with a greater focus on stealth. For some reason Ubisoft appear to have been extremely reluctant to just put in a crouch button, so instead the only concession to stealth is areas of thick foliage that make Edward enter sneaky-sneak mode. Move so much as a pixel out of these designated zones and he’ll immediately stand up and begin traipsing about in plain sight, regardless of how many enemies are nearby. The lack of any non-contextual stealth mechanics means actions as rudimentary as ducking behind a low wall or the slope of a plantation house roof are impossible.
A few times during the game I got a glimpse of what they were going for with this, dashing out of cover to skewer guards and shove their bodies into the next set of bushes or thick crops in one fluid motion. But most of the time it’s just a frustrating, painful mess. Enemies’ abilities often appears to be close to random, so that I could never be sure if they could spot me on rooftops or how alert I could get them before they’d come looking for me. An inordinate chunk of the on-foot gameplay consists of stalking targets and eavesdropping on their conversations, adding an extremely unforgiving time limit to the already irritating stealth mechanics. Failing to look directly at your targets will instantly start a twenty-second failure countdown, encouraging you to stick extremely close, but the people you’re tailing also exhibit a near-psychic level of awareness and will often spot you on the roof of three-story buildings. Now take into account snipers who can see you from several streets away and the fact that the game alternately does and does not allow you to get spotted by guards and still complete the mission depending on what mood it’s in and these sections often seemed to be more a matter of luck than anything else.
The one-two punch of dull free-running and hair-pulling stealth undid pretty much all the good will the sailing bits had built up for me. I enjoyed sailing around and plundering ships, but far too much of the game is taken up with these broken, dull mechanics. Well before the halfway point of the story I cast an eye over the hundreds of icons on the map, all indicating potential side activities, and realized that I had absolutely no interest in doing any of them. You can build on a shaky foundation all you want, but sooner rather than later it’s going to come crashing down.
Ultimately what killed Black Flag for me is that underneath all the new additions and aesthetic veneer it’s still just an Assassin’s Creed game, and I say “just” deliberately. This franchise has had more than seven years and three entries to win me over and has ultimately failed every time, regardless of whatever fleeting enjoyment I may be able to mine from the games before boredom sets in.
I don’t think I’m going to be picking up another Assassin’s Creed game unless Ubisoft finally gets as bored as I am by the franchise’s core ideas and revamps them from the ground up, but I don’t see any sign of that happening any time soon.