If I’ve learnt anything from Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, it’s that the pirate life definitely isn’t for me.
Sure, it sounds thrilling. A wide, open world, ready to plunder. Hidden caves stuffed with long lost treasure. Bar brawls. Swashbuckling. Stealth swimming!
But it all adds up to very little of substance. Perhaps that explains the brigands’ proclivity for rum: it helped fill the gaping hollow of their lives.
Or maybe – just maybe – the real life of a pirate wasn’t quite as dull, as rote, as Ubisoft’s latest genetic time-travelling caper has made it out to be.
It starts off promisingly enough, with main character Edward Kenway – at the time a lowly privateer – finding himself shipwrecked and marooned on a deserted Caribbean island, with only an assassin for company. Your first task is to chase down said assassin, kill him and steal his clothes – at which point Kenway is somehow imbued with all the skills and know-how familiar to those of the Order of Assassins.
As a means of getting players into the game quickly, it certainly succeeds. The hours-long setup of the previous game, maligned by many players, is dispensed with. But it comes at the cost of character and narrative development.
The game tries to shoehorn in a bit of Kenway’s background through flashbacks, revealing him to be a man out to make a quick buck through minimal graft, who is prepared to leave his wife at home for years while he goes off in search of fortune. But why should a ship’s hand suddenly be proficient at air-assassinating Templars? How is it that he knows to approach pigeon coops in order to take on missions for the Order?
It’s easy to overlook these inconsistencies in the early stages of the game, chalking it up to a kind of ‘shorthand’ between developer and player: an acknowledgement that most of us will have played an Assassin’s Creed game before, so we know the drill. But then halfway through the game’s storyline, one of Kenway’s fellow pirates (who’s also an assassin) spends a good couple of minutes introducing him to the pigeon coops and their pivotal role as mission-giving devices. To say it breaks the spell of the game is somewhat of an understatement.
That’s when the cracks started to show for me. Some might praise Ubisoft for not letting narrative cohesion get in the way of gameplay, and vice-versa. But it shows Black Flag up for what it really is: a loose collection of mini-games, strung together by the faintest of story threads.
For the first 20 hours, though, you might not mind this. The world is full of things to do, like naval battles, deck skirmishes, and whale and shark hunting. Or you might choose to blow up a fort, explore a cave, or go wreck diving. Each of these activities is a blast – the first couple of times. It’s only when I discovered that I’d be doing the same things again and again for the next 20 hours that my heart sank. Seafaring became a chore, so I fast travelled everywhere. Boarding ships during battle grew repetitive, so I took to sinking my prizes instead. I gave up hunting too, choosing to purchase animal skins from street vendors. Essentially, I skipped over as much of the game as possible.
Again, there will be those who applaud Ubisoft for this, for giving players the freedom to decide where to invest their play time. But when you strip out sailing, naval warfare and whaling, all you’ve got left are the core Assassin’s Creed mechanics: the temperamental, one-buttonparkour, clunky stealth and repetitive block-and-parry combat.
Of course, there’s also the over-arching, modern-day sci-fi story to ‘enjoy’ – but after Assassin’s Creed III, I’ve well and truly given up trying to make sense of all that. It’s role now seems to be to provide just enough forward momentum to justify Ubisoft’s annual release schedule, but not too much for fear that it will hurry the series towards an unwanted denouement (unwanted, at least, by the firm’s accountants).
And the less said about the pirate tale, the better. Black Flag’s writers made it known pre-release that they were relying heavily on historical accounts of pirates to inform their tale, including Daniel Defoe’s famed ‘A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates’. Having read the book myself, I recognise its influence. Defoe’s book sought to present a factual account, but in so doing dispensed with characterisation, preferring instead to focus on recorded events and deeds.
Black Flag follows suit to its detriment. Its story is composed of a series of events, of which the player is given only scant detail. The same goes for the characters too, who are presented here as mere sketches of their real selves, easily summed up in one word: Blackbeard = fearsome; Charles Vane = angry; Calico Jack = drunk.
These individuals, and more besides, come and go as Kenway moves in and out of their lives, and they his. The game ends with a sorrowful ballad, and a vision of the friends Kenway has lost along the way. The writers want you to mourn them, but its difficult to mourn those you hardly knew.
Instead, I chose to mourn Black Flag itself. By the end of the game, I did feel like I’d lost something:
my desire to play another Assassin’s Creed title.
“She came to me at my bed-side,
All dressed in white like some fair bride.
And bravely in her bosom fair,
A red, red rose did my love wear.
She made no sound – no word she said,
And then I knew my love was dead”
– Lowlands Away, sea shanty c.1860