- Assassin’s Creed IV impressions: Do you ever dream of the big score?
So far, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag impresses me.
This comes from a man who never finished the (well-reviewed) Assassin’s Creed II – for all its technical accomplishment I found its sword-fighting repetitive and clunky, and its story uninspired. But AC4 is something else.
Much of this stems from AC4’s new setting (the Golden Age of Piracy) and new emphases. At times, AC2 struggled to decide whether it wanted to be about stealth, or about athletics and derring-do – evident whenever guards attacked me for setting out to explore the world, one rooftop at a time. AC4 still carries a little of that baggage (in the form of a story mission that enforced mandatory, tooth-gnashing stealth), but by and large, this is a game about swashbuckling, and it finds the perfect stage in the Age of Sail. Never has the traditional AC parkour felt more satisfying than when climbing a ship’s rigging to duel a mast-top sniper, before swooping down to the enemy deck, pistols in hand. And a range of little touches bring this world to life: your crew sings shanties as you sail, NPC British and Spanish ships battle each other when they cross paths, boarding actions turn into epic brawls as sailors swing from deck to deck and take pot shots from the rigging. This is not a game lacking in atmosphere.
AC4 also does a surprisingly good job with its storytelling, perhaps because this is one of the rare games to remember that a good story is not just a sequence of events strung together; it’s a series of interesting choices made by its characters (1). In AC4’s case, that character is its antihero, the pirate Edward Kenway. Most games present a sharp gulf between protagonists’ ostensible goals (save the world!) and their thuggish, loot-obsessed behaviour. There is no such contradiction in AC4. This is a game about plundering your way to fame and fortune (and woe betide any sailors or guards who stand in your way) – and that echoes the motivations of Kenway, a man who came to the Caribbean to plunder his way to fame and fortune (and woe betide any sailors or guards who stand in his way) (2). Without Kenway’s greed and violence, there would be no plot; and while he is not likeable, he is entertaining and often compelling – more so than the majority of game protagonists.
Overall, while I’m not far in, I like AC4. The odd howler of a story mission aside, it’s “savvy” (with apologies to Jack Sparrow) about what its predecessors did – and didn’t do – well. The result is a game that may already be my favourite out of this year’s AAA releases (with the others I’ve played being Bioshock Infinite, Tomb Raider, and – if it counts as AAA – Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch). Thumbs up, so far, and I look forward to playing more.
(1) I’d argue Sleeping Dogs also passes this test, whereas Deus Ex: Human Revolution and AC2 fail – their protagonist’s actions largely comprise ‘now, follow this lead!’
(2) This makes Kenway a subversion of the typical “young man looking to move up in the world” archetype.