This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag.
Spunk on a bap! I've been playing so many sandbox games lately, my vagina feels like a rusty toaster! I've had to start drawing a little mini-map on my spectacles to adjust to daily life. And they're always so fucking long! Most of my weekends lately have been spent trying to plough through to at least story-end, deflecting every side-quest that clamours for attention like I'm walking down the city centre trying not to be noticed by earnest young people with clipboards.
My last two reviews, if you'll recall, were an open-world sailing game, and an open-world jumping-on-people-from-buildings game, and now having to chase those two with Assassin's Creed IV, you'll forgive me if all these games have all started blurring together a bit. One could easily mistake Batman for Connor from Assassin's Creed III, for example, 'cause they both jump on people from buildings and have the personality of a high-backed leather armchair with a frowny face drawn on the cushion.
But let's forget everything about AssCreed III, except for the fact that Future Desmond died in it! We even get to see his future autopsy in AssCreed IV, which was exactly the kind of closure I needed, frankly. But his ghost still haunts us 'cause the evil corporation nicked his brain and extracted genetic memories from enough interesting periods of history to make at least seven billion more Assassin's Bloody Creed games!
Speaking of Batman, I'm reminded of that line from Heath Ledger's Joker: "I think you and I are destined to do this forever"; a line that proved slightly ironic for Heath Ledger, but a good summary of the weary resignation I have towards Assassin's Creed at this point, but I wonder if Ubisoft doesn't share my weary resignation to some degree, 'cause the Future plot's gone a little bit meta on us.
Instead of Future Desmond, we are now Future Silent Protagonist, an employee for a French-Canadian videogame developer being pressured to produce results by their evil corporate owners – write what you know, eh, lads? – the evil Templars that run the world having hit upon the surprisingly sophisticated idea to use mass media entertainment to rewrite history in their favour, which may be Ubisoft attempting to address the elephant in the room before someone else does: "God, isn't it terrible how popular culture rewrites and romanticizes history to appeal to the lowest common denominator? Yes, I'm glad we agree, now let's find some pirates and romanticize their bollocks off!"
The new historical protagonist is Edward Kenway, Welsh pirate and bastard, who, refreshingly, isn't even an Assassin for most of the game; he just nicked one of their uniforms and started jumping on people from buildings as a sort of enthusiastic amateur, I suppose. What I'm noticing is that from number III onwards, Assassin's Creed has a tendency to introduce the main character and the Assassin Order and then let that whole side of the plot go back to bed so the game can party it up with historical figures and reenact famous events, with the main plot occasionally popping its head 'round the door to complain about the noise.
Although, if we're more about the history now, AssCreed IV has picked a much better setting than its predecessor. So instead of desperately trying to convince us that it's exciting to throw tea into a harbour, or watch some old men signing pieces of paper, we instead get to watch Blackbeard signing pieces of paper! Except his pen is actually a massive cannon and the piece of paper is actually the hope anyone in the near vicinity had of getting a good night's sleep. So the plot busily introduces every famous name from the Golden Age of Piracy and has them do the famous thing they did, while Kenway stands off to one side eating piratey popcorn.
I could complain that this series just keeps going on and on and on, and seems like it really wants to go to sleep now but someone keeps tazing it every time its head droops. But for the record, AssCreed IV is a particularly violent tazing that has added quite a bit of life. It actually shakes up the core gameplay in a way that AssCreed III's imaginary sofa manufacturing could only dream of, because I spent the majority of my time sailing rather than running through a city shoulder-clocking motherfuckers like I'm the music video for Bitter Sweet Symphony on fast-forward.
I know the sailing was in the last game, but it was only a side-quest and I was doing the get-through-story-mode-as-fast-as-possible thing. Hmm, yes, well-tutorialized. Tell me, do I ever need to do this again? "Well, not really, but it can help you make money to develop your homestead–" Cheery-bye!! But now the sailing is central rather than hanging off to one side like a beanbag chair stapled to an earring. Travelling the sea has that Wind Waker grand explorative quality, sea battles are fun, and when you board an enemy ship, it seamlessly becomes Assassin's Creed again, counter-stabbing your way through a bunch of orbiting assholes, made only slightly annoying by all the friendly pirates, whom you might have put some investment into recruiting, hovering around offering to block sword thrusts with their faces.
I resented having to come back on dry land to do story missions, because they'd almost always involve tailing someone, and when I've just got back from blowing the tits off a man-o'-war's figurehead and jamming their pert wooden nipples into the enemy quartermaster's eye sockets, it's hard to come back down to grandmother's footsteps. I really started loathing the tailing missions, especially when you have to stay close to your target without being noticed by them or any guards. So with one hand the game is your mother, pushing you out of your hiding spot to show everyone that funny little dance you learned, and with the other hand it is your father, beating you over the head with a chair leg because you made the mistake of being noticed before he'd had his morning drink.
And the mere act of moving in Assassin's Creed sometimes feels like kicking a sack of potatoes around a cattle grid, and sometimes you think you're gonna hop onto a ledge and into a convenient bush, but Edward would rather grandly leap forwards, drop three stories and parkour-roll into the people you're trying to tail, stopping just short of making jazz-hands and going "Ta-daaa!"
Generally, missions lean slightly more "open-ended sneaky-stab" and slightly less "rigid join-the-dots destruction following" than in III, which is nice, but frankly, if I didn't feel the need to collect the unlockable sea shanties so my crew would sing some new ones for a fucking change, I might've been content to never go to towns at all, 'cause the sailing's where the action is. Money has an actual use at last, because ship upgrades are expensive and that's an investment that adds to gameplay rather than letting you corner the imaginary sofa market.
But while sailing is a breath of fresh salty air, I have the feeling that it cannot possibly be more than a fleeting dalliance for the series as besides the Golden Age of Piracy, there are few historical settings into which sailing would integrate so naturally. And Assassin's Creed is not a series of individual games anymore; Assassin's Creed is a fucking line graph. The line went down a bit for AssCreed III but now it's gone back up again, and maybe it'll keep going up in the next one or maybe it'll take another plunge. What I do know is that this line graph is being drawn on what appears to be a very depressingly long piece of paper, at the end of which stands Ubisoft and I do not like the look of that stapler it's holding!
- Does favours for sailors: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- Funny how it's only when coming from the mouth of a pirate that the Welsh accent seems the slightest bit threatening
- "Yo ho ho" is also a good phrase for greeting two sex workers