I have preconceived notions about Assassin’s Creed. My friends all went crazy about the first game when it came out, and I couldn’t see it as anything other than a more disappointing Prince of Persia. Everything about it was worse, from the combat, to the platforming, to the level design. Where the Prince of Persia games were meticulously crafted games with precise controls, Assassin’s Creed felt like GTA with parkour. It was sloppy and controlled like a drunk rhesus monkey, and the map was basically just a real world map from another time period that I traversed by simply holding down two buttons and pointing at things. But, now that my favorite time-traveling, wall-running, trying-a-hundred-times-to-beat-this-part franchise seems to have gone the way of the buffalo, I guess those of us holding out hope for a true successor to Prince of Persia: Warrior Within have to give up and find something new.
I am definitely not the right person for the job.
I knew, even before I started, that I would try to quit if I was given an eavesdropping mission. You can tell me all you want that it’s been improved since the first game, but a mini-game where I have to keep someone with such a complicated walk animation the exact right distance from a moving target is not fun. It’s a chore. Just like Operation. No one actually likes playing Operation, they just like watching their friends stress out over it.
For me, the most stressful part of Assassin’s Creed was the pathing. For those of you who don’t know what this term refers to, imagine the game as a piece of graph paper. Any game, really. In the olden days, only the lines on the graph could be followed, which helped games control well. You had, in essence, one choice: forward or backward. Maybe a bit of z-axis involvement. Total, you had four directions you could move in, which made games very simple to play and develop. With the dawn of 3D and analog sticks, we were allowed to move diagonally, as well, from corner to corner on the graph paper. When the technology got better, games were still built on the graph paper, but we gained the ability to go wherever we wanted. You can see this when wandering around the streets or on a large rooftop in Assassin’s Creed. You can walk anywhere, right until you hit a vertical edge. Once your travel becomes vertical, you are rigidly held to the points on the graph paper, again. Push the correct direction to continue along the pre-determined path, push any other direction to do nothing or fall to your death.
This has always been an issue with the Assassin’s Creed games, but particularly in the first one. I didn’t realize this was the biggest turn-off for me. I called it imprecise controls. But, when the only thing that changes with the controls is which direction you press the stick, there aren’t actually any controls to be imprecise. The issue is the pathing. The developers, in these situations, have to go through every single location where you can hold down the buttons to freerun, and manually configure paths to follow. Since this is a much more hands-on approach to coding than what they do to the streets and rooftops, there is a lot of room for error. And who can fault them for it? We forgive Bethesda, the kings of hands-on development, every time an enemy tornadoes away into the sky for no good reason in The Elder Scrolls, and we should extend the same courtesy to Ubisoft. It’s only fair. The difference, though, is how it affects the player. Bethesda’s glitches break our immersion, sure, but they’re kind of funny, and they don’t generally affect gameplay. A glitchy ledge in an Assassin’s Creed game will sometimes cause us to repeatedly fail missions, though, and having to repeat ourselves makes us angry. It’s human nature.
Snap decisions are also human nature, and I made one based on my initial impression of the first Assassin’s Creed. I wanted Prince of Persia and didn’t get it. That, alone, was forgivable, but everything about it bored me. The pathing bothered me, the controls were overly-simple, and none of the locations truly wowed me with their design. So, several hours into it, I put it down, never to play it again.
It seemed almost rude to jump into a review of the new one without at least trying one of the intermediate ones, since the internet has been a-twitter for years about the improvements that each new game has brought to the table. I knew the general premise of the series from my brief foray with the first game, and the internet filled me in on what I didn’t know. It was mostly osmosis, really. I never sought out knowledge of the plot, but details come. I’d played as Desmond for a bit before, and I’ve already had the big finale of the third game spoiled, so I didn’t want to play that one. Luckily, Microsoft was kind enough to give me a free download of Assassin’s Creed 2 a while back, so I loaded it up and gave it a shot.
The segment with Desmond in the beginning almost lost me. I’m just not that big a fan of this kind of story device. I am giving you money for an experience. For something I can play. I’m here for the gameplay. Unless your story is really incredible and persistent, like Bioshock or Half-Life, I’m not terribly interested. The story that Desmond experiences are just a series of small reveals, vignettes occasionally splashed with blood for shock value. But, none of his story affects the gameplay. No matter what happens to Desmond, I know that in three to four minutes I will be scampering up buildings as some human-monkey hybrid who has no idea that Desmond will ever exist. There is such a disparity in the Desmond-to-Assassin story ratio that caring about Desmond’s story feels like getting really excited about the wrapper on your candy bar. Gameplay helps drive story home. Even though most argue that the modern-day story in Assassin’s Creed is better than the historical fiction, its impact is so small in the sea of gameplay and story that makes up the bulk of the game.
But, I powered through, and ran away from, then beat up, a whole bunch of guards as magical, shining, invincible, Messiah Desmond, and I made my way to the “hub” of the game. It’s very cliché, from the old, dirty warehouse windows to the bank of TVs hanging in the middle of the room displaying pointless maps of the world to the corkboard wall covered in papers and strings. It is a resistance headquarters. I would get that even without being told, because it looks exactly like every resistance headquarters ever. Also, it is riddled with computers, so you know it’s important.
Seriously, the computers in Assassin’s Creed 2 are hilarious. Every single one, and even every piece of each computer, is covered in lights. They spin around and flash like they were designed by someone who really wanted everything to look “futuristic.” Stuff like this is necessary, though, to make retro-futurism as funny as it needs to be, and it makes me want to play Fallout, which is probably not the goal.
Eventually, I sat down in the magic chair, and got to meet Ezio, the character so great they made two more games starring him. My initial impressions of him were… not so great. I don’t understand what Ezio’s appeal is. Maybe he grows as the story progresses (and I have to assume that he does), but everything I’ve seen of him makes him seem like a caricature of what Americans think of Italians. He talks about nothing except vaginas until his family is murdered, at which point he immediately changes his personality to become the responsible son he needs to be. It’s an abrupt change, but he’s just that kind of guy, apparently.
Within minutes of his story beginning, Ezio confessed he had spent all of his money on whores, would like to get some more whores, and that he totes knows this smokin’ hot lady who he is going to go visit instead of doing his duty for his family. And he does. He goes to her place, yells at her window, and climbs into her bedroom, at which point a quicktime event began that I was not remotely prepared for. Suddenly, the game told me to press Y while he was leaning toward her, and I did, and he proceeded to make out with her. The thought that I had actually done that through gameplay was so funny to me that I missed the subsequent two quicktime prompts in a fit of laughter, so sweet Christina or whatever her name was ended up quite dissatisfied with Ezio’s skill as a lover. I get that this game came out in 2009, and quicktime events had only recently transcended to the rank of Universally Reviled, but at no point could anyone have a quicktime event say “YO, DAWG. PRESS Y TO TOTALLY MACK ON THAT BITCH,” without consequence.
I’ve already stated that, since the story isn’t mind-blowing, it’s tertiary to me, so I’ll skip past all of the other story elements I didn’t like. It did the only things right that matter: it took it easy on me long enough for me to learn the systems, then escalated in a parallel trajectory to the gameplay, and it gave me a reason to kill an awful lot of dudes. That’s why I’m here. To kill dudes. To avenge a murder. To play a game.
All around, I have to say it was already a step up, for me. The improved stealth mechanics were great, and the pathing, while still kinda wiggy in the corners, was much better than before. The combat was fun, but not incredible, and there was an awful lot to do. The invisible walls that didn’t even have the courtesy to be invisible really pissed me off. My hackles raise every time a game puts up huge glowing walls to block me from areas, instead of naturally limiting where I go through harder enemies and clever use of story, but I figured they kind of had a canonical reason for it, so I grumbled and overlooked it.
The notoriety system in Assassin’s Creed 2 is crap. There are wanted posters with Ezio’s face on them scattered around that you are encouraged to tear down in order to lower his notoriety, but they are all located in exceedingly remote locations. How am I to believe that the removal of a poster on the sliver of wall over an old lady’s awning has a noticeable impact on the guards spotting me? One of them was in a particularly impossible to reach spot, and I had to climb around the building and come at it from the opposite side to try to get there. In doing so, I had to drop down several ledges. I pressed B a few times, and he dropped down a ledge at a time like normal, until he let go of the building entirely, fell away from the wall, and leap-of-faithed backwards into a pile of hay. Why, Ezio? Neither you, nor me, nor Desmond knew the hay was there. Why would you do that?
Trying to justify a character’s actions in a video game this meta gets strange. I’m technically playing as Desmond with my knowledge of the game added to his, who is, in turn, playing as Ezio in his own game with all of his own knowledge and mine. Things get a little existential, but in a pretty dumb way. No amount of meta-gaming can ever explain Ezio’s actions, unless we assume it’s all a big game of telephone. I point the sick right at the wall I want to run across, which tells Desmond to tell Ezio to jump onto that wall and run across it, and Ezio instead decides to leap 90 degrees to the left into the wide open plaza filled with guards, land flat on his feet, and shout his own name at the top of his lungs, all while his shattered shin bones spin holes through his legs from the inside. Solid call, Ezio.
Seriously, for an assassin, Ezio spends an awful lot of time shouting his own names at the top of his lungs, and he especially loves to do this at the scene of a crime while holding the bloody murder weapon. That’s another odd choice, Ezio.
About halfway through the second act, I put the game down. Maybe I’ll revisit it someday, but it’s not why I’m here. It’s just context for the real meat in the sandwich, and that meat is pirates.
Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag. I bought it on a whim after a number of my friends kept telling me it was “so much better” than the old ones. It sat on my shelf for a long time, but its time has come.
First impression: Edward is a pretty cool guy. He is absolutely pathological, and I love it. He is a fun character to play as. The game even encourages you to role-play as him, instigating crime with on-screen prompts and mission objectives. One mission has Edward bluffing his way into a high-level meeting of the global elite, and the game pops up an optional objective during the meeting that eggs you on to pickpocket all three of the other men in the room. Obviously, I did it. Because that is an awesome thing to do. And, when I was done pilfering their cash, I stood there, staring at the documents on the table, contributing absolutely nothing to the conversation, a wolf in a slightly more sophisticated and ruthless wolf’s clothing.
I like the pirate story a bit more than the Italian story, if only because it gives me cause to do much more awesome things. Blowing up boats will always be more fun than watching Da Vinci decode something. Simple fact. There isn’t much to the story, other than justification for doing increasingly more ridiculous tasks, but I’m also not very far into the story. At the point I’ve reached, a couple dozen hours in, I think I’m still basically still in the tutorial. I just learned about the Mayan statues for the first time, if that helps you place it. But, even if I’d just bombed through the main story as hard as I could, I feel like I’d be maybe five hours in when I hit this point. That’s a pretty long tutorial, man.
Yes, you read that correctly. I have stretched the first five hours of Black Flag’s story into 20-30 hours of play. There is just so much to do, and most of it is surprisingly fun. You see a treasure chest on your map and you go for it, but the building it’s in is heavily guarded. So, you climb up to the roof, murder everyone in sight, then take the chest. There are large, old forts in many of the cities, and just getting into them without raising an alarm is practically a whole game in and of itself. This is where Black Flag starts to really feel like Prince of Persia. The forts are carefully-modeled, with very strict paths you need to find and reason out before trying to climb, much like the game’s Persian predecessor. They are a joy to figure out and climb, and they’re generally big enough that you can raise an alert running up to it, swing and clamber around the outside to find your way, and the alert level will fade before you even reach the top. Of course, you could just murder the guards at the gate and storm the front door, but that would be dumb, and not that much fun. If taking outposts in Far Cry brought light into your life, you’ll get just as big a hard-on from taking a fort in Black Flag.
The game is still riddled with pathing issues, but only in town, really. Freerunning through the rigging of a ship feels tight and much more safe than freerunning on buildings, which is a laugh, considering the first ship I could climb was exponentially taller than any building I’d seen up to that point. Even though I did experience pathing issues, they were nowhere near as prevalent as in either of the previous games I’d played, so I have to give Ubisoft Montreal props on that. Their debugging and playtesting must have been pretty solid, this time around.
The stealth and the combat are meshed perfectly, by now. Enemies are observant, but not too observant, and “stealth points” (which most of us call “bushes”) are plentiful without being too plentiful. Enemies take just long enough to notice you that you can be a little more ballsy than you’re probably used to in a stealth game, but not so much that it feels over the top. The window of opportunity for a stealth kill gives you enough time to sprint at someone from nearly any distance and pull it off. They notice the bodies of their brethren if they can see them, but you’re George of the Jungle, and a top-down approach works like a charm in taking nearly any structure, since the men below will never find the bodies above them. In the assassination missions, your stealth bonus only requires you to remain stealthy until the target is dead, so you can drop out of the sky onto him, collect a huge reward, then fight your way out. The team making these games has clearly been paying attention to the Far Cry franchise, and it has evolved more into that than Prince of Persia. Was it what I wanted? No. Am I okay with it? Yeah, I think I am.
You could pick a much worse franchise to emulate. And, since it’s Ubisoft Montreal’s own franchise, it doesn’t feel like plagiarism; it feels like they’re learning from their mistakes. It’s the growth of a studio. It’s a magical thing to watch. From what I’ve gathered, it seems like the third entry also might have been like this one, albeit on a smaller scale. I might check it out at some point. I haven’t decided, yet. You have to remember, I hated this franchise about three days ago. I have some stuff to work out before I try another one.
Some of my favorite things about the game so far are the little details. I love having an entire armory of flintlock pistols slung about my person that I fire in sequence. I love that Ubisoft has bucked tradition and allows me to sprint endlessly, instead of forcing me to deal with a stamina gauge. I love how chaotic the ship-to-ship combat is while still remaining elegant enough that I’ve only beached my own ship in combat once, so far.
One feature I find hilarious is the “skip” option on the already quite bloodless animal skinning cutscene. The ability to skip cutscenes is either absent or completely unadvertised with other cutscenes, so it is obviously included for the faint of heart, which is a nice thing to do, I guess. It amuses me to imagine someone so squeamish that he or she wrestles with the notion of even pressing B to skin a critter in the first place, then breathing a sigh of relief because he is able to skip it. Imagine how angry he’d be when he eventually forgot to skip it and realized that it shows absolutely nothing. I would like to point out that, in a strange turn of events and an equally strange design decision, every animal’s bloody carcass, in a hilarious amount of decay, is left on display as soon as the skinning is done. I cannot even fathom why this would be the case. Far Cry 3 had extremely bloody, unskippable animal-skinning cutscenes, but no animal was shown during or after. The grinning corpse of a wild boar in Black Flag was a little creepy to even me, and I love eating animals.
The ship to ship combat is the big addition to this game. I understand it happened a few times in Assassin’s Creed 3, but Black Flag puts you at the helm of the Jackdaw an awful lot. It’s nice, though. It plays out like a cross between Windwaker and an Elder Scrolls game, and it helps break the game up and provide structure at the same time. You have to sail to a location the first time you go, but you can then fast-travel to the location once you’ve explored it a bit and synchronized at least once. The game strongly encourages you to keep sailing, though, as you will need the materials to upgrade your boat so you can sail more so you can get more materials, etc. It’s cyclical, in a way, but it’s not annoying. Sailing opens up many other opportunities, such as exploring deserted islands and finding aquatic creatures to harpoon. The harpooning mini-game is fun enough in and of itself, but it also provides materials needed to upgrade the various parts of your outfit, like ammo pouches and pistol holsters. Had the boat only existed to upgrade itself, I would have been upset, but Ubisoft was quite careful to ensure that everything had enough variety to keep things interesting, and that the different gameplay sections benefits each other. It’s balanced pretty well.
I never felt like I was wasting my time while playing Black Flag. I’m not entirely clear on what the “Animus Fragments” do for me, but they’re in crazy enough spots that I enjoy trying to find them. Same with the chests scattered about. 300 bucks isn’t much in Black Flag, which is roughly the max you can get from one of them, but, like the Animus Fragments, a significant portion are placed in locations that are entertaining enough to reach. I spent my entire last play session just running around a few of the cities to find numerous chests and such, and it was honestly pretty fun. I might even pick up this game again at a later date to play some more for my own enjoyment, which was something I was not expecting when I decided to review it.
I guess what I’m trying to say here is that I was pleasantly surprised by Black Flag. I likely would not have enjoyed it if I had just jumped straight in, so I recommend it to those of us who wrote it off immediately with one important caveat: play one of the intermediate games, first, even if it’s just for a little while. The slow progression becomes more tolerable in small doses, and seeing that progression was, for me, at least, necessary to really enjoy Black Flag. It hasn’t revolutionized anything, but it has improved on its own formula enough to merit a second look.
Score? I say 7 out of 10. If the pathing is more thoroughly tested in the nest iteration, it could score higher, but glitches still mar the gameplay, which isn’t quite as thoroughly entertaining as it could be. On the whole, a pretty good game that just about anyone can enjoy. If they can manage to make an entire game as tactical and fun as taking over a fort, I’ll poop myself.