Vacation is over and my post count plummets. It’s always the way.
I did however spend my vacation playing many many hours of Assassin’s Creed games. I should mention that I have a fierce love for the series, despite its many shortcomings.
I started playing the series when Steam did a summer sale that included Assassin’s Creed, AC2 and AC: Brotherhood, in the summer of 2011. I started playing the first game and was kinda wowed by the graphics and the freedom of climbing. That’s really the thing I love most about the game. To climb tall buildings, see fantastic views and then do a leap of faith into the nearest haystack. Aaaaah.
The gameplay was interesting at first, and then quickly incredibly repetitive as you did the same things over and over again before you were able to attack your Templar targets. It’s easily the most dull of AC games. But the story. The wild mix of experiencing historic cities and crazy modern conspiracy theories, it reeled me in. AC2 was a mindblowing experience. Not only do you get to experience beautiful Italian Renaissance cities, but you get to meet Ezio Auditore di Firenze, a character I kept mentioning in the recent gaming survey. He’s fantastic. The gameplay and controls were highly improved, with a vast variety of different mission types. Brotherhood and Revelations completed the Ezio trilogy of games, with only minor adjustments to gameplay elements, like game economics in Rome, or the hookblade and various bombs in Revelations.
Then came AC3, switching to the Liberation War in the US in the 18th century. No more charismatic Ezio but instead the very bland half-blood Connor. Climbing trees and church towers in the New World simply didn’t feel as satisfying as climbing the colosseum in Rome, and the story never really moved me.
Come the summer of 2014 and a Ubisoft sale, and I am back in the AC groove. I had long wanted to try Liberation, with its first female assassin, and was really excited for the game. I believe the game uses the AC3 engine and runs parallel to AC3. Aveline de Grandpré is a half-blood raised in a good merchant house in French New Orleans. But there’s some foul Templar plot afoot involving slaves and Aveline tries to get to the heart of it. The new gameplay mechanic of Liberation is that Aveline has three different personas: the assassin, who is strong in combat, can do free-running and unfortunately is always in conflict. Nothing you can do about it, annoying as heck. Then we have the slave. She can free-run and is best at stealth, because she blends in as worker, but she is very weak at combat. Last we have the lady, who doesn’t even feel like an assassin. The only useful thing she can do is to use her parasol as blowpipe. She can’t run, jump, climb or anything that makes AC games fun. Here’s where the persona gameplay has issues: the limitations do not feel like fun. It’s not fun to always be on the run as assassin. It’s not fun to be unable to free yourself through a little combat action as slave. It’s not fun to be a lady. Ugh.
Additionally, the story is the most confusing story of any AC game ever. It randomly jumps without warning. First we meet Aveline as kid, suddenly she’s an assassin, and there’s nothing but full-blown wtfs from me. I enjoyed the bayou setting in the second part, but that was just about the only enjoyable part of the game. The mission design is incredibly dull as well. In New Orleans there are plenty of missions where you just walk or run from point A to B. On top of that, you have very lackluster voice acting, some of the worst I have heard in a very long time. Grating accents galore.
I think I was at about 50% sync or less when I told myself ‘Fuck it’ and moved on to the other game I had bought, AC IV Black Flag. Unlike Liberation, it had received top reviews everywhere.
For a reason. It’s the best game since AC2. It’s meaty, it’s gorgeous, it’s slightly addictive, but above all, it’s fun. It’s also the least assassin-y of all AC games ever.
Black Flag takes you to the early 18th century. Edward Kenway, grandfather of AC3’s protagonist Connor, is a Welsh privateer who comes to the Caribbean to win a fortune. He’s left his unhappy wife behind to seek glory and riches, which aren’t that easy to achieve. Early in the game, he gets stranded on an island together with a defecting Assassin who wants to sell maps to the Templars. Edward kills him, steals his Assassin outfit and goes off to get rich from the Templars. Which doesn’t quite work out. Then he earns his own ship, The Jackdaw, and the rest is history.
Unlike every other AC protagonist in the series, Edward isn’t really in it to follow principles or the creed, or because he wants revenge on the Templars. He’s in it for the money. If this means killing Templars and Assassins both, he does it. It’s only very late in the game that he comes to accept the Creed and joins the Assassins. Well, maybe that’s why Haytham Kenway, Edward’s son and Connor’s dad, turned out the way he turns out in AC 3. As Grand Master of the Templars in North America, tsk.
Black Flag offers a vast variety of things to do that have nothing to do with the main story missions. You can sail around and gather collectibles, like Animus fragments and treasure chests that are in every segment of the map in uncharted waters. The three cities of the game, Havana, Nassau and Kingston, are full of viewpoints, assassin contracts, gathering collectibles like shanties (which will then be sung by your crew when you are sailing), freeing pirates from mean English men or Spaniards, etc. Viewpoints are now doubly important because not only are they utterly gorgeous but they also serve as fast travel spots. So convenient. There are many islands full of tropical beauty, with waterfalls and Mayan ruins, and even more collectibles. They’re so addictive! Every AC game has had collectibles, but they have never been as fun to collect as in Black Flag.
Then you have your ship, the Jackdaw. The sea is full of easy targets, and while you stick to schooners and brigs at first, nothing gets your heart pumping like fighting a frigate or a man o’war with their vast amount of plunder, once you have upgraded your ship with said plunder. I was a menace of the seas, I tell you, though I have yet to try attacking one of the four legendary ships on the map, which are supposed to be very challenging. I was worried about the ship combat at first, but using my XBox controller, they soon came naturally. Ship combat was vastly improved from its first incarnation in AC3. While you’re sailing, you can also hunt sharks and even the white whale, which allows you to craft powerful upgrades for Edward.
Another mini-game is to use a diving bell to dive for treasures in shipwrecks. This was the most frustrating part of the open world, because sharks are annoying and you had to get used to being desynchronized and try again, over and over. Annoying. I was glad when I finished all the wrecks. Stupid sharks.
The open world game of the Carribbean is really the best its ever been in AC. Regardless of sharks, really.
The main mission however, not so much. For one, Edward apparently never needed any training, he was already born an assassin. And then it felt odd playing someone who’s so obviously a greedy bastard. I love the conflict between assassins and templars, and that really wasn’t the main deal here. I did like the interesting information you receive about sages, with the crazy pirate Roberts and the various letters you can find as secrets throughout the world. Furthermore, the main story missions were full of two of the worst mission types to evolve from previous games: tailing someone and eavesdropping. Especially the latter is ridiculous. You have to tail so closely that you are always in danger of discovery, and if you make one slight mistake, you are screwed. There was one mission I had to do over and over again, it was rage-inducing. Same with chase missions. One missed jump? Too bad, your target got away.
The best news to come out about AC: Unity is that they’re doing away with such mission design, allowing you various different approaches on how to kill your target. Finally.
The meta-game was a bit weird but also fun. Desmond is gone after the events in AC3, and instead you are now an employee at Abstergo Entertainment. For those in the know, Abstergo is the Templar-run company bent on taking over the world, and with their entertainment branch, they try this through computer games. Abstergo Entertainment wants to create a game about pirates, and they use the Animus and your character to do research. What they’re really trying to use you for is to find more info about The Observatory of the first civilization, but it’s all in the guise of a game that they are creating in a cooperation with Ubisoft. How’s that for meta?
You get cameos of Shawn and Rebecca, meet crazy IT guy, and hack computers. I had fun with that part of the game. Seriously, all the collectible stuff, in the meta-world too, was so good.
Ultimately, I spent 61 hours playing Black Flag for a total sync of 93%. My previous AC record was 56 hours of AC2, and a sync of 80ish%. That should be a testimony to how much fun exploring was.
Avoid Liberation, play Black Flag. It was good enough that I am considering a Day 1 purchase of Unity in October.