Assassin's Creed 4 is constantly waiting for its dare-to-be-great moment
|Platform 360, PS3, Win, Wii U, PS4, Xbox One
|Developer Ubisoft Montreal
|Release Date TBA
Eight games. Six years. Assassin's Creed 4 has luggage to spare.
Since 2009, Assassin's Creed has been an annualized franchise, though Ubisoft has tried to ease series fatigue with major changes from game to game. Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood introduced the well-received ability to recruit and lead an order of assassins; Revelations and Assassin's Creed 3 added less successful strategy and homestead elements, respectively.
Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag is a little different.
Black Flag takes the ship combat of Assassin's Creed 3 and builds it into a true open world, a first for the series. And it's the most successful collection of mechanics the series has seen in years.
But the narrative and character strength that held previous Assassin's Creed titles together — the overarching themes and ideas that have defined the series — are weaker than they've ever been. Even as Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag finds solid footing in the way it plays, it feels a little ... adrift.
Assassin's Creed 4 stars Edward Kenway, a pirate in the turn-of-the-18th-century Caribbean. Edward is shipwrecked and soon drawn into the conflict between the authoritarian and power-hungry Templars and their enemies the Assassins.
Previous Assassin's Creed games — particularly the main, numbered games — have revolved around the war between Assassin and Templar, the turning points, the meaningful moments. Assassin's Creed 4 is content to sit on the edges of that greater conflict. Edward isn't the series' traditional lead, and his absence of allegiance hangs throughout the game. The inclusion of Assassin's Creed's fiction feels haphazard and often cursory; even assassination feels perfunctory. Assassin's Creed 4 is more comfortable wandering the ocean in search of one big score.
This was difficult to reconcile amid some cleaned-up basic mechanics. Combat is more or less the same, emphasizing a system of parries, counters and instant kills, and Edward still free-runs like his ancestors and descendants. However, many of the traversal problems that hung over Assassin's Creed 3 are gone.
I gritted my teeth navigating the busy geometry of ships — Edward doesn't seem cut out for the traversal demands of dozens of ropes and beams and platforms crisscrossing one another, and I found it frustratingly easy to get lost, for lack of a better way to put it. But towns and cities in Assassin's Creed 4 have few of those problems. Ubisoft has restored some of the extensive verticality and climbing challenges the series made its name on, and though there's often little story reason to engage in city-wide free-running excursions, exploration is incentivized in Assassin's Creed 4's move to a more open-world structure than its predecessors.
The activities Assassin's Creed 4 offers are integrated into the main game in a more sophisticated way than in previous installments. Hunting returns from Assassin's Creed 3, but borrowing a page from last year's Far Cry 3, there's a more practical incentive to chase after wild deer, or later, to hunt an elusive white whale: crafting. Most of Edward's personal protection and capacity is improved using materials harvested from the animals he hunts.
Money, meanwhile, is good for buying new pairs of swords or pistols, and for upgrading his ship, the Jackdaw, in tandem with wood, cloth and metal. The cities of Assassin's Creed 4 are still dotted with sync points, tall structures that allow Edward to survey the world and identify quests, targets and more. But Ubisoft has also made these spots Assassin's Creed 4's fast-travel beacons, ditching the broken, point-to-point sewer systems of previous games.
It's difficult to underscore just how much more convenient this makes Assassin's Creed 4 to play at a basic, functional level compared to other games in the series. And it's a necessity in light of the game's scope.
As a pirate captain, Edward can board his ship, the Jackdaw, and sail more or less unimpeded around the world, discovering new harbors, new islands and new secrets. The only thing that can really keep you from going where you want are practical pirate concerns — storms and other ships. Over time you'll earn resources to upgrade the Jackdaw, but there are almost always bigger, badder opponents out there. This effectively gates parts of Assassin's Creed 4's world until later in the game, but it contributes to a welcome sense of organic progression. It's rare that I encountered a load screen on open water, as the game only stopped when I entered a large city or began a new story sequence.
This change makes the best part of Assassin's Creed 3 — the sailing and ship-to-ship combat — much better. Out on the ocean, Assassin's Creed 4 is unlike any game I've ever played. Even the basic act of sailing the Jackdaw was gratifying as I called out commands to my crew, adjusting sails and angle to head off storms or enemy fleets, or shouting for full sail to ram an unsuspecting merchant ship. Angling to keep ahead of a frigate while setting up to broadside them with a full complement of cannon fire was fun every single time — despite how temperamental Assassin's Creed 4's sea can be.
Continuing a sort of Assassin's Creed tradition, AC4 shifts between "no problem" to "no margin for error." On land, there's little likelihood of failure or death for most of the game, and my retries were motivated by a desire to do something as intended, to favor stealth over bloody direct engagement. In the water, a wrong move or off calculation in my capability often led to a scuttled Jackdaw and an unhealthily clenched jaw.
Ironically, it was small annoyances like this that reminded me that I was playing an Assassin's Creed game at all. Aside from the brief moments outside the Animus VR construct in which Assassin's Creed 4 takes place, the moments that best defined the game for me existed separately from the series that came to define Ubisoft this console generation.
Assassin's Creed: Revelations and even Assassin's Creed 3 had mechanical elements that felt tacked on and out of place, but the cores of those games were tied into the ideas of the series — stalking targets, gathering intelligence and acting as part of the cause. Edward's actions for the Assassins are begrudging or opportunistic, and until the end of the game, feel like a distraction.
Ironically, the place where Black Flag felt most like an Assassin's Creed game was in its multiplayer. It's largely unchanged from previous entries, shy of some new quirks to its co-op Wolf Pack mode. But it reminded me of when the series was actually about assassination.
Assassin's Creed 4 is constantly waiting for its dare-to-be-great moment
This was my biggest problem with Assassin's Creed 4. For all of its mechanical improvements; for the wonder I felt as I sailed the ocean, with orca, dolphins, even great whites breaking the surface to my port side as I outran a royal trade armada; for the excellent performances and character moments throughout ... it felt disjointed. Directionless. Black Flag, like its protagonist, is constantly waiting for its dare-to-be-great moment.
Assassin's Creed 4 was reviewed on a PS4 development kit at Ubisoft's San Francisco offices over four days. Pre-release versions of the Xbox 360 and PS3 releases were also tested. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.