We're Gonna Have a Pirate Party Tonight (Well Alright!)

by Arthur B

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag lets you have fun playing a pirate and murderer but doesn't ask you to condone him.
I had a lot of trouble getting into the first Assassin's Creed game. Aside from the more unforgiving approach to parkour murder simulation it offered, I also found the plot actively irritating. You have a conflict of Assassin vs. Templar in which as much of Islam is excised from the Assassin faction as is possible and the protagonist is made an ethnic and cultural blank slate as much as he can be, which all sorts of offensive ("don't worry America, we wouldn't actually expect you to play a terrorist person from terrorism land with a terrorist religion and a terrorist skin colour!"). This is joined at the hip with an utterly unwanted modern day plotline which regularly interrupted your fun, immersive historical murder funfest to remind you that you aren't actually playing this character, you are playing some guy who is playing this character through a virtual reality genetic ancestral memory plot device, and to make absolutely sure you don't have too much fun in history the game is going to regularly drag you into the modern day for a drab, overlong, unasked-for, unwanted, worthless, bullshitty, slow as fuck first person segment.

The modern say stuff in the Assassin's Creed games particularly bug me because they never quite let you forget it, right down to having interface elements in the game designed to aesthetically remind us of the VR simulation aspect. Sure, perhaps some person somewhere likes this shit, but if it had never been included in the games would it really be missed? Would we be playing our entirely historical games and think to ourselves "what this really needs is a modern day cyberpunk genetic virtual reality twist"? Of course we fucking wouldn't. But now they've been in the games long enough that I fear people will now expext them, and I will continue pining for an Assassin's Creed game with just one plotline which is good, rather than two plotlines which are both utter trash.

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag isn't quite that game, but it's the next best thing: a game which doesn't expect me to take the modern day plot seriously, and which lets me play a protagonist who doesn't give two shits about the Assassin/Templar feud except how it can profit him (at least at first). It helps that with Assassin's Creed III the original plot of the story seems to have wrapped up, along with the story arc of Desmond, the guy you played in the modern-day sections of the game. Instead of Desmond entering the past for the nefarious purposes of Abstergo Industries (or their Assassin foes), this time around you are a nameless worker for Abstergo Entertainment, a division of Abstergo Industries which uses their DNA-based VR technologies (and some craftily harvested DNA samples from Desmond) to visit people's ancestral memory for the purposes of entertainment (and perhaps some covert research at the behest of Abstergo Industries on the side).

You are assigned to reliving the life of Edward Kenway, a pirate plying the waves of the Caribbean during the early 18th Century. Kenway has abandoned his wife in Wales to go off to seek his fortune, and the social advancement that would come with it, as part of the crew of a privateer's ship; we first meet him in the midst of a raging sea battle, during which his ship is wrecked along with the ship it was attacking. Shipwrecked, Kenway soon finds himself in a lethal confrontation with the surviving passenger of the ship that was attacked: Duncan Walpole, a renegade Assassin who was in the process of travelling to Havana in order to sell vital Assassins secrets to the Templars. Killing Walpole, Kenway finds documentation concerning his identity and the great rewards promised to him in return for the Assassin maps, and Kenway decides to masquerade as Walpole in order to claim the rewards due him.

However, when Kenway arrives in Havana it isn't long before the Templars turn against him - and not long after that before the Assassins have some stern words with him. In the course of this fleeting encounter with the centuries-old war of secret societies, Kenway learns that the Templars are seeking the Observatory, a place (or perhaps an artifact) of incredible power that was created by the First Civilisation (the ancient aliens around whom the overarching plot of the Creed games revolves). The key to finding the Observatory is the Sage, a mysterious individual who over the course of the game it is implied has been reincarnated over and over again down the aeons, and may indeed be a representative of the First Civilisation himself. Although Kenway becomes embroiled in the establishment of the "pirate republic" in Nassau, along with performing some mercenary services for the Assassins, he doesn't stop dreaming of tracking down the Sage and claiming the Observatory for himself; when the pirate republic collapses he is able to finally follow up on this matter, but in the process of doing so he comes close to losing everything that is dear to him.

Although the plot here is often weak (and indeed some cut scenes are near-incomprehensible, or don't quite seem to match the missions they precede or follow), there's some genuinely nice writing surrounding Kenway. In many respects he's an utter shit, and his overall plot arc is of someone who royally fucks things up for other people, then fucks things up for himself and then makes some small effort to making things unfucked only once he's been utterly broken by the extent to which he's fucked himself. He isn't a full-on monster - you get warnings if you shoot at civilians that Edward didn't murder random innocents (apparently he was some sort of utterly ahistorical pirate who primarily preyed on military shipping, but whatevs), although some crew members start yelling shit like "The pretty one's mine!" when you board ships Edward himself doesn't partake in much of the way of gratuitous torture, rape or murder, and he evinces a decided hostility towards slavers.

At the same time, though, he's incredibly greedy and self-serving, doesn't see how the political conflicts are the age are his problem provided they don't inconvenience him personally, and is blatantly in it for the money and us totally unapologetic about it until he is brought to the brink of destruction and has his face rubbed in the chaos he's caused. Although he ultimately decides that the Assassins, who tend to side with those who suffer under the Templar's colonialist and patriarchal program, are better friends than the opposition, he's also not above poking holes in the Assassins' side of the story where he sees them. (For instance, he points out that if "Nothing is true, everything is permissible" is their creed, then they can't really object to him wearing Walpole's Assassin uniform.) At the same time, he isn't presented as the White Guy Who Knows Better in any respect, mostly because he genuinely doesn't know better - the best alternative he can come up to against the Templar or Assassin visions for society is the pirate republic, which is kind of a shower of shit; in principle, it's a pioneering anarchist experiment, but in practice a society built around supporting and endorsing armed banditry isn't really a very long-term viable model for government, as both history and this game demonstrates (indeed, Woodes Rogers' cleanup of Nassau is a pivotal plot point in the game).

The fact that Kenway mostly doesn't take the Assassin/Templar thing seriously, and isn't even especially dedicated to the fight when he does finally definitively side with the Assassins, means that you don't have to take that side of the plot seriously, which I love because if you do I find the implications kind of insultingly simplistic. In particular, I think there are profound issues with implying that patriarchy and racism and all that were cooked up deliberately by a small clique and only continue exist because the same clique keeps reinforcing them, because that lets everyone who isn't a card-carrying member of the Illuminati off the hook. Likewise, it's nice to get up to all sorts of parkour-based murder shenanigans and piratical adventures without being told that the person perpetrating this necessarily a good and dignified person who is killing all these people for the best possible reasons.

The best part of this setup, though, is that the modern-day parts are much less intrusive, much shorter (unless you want to go around looking for Easter Eggs), and not really serious at all: they're a huge parody of the entertainment industry in general, and in particular reads like a stab at the crazy work conditions game designers are expected to put up with during "crunch time". There's hints at the next overarching plotline for the series (the rebirth of some ancient AI from First Civilisation days, I think), but you don't have to pay too much attention to that if you just want to get back to the pirate action as quickly as possible.

Another thing I've grown to like about the writing of Kenway is how the writers nail him as a guy who'd like to do right by people on an individual basis but hasn't really thought about his prejudices on a more general level. (Full credit to Kyra for actually enunciating that first when we were talking about it a few weeks back). This is most evident in his dealings with Adéwalé, the freed slave who serves as Edward's quartermaster and second-in-command; Edward clearly wants to be Adéwalé's friend and they talk early on after they take their ship (the Jackdaw) to make sure that everything's cool between them in establishing the order of command, but similarly there's a number of respects in which he's a fresh-faced guy from Wales who hasn't actually thought about racism and slavery very much and occasionally Just Doesn't Get It. For instance, he talks to Adéwalé and asks if he wants to go back to Africa to be a prince there once they all get rich, and Adéwalé firmly explains to Edward that no, he's not going back to Africa, because he's never been there and has no connections or family or connections there and would be completely out of place and the Caribbean is his home. Obviously people's mileage will vary on this point, but after considering that point a while I think it mostly comes across as Adéwalé firmly correcting Edward rather than attempting to educate him (because educating him on this score isn't his job), and one of Edward's more endearing points is that when people point that stuff out to him he clearly stops and listens, though at the same time he doesn't necessarily put it all together to reach a jarringly modern view on things and he still ultimately wants to buy his way into an aristocracy which exists and perpetuates itself thanks to the sort of inequalities that are pointed out to him.

(Adéwalé is generally awesome in fact - he's the star of his own upcoming DLC module, set a little in the future where he's joined the Assassins and become a captain in his own right, which I fully intend to get. As well as the above interactions he generally seems to have a broader view of things than Edward, both pointing out where Edward's ambitions are causing tensions with the men and asking pointed questions about exactly where this whole Observatory business is going.)

Another reason to love Black Flag is that the gameplay this time around is excellent. The parkour-based murder gameplay is fun both in the towns and the tropical forests and swamps of the Caribbean as well as playing a nice role when boarding ships, whilst there's also this time a really robust sailing and naval combat system. You can spend hours (and I did) happily sailing about just being a pirate - tackling ships, doing damage to them until they're helpless, and either sinking them to recover some of the cargo which falls off the boat as it sinks or boarding them in order to take all the cargo and pressgang some of the crew with it. Boarding actions are particularly fun, being progressively more involved as you are dealing with larger and larger ships, and taking down your first man of war is a glorious moment. Your crew sing you actual sea shanties - sea shanties! - you chum around with famous pirates like Blackbeard and Anne Bonney and Mary Read and Jack Rackham (all of whom were actually historically involved in the Nassau pirate republic), you get to go whaling and diving for lost treasure and hunting for buried gold and in general the game does everything it can to make sure that the experience of being a pirate is just as supported - if not more - than the experience of being an assassin.

The nice thing is the way these two aspects of the game interact and are interwoven with each other. Challenges in town using more traditional Assassin's Creed gameplay lets you acquire more crew members, more sea shanties, and generally more stuff for funding and supplying your ship, attacking and boarding ships and fortresses blends both ship-based gameplay and traditional Assassin's Creed combat, money you earn in both settings can either enhance your equipment or improve your ship, and so on.

At some points it does feel rushed - as I mentioned, the plot is occasionally shaky, and on the PS4 version at least I did notice some bugs. (The funniest one is that if you change Edward's costume to one which does not include an Assassin hood, he still does the "putting the hood up" animation in cut scenes where he's meant to be doing that, so he ends up miming putting up a hood he isn't actually wearing.) But Ubisoft get the important stuff right - in particular, it would have been easy for this game to end up feeling like two separate games joined uncomfortably at the hip, just as the modern day/historical plots feel in the Creed games, but that genuinely isn't the case here and the end result is a richer experience, and for that I think Black Flag has convinced me to finally give the Assassin's Creed series a second chance.

Slightly disappointed that it isn't an Assassin's Creed game where you play Henry Rollins, though.

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Comments (go to latest)
http://ronanwills.wordpress.com/ at 21:13 on 2014-02-09
"Another reason to love Black Flag is that the gameplay this time around is excellent. The parkour-based murder gameplay is fun both in the towns and the tropical forests and swamps of the Caribbean"

I can agree with a lot of the praise for the storytelling, but I ultimately ended up hating the gameplay of Black Flag with a passion.

I went into this game as someone who has always thought the Assassin's Creed gameplay mechanics just fundamentally don't work, and Black Flag did nothing to dissuade me from that opinion. All the old problems are there, but they've also dumped a whole lot of new ones on top.

The parkour remains as sluggish and unresponsive as ever (I lost count of the number of times Edward latched onto rooftops or ledges and then just hung there as I furiously mashed buttons to get him to move) and they decided to focus ore heavily on stealth while saddling the game with the most hilariously scattershot and ineffective stealth system imaginable. Never have I seen a developer strain so hard to avoid putting in a crouch button.

I eventually gave up on the game when I looked at my huge map full of little side-content icons and realized the thought of attempting to do any of it made me want to leap through the nearest plate-glass window.

(Also I would like to register my disappointment that this post wasn't called "We're gonna need a bigger boat")
Arthur B at 21:27 on 2014-02-09
The parkour remains as sluggish and unresponsive as ever (I lost count of the number of times Edward latched onto rooftops or ledges and then just hung there as I furiously mashed buttons to get him to move) and they decided to focus ore heavily on stealth while saddling the game with the most hilariously scattershot and ineffective stealth system imaginable. Never have I seen a developer strain so hard to avoid putting in a crouch button.

I found it more intuitive than the first game, but I think this is a your-mileage-may-vary thing. I also found the stealth-based missions to be irritating (the ones where you have to eavesdrop on conversations especially, which seem to basically be impossible to complete on the first go unless you are very lucky or have prior knowledge of your mark's route). That said, I did find it very rewarding when everything just clicked into place and the parkour and stealthing was going smoothly, which is difficult and YMMV as to whether it's actually worth the time it takes to master.

(Also I would like to register my disappointment that this post wasn't called "We're gonna need a bigger boat")

I don't think that's a Black Flag lyric though.
Craverguy at 09:10 on 2014-02-10
How important is it to have played the previous games in order to follow this one?
Arthur B at 10:24 on 2014-02-10
In terms of the historical storyline: really not important at all, remember that it's presented entirely from Edward's perspective and he's very much an outsider who's blundered his way into the wars between the secret societies.

In terms of the modern storyline: a large amount of the stuff you can see by hacking computers in Abstergo Entertainment won't make much sense if you are entirely clueless about the previous entries in the series. This includes some hilarious videos in which Abstergo assess the previous Assassin's Creed protagonists and each time decide that they aren't suitable for building a movie or game around.

On the other hand, that's almost all optional content, and in most cases you'll be able to follow if you're just broadly aware of the previous games' premises. There's some long rambly audio diaries from Desmond which will mean very little to you unless you closely followed his story but otherwise I found I could usually figure out the significance of most of the stuff despite only playing a couple of hours of the first game prior to this.
Robinson L at 15:30 on 2014-03-03
Okay, so I'm a little bit familiar with the Assassin's Creed series, though I've never played them and didn't even know this particular game even existed previously.

My sisters got the first two games shortly after Christmas, and seem to be enjoying the heck out of them, so perhaps I'll point them in the direction of this one as well.

the experience of being a pirate is just as supported - if not more - than the experience of being a pirate.

I can't tell if this is a joke I'm not getting, or just a typo.
Arthur B at 15:42 on 2014-03-03
What typo?
Robinson L at 16:00 on 2014-03-03
Sorry, impossible to tell if you're being serious or facetious over the internet - in the review, you say "the experience of being a pirate" is supported to an equal or greater extent than itself. Which I can only presume is either a joke that I don't get, or you intended to say something other than "the experience of being a pirate" one of those times and accidentally repeated yourself.
Arthur B at 16:16 on 2014-03-03
I am being facetious.
Craverguy at 07:40 on 2015-03-23
Well, it only took me a year, but I finally got around to playing this. I finished story mode earlier tonight.

All in all, I liked the gameplay, although, like Arthur, I admit to being a bit more partial to the piracy aspects than the assassinating. That said, it could perhaps be because the piracy is endlessly replicable, whereas there's only so many assassinations you can do before the game runs out and you're reduced to murdering random city guards for your fix.

As for the story, I have to say, I kind of liked Edward better when he was the chaotic neutral, out-for-himself pirate than I did once he became the zealous-convert Assassin. Not only does his original characterization as an aspiring crime lord and petty warlord frankly seem more fun from a gameplay perspective (but then, I'm the sort who usually picks the Wild Card ending in Fallout: New Vegas), but his conversion feels incredibly hypocritical and self-serving -- he doesn't make it until after
the Sage screws him over
and he's locked out of using the Observatory for his own power and profit, at which point he starts loudly criticizing the Templars for planning to do the same damn thing.

Furthermore (and perhaps this wouldn't be an issue if I had played the previous games, but you'd think they might make allowances for that possibility), the game completely glosses over what it is that the Assassins stand for that should make me, as the player, root for them and hope Edward throws in with them in the first place. It's particularly glaring when pre-conversion Edward makes some very good points poking holes in Assassin philosophy (which Arthur mentioned in the review), while post-conversion Edward simply says "perhaps 'nothing is true, everything is permissible' is only the beginning of wisdom" and then moves on, with no effort made to expand upon what that wisdom might be. We're just supposed to accept that the Assassins are both morally superior to the Templars (not hard to concede when the Templars we meet are 50% slavers and 100% in favor of Orwellian surveillance and mind control) and actually, objectively correct in their largely unstated philosophical views and move on.

Considering that (and considering also that the Templar Armor I unlocked was the coolest-looking armor in the game), I'm now interested in playing Assassin's Creed: Rogue, which apparently has a protagonist who's an Assassin-hunting member of the Templars and a plot that shows the Assassins in a less-than-flattering light.
Arthur B at 07:48 on 2015-03-23
Googling tells me that Rogue is also very much in the same model as Black Flag, which if anything makes me even more interested.
Arthur B at 08:04 on 2015-03-23
...except apparently Rogue is for the previous-generation consoles, on which the seafaring stuff from Black Flag was apparently trimmed back. Hm.
Craverguy at 03:50 on 2015-03-24
I went on YouTube and looked at some gameplay videos. The naval gameplay looks about the same as Black Flag, albeit with graphics that aren't quite as good.
Arthur B at 07:56 on 2015-03-24
Awesome, might check it out then.
Craverguy at 03:40 on 2015-04-19
So, having played Rogue now, I can definitely recommend it to anyone who enjoyed Black Flag. In terms of gameplay, the two are basically identical, aside from some minor tweaks in Rogue (e.g., a faster and more maneuverable ship in naval gameplay, a rifle/grenade launcher instead of a blowpipe, etc.).

As for the story, my only comment is to praise with faint damnation: it's too short, with almost exactly half the missions there were in Black Flag. (On the other hand, not a single one of those missions involves eavesdropping, so that's a major improvement right there.) In particular, they could have done more with the player character actually being a Templar, which in the finished product doesn't happen until the game is almost over. It sort of feels, given the time skip just before the final mission, like they were deliberately leaving a good chunk of Shay's life open for later DLC missions...an unfortunate choice, given that Ubisoft seems disinclined to do any DLC for the game.
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