Back in my “Top five most anticipated upcoming games” list I said that I have wanted an “Assassin’s Creed” game involving pirates since ACII, and it was true. I’m not sure how the thought came to me but it seemed pretty simple- I like pirates, I like “Assassin’s Creed”, the two most therefore make a good combination. Seems Ubisoft had a similar notion because the latest in the series is pirate themed- taking place during the golden age of piracy and focusing on a number of real life pirates (and some fictional ones) operating in the Caribbean. I was up for this as soon as it was announced. Is it any good? Well yes, but it has problems.
The biggest one is the game’s story, or at least parts of it. There are going to be some light spoilers here but nothing major- no deaths, betrayals or anything like that. Even so, fair warning. The set-up in the opening couple of memory sequences is a great one- shipwrecked pirate Captain Edward Kenway kills an assassin and takes his outfit upon finding a letter mentioning an award waiting for him in Havana. He arrives, takes the place of said assassin and finds his new hosts to be templars who discover his ruse and place him on a cargo ship. He escapes, gets a ship and a crew and the story really starts there- a mixture of him engaging in a variety of pirate business and along the way comes across the area’s assassins guild. Now despite the set-up being good, there’s one major problem with the story: Edward isn’t an assassin. He wears the stolen uniform and uses the hidden blades, but at no point in the game does he ever join the order. The story’s focus on the pirate side of things is great and all, but the assassins don’t get much of a look-in, and to have the protagonist not actually be an assassin is a pretty big plot hole. The game never addresses it either. It’s almost like it was a mistake someone forgot to fix. Elsewhere the ending is pretty weak in my opinion, particularly the way the future segments end. Said future segments revolve around a nameless, faceless Abstergo employee sifting through the late Desmond Miles’ genetic memories (even in death Desmond still finds a way to interrupt my fun) in order to make a video game that is essentially AC IV itself. This part of the plot is a cool idea but these sections don’t really go anywhere. There’s an on-going theme that looks like it’s going to feed into the on-going assassins vs templars plot but ultimately does. The whole thing doesn’t feel entirely necessarry, but fortunately these sections are over pretty quickly.
On the gameplay side, it’s a lot more positive. Whereas the sailing sections in ACIII were a side-quest that could be avoided almost entirely, sailing here is a key element in the game from early on- you use your ship to travel between places, hunt whales and sharks (more on that shortly) and attack and board other ships for resources. The ship is both integral to the gameplay and very fun and rewarding to use- it controls well and boarding ships is easily the most fun thing about the game: wearing a ship down with canon fire, roping it in with grappling hooks then swinging over on a rope to kill the crew is a delight that stays fun throughout the game. The hunting in the game is similar to Ubisoft’s own “Far Cry 3” in that animal parts are required to craft certain items- additional pistol slots, armor and bigger ammo pouches all require animal parts, and if indeed you must have a hunting mechanic in your game this is very much the way to implement it. Upgrades for your ship are bought with a combination of money and wood, cloth and metal taken from other ships, and range from armor to ammo capacity and the number of canons on the side of the ship. A lot of time and effort has been put into making you want to stay on board the ship and use it as much as possible (as you should- it’s important in a game about pirates) and they thoroughly succeeded. Oh, also, you can make your men sing sea shanties. It’s as awesome as it sounds.
On dry land things have been nicey tweaked but not revolutionised- tracking people is now easier due to NPCs retaining their coloured glow after de-activating eagle vision, climbing a viewpoint will make map icons appear as in-game HUD icons to show you the locations of various items, and there are now bushes you can move swiftly through and kill from. Edward can hold up to four one-shot pistols at once that can be chain-fired in sequence or, even better, aimed in over-the-shoulder view with a reticle (a great addition). Best of all though, is a change to the thing I hate most about “Assassin’s Creed”: it’s stealth. In the old games if an enemy became alerted the whole map would know of your presense even if you silently killed said enemy before he even managed to open his mouth to call out. This was ridiculous and made no sense- it ruined every mission it was implemented in and I hated it. I can only think of one on-foot mission where this is the case in AC IV- the stealth mechanics are a lot more forgiving and overall, that makes a real difference.
Overall “Assassin’s Creed IV” is a good time. The story has some problems but when it’s focusing on the pirate side of things is definitely enjoyable, the gameplay is great fun whether you’re on land or at sea, and the whole thing does a great job of making being a pirate fun. Despite the story problems I say give it a look- it’s the best since AC II, and worth the time. Sort of like “Far Cry 3” and “Splinter Cell: Blacklist”. It seems to be something of a running theme with Ubisoft recently.
By James Lambert