Why haven't there been more games about pirates? It seems such an obvious choice. While dull "near-future" military games are ten a penny these days, the golden age of piracy is a path less well trodden - or a route less sailed, if you will. Other than the upcoming Raven's Cry, Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag is one of the few games to venture into all things piratey - and in the process, proves the old saying that if something's worth doing, it's worth doing right.
You see, Assassin's Creed IV may be about pirates - but it's not entirely about pirates. Instead, this is your average, stealth-driven Assassin's Creed game, with a skull and crossbones draped over the top. Sure, you can captain your own ship, you can pillage and plunder, and you can sail the ocean blue, but most of your time will be spent doing things that don't really seem all that piratey, and usually poorly explained.
OK, so Jack Sparrow may be a nimble enough pirate, but we don't remember the last time we saw Blackbeard hide in a bush to sneak up on someone. Pirates don't creep around stalking people - and if they do, they don't do it for long. They wade in all guns blazing, set fire to everything in sight, and leave with your sister in tow. Pirates also aren't typically known for being able to scale a vertical cliff with their bare hands. Most of them don't even have hands - and in Black Flag, your boat doesn't even have a plank! What sort of second rate pirate are you?
The answer, is that you're a man named Edward Kenway, a Welsh adventurer who leaves home for a life on the high seas with only one thing in mind - money. With the noblest of intentions in mind (ahem), as is often the way, it doesn't take long for things to start going drastically wrong, as within the first few seconds of playing the ship you're on finds itself under attack. Thrust into the middle of a battle, while you're busy doing your best to see off the opposing ships, an assassin sees him time to strike, and swoops into the scene, killing your Captain, before coming for you. Before he can so much as move an inch, however, the entire ship explodes, throwing you, and your assassin friend into the sea. A few minutes and a bit of a scuffle later, and it's you who ends up donning the Assassin's garbs, as you top the Assassin, and travel to Havana to claim his reward, getting caught up in a much bigger conspiracy along the way.
As we hinted at earlier, though, Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag is a game of two halves. When you're living the life of a swashbuckling pirate, everything seems to work at least reasonably well. With a ship of your own to sail, and a huge world to explore, there's so much to see and do - islands to discover, sunken ships to explore, and of course, treasure waiting to be found. It's kind of like a larger, more adult version of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD, but with a less catchy tune. There are plenty of nice touches too - dolphins come and swim alongside your ship, whales break through the surface, your crew even sometimes start wailing a shanty - and the roaming ships you sail past can all be attacked and boarded.
With a well armed galley at your command, you should be able to give the majority of vessels you come across a run for their money, but the controls don't feel quite as intuitive as they should. Cannons are tricky to aim, and it can be awkward to select the right gun to fire. With several different types of armament available (explosive barrels you push off the back, a broadside of cannons from either side, or whirling cannonballs with chains attached from the front), you'll want to make sure you're using the most appropriate weapons, but things can get rather confusing in the midst of a battle, as there's no way to cycle through them - all you have to do is point the camera in the right direction, and hold the left trigger. Similarly, the place the camera's positioned when you're controlling the ship feels too low, making it tough to judge distance/gaps properly. In the middle of a battle, when you're swivelling the camera around to shoot at anything and everything in sight, it's not always easy to know where you're sailing, and an easier way of firing the appropriate weapons would be much appreciated.
Outside the general pirating though, Assassin's Creed IV starts to trip and stumble. With an emphasis on awkward stealth, and a lack of almost any real, helpful tutorials when you first start playing the game, you're left with a nigh on impenetrable learning curve to scale if you want to get going. While there is the odd tutorial on offer, they often either introduce new features, or things you don't really need to know about anyway, while the important bits get glossed over. As some of the most important tutorials don't actually trigger until after you've had to use whatever skill it is it's explaining, there's a general gist of playing to the fans here, and an assumption that anyone playing this game will have played all the rest. That's fine if you want a shrinking fan base, but not so great if you want to encourage new players in.
It probably doesn't help that Black Flag doesn't really play out like other stealth games. For starters, there's no crouch button, which removes one of the most obvious ways the uninitiated have of "being stealthy", without really explaining how you're meant to remain undetected otherwise. You'll be given an objective to sneak into somewhere, but no explanation of how you can do it. While some may love the freedom, it's kind of the gaming equivalent of expecting you to run without teaching you to walk - you just need to be shown how to do it the first time. Perhaps it's easiest to explain this with an example.
One of the earlier missions asks you to rescue an important character from prison. It's up to you to sneak your way up to the jail, steal the key, and then break the guy out. Surveying the area, it seems fairly obvious what you're supposed to do. There are bushes all around, and the game's explained earlier how you can sneak around in the undergrowth to remain undetected (you'll even automatically crouch when you even so much as brush past a shrubbery). Sneaking through the undergrowth, we thought we'd got everything right as we crept up behind a guard that was on patrol, keeping our eye out for an icon to appear telling us that we were close enough to pull off an assassination. And that icon does exist - the only problem is, rather than being in the middle of the screen, or above the guard you're planning on attacking, it instead shows in the top right hand corner - miles away from where you're focusing your attention. In terms of "immersion", "realism", and all the other stuff the hardcore drone on about in games, that's fine - but in terms of making a game playable, it's not that fantastic. All that happened is we got too close to the guard and - whoops - now he's spotted us. Crap. Run!
With the guards alerted, suddenly our job got a lot harder. We could sprint, but every now and then we'd be hit by a bullet from a nearby sniper, letting the guards chase us down. Aha, the snipers. Spotting a nearby, wooden guard post tower, we raced towards it, and legged it up the ladder as quick as we could, before shoving the sniper over the edge, and pausing to catch our breath. "Maybe the guards won't know how to climb ladders", we thought. Wrong. Soon, the narrow platform at the top of the tower was swarming with guards - and there was nowhere to go but down. Dive off the edge? No, that's a bit too dangerous. Instead, we took the ladder down - and the discovered the Spanish guards' weakness. Seemingly, they're allergic to ladders.
Shuffling downwards as fast as we could, the guards began to give chase. In a bit of a panic, we stopped - but the guards didn't. Seemingly not being sure what to do as they approached the rung just above our head, they decided the best option would be to break into a leap of faith instead, and jump from a twenty foot high ladder to the ground below. Needless to say, it didn't end well. Yet one after the other, they all tried it. Like lemmings with a penchant for paella, guard after guard after guard climbed down, got as far as our head, thought "stuff this" and leapt to their untimely doom. At least it made storming the jail that bit easier.
With the wind in our sails, we set out for the jailhouse, ready to free our friend. Peering out from behind a wall to survey our surroundings, it turned out only an empty field remained between us and the jail. "Brilliant", we thought, "let's leg it". With a puff and a huff, we sprinted across the field, shimmied up in front of the jail, and shuffled towards the gate.... only for a guard to appear out of nowhere. Literally. That's right, in a stealth game, a guard loaded in late, miraculously teleporting in besides us at precisely the wrong time. Luckily, this was one of the few times our "hidden blades" actually served their purpose. Intended to let you take out guards quietly by using a pair of knives strapped to your wrists, the hidden blades are an assassin's signature move - but they're incredibly tricky to make work, for some reason. Thankfully, this time someone was smiling upon us, as rather than running around with our arms swept behind us like a low rent Batman playing ring-a-ring-a-roses with the guards as we frantically hammer X, we instead decided to give him a bit of a stab, letting us finally complete our mission.
But it's this dodgy computer AI, paired with a lack of decent explanations when you're first starting out that really lets Assassin's Creed down. Sometimes enemies can spot you from miles off without a hitch - at other times, they'll be completely oblivious to you walking under their nose. You can't really use logic to solve the problems, either - while guards will stop you from getting past if you're on your own, if you're surrounded by a troupe of dancing girls you've hired, you can waltz past in ease (ho ho). It just doesn't make sense - and in a game as complex as this, with so much depth, it desperately needs to give you a better idea of what you can do. Whether it's advising you to "face waves up front" ("head on", surely?), or warning your "desynchronisation (is) imminent", making the screen go grey as though you're about to die when all it really means is you'll be loading the next level, Black Flag is confusing at best, and at worst, impenetrable.
And all this is a shame, as Black Flag had a chance to appeal to a much wider market than the Assassin's Creed series has pulled in so far. Pirates hold an almost universal appeal, but the game's poor explanations, awkward structure, and distinct lack of tutorials make this one only the Assassin's Creed veterans will enjoy. Maybe we'll have to wait a bit longer for our pirating fix. Disappointed yarrrrr.
Format Reviewed: Xbox 360