AC4‘s big innovation is free-roaming naval gameplay, especially in how this is seamlessly incorporated into the existing mechanics of the series. It’s a little simple in some ways — you could definitely do more with the player’s fleets and cargo without turning it into a space trading game, which might alienate players with shorter attention spans. But even as it is now, you can step away from the wheel, leap off your own ship, climb onto a Spanish man’o’war, kill everyone on deck with a hidden blade, and then return to your own vessel, taking the enemy ship and its cargo without exchanging a single broadside. And I think that’s miles ahead of what AC3 was doing. Imagine if the first couple Grand Theft Auto games didn’t have vehicles at all and you just ran around doing crimes on foot and shooting people from behind cover. And then the third one introduced the car, but you’d only enter one by starting a mission that moved you to a distinct “street map” where you couldn’t leave the car. And finally a real GTA game came out and everything clicked together.
It’s a little silly, but sort of what it feels like to have ships in the mix here. At the same time, I don’t mean to say that future Assassin’s Creed games would never work again without sticking to the naval theme. But as I said in talking about AC3, I can see why they stuck with it for a while longer: the core gameplay of the series has been too thin. I criticized AC3 for making you do a bunch of miscellaneous pseudo-participation in a checklist of historical events that didn’t map to the gameplay mechanics at all. AC4 thankfully does none of that, and yet, 85% of the missions that take place on land seem to involve some variation on tailing somebody, which I now remember getting completely sick of during the AC2 trilogy. Let’s just say I took some comfort in the new feature where I could “rate” missions individually after completing them. Not that Ubisoft would still be looking at feedback from four games ago, but it’s the thought that counts, you know? Another tailing mission; two stars.
It’s not quite enough to sell a game on. But what else is there? For the most part, the series sticks to its underwhelming guns. There’s often more than one way to climb a thing, but it’s mostly fake. And combat is too simple. I’m not saying I’ve never screwed up fights in AC4, but for the most part it doesn’t matter if there’s one guy coming at you, or twenty. Sure, the big bruiser enemies don’t always cooperate with your kill streak, but throw them aside and hit them in the back once and they’re dead just the same; throw in a smoke bomb or something when you run out of room. And I don’t think this is in the game’s best interests, given the ludonarrative dissonance that pops up whenever some guy points a gun at Kenway in a cutscene and he’s expected to care again because there’s no player controlling him anymore. And let’s not forget that it’s ostensibly a stealth game. When I got one objective, “Sabotage all alarm bells,” I thought, “Oh, good. It doesn’t say I can’t let them ring the alarm.” And so I bodychecked a few guards so hard that even Mr. Magoo would have seen me, allowed them to ring it, quickly comboed together like thirty kills in the resulting hullabaloo, and only then cut the alarms. Complete success. I think this is ridiculous: they don’t seem to know what kind of game they want to make.
So, not really knowing anything about the subsequent AC games that have already come out, how might they fix this? Assuming they care in the first place, they could either turn up the threat so some fights become infeasible to win, or play right into it, and make every villain a simpering coward who shouts (from behind the equivalent of six NFL teams’ defensive lines), “Kill him, you imbeciles! He’s only one man!” At this point I think the latter makes more sense. Give enemies some more variations on how they attack, such as with horizontal and vertical swings that have to be dealt with differently.
The series could play around with time more, too. Who says you have to be the same ancestor the whole game? Visit the same city as three of them, swap around like it’s Ocarina of Time or Day of the Tentacle, and pick up an item with one character after burying it with another. Even if you’re cornering the market on the distant past, and as a consequence, your gameplay can’t benefit from the tried-and-true complex but satisfying mechanics of an aircraft or a car in traffic, there’s a lot more open to you than just listening in on people’s conversations and then stabbing them.
So far the position I’ve taken is that the gameplay isn’t deep enough, but to elaborate on that, I often think it’s not deep enough relative to the time a player is expected to put in. This is a common gripe I have with high-profile open-world games, but it’s no less true for that. Even if you make the wise mental health decision that there’s no way in hell you’re going to sail to every meaningless collectible gewgaw on every Far Side Island on your world map — I actually did follow through on that bullshit, but only after muting the game and putting on an hour or two of a podcast — if you’re going for the optional sync objectives, treasure maps, and contracts, I think the lack of respect the game shows for your time is clear. First there are sync objectives which, on rare occasions, won’t show up the first time through a mission, which is great when paired with unskippable end-mission cutscenes. But what really galls me is having to make two or three runs on the same deep-sea dive that was tedious the first time through, because I’ve found a map revealing buried treasure back where I’ve already been, or some assassination target took up residence in a little cave there. Swimming is really unsatisfying too, with Kenway refusing to dive in any reasonable timeframe, or turning poorly, or swimming on ahead past the reef I put him in to hide from a shark. And while taking away your equipment is intended to add to the challenge, I think even more importantly, it gives me fewer ways to have fun. I can’t stab a shark? I can’t get my blow darts wet?
There are also the Mayan stelae things, a bit of busywork which if forced to be called “puzzles” would be an insult to even a chimpanzee’s problem-solving abilities. And while they’ve streamlined the hunting from the last game, throwing harpoons at whales gets dull fast — at least in that Resident Evil 4 boss fight on the lake, you got to control a speedboat while you were at it.
Chests should be far rarer and more memorable, highly guarded or difficult to reach. Collectibles should always be unique; a point I’ve been hammering on about since Deadly Premonition — the only thing that satisfies the requirement here are the ship upgrade plans and the sea shanties, which are amazing, but probably make up about 1% of collectibles. I learned a lot of good sea shanties while playing the game, like Fish in the Sea, Hi-Ho Come Roll Me Over, Leave Her Johnny, Lowlands Away (my favorite), Padstow’s Farewell, Randy Dandy-Oh, Stormalong John… these are clearly the most substantive thing I’ve come away with for all the time I sunk in over the course of about five days straight playing.
There are little improvements; the map and UI for instance. I also like that there are alarm bells for guards to ring now — maybe I should have said that upfront — and I like the way they’ll try to tackle you to let their friends catch up during a chase. But they’re still far too dumb for any kind of system that involves meaningfully interacting with them outside of combat. They forget you instantly, and don’t react to gunshots that are well within hearing range, among other things.
There are a few proper sidequest chains with little stories this time, and that’s cool, but for the most part they’re just more tailing missions. I guess it’s about on par with what you did for the homestead villagers in AC3. While there’s probably a greater variety of side content when looking at the bigger picture, there’s nothing as good as AC3’s base building, which was one of the very few things I really liked about it, flawed as it was.
As for the story itself, I found it immediately more engaging than AC3’s. Connor wasn’t a bad protagonist — he had a great shouting voice on the seas — but Edward Kenway’s “I killed an assassin and took his hoodie thing, and I have no idea why people are talking about templars but I’m going to bilk these jerks for as much money as I can” plot is fucking good right of the gate. Even the Abstergo stuff outside of the Animus had me invested, giving me loads of questions right away. Was I still Desmond? Catching sight of Rebecca on the first floor was a great touch. Who was to say if she was undercover or if Juno pulled some Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure shenanigans on the whole universe? Having no idea what was going on (and for once it not being because I forgot who the characters were or how they got there) felt pretty good.
But the whole “fake assassin” thing came to an end I think sooner than it should have, because once the game settled into petty conflicts between pirates and templars, I felt that it was dragging its feet. A number of characters took a little too long to be dealt with. Apart from liking James Kidd and the Sage stuff, I didn’t much care about the sequence-to-sequence chain of events. Doing more with pretending to work for the templars would have been a better direction. At least the writing was generally snappier; Kenway had less patience for debating morality with dead guys than even I do, and the conflict was far more interpersonal than the usual philosophical, self-righteous drivel the series had offered. I enjoyed the Abstergo audio tapes too.
The main thing AC4 has is its open-world sailing and piracy, and while I’ve found a kind of mellow enjoyment in Windward, and played a few space games like Escape Velocity when I was younger — boarding ships and stealing cargo — I’ve never quite had this experience. And yet it’s disappointing to learn that’s all there is setting it above AC3. It’s a little less glitchy, but still glitchy. It has a more captivating story, but it doesn’t retain its momentum. Meanwhile, the climbing and fighting systems aren’t getting any younger.
Oh, and there’s a companion app, but it sucks.