Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Untimely Revue: Assassin's Creed: Black Flag

Look. I don't have a ton of free time. So that means I'm often playing games, watching movies and shows, or reading books YEARS after they come out. But I still want to talk about that media, often in a very in-depth manner. So guess what? I'm going to. If you have a problem with that, um...That's your opinion and I respect it. But I'm still going to post these. So without further ado, let's talk about Assassin's Creed: Black Flag.

I’m going to say something a bit premature, as I haven’t actually played every Assassin’s Creed game to date—Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag is the best game in the series. Black Flag isn’t flawless. Far from that. But it is the most fun, uses the least-annoying Abstergo meta-plot to date, has perhaps the best cast of characters, and features the most sensible utilization of the Templars versus Assassins feud since the original Assassin’s Creed. Those are bold statements, I know. And now I’m going to mostly ignore this whole paragraph and just talk about what I want to talk about.

First and foremost, the big change to the AC template—sailing and naval combat. Both are amazing. Riding through high seas when huge waves are rolling and you ride down one crest into a hollow and back up the other side, aware of the ocean’s power and majesty, is simply stunning. I never thought I’d be so awed by an Assassin’s Creed game. But the first time I was wandering the open ocean and a storm blew up, the sky grew dark, and the waves started to build, I remember thinking to myself, “I’ve never felt this close to the ocean in a game before.” I’ve only been out on the ocean once, in a small fishing boat. But I still remember how that trip felt. And Black Flag evoked that feeling. As for the naval combat (which I keep trying to spell as “navel combat” because Freud apparently predicted my life), I enjoyed the feeling of realism it created through much of the game. Having to be tactical, picking off weaker ships in flotillas first, hitting them with chain shot before unleashing broadsides, all of that felt amazing. It made me think cautiously and not simply go rushing into every fight. Sometimes I would see a Spanish treasure fleet in the early game and simply turn away. All attacking would have accomplished was my own demise. Unfortunately, this feeling of being powerful but not overpowered, reliant on a measure of skill and tactics, goes utterly down the drain in the late game. Once you unlock the elite guns and armor, nothing short of a man o’ war poses much threat, and you can chew through even mid-level ships with ease. Then it becomes a simulator of how Davy Jones must have felt in Pirates of the Caribbean.

Speaking of combat, the balance between pistols, swords, and other equipment felt superb. In particular, firing an entire set of blunderbuss pistols and clearing the deck around me brought a rush of adrenaline that made me want to howl. That said, using pistols more tactically, to stagger heavy enemies or weaken powerful ones, also worked excellently. Or you can just run away and hide using the excellent freerunning system, which hasn’t changed significantly since the original Assassin’s Creed other than working out a bit of the jankiness.

With all of that praise behind me, it’s time to talk about the story for a bit. My criticism here is divided into two main parts—one part dealing with the 1600s storyline, and the other dealing with the modern storyline. These two stories take mirrored paths. One goes from mediocre to excellent, the other from mediocre to absolutely unbearably awful.

Let’s discuss the second option first. (Is that confusing? Good.) The modern-day story. Gah. It hurts so bad. What really grinds my gears is the whole “Abstergo is a real company working with also-real company Ubisoft” conceit. My original notes say something along the lines of “BOLLOCKS” scribbled twenty-five times in a row. I’m only slightly exaggerating. That kind of meta-element is REAL FIKSHUN 101 cutesy BS. You don’t need that kind of thing to write a good story. In fact, using that sort of mechanic just pulls me out of the fiction. I’ve accepted that Abstergo is a real company within the game world. By mentioning your own real company which is real in the real world, you have reminded me that I’m playing a game. Which is the opposite of what your story should be doing. Besides, no one is playing Assassin’s Creed games to play your bloody present-day segments. We’re playing because we want to stab evil dudes in the face with wrist-knives. The more time you spend making us walk slowly around in first-person listening to petty Templar politics and playing awful, not-even-remotely-how-data-security-works minigames is time spent NOT LETTING US PLAY THE GAME WHERE WE SAIL SHIPS AND MURDER PEOPLE BY JUMPING OFF OF 300 FOOT TALL MASTS! Seriously. The modern-day sections are jarringly different from the Kenway sections. You go from 3rd person to 1st person, stealth/action to walking/hacking simulator, cool pirates and ships to lame corporate stooges in lame corporate Canada… It utterly undermines the rest of the game. It also pales in comparison to the solid-if-not-amazing story found in the Kenway sections.

I’ll be honest here. At first I really didn’t like the main story. It took a long time for me to care at all what happened to Edward Kenway, despite the flashbacks that tell us he loves his wife and left her on bad terms because he wants to provide for her. In the beginning, Kenway is a very unlikeable man. He takes advantage of Stede Bonnet, betrays people he’s never met for his own gain, and is generally the very picture of a greedy fecking git. That doesn’t begin to change until mid-game, but thankfully characters who ARE likeable and who I care about appear very quickly, in the form of Blackbeard, James Kidd, and the rest of their fellowship. Those characters kept me interested in the main story until Kenway came into his own.

Now at first, the plot beats were rather predictable. Kenway is betrayed, escapes, meets his group of friends, so on and so forth. Even James Kidd’s plot twist, which I suspect is meant to be a surprise to people not familiar with pirate heroes, seemed rather obvious to me. But still. It was something to keep me invested, at least to a certain degree, until things ramped up. And then everything blew up. About halfway through the main game, something changed. I can’t put my finger on it for certain, but it happens between the death of Blackbeard (no spoiler warning because, seriously. Blackbeard died centuries ago) and the introduction of the Sage as a major character. Somewhere in there, everything fell together. Mary Read’s arc went from rather boring to so sad that it legitimately enraged me; Blackbeard’s death and Nassau’s fall filled me with melancholy and foreboding about the demise of the pirate lifestyle; and Kenway, while still remaining a rather awful git, became someone I cared about. I do feel that Kenway’s redemption was a bit abrupt and heavy-handed, but it was a long time coming, and a necessary return to grace. His about-face in the final few chapters of the story metamorphosed him from one of my least-favorite Assassin’s Creed protagonists (Desmond will always be the worst) to perhaps my favorite. And I changed with him. For most of the game I more or less ignored the impact of what I was doing, but the final chapters hurt emotionally, made me realized just how screwed-up what Kenway and I had done was. Then we did our best to make amends, though it could never be enough. You can’t ever repair the damaged done. But you can try, and you can ask forgiveness, and receive it, and forgive yourself.

Now, with all of that emotional blabber about the story done, I would like to say—most of Kenway’s story felt like it didn’t actually need to be an Assassin’s Creed story. This could easily have been a standalone game about piracy, like Sid Meir’s Pirates, only with much better graphics. Instead, the bog-standard Templars versus Assassins baloney got shoved in, and I’m a bit salty about that. Couldn’t I just interact with Blackbeard and Woodes Rogers without you nattering at me about their poncy secret societies? They’re awesome WITHOUT being Templars and Assassins. I mean, they’re still more believable than some of the historical figures Ubisoft has tried to convince us were Templars or Assassins (*cough* A Borgia pope, who would have been out for his family and no one else *cough*) but still. Strip out the Templars and Assassins and sci-fi BS from this game, replace the Observatory with some ancient Mayan treasure, and bing bang boom you’ve got a great pirate game. Give the protagonists and antagonists legitimate reasons for their hatred (politics, racism, greed, philosophy, revenge), and Black Flag would be improved 100-fold. Actually, that goes for all the games. But I digress.

I really want to talk about the use of sound in this game. Firstly, the dialogue. Almost all these voice actors were amazing (as compared to the original Assassin’s Creed where I murdered every beggar woman in Acre because I hated their voices so much). In particular, Black Bart, Anne Bonny, Mary Read, and Blackbeard all have amazing voices. Black Bart’s Welsh accent fleshed his character out enormously, lending a cultured and philosophic air fitting for his role in the story. Mary Read’s voice sounded like a violin cured in salt air and tar, beauty layered under harsh surroundings. Anne Bonny’s slight Irish brogue fit her perfectly and implied some level of innocence from some of the awfuller things which happened throughout. And Blackbeard. Ah, Blackbeard. His voice sounded like what I imagine a shark would sound like. Calm, thoughtful, but menacing, ready to burst into violence at a moment’s notice. Again, perfectly tailored to him. In fact, all the historical characters in this game were excellently handled, both in regards to voice actors and in regards to their treatment by the plot. They fit the plot without being untrue to their historical counterparts, which is something Assassin’s Creed games occasionally struggle with. (Again, looking at you, Assassin’s Creed II. I’m still a bit salty about fist-fighting a pope.)

Now Kenway, on the other hand, his voice is…it’s alright. It’s nothing special, doesn’t irk me, doesn’t make me blush. It’s just…okay. It’s a generic tough guy voice, much like ManShep’s or Nathan Drake’s. It’s just there. I saw one of the Rock Paper Shotgun writers mention that Kenway’s accent changes from Welsh to English to other accents from the region.  I SUSPECT said RPS writer was referring to when Kenway is pretending to be Duncan Walpole, but I’m not sure, and I don’t know about UK/Irish accents to really verify. But it’s something to think about.

Anyway, enough about the accents. The music. Oh. My. Gosh. The music in this game is amazing. Well, most of it. The shanties are incredible, well-chosen, well-performed, fitting to the time period and location, and just overall excellent. They make sailing so much more fun. By the end of the game I knew many of them well enough to sing along. The diegetic music (the stuff produced by people within the game)—in the taverns and other areas—is also great. Again, both period-accurate and well-chosen, what people from that time and place would be singing. The non-diegetic music (the actual soundtrack)…not so great. It’s a bit on the side of generic orchestral action music, not really very unique or catchy. I’m not asking for a Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack, though those movies do a great job of mixing period instruments with orchestra, but having more thematic/location appropriate music with period instruments would have been incredible. Spanish-style guitar in Havana; fiddles, harmonicas, accordions, and drums in Nassau; indigenous/Mayan instruments in the Assassin base, and so forth. It could have been amazing. There are bands that specialize in reproducing that period sound, and… I’m not going to dwell on what-ifs. Because I have a lot about this game, despite how much I loved it. But one last thing about the music: Having Anne Bonny sing “The Parting Glass” over the credits was a perfect choice. It fits her character, it’s thematically appropriate for the game’s end, it’s well-performed, and…Well, I’m just a sucker for that song.

Now I have some other critiques that didn’t fit neatly into the rest of this review. Among them, the fact that the eavesdropping missions were bloody awful and far too frequent, by far the lowest point of the main game missions.

The amount of collectibles was complete overkill. The collectibles are complete overkill. The treasure maps are cool. But Mayan puzzles, chests, treasure maps, animus fragments, songs… After a while there are too many. I would have cut animus fragments and probably Mayan puzzles. Put in fewer chests, make them harder to get to, and worth more. Leave the songs because that was actually enjoyable, a fun thing to unlock, and legitimately challenging. And make the treasure maps worth more and more intricate. Don’t just give me latitude and longitude, make me decipher riddles or something. “Full fathom five thy father lies, and he’ll not give up his gold,” things like that.

Upgrading the ship is enjoyable, but having to get both money and materials feels a bit cheap. I get raiding rum, sugar, and other trade goods. That makes sense. But when I have to loot scrap metal to upgrade my cannons, rather than just buying them (like actual pirates/sailors did), or outright looting them from another ship, that sucks a bit. Make it a set of missions to attack ships for their equipment. Want better mortars? There’s a ship out there with top-grade mortars. Can you board her before she sinks you from five miles away? And so on. Sails and such could just be bought at the harbormaster, and so forth.

Also along those lines, I really miss AC2-era customization. I want to be able to cobble together gear and weapons and jewelry and clothing, just like a real pirate. I’m looting rings and such from chests all the time. Why can’t I wear them? Take some RPG elements and throw them in the mix. Let me have one sniping pistol, a blunderbuss, and a midrange pistol. Let me mix and match my swords. Let me wear ridiculous boots and a pink frock coat. I’m a bloody pirate! Let me look the part! If I want to wear thirty rings, why shouldn’t I? Heck, there could be a social system where people judge me based on how I dress. Maybe my crew likes me more if I’m dressed simply, enemies are intimidated if I look like Blackbeard, and people in towns/romantic interests/questgivers think more highly of me if I’m dashingly-accoutered. I don’t know.

I do know, though, that if this game had a more open-world social system like in Pirates! for the NES where you could romance and politick and generally interact with people on a more meaningful level as well as the Nemesis system of Shadow of Mordor for developing enemy ships and captains, you’d have literally the best pirate game ever.

With that said, Black Flag is already an amazing pirate game, and a solid entry in the Assassin’s Creed series. I had a ton of fun with it (otherwise I wouldn’t have written a nearly-3000-word review), and my criticism comes from a place of love. If you haven't picked it up already, this game is worth a buy, especially now that its price has dropped a fair bit. (Because, you know, it's been like two years.)

Oh, and one last thing. Having Anne Bonny as my quartermaster? BEST THING EVAR. OMG.