Assassin's-Creed-4Assassin’s Creed 4: Pirates go Purse Shopping

I know this review is late, and we’re probably closer to the release of the next iteration of the Assassin’s Creed franchise than we are to launch date of Black Flag, but I’ve just bought a Playstation 4 and was holding off playing this as it looks like the only game I’m really bovved about.

Anyway, you can probably consider this piece a historical document, which seems quite apt for a series dealing with time. In fact, time is undoubtedly the over-arching theme of the Assassin’s Creed series. Each game hops swiftly through time from the Middle Ages to the birth of the America via the Renaissance like its nimble-limbed protagonists, clambering from rooftop to rooftop whilst wearing white bathrobes and hiding cutlery above their cuffs.

Time is presumably also a factor for the developers, who are tasked with introducing a brand new entry into the ‘white hooded historical murderer’ genre each year lest something terrible happen, like an eclipse of the sun, or a visitation from strange alien ghosts from the past – or whatever the series is actually ‘about’ once you move away from the historical timeframe and chat to an enormously punch-able digital facsimile of Danny Wallace.

It’s safe the say that this slavish need to have a new iteration in the hands of gamers each year has halted real development in the series. Each update has been incremental with most games being almost identical to the one before. Even in this first next-gen update you still divide your time between soaring over the rooftops like a greased up ninja with cats strapped to his feet when not struggling to climb over a small log because there’s no ‘step over small log’ animation.

Combat, too hasn’t changed. You still wait for your aggressors to waggle a sword before pressing circle and square and watching a gruesome, protracted death sequence play out. It’s an oddly disconnected experience that gels with the idea of you being a virtual participant in history, but still feels oddly discordant with the steps that have been taken to progress the series.

Following on from its introduction in part III, aka ‘Native American Wood-Trading Simulator 2012’, ship exploration is undoubtedly the biggest new ‘thing’ in part 4. This will come as some relief to those who were worried that the pirates in this iteration would spend most of their time wheeling cowhides through a forest or delivering mystical pearls of wisdom in the kind of deep monotonous voice that would send a tree to sleep.

It should, however, come as no surprise to anyone to discover that being a pirate is a barrel of laughs and manages to overcome the limitations that hinder the on-land portions of the game. Simply put, exploring the oceans is more fun than being trapped with a host of salt-caked bearded men in a small, enclosed space should be. Pretty much every pirate staple is catered for – beyond scurvy, owning a parrot and being Johnny Depp, embarrassing yourself in exchange for a new Caribbean island. You can board ships, sing shanties, dig for treasure, dive and hunt sea beasts whilst avoiding attacks from the Spanish and adverse weather conditions (not unlike a trip I took to Lanzarote in ’03 – lollers).

Back on land, however, and it’s back to the usual business. One of my most abiding memories of the Assassin’s Creed series is the fact that even the most challenging and arduous tasks can be completed by pressing a single button. Your basic aim is to navigate your avatar in to an appropriate place before pressing the ‘Fun Button’ and watching an animated sequence play out. The fact that Ubisoft now stuffs each of its games to the gills with repetitive tasks doesn’t help and that’s without considering the fact that they seem to have an unhealthy fascination with making you turn crocodiles into purses.

It’s this curtailing of fun with a single button press that has always stopped the Assassin’s Creed series from scaling the heights of greatness. It still feels like something of an accomplishment to climb a huge tower like a ninja in a white dressing gown, but when the pay-off is a single press of a button, I feel like I’m the obstacle preventing the game from reaching its full potential. Missions that involve following people so you can hear perfunctory dialogue that advances the plot are equally familiar and even less fun.

On water it’s a different story, with ship controls and the mechanics of piracy being simple, fun and intuitive. There are odd quirks when it comes to letting go of the wheel and engaging in hand to hand combat, but it’s forgivable when the returns in amusement are so great. The trading element has also been improved and is much better suited to the life of a pirate than it was to the life of whatever he was called in the last game.

Thankfully, sea-based fun is the abiding memory I’m going to take from Black Flag, but that’s conditional on at least one of this year’s fourteen Assassin’s Creed games making genuine advances in game-play. If they can avoid me accidentally taking a few steps up a non-interactive tree whilst supposedly in pursuit of someone from history who needs ventilating then I’ll consider getting my next review out with a little more haste. Until then, I’ll probably make a few more journeys upon the seas with my smelly bearded compatriots singing heartily.

Altogether now,

To me, Way-ay-ay Yah!
We’ll pay Paddy Doyle for his boots!
To me, Way-ay-ay Yah!
We’ll all drink brandy and gin!

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