The Existential Crisis of Reviewing Assassin’s Creed 4


Editor’s Note: Our Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag review is on its way — for PC. We’ve decided to hold back on reviewing the console version, although our reviewer on the game, Phil Hornshaw, has played through it (hence this editorial). Instead, we’ll be attaching our final review score to the version of the game we believe matters most to you: the PC version.


Assassin’s Creed IV: Blag Flag has given me an existential crisis, spinning me about and ripping at the hull of my feelings about video games just as storms and waterspouts do to the game’s ubiquitous new addition, the ship known as the Jackdaw.

For one thing, I had a pretty solidly good time playing Black Flag — it strikes me as the best title in the annual franchise since my previous favorite, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. (Full disclosure: Despite having played the living s–t out of the Assassin’s Creed games, I have a serious love-hate relationship with the franchise, specifically because they have yet to attain the golden standard of being Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, but with assassinations. And yet, they keep pulling me back in, somehow.) The latter excelled by finally improving the Assassin’s Creed formula, streamlining elements that made the first two games a chore to play, like travel around cities, fighting, earning money and so on.

Black Flag does a lot of those things equally well, provides what amounts to be a brilliant setting for the franchise’s mechanics, and simply bristles with crap to do, explore, collect and ravage, pirate-style.

And yet, we’re talking about the fifth Assassin’s Creed game in as many years, and the core mechanics are absolutely unchanged. Does a game deserve a high score for doing the exact same thing as the last four did, but slightly better, and with sailing now? What is even my function as a reviewer and critic here?

In Assassin’s Creed IV, you’re still doing all the same stuff you did in Assassin’s Creed 2, Brotherhood, Revelations and Assassin’s Creed 3, except you sail your ship more. As the pirate Edward Kenway (the father of Haytham Kenway and grandfather of Connor from Assassin’s Creed III), you still do the climbing, the interminable walk-and-talk eavesdropping missions, the “tail a dude but make sure he doesn’t turn around and see you” missions, the sneaky assassinations from the same benches and overhangs. You’ll still chase guys through bustling city streets, you’ll still fight 10 guys at once who inexplicably choose not to rush you as a team and instead watch their teammates fall. You’ll still collect lots of ultimately meaningless items to tick them off a list that tracks your progress in collecting meaningless items. You do all the same things you’ve done for the last five years, and you’ll do a lot of all of them, because most of the tricks in Assassin’s Creed IV aren’t new, they’re really, really old.

Really, there’s very little in Black Flag that hasn’t appeared in earlier games. All of Kenway’s weapons are holdovers from Assassin’s Creed III or earlier games, from the pistols to the blow gun darts, to even the rope darts (although hanging soldiers to freak out their compatriots is always a good time). Where the game adds newness — in, say, the whale and shark harpooning activities — it cribs from other games; all that harpooning and hunting is straight out of Far Cry 3′s system of crafting better equipment by collecting specific animal hides. I guess Black Flag should get applause for the harpooning being very different from other things in the series, although the bloody ruthlessness with which you take down a whale creates a unique mixture of self-satisfaction and self-loathing.

At least driving a jeep off a cliff and landing on a shark was ludicrous as well as hilarious.

There’s also an incredible amount of reuse in little things, like mechanics and even animations. Watch Kenway run during a loading screen sometime and compare it to Connor (and maybe even to Ezio — I haven’t done that yet). They move with all the same idiosyncrasies, even lowering a shoulder for a burst of speed at the same moments, or cutting directions hard left or right with the same steps.

The game’s big “new” feature is the piracy you do in naval battles, so of course you’re expected to raid, like, thousands of ships. Piracy is about the only way to upgrade your own ship, and those events can be fun — in almost the exact same way they were fun in Assassin’s Creed III. But still, being on the ship is the best part of the game, as there really is an insane amount of things to do in Black Flag, and a huge open world to support all those activities. You can hop from island to island, opening up fast-travel opportunities, gathering collectibles, and partaking in the usual side missions. It’s like Assassin’s Creed’s Wind Waker, which I love deeply. The tropical setting really is gorgeous. For some reason I have a desire to continue to find everything the game has to offer, to hit 100 percent, which is something I haven’t felt with the franchise since my achievement-hunting days and the release of the first game.

But how to judge the damn thing? Does Ubisoft deserve a pat on the back for incredibly incremental refinements of mechanics copied and pasted through five years of game development? Does the fact that I had fun playing it mean that Black Flag should get a 90, largely because it just fixed what the developers broke last year, like stealth? What’s the weight someone should give to the addition of an expanded sailing mechanic, which is itself still pretty thin, when the lion’s share of the gameplay hasn’t meaningfully changed in half a decade? Do I even like sneaking around eavesdropping on people in the exact same way for the 90th time? Aren’t all these issues with Assassin’s Creed endemic to Call of Duty, Gears of War, Killzone, Super Mario Bros., Metroid, The Legend of Zelda, The Elder Scrolls, Halo and God of War?

Do I even like video games anymore?

Actually, the more I think about it, the more I don’t think the fault is with just me, but with all of us. Maybe if we didn’t all complain about the annualization of the series while simultaneously continuing to buy the new game every time one comes out, Ubisoft would be forced to work in some new mechanics. And maybe create some new animations, while they’re at it.

Because seriously, if I have to eavesdrop on one more pair of Templar idiots, I’m going to try some “blending” on my Assassin’s Creed IV disc. The kitchen appliance kind.


Read more of Phil Hornshaw’s work here, and follow him and Game Front on Twitter: @philhornshaw and @gamefrontcom.

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25 Comments on The Existential Crisis of Reviewing Assassin’s Creed 4

gasmaskangel

On November 8, 2013 at 7:12 pm

Well the age old ritual answer to question is “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” Yeah its not exactly innovative, but does it really need to be? Not everything has to be a revolution, not everything has to be artistic or have some grand design that will leave us talking breathlessly about it for years to come.

But on the other hand I do feel that we shouldn’t hold franchises that pull this attitude in high esteem. If you’re committed to just delivering a product, then deliver the best product you can, but don’t expect to be lauded as a genius for it.

Full disclosure, I quit playing Assassin’s Creed III maybe a quarter of the way through because Conner was such a bland character and I couldn’t give less of a toss about the framing story of the series if they replaced all the characters mannequins. I played Assassin’s Creed for the gameplay, Assassin’s Creed II and its spin offs because I loved Ezio to death, and then halfway through III realized I wasn’t getting anything out of it that I didn’t enjoy more in the other games. I currently have no intention of playing Black Flag for the exact same reasons.

AxΣtwin

On November 9, 2013 at 1:00 am

“And yet, we’re talking about the fifth Assassin’s Creed game in as many years, and the core mechanics are absolutely unchanged. Does a game deserve a high score for doing the exact same thing as the last four did, but slightly better, and with sailing now?”

Instead of focusing on all the new stuff they’ve added in order to keep up with everything you do, that you’ve been doing for the past 4 or 5 games. Really delve into that old stuff and ask yourself this; are they still finding ways to keep the old stuff fresh and interesting? Do the bells and whistles that we’ve seen before (things like blow darts, rope darts ect…) actually make sense to have in this game, or are they basically just fan service?

AxΣtwin

On November 9, 2013 at 1:05 am

Holy eballs I really need to proof-read before pushing the “leave comment” button. Please, someone delete my previous comment, I’m reposting this, and it’ll make more sense this time.

“And yet, we’re talking about the fifth Assassin’s Creed game in as many years, and the core mechanics are absolutely unchanged. Does a game deserve a high score for doing the exact same thing as the last four did, but slightly better, and with sailing now?”

Instead of only focusing on all the new stuff they’ve added as a way to determine whether or not the game has grown. Really delve into that old stuff and ask yourself this; are they still finding ways to keep the old stuff fresh and interesting? Do the bells and whistles that we’ve seen before (things like blow darts, rope darts ect…) actually make sense to have in this game, or are they basically just fan service?

cgbb1964

On November 9, 2013 at 1:35 am

After reading your article, I must comment and kindly disagree. I have also played through every Assassins Creed game and although the mechanics remain familiar, the great story telling and countless historical playgrounds are so exciting to explore. The series has to be an annual franchise if they are going to hit on different time periods. Plus, some of us gamers aren’t thrilled to wait two to three years and usually by then can’t remember what’s going on with the story or forgot how to even control our character. It’s brilliant what Ubisoft has accomplished and it really makes me cringe when I see articles like this that almost dismisses their efforts on bringing us an amazingly accurate and beautiful settings. Feel free to add to your kitchen, I’m staying in my living room and sail the Carribean. Yo ho.

Aragamer

On November 9, 2013 at 2:28 am

Although I enjoyed reading your article, I would have to disagree with your point of view. I personally think that every game should be judged based on the said game itself. So, it is unfair to say that Assassin’s Creed 4 has not changed any mechanics (the combat for example) from the previous games in the series because these mechanics define the series. Comparing it like that is similar to questioning why the Call of Duty or Battlefield series have similar mechanics for each game release. Besides, Assassin’s Creed is undeniably fun to play! I mean how often do we get to revisit famous historical time periods with countless historical figures? I think Ubisoft has done a great job so far, and I think it is unfair to dismiss all of their efforts by saying that they just “copied and pasted” from the previous games. If we were to start comparing games like that, then we will definitely not be able to enjoy more than one game per series. As for myself, I had a blast with all of the Assassin’s Creed games, including this one. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some ‘blending’ to do. The Assassin kind, not the kitchen appliance kind.

Tiagonal

On November 9, 2013 at 4:27 am

Dude, Phil… you’re seriously getting too old too fast; better start looking again for that happy thought again before you fall… I would advice you to get off mainstream vgs for a while, try looking beyond next gen, try going back to your roots, try playing again with friends… just go and find that happy thought again.

quicktooth

On November 9, 2013 at 5:58 am

My esteemed fellow Gamefront patrons, I just sorta thought I’d drop in my two cents: same game, different price is never a good thing. Sure sure, there’s pirates now (rapacious thieves and murderers? What a good time! I bet if *I* get raped, murdered, and my corpse stolen from, I’ll be happy! Or perhaps my family should suffer the same fate!). But it surely must be fair that the thing that makes this game a whole new game from that game, it’s rules/mechanics (two games can have the same setting remember -just look at world war 2 games) can be demanded to actually actually *improve*, or at least be meaningfully different if we’re paying for a “new” one? We are, after all, getting ripped off with AC4 as it is. Even to the point of reused animations across many games in this “series”.

Maybe suggesting the reviewer is over the hill or that he’s lost his spark is a bit harsh, when (if I read the article right), what he actually said was that “We’re not really getting enough out of this game this time to justify buying it yet again, even though we feel that pretty pictures are really really important for some reason. Well, maybe this game shows they aren’t as important as gameplay. Hang on, LOTS of games are just like this. Hang on, LOTS of games are ripping us off”. That’s pretty reasonable, and a useful point to think about, even if you don’t end up agreeing with it. Having said all that, I’m delighted as always at the sheer HUMANITY of GameFront’s comments. The respect, monocles, and tophats have been much in evidence. GameFront comments are the best comments.

Swcloud99

On November 9, 2013 at 7:32 am

“…you still do the climbing, the interminable walk-and-talk eavesdropping missions, the “tail a dude but make sure he doesn’t turn around and see you” missions, the sneaky assassinations from the same benches and overhangs. You’ll still chase guys through bustling city streets, you’ll still fight 10 guys at once who inexplicably choose not to rush you as a team and instead watch their teammates fall. You’ll still collect lots of ultimately meaningless items to tick them off a list that tracks your progress in collecting meaningless items. You do all the same things you’ve done for the last five years, and you’ll do a lot of all of them, because most of the tricks in Assassin’s Creed IV aren’t new, they’re really, really old.”

This is the big problem with Assassin’s Creed.
None of this has ever been good. It has always been boring.
I don’t get how this game can be so popular.
The writing is horrible all around, the characters, plot, gameplay… Horrible.
The one thing that really works is the free running and the setting. Those two elements are almost enough but without a decent anything else around it, I fail to see the draw.

Phil Hornshaw

On November 9, 2013 at 8:29 am

@gasmaskangel

Surely Ubisoft sees it the exact same way as you do — if it ain’t broke, why fix it? And I can’t blame them for that, since they keep releasing a new game every year and they keep getting both critical acclaim and huge sales for it. But it does suck because eventually, as happened with Guitar Hero and Rock Band, as is happening with Call of Duty, eventually, we’ll tire of it and a series with a lot of potential will just evaporate. I’d rather have fewer AC games and have them really, really good, than have a new carbon-copy AC game every year and tire out of it, like I am now.

@Tiagonal

Dude, you’re not wrong there. I’ve asked myself if I’m too old for this s–t quite a lot in the last two years. But I don’t think it’s all me. I have a great time with games, and I play a ton of indie and horror titles now, at least as much as I play AAA titles. That’s because there’s a lot more innovation going on in those spaces, I think. In the days of the PS2 and the original Xbox, there were a lot more games that seemed like they were willing to take risks. That was true of the early days of the PS3 and Xbox One as well. But today, even my favorite franchises, like Mass Effect, Dead Space, even Gears of War — feel tired and worn, pushed in directions that took what I loved about those games and spread them thin or extricated them altogether. Meanwhile, I keep finding myself replaying old titles from generations past. So maybe it’s not all me.

That said, I really DID have fun with Black Flag — hence the crisis described in the article. I actually DO like it, and I played it to many a 4 a.m. for seemingly no reason. And yet, I definitely have what I think I’m going to dub “Creed Fatigue.” Much of the game came down to tedium. Is that me getting too old, or Ubisoft punting on AC because it knows it has a super-loyal fanbase and it doesn’t need to work that hard? And maybe that is even too hard a judgment, since Ubisoft is only giving fans what they clearly want and keep purchasing.

Phil Hornshaw

On November 9, 2013 at 8:33 am

Oh, also, +1 to Quicktooth’s comment. I always get a little afraid I’m about to get chewed out in the comments when I write something like this — and you guys always remind me that I’m an idiot for being worried, by bringing up reasonable points in a reasonable way. I definitely appreciate it and I always learn something. Thanks, everybody.

dandresden

On November 9, 2013 at 8:48 am

i disliked revelations and 3 was very meh but i must say i am enjoying black flag. The windwaker comparison is very apt. I havent really been doing the story so much, just doing all the side stuff. I think Brotherhood was the high point in the series and Black Flag feels a lot like brotherhood to me. The mechanics are getting pretty stale though and i would love to see them add a freaking crouch/cover button and a refinement to the combat.

quicktooth

On November 9, 2013 at 7:34 pm

@Phil – My pleasure mate :D . The honest articles on (usually) very meaningful and/or interesting topics, and the excellent comments people leave, are the reasons this site is now the best source of vidya game news around :D .

Evernessince

On November 10, 2013 at 12:14 am

I think you are asking yourself questions that many other reviewers have contemplated themselves. Should one review this game poorly based on the fact that this game doesn’t break the mold of the series? First off, assasin’s creed set the gold standard for climbing and parkour in video games, you see many other titles emulating this nowadays. But on the other hand, you shouldn’t reward the game for failing to improve.

In the end, you have to rethink your assessment model. To start, a review score should only reflect the game in question, excluding any other game in the series or industry. In order to represent whether this game is trending up or down according to the rest of the series, I think it would be more appropriate to use a separate score to represent that as well.It would be along the lines of:

Review Score: 81
Series Score: 74

Series Score is the reviewed game vs the best game in the series. In other words, if new game is worse, it’s review score should be less than that of the best game in the series. This is a much better approach than the current one score system and it doesn’t take much more effort to create that second score. Of course, this only applies to games that are in a series. Other than that, one could take all the previous entries in the series and the latter entries and create a trend chart. This would be a great visual representation on any game review website.

Salty

On November 10, 2013 at 1:46 am

What I enjoy about AC games is all the different settings. Every game has delivered a beautiful world to get lost in. The fact that mechanics aren’t changing that much doesn’t bother me. I’m seeing improvement’s to what I am already familiar and comfortable with. How different can an episodic game be from its counterparts anyway? I guess I’m saying that I see these games as being diverse but unified. Also I’m not sure that Edwards animations are copy paste from Connor’s. To see what I mean, just tap the high profile but repeatedly to the beat of a song. In Conner’s animation you get a lot of hip action, but Edward’s looks more like a head banger.

How much of a games review score involves innovation? Isn’t that just one element to consider when your evaluating a game? I think the most important question would be, am I enjoying this game, and once I’m done with the campaign/ achievement side will I ever feel like playing it again.

SKYRunner100

On November 10, 2013 at 6:10 am

If your comment that you keep doing he same thing in every one of the games means you don’t have to review it then that should be ten fold now for the call of duty franchise considering they are the same mechanics and gameplay every time?

Swcloud99

On November 10, 2013 at 9:20 am

I’m of the opinion that review scores should be removed altogether.
First, they’re bad for the industry.
Second, they are meaningless as arbitrary numbers anyway.
Third, the written review tells you a hell of a lot more to begin with.

Tiagonal

On November 10, 2013 at 7:35 pm

@Phil… That comment I made… I realize it was meant for myself… I… haven’t found back my own happy thoughts yet. :( … I just wanted to play a sort of RockstarGames’ pirates game… or a new Necros&Clarke-less Dead Space, I just experienced Gravity, so it came to mind.

quicktooth

On November 10, 2013 at 10:33 pm

@Tiagonal- Bless you mate. Hope you find that happy place. I know I’m trying hard :D

Phil Hornshaw

On November 11, 2013 at 12:11 pm

@quicktooth

Thanks! We very much appreciate that you think so. We’ll try to keep it up!

Dan Miller

On November 11, 2013 at 1:08 pm

Let’s compare the rut games seem to be in with the medium that games is most commonly compared to, movies.

This is the list of nominees for best movie, last year:
Argo
Amour
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Django
Les Mis
Life of Pi
Lincoln
Silver Linings Playbook
Zero Dark Thirty

Here’s the list of best game nominees from 2011 (VGA awards):
Elder Scrolls 5
Batman: Arkham City (“Batman 2″)
Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (“Zelda 16″)
Portal 2
Uncharted 3

That’s really tough to defend if your argument is that games can be artistic and meaningful like movies can be, when the last sequel to win Best Picture was the third LotR in 2003, and only one sequel has been nominated since. In that same span, only 12 non-sequels have been nominated for game of the year, and in 2 years there were only sequels nominated. Can sequels be great? Sure! Can an entire medium be carried and justify it’s existence artistically on sequels alone? Probably not.

One more problem jumps out at me on that list:

Estimated number of deaths depicted (“?” where I haven’t seen/played):
Argo – 2 (maybe 0 I can’t remember)
Amour – 0
Beasts of the Southern Wild – 2
Django – 50
Les Mis – ? guessing it’s reasonably moderate, I’ve seen the play
Life of Pi – 2
Lincoln – ?
Silver Linings Playbook – 0
Zero Dark Thirty – 20

Elder Scrolls 5 – 100+
Batman: Arkham City (“Batman 2″) – 100+ (counting those “knock outs” as deaths)
Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (“Zelda 16″) – ?
Portal 2 – 0
Uncharted 3 – 100+

Are video games incapable of telling a nonviolent story? Why are movies taking huge risks on their plots routinely, and being rewarded with critical praise, but video games aren’t? These issues are existential for the medium right now, but at least they are clearly in the zeitgeist. Until a Kentucky Route Zero is being widely nominated over a Zelda 17, I don’t think we are making progress.

Evernessince

On November 13, 2013 at 1:02 am

@Dan Miller

It’s easier to create a violent video game than to create a narrative driven one. But, as portal demonstrated, it’s not just about the violence. For video games it all boils down to cost to make the game.

Storytelling is one of the most expensive parts of making a game. It requires voice actors, animators, level designers, writers, modelers, effect artists, and storyboard directors. All that and it has to be done within the confines of the game engine. Currently, most game devs. don’t have good enough story telling tools to allow them to even create a good narrative.

In the end it’s much easier to pay programmers to come up with a fighting system that won’t be as costly. Not only that but a story can only be told a number of times before it becomes boring. Fighting systems in games have allot more mileage. One last note, any system that is designed to keep the player hooked can be substituted for my above example of fighting systems as many companies employ multiple other systems as a means to increase the game’s hour count.

Mr. Christ

On November 13, 2013 at 4:57 am

To echo Dan Miller’s sentiment – two of the best-received “mature” games of the last couple of years, LA Noire and Heavy Rain, still had multiple scenes of excessive, farcical levels of violence. Ultraviolence has become a crutch that videogames developers rely on because they don’t think they can effectively market their games otherwise. Ironically, despite the pretty visuals and good acting in both of those examples, I ended up much preferring the Telltale CSI games because they were just investigations with no forced action sequences. The fact that the production wasn’t anywhere near as good and the gameplay was repetitive didn’t matter – it was much more engaging and felt much more genuine than making pizza for a child followed by shooting twenty bodyguards resulting in no repercussions, or interrogating a witness about a fingerprint on a matchbox followed by a car chase and a shootout with forty gangsters in a laundry.

Argo was a good, fast-paced action film that didn’t have any deaths on screen that I can recall (any that took place would have been right at the beginning as part of the set-up) – it would have sucked balls if Affleck was just gunning people down instead of using his political wits and limited resources to get the hostages out of Iran without the authorities’ knowledge. And yet gunplay would have been inevitable if it was ever adapted to games. It’s depressing.

Dan Miller

On November 13, 2013 at 1:01 pm

@Evernessince

That’s bull. Some of the best story-driven games have been made by tiny studies, and some of the most violent and cliche ridden have had the largest budgets. Journey, Kentucky Route Zero, The Swapper (underrated!), and Gone Home are all recent examples of acclaimed games with no violence and strong narratives, and I don’t believe any has a damn single line of dialogue either. Jonathan Blow, from what I can tell, makes his games out of blood, sweat and late night drug binges, but Braid was both critically acclaimed and free of violence. Meanwhile Call of Duty, Battlefield, and countless other AAA titles have gigantic teams and budgets but fall into the same violent, sequel cliches. My question of why big game studios won’t take the creative risks that big movie studios take is not answered by “violence is cheaper”. And my further question of why the games press won’t stop praising the mindless sequel isn’t answered by that explanation either.

Tiagonal

On November 17, 2013 at 11:52 am

Ah… :(

I wanted to state back again that Assassins’ Creed would be the best mini-game to go with Total War and turn the assassinations odds to your own skill.

Ah… :(

If there was only a dead space with assassins’ creed grab things mechanics in zero-G. Shouldn’t have watched Gravity again… and 2001… and Aliens.. and …

Argh… If I could just take the time to grasp modding O.o

Evernessince

On November 24, 2013 at 8:17 pm

@Phil

You’re comparing AAA game’s to indie games, which does not translate well. The discrepancy in the price tag and features shows.

Sure you could create an indie game with a great story but name one indie that had a great story and supporting features that rivaled a AAA title. The fact is that you’re over-valuing indies based on your personal perceived values. You think that indies make good stories, which is some cases they do, but in the end very little of them can compare to AAA titles, based on story alone. With other features factored in, it makes sense why indie’s are priced way below $60.

As you stated, many AAA titles rest on cliche and it’s pretty obvious why, Risk / Reward. Why risk ruining an entire series worth of investment over something that is considered in many titles to be secondary? When a game dev is running through a list of must haves, story is often overshadowed by the daunting amount of work the other parts of the game require.

Comparing this to movie studios, the focus is entirely different. Movies require a story and in fact, a movie is a story. Games do not and may not even need any narrative elements. Another factor is the interactivity of games. In games, story is often created by the player. Sure there are plenty of story driven titles out there but twice as many are decided by the player.

In the end, one can deduce that game series play it safe for a multitude of factors. These includes things that interactive content, like games, have always lended themselves to since they first began. greed, addiction, and replayability. Basicly the 3 crutches of any hardcore gamer, and why gaming series like call of duty have become so strong. It should be easy to see why many game studios don’t care that much about story, story doesn’t have as much of those 3 core elements as implementing more content or a system that can do it better. Drawing an example from an MMO, the average active guild wars 2 player plays on average for about 3 hours a day(not a hardcore guy). Compare this to the value of any indie and it will quickly show why indies are called indies and where dev. money is going to in modern games.