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.