Friday, June 27, 2014

Pirate Love: Assassin's Creed gets it's groove back with Black Flag

I don't know how much this has come across – though I guess a fair amount considering the amount of articles I've wrote about how bad Assassin's Creed became – but I lost my love of that franchise. It wasn't like Halo where the fire slowly dwindled as things evolved in a way that didn't quite work for me and now only embers remain, to occasionally flare up when we bump into each other in the right circumstances. This was outright hatred of what it became. Like a girlfriend who,

after being fantastic in bed, started doing weird shit you just can't understand or appreciate, and no matter what you say she insists they're fun and you like them, and you can't get back to what you like. You're not against new things, but she just seems to be doing stuff for the sake of it. You just can't seem to work out how remote control airplanes can be used in the bedroom. The relationship just deteriorates as you both want something different between the sheets.

That was me after Revelations and AC3. Ubisoft had tried to add so many weird systems on top of the fantastic gameplay I'd enjoyed with AC's 1 and 2 I just got angry. I was ready to call it off. I actually ignored the franchise until I was handed a copy of Liberation to review. It was a return to the old days, the sex was fantastic with a couple of new touches that really worked. There was already a call to continue to the relationship with Black Flag, but I wasn't sure I could commit again.

Finally I have. And I'm back in love with Assassin's Creed. To get back to that metaphor I'm pretty sure I've already taken way too far, somewhere in the middle of all this horrendous sex she tried something completely different and new and it was fantastic. But there wasn't enough of it and never quite fitted in with what your normal night. You quickly forgot it as she tried to get you to run an entire village – the metaphor got away from me for a second, and honestly, that entire bit of AC3 was awful, whoever it was in Ubisoft that decided being an Assassin involved founding a community needs fired.

Anyway, that little detail was the ships. The sailing across the ocean was one of the few highlights of AC3, but as I said before, it was disconnected from the rest of the game. Boarding your ship meant speaking to a guy, then a loading screen and suddenly you're on the open seas. Thankfully a team within Ubisoft managed to integrate it properly and you can go from running on rooftops to running onto the deck of the Jackdaw and riding the ocean waves, all without a single break.

Sailing the oceans is possibly the most enjoyable form of travelling I've ever had in a game. It's not just the sea shanties – which sound like they'd annoy you, but actually add a lot – but everything. Ubisoft really spent a lot of time turning this into a proper, ever changing environment. The shifting weather is a big part of it, when you're suddenly knocked out of smooth sailing because heavy winds have picked up, you're constantly fighting with the wheel, and it feels like you are actually fighting the wind, there's the twisters you have to avoid despite the ship pulling towards them. Getting the ship turned into a rogue wave before it smacks your hull to bits and takes a few crew with it.

But there's still more to the sea. The busy shipping lanes, which you can raid at your own behest. Heading into restricted waters and scouting along the edge of vision brings back old Metal Gear Solid memories. There's a few decent side quests along the way. There's even whaling, which seems odd, but it histroically accurate. I felt absolutely disgusted the first time I threw spear after spear into a shark, a blood river trailing behind as the fish tried to escape. I only did it for the upgrades, after that I stopped. Which I guess still makes me pretty terrible. But it sunk home how awful this act actually is. I've always known whaling wasn't good, but this shit is fucking barbaric.

The game offers fast travel to hit your next destination, but I don't think I used it once. The act of sailing the Jackdaw is so fun that I'd rather sail from one end of the map to the other if that's where I have to go.

It's not just the high seas where all the fun is, but the standard milling around town, running on rooftops and stabbing people is a lot more fun than it has been for a few games. It took me awhile to realise but it's because it's gone back to basics. Even notoriety is gone. Which is great. Let's face it, it was a pretty artificial system anyway, and removes the pointless grind of keeping at it's lowest by bribing people and ripping down posters the minute we got a silver of read. Because that's what we all did anyway.

One of the bugbears of the franchise, tailing, is made easier by someone finally making eagle vision useful. Not what I had in mind with the ability to see climbable paths, but the incredibly useful ability to tag enemies. So instead of having to keep stupidly close and the issue of the tailee going round corners causing huge problems, now you just have to keep in an area with them because anyone tagged with eagle vision can be seen through walls. Tailing still isn't the best, but it's a damn sight better than it ever was.

Oh and there aren't that many guards on roofs anymore, meaning the whole point of the Assassins running along roofs finally makes sense again. I mean the whole point Altair ran along those tiles was to avoid guards, yet someone forgot that, and it had reached the point in the series that the roofs were far more trouble then they're worth.

Ubisoft also have a decent excuse and setting for Edward being so heavily armed, but more than that, they not only do anything as ridiculous as Connor's bow. It was my biggest complaint of the series as it got further away from Altair and the Crusades. Ezio stood out a little, but Connor's clothes made him stand out a mile as the only person in a hood, and an arsenal strapped to his back. Edward as a pirate, and the setting of the piratical Caribbean makes his weaponry blend in, and he only pulls the hood up when he's entering restricted areas where the hood does its job of hiding his identity instead of drawing attention if he had it up in the street. On top of all that, for one mission Kenway is tasked with infiltrating a party, and you have to cope with just his wrist blades. Actual infiltration. Why has a game about assassin's forgotten this simple idea?

In conclusion, one of the reasons Black Flag is so good compared to the last couple of main entries to the series is that it jettisons so many of the pointless ancillary systems they introduced, just like Liberation before it. Combined with the open sea, and just how much fun there is to be had as Captain of the Jackdaw and this is one of the best Assassin's Creed games in a while, if not the whole series.

I really need to stop describing my relationship with game franchises like actual relationships though...

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