It Was The Best Of Times, It Was The Worst Of Times: Thoughts On Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag

I hated Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag.Well, maybe hate is too strong a word. I really love that game.

Yeah, I’m confused, too.

Let me start over.

I’ve never had any great love for the Assassin’s Creed franchise.  Its slickness and grandiose scale of subject matters and historical novelty were always overshadowed by a tendency toward glitches and tedious collectibles (in the earliest games, anyhow).  But Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag changed everything.  It changed everything because pirates.



I’ve always loved pirates and nautical culture.  It’s been a big piece of nerdery for me since I was very young. Arranging songs for an a capella sea shanty group level of nerdery, people–I’m not screwing with you. The Monkey Island series and Sid Meier’s Pirates! were big parts of my personal gaming zeitgeist, so the notion of boarding frigates and cutting throats once again was instantly appealing.

And what a beautiful heap of garbage it was.  Assassin’s Creed 4 was Lindsay Lohan a few months into the downhill freefall that would lead to the powder-lined smut store that would serve as her life. A damn mess, to be sure, but still sexy enough to give erections to both young and old.

Sure, there were an alarming amount of glitches and graphical errors, but you can form a fleet of ships with various trade routes.  And yes, the storyline is clumsily written, but historical pirates like Blackbeard and Stede Bonnet are just as you’ve read them described and it’s blissfully fun to see them interact.  And sure, the pointless modern storyline keeps yanking you out of the moment of being a badass swashbuckling pirate, but you get to be a badass swashbuckling pirate!

I toyed with the idea of holding up AC4: Black Flag to Sid Meier’s Pirates! in order to see which was the superior game, but that truly isn’t fair.  Pirates! was epic and outstanding for the time that it was released, but even with all of AC4‘s flaws, it’s impossible to compare the two.

"You'd better watch your damn mouth, son."

“You’d better watch your damn mouth, son.”

But what I will say is this: at least Pirates! knows what it is, and delivers.  The little storyline it offers is simple and to the point.  Rescue your family (or don’t) while becoming the greatest pirate to sail the Caribbean.  There’s no meaningless subplots about vast, worldwide conspiracies that reach into the present day.  I can’t tell you how much I loathed interrupting my high seas fun to hack computers in modern times.  I’m sorry–when it comes down to a choice between ploughing the spiteful sea and playing frustrating mini games, I’m going to go with the former. I have never cared about the modern-day animus aspect of the Assassin’s Creed franchise.  It feels completely pointless to me. When you have something like an age-old war between Assassins and Templars to tie all the different games, historic periods, and plotlines together, there’s no point in interrupting all the joys of being a dangerous vigilante with modern day talk, talk, talk, talk, talk.

And to make things worse, several pieces of the plotline make zero sense. While AC4 paints a beautiful picture when it comes to historical villains like Calico Jack and Blackbeard, their own creations seem like idiots.  The breaking point came for me during a mission that saw me infiltrating and murdering my way through an island filled with assassins.  I’m going to say that again:

I killed an island full of assassins.

The very organization that this franchise has spent years telling us are the most unbelievable badasses in history got consistently duped and stabbed using their own methods.  I whistled, they would half-heartedly dig through the underbrush, literally shrug, and then give up just long enough for me to turn their neck into a flute. These are the shadows of the night that are going to save the world? The same guys who were killed en masse by a pirate with no training?

"Anyone else notice the massive ship off the coast of our secret island?  The one bristling with heavily armed pirates?" "Meh--it's probably fine."

“Anyone else notice the massive ship off the coast of our secret island? The one bristling with heavily armed pirates?”
“Meh–it’s probably fine.”

It really does speak volumes about this installment of Assassin’s Creed that it’s still a fantastic game.  It’s just damn fun, regardless of its incompetent protagonists and an ending torn straight from the final pages of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The combat and variety of weapons are engaging and creative. The graphics are beautiful when they aren’t bugging out (I played the Xbox 360 version, and have heard from several sources that these same issues weren’t as ever-present in next-gen systems).  Harpooning sharks and whales, diving for sunken treasure–even the countless collectibles manage to be enjoyable rather than laborious.

So in the end, it was my desire to see this entry in the franchise done justice that gave me such mixed emotions about it.  It was the maturity of a person who has decided that even their one night stands need to be somewhat interesting to talk to.  Because when the joy of the throat slashing and the cannon-firing is over, it’s just so much better if it was all for something meaningful.  And by the end of Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag, I was certain I didn’t give two damns about the war between the Assassins and the Templars.  But I was certain that I’d be playing again, very soon.

Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag was released in 2013 for PC, Xbox 360, PS3, Xbox One, and PS4.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s