2. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag
So this should have been an easy sell for me, but after Assassin’s Creed III introduced me to the most boring Assassin ever and botched Desmond’s present day plotline in the most egregious way possible, I was about ready to ditch my favorite game franchise. Black Flag’s announcement was the second time I ever blogged about Assassin’s Creed and also the second time I thought of ditching it, but even back then I noted how the pirate setting instantly piqued my interest.
The naval combat in ACIII, while arguably pointless, was also arguably the best feature in the game. The controls were magnificent, making the player really feel like they were steering an 18th Century brig and firing broadsides at enemy vessels. By making that the focus of the game and turning your ship into a mobile version of ACII’s upgradable villa, Ubisoft completely redefined the game and for the first time in a long while, Assassin’s Creed was fresh and exciting again.
This was also the first title to come to next gen consoles, and the already impressive water and lighting effects from ACIII looked even grander here. Engaging in naval battles in the midst of a thunderstorm was a true delight. Other than Unity, this is the best-looking game in the franchise, and the lush jungles of the Caribbean were all-around more visually interesting than the drear Northeastern forests of ACIII. The American Revolution is a fascinating moment in history, but it isn’t exactly interesting visually. Blackbeard yelling angrily from the bow of the Queen Anne’s Revenge as seafoam hits the bow and the hot Caribbean sun beats down is visually interesting, and it made the difference for me. In ACIII, I missed climbing tall buildings and wasn’t that into jumping around on tree branches. But when said tree branches are part of a big, green jungle, and I had to get there by scaling a two-hundred foot cliff face on a remote island, well that definitely got my heart racing in a way ACIII never could.
What kept me hooked on Black Flag even after I beat the main story was completionism, and though all AC games encourage the player to reach 100%, no game ever made it feel as satisfying. There is a sense of wonder to Black Flag as you sail the Caribbean and explore island after island. Finding all of an island’s secrets and hearing the congratulatory chime never got old.
At this point, I had given up on the story. There was no way Ubisoft could rebound from ACIII, so I decided to Stop Worrying and Love the Assassins. For the first half of Black Flag, it looked like Ubi might have learned from their past narrative mistakes. After ACIII I felt the best course of action was to abandon the First Civilization plot and just tell random one-off stories about Templars and Assassins fighting throughout history. This is where Black Flag seemed to be going at first. Though he is Haytham’s father and Connor’s grandfather, Edward Kenway begins the game as just some pirate, and in the opening missions hunts down and kills a turncoat Assassin. When he dons his robes Edward takes one glance at the hidden blade, then tosses it aside.
This was my favorite moment in the game, story-wise. It was like Ubisoft was just saying, “fuck this Assassin shit. This is a history franchise now.” Edward is just a pirate who happens to be wearing an Assassin’s cloak, and for the first six hours or so, he’s mostly just helping out his pirate buddies in their struggle with the English Navy. Then another First Civilization MacGuffin enters play and in the final act Edward randomly decides he wants to be a good guy because… they killed Blackbeard, I guess? His motivation isn’t clear. In the end it just turns into yet another contrived revenge quest. When Edward delivers the killing blow to Templar Bad Guy Numero Uno, he says “take solace knowing that you turned this brigand into a soldier.”
Which is really, really dumb, because at this point Edward only has a few years to live. You see, any AC fan with a working knowledge of the mythos could tell you that Edward Kenway is killed by Templar assassins in the 1730s, making his victorious turn to hero more or less void of triumph, as the audience knows he is doomed. The game even has a post-credits tag showing Edward with young Haytham on the day Edward gets killed. It was weird and morbid and I didn’t get it. I would have much preferred a story about some badass pirate who just keeps pirating than an asshole who decided stabbing people with hidden blades was the moral high ground.
Fortunately, the game’s single DLC expansion, Freedom Cry, is a much superior story, almost a return to form, with a plot that harkens back to the first three games. In it you play as Edward’s First Mate Adewale, a freed slave who joined the Assassins way before Edward because, you know, he’s not a dick and actually cares about the Creed. Adewale is stranded on Haiti while pursuing a Templar target and gets embroiled in the struggle of the local slave population. Slavery is a touchy subject and Ubisoft could very well have handled it poorly, but I think they approached it with grace. Not all might agree—some of the gameplay involves you rescuing escaped slaves from pursuing overseers and boarding slave ships to free their captives. Many would say any game about slavery is insensitive as slavery isn’t a game, but I was genuinely touched many a time during Freedom Cry’s story.
I will say that despite the sloppy writing of the main game’s story, I did get a kick out of the bonkers present day plot. I already wrote about this with Rogue, which is basically a direct sequel to Black Flag, but I wanted to reiterate just how amazingly hilarious it all is. With Desmond dead you play as a silent Gordon Freeman-esque protagonist who works at Abstergo Entertainment, which has partnered with Ubisoft to turn Animus memories into videogames. Two of the main characters are just Ubisoft execs, and it’s implied that the company is complicit in the Templars’ schemes. I just find it amazingly self-aware that considering all the bad press Ubi has garnered in the past few years, they would have a chuckle about it and just cast themselves as the bad guys in their most popular franchise.
Looking back, I think most AC fans would agree that Unity was the wrong direction to go after Black Flag. If there was ever a time to abandon the Assassins vs. Templars pretext and just make historical action games, this was the time. Ubisoft even asked in player surveys whether fans would be interested in a non-AC pirate franchise. I certainly would have, but instead we got Rogue, which while not a bad game, wasn’t really the direct sequel Black Flag deserved.