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Assassin’s Creed fans probably all know that with another year comes another Assassin’s Creed game, and that trend certainly won’t change with 2013. After this week’s unveiling of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag by Ubisoft, however, there may be quite a lot more to the franchise’s latest entry than meets the eye. Decked out with cut-throat buccaneers, epic sea battles, fancy ladies, guns, whaling, beautiful tropics, and more guns, Assassin’s Creed’s latest pirate themed entry has already been met with a divisive welcome by fans to say the least. While I agree with many people’s complaints and concerns about this drastic departure from much of the series’s roots, I hardly think it fair to dismiss Black Flag right away. Take a voyage down south with me as I take my best look at the top ten good, bad, not so bad, not so good, and just plain odd aspects of Black Flag’s announcement.
Play this in the back-round while you read to get you in the mood.
1. The Good: The New Setting
Assassin’s Creed has always been known for its rich, historical locales and exotic open-world environments, and Black Flag is already looking to match that trend. Filled with literally dozens of uncharted islands to explore, port towns to pillage, and real-life pirate figures to interact with, the Caribbean may prove to be an ideal place for the Assassins to roam. Though a part of me is disappointed that the series chose not to return to Europe or take the bold step in going to another hemisphere, to me, the lush tropics of Black Flag look more than impressive. Assassin’s Creed III, for all of its genuine beauty, pretty much looked the same, either from town to town, or its forests. Not only does Black Flag have a chance to change up its levels with a more varied terrain, its jungle and sea sections have plenty of awesome opportunities for assassin stealth attacks and even unearthing some buried pirate treasure. The further evolution of wildlife, including the reported whaling segments, might make the world seem even more alive. After Far Cry 3’s more than successful tropical sandbox world, maybe Ubisoft has gotten a new talent for crafting the perfect island game.
2. The Not So Good: Just a Few Too Many Guns?
From the very onset of its trailer, one of the more disheartening aspects of Black Flag’s debut trailer was its heavy use of guns, and a lot of them. Since Assassin’s Creed III’s heavy reliance on them, fans have voiced their disapproval of the series’s near abandonment on a stealth focus for its games’ combat system, and I would agree with them. If our pirate protagonist is going to be lugging around 3,4, maybe 5 guns at a time in battle, there seems to be no point to the careful, calculating nature of the Assassin order when your gunning down everyone in a few seconds. The whole “working in the shadows” tactics of early Assassin characters was what made me fall in love with the series’s unique gameplay and, alas, Black Flag’s pure action focus only seems to be taking away from what made the series great. No doubt gun gameplay is simply easier for Ubisoft to develop on a time-sensitive schedule as well as more realistic for the era it’s set in, but fixing what wasn’t broken is an unfortunate mistake. Such erratic changes are nonetheless disruptive to a loyal fan-base that appreciated what already worked.
3. The Great: Expanding The Naval Scene
The minute that Assassin’s Creed III introduced naval combat, we could pretty much figure that it was here to stay, and in the case of Black Flag, it’s coming back in a big way. According to Ubisoft’s interviews, players will no longer have to endure repetitive cutscenes of the same old boarding cutscenes in taking a ship or resort to mere cannon-fire to take on out. In contrast to its beginnings, ship-to-ship combat will now allow players to finally either take a ship or destroy it by nearly any means they choose, whether by reeling it in with harpoons or freely ramming it full speed. On top of that, ships battles can be affected by a more complex weather system throughout the game, changing up how you fight as waves get bigger and the winds get stronger. In addition, the ships themselves serve as your primary transportation. Sailing won’t just be limited to specific levels: you can sail when you want wherever you want akin to The Legend of Zelda’s Windwaker game and explore at will. I can say that Assassin’s Creed III’s naval combat was one of the series’s best new features and if Ubisoft succeeds in revamping it in the fresh new way it intends, sailing the high seas will be a blast that warrants a purchase.
4. The Not So Bad: Commanding Your Own Pirate Crew
As you play a ruthless pirate captain, it should be no surprise that you have a loyal crew at your side to aid in your misdeeds across the fair waters. There hasn’t been much comment from Ubisoft on how deep of a part your crew will play in the actual gameplay itself, but considering Assassin’s Creed’s traditional recruitment system, there’s no reason why your fellow buccaneers can’t be your new Brotherhood. Ezio’s good old days in Rome had you recruiting allies and sending them out as new assassins into battle alongside you. Pirate buddies could make just as ideal allies for ordering around in sailing your ship or assisting you in a scrap with Templars. True, surly pirate attitudes are most likely going to make for less bonding with your sidekicks, but creating mayhem across the sea with a bunch of buddies in a multiplayer segment could sure be a heck of a lot of fun.
5. The Okay: Your New Character
Perhaps the most interesting part of Black Flag is its rather quick introduction to a new protagonist: pirate captain Edward Kenway. It’s quite unusual for the franchise to reveal the identity of its lead character so soon into its games’ announcements, but it’s looking like this latest Assassin’s Creed is particularly important to the story revolving around AC III. From Ubisoft’s description, Edward Kenway is indeed the father of Haytham Kenway and the grandfather of Connor Kenway, searching for fortune and glory around 1713 by the time of Black Flag. A rogue and a generally more self-centered character, Edward is somehow tied into the Assassin Order and apparently has a family back home in England during the events of AC IV. As another bit of intrigue, according to tie-in fiction to AC III, Haytham grew up an orphan, so it’s already look’in like Edward didn’t find his happy ending with his family. On one hand, the prospect of a grouchy, vain character could be yet another lack-luster leading man with little likability. On the other, the potential for a trash-talking, gun toting bad-ass may be quite high, being greatly entertaining and perhaps giving us another engaging perspective on the Assassin/Templar conflict. As much as the cheap pirate eye-shadow and an possibly over edgy personality doesn’t interest me, I would like to give Ed the benefit of the doubt and hope that another engaging protagonist in the lines of Ezio could resurrect the series declining story-telling.
6. The Good: Deeper Interaction with Historical Characters
For me, one of the biggest disappointments with Assassin’s Creed III was its imperfect attempts at story-telling. Despite having the entire cast of American colonial history at its disposal, it often seemed to skip over countless opportunities, whether in capturing the realism of its characters or in portraying its historical events. Remember Ben Franklin’s “mistress musings” in the general store, or George Washington just sitting around playing bocce ball, or where Thomas Jefferson was? This very annoyance is what I hope Black Flag corrects, and from what Ubisoft has hinted at, it might be very well true this year. Edward Kenway won’t be sailing alone, as developers say that real figures such as Calico Jack, famed pirate captain Black Beard(a.k.a Edward Teach, pictured above), and woman pirate Ann Bonnie. As some of the era's greatest pirate legends, they're all more than relevant to Black Flag's environment and could have some cool secrets to add to the universe. Were any of them Assassins? Or maybe Templars? Including them in a meaningful role alongside Mr. Kenway, and not just randomly sticking them in the same world, could give the game the same kind of historical legitimacy that Assassin's Creed II had with Leonardo Da Vicni and Lorenzo Medicci. Having an ale with Black Beard?! Sign me up.
7. The Bad: The Present Day Gets Even More Confusing (Corrected)
Out of all Assassin’s Creed’s storytelling abilities, the worst by far has been the present-day segments, and the whole Animus element in particular. Don’t get me wrong, the series’s fundamental concept of experiencing the genetic memories of modern day people’s Assassin ancestors is a terrific idea, but watching such stories unfold with protagonists like Desmond Miles brought it down a notch. Besides that, the sheer complexities of the convoluted windings and weaving of the Assassin/Templar plot gradually evolved into utter gibberish as E.T.s, techno Edens, and convenient comas filled the story to bursting. The good news is that Desmond’s bland part in the franchise has hopefully come to an end (as far as we know). The bad news is that without a present-day character sitting in the animus and that’s probably much greater in the long run. The entire purpose of the series’s historical stories are supposed to be possible with some modern guy or gal’s DNA plugged into the Animus to experience memories and without it, what’s left? As far as Ubisoft’s concerned, an unnamed Abstergo Industries analyst (the actual player) is going to be reliving the Miles family history through some sort of continuing Templar scheme implied towards the ending of AC III. Put in Nolan North as the character’s voice and there you have it, the same oddities all over again.
8. The Mandatory: Addressing Glitches
As people continue to be infuriated with Sim City’s technical failings this week, the most important issue that Black Flag can ever address and solve is the series’s noteworthy glitches. Assassin’s Creed III’s greatest obstacle at launch was undoubtedly its share of frustrating to debilitating glitches at launch, covering everything from invisible tools to disappearing mission objectives. Although the appropriate game patches followed to allow for a much more tolerable experience, such setbacks were nothing but frustrating for first day players and probably affected overall review scores as well. With Black Flag coming to next-gen consoles, most likely as a launch title, Ubisoft certainly can’t afford to make another technical goof if they want to help sell a new system, or especially their own game copies. As long as Ubisoft continues their annual release cycle, they need to know that even a rush-job can manage to be a quality job. If they can do that, then Black Flag will at least make it onto my shelf.
9. The Expected: Assassin’s Creed’s Step to the Next-Gen
If there’s one thing that Black Flag’s trailer made clear in its marketing, it’s that Assassin’s Creed is very intent on making the leap towards the next-gen with most other series. Higher-res graphics, better horsepower, and new ways to play will no doubt all benefit Black Flag for the better, but the best thing it can do is give Sony fans a reason to buy the new consoles at all. Following Sony’s event, there’s still not a lot of titles on the horizon so far for next-gen systems, so a loyal base of fans like Assassin’s Creed may draw more than a few into having an excuse to buy systems like the PS4 at all. I suppose it’s one of the most elementary of tactics that Assassin’s Creed is obligated to make and for the sake of both Black Flag and the near-future of game consoles, I hope it works out.
10. The Not So Bad: Not Leaving Out Current-Gen Players
What Black Flag’s trailer also made clear is that it’ll also be on just about every other console system besides next-gen, and that includes joyful news for every PS3, 360, and Wii U owner out there. Having both a PS3 and a Wii U in my possession, I’m as pleased as anyone that I’m going to be given a wide variety of choices on how to play Black Flag and particularly relieved that the game alone will not coerce me into buying an entire console just to play it. While I still don’t know how inventive or costly the PS4 or next X-Box system will be, I like the fact that Black Flag is trying to be available to all players and not a gross supporter of any specific system. People may complain about the lack of high-def graphics and “new player experiences” that old systems offer, but honestly, what current-gen offers is still satisfactory, even for what Black Flag has in it. Assassin’s Creed III was only a year ago and, in my opinion, looked fine on either the Wii U or its rivals. Regardless, though, the heart and soul of the game will be based upon what Ubisoft’s own touches to its gameplay and story are. Aside from some neat tricks with the Wii U’s gamepad, there probably won’t be many critical differences between Black Flag’s versions and I’m fine with that. Depending on how next-gen sells, Ubisoft will certainly make a lot more money on Black Flag for their decision while still taking a measured step into gaming’s next generation.
The Dumb Stuff: The Title
If nothing else, “Black Flag” is probably one of the blandest titles the series has had. “Revelations” sure did mean much of anything to its games, but Captain Obvious must’ve come up with this one. Yes, there are indeed flags, some of them black colored. What next? I’m already making a call for Assassin’s Creed V: Hooded Person.
What Will Be Will Just Be
No matter how much analyzing, speculating, and hoping a fan can muster, the ultimate fate of any franchise is that the company’s pretty much gonna do whatever the heck it wants to. I guess that’s just the price of loving a series too much, because change is the only certainty in the gaming biz. I probably liked Assassin’s Creed III more than a lot of folks did, so I expect that I’ll at least give this next one a shot when it’s released. I have every hope that it could make a lot of changes for the better. True, it may be inevitably different, with some things maybe not to my liking, but there's not doubt about it that Assassin's Creeds have usually be fun, and I'm counting on it still being that way. Here’s to Assassins matey!