The Amazing & Astonishing RPS Advent Calendar: Day 8

By RPS on December 8th, 2013 at 10:00 am.

Way hay and up we rises, way hay and up we rises, too damned early in the morning for our liking.

It’s Assassin’s Creed Arbitrary Numbering: Black Flag!

Alec:

I’m a little bit word-dry on this after two features on it already this month, but yeah, I’m still secretly playing it at all the times I shouldn’t be. Yeah, I still feel guilty about it. It’s proving so hard to tire of Black Flag’s oceanic sandbox, though – even though I’ve now bought most of the available upgrades for my ship, there’s a powerful lure to simply sailing the deadlier southern seas and hunting down every English or Spanish sail in sight, to be the terror of the Caribbean just because I can.

Right now my goal is not the last third of the campaign that I’ve not done yet, because I couldn’t care less about ancestor races or Kenway’s ex or the skinny bloke who from the moment of his/her first appearance was comically obviously a woman in a disguise. It’s to take down the Legendary Ships which lurk in the furthest corners of the map, those gigantic vessels of destruction that, unusually for this oceanic opus of fantasy-fulfilment, offer an extremely stiff challenge. Finally, a true test of what I laughably call my ability! Which is why I have, as yet, only been able to take down one of them.

Which presents me with these options a) practice b) give up c) go diving to find the last few Elite Plans in order to upgrade my ship to the max.

I have chosen c, because it’s an excuse to keep playing, and because I’m going to rename my ship from The Jackdaw to THE MAXDAW once I’ve done it. Also the diving sections, which I haven’t written about yet, involve avoiding sharks by hiding in clumps of underwater seaweed, which is so supremely ridiculous even by this supremely ridiculous series’ supremely ridiculous standards that I can’t help but admire it.

I’m Black Flag will prove simply a one-off piractical diversion for the Asscreed series, which on the one hand is a shame, as I’m not sure there’s any way to truly refresh climbing up buildings so I’m hardly anticipating more of that, but on the other means the concept won’t be flogged to death.

That said, I really wouldn’t mind if Black Flag became its own spin-off series, continuing the Sid Meier’s Pirates! legacy it already owes such a debt to, doing more with the trading and the fleets and the land invasion. Despite its tiresome adherence to Gotta Catch ‘em All, The Infinite Tutorial Of Doom and Videogaming’s Most Unnecessary Meta-Narrative, Black Flag feels like the AC’s teams creative cylinders flaring into life again after two games defined by their fearfulness, and I do hope they’re given an avenue to continue down rather than pressed back into service at the parkour mines.

Adam: At the beginning of the year, I’d have bet a dead man’s chest of Pieces of Eight against the possibility of an Assassin’s Creed game appearing in our mighty Advent Calendar. Even if one were to appear, I’d have bet significantly greater sums against the possibility of my own words appearing in the entry. And yet, here we are. I almost missed out on Black Flag, having skipped the revolutions of the previous AssCreed, and becoming jaded when faced with the increasing bulk and bumf of Ezio and Desmond’s adventures.

Salvation (AssSalve?) didn’t seem likely but when pirates and shark-punching unexpectedly enlivened some of its fourteen thousand trailers, Black Flag captured my attention. I felt like a sucker. If a tedious acquaintance wore a funny hat, glued a parrot to his shoulder and walked around saying ‘ARRRRRRR’ on Talk Like A Pirate Day, I’d make sure he required a peg leg to complete the outfit by the end of the day. More than a change of costume was necessary if the series was to redeem itself.

The piratical theme is more than a new set of duds. The swashbuckling, daredevil nature of scurvy seadogs lends itself to Creed’s free-running. It makes a certain sense, cinema-trained, to see a pirate clambering up a ship’s rigging or across the crumbling side of a sea fort. The exaggerated agility and stamina of its protagonists is a core part of the series, but it has been jarring at times in the past, making the assassins seem like a conspicuous clique of superhumans rather than a secretive and subtle society. I’m fairly sure that a robed figure scuttling across rooftops or leaping from church towers would have attracted quite a bit of attention in Renaissance Venice, particularly if he had fifty guards in tow and a sack full of feathers on his back.

In the deliriously divided colonies and on the lawless seas of the Caribbean, the assassins’ garb and piratical parkour don’t seem out of place. Every other person is a little unhinged and feats of derring-do and lunatic bravery are par for the course. After a mercifully short and scripted opening setup, the game encourages the player to explore both land and sea, and there is hardly a quiet moment. For the first time, the series has found a character and setting that not only fit the ambition of those first crowd scenes and urban acrobatics, but has discovered the right balance of freedom and control.

There’s a lot of Far Cry 3 in Black Flag and there’s an argument to be made that this is the future model for Ubisoft open world games. That would be a shame. Brilliant as Black Flag is, the template works because the individual pieces placed within it are well-crafted, not because the structure itself is flawless. There are still frustrating story missions, particularly those that encourage stealth in an engine that seems oddly ill-suited to it and combat doesn’t have the fluidity of the Arkham series, despite its similar crowd-control functionality. It’s a huge theme park of a world, with attractions of all types, and some of those attractions are more attractive than others.

Thankfully, the game recognises that not everybody wants to do everything and ensures that a variety of activities are available at all times. Almost every one of those activities involves more than simply walking to a point on the map as well – even simple tasks, such as collecting sea shanties, involve a chase, as the music is carried away by teasing breezes. Very early in the game, I learned to identify the icons that interested me at any given time, which is a useful skill considering how cluttered the map becomes. Like Alec, I’ve become distracted from Kenway’s story and I could write down everything that I find interesting about the Templars on a mosquito’s willy. And yet I still know that this is one of the few open world games that I’ll be returning to until I’m close to 100% completion.

It’s a pleasure to spend time in a world made up of so many luxurious blues and greens, and the cast of characters are an enjoyable crew as well, on the whole. Even the future scenes are amusing in places, although that may be purely because I’ve come to think of them as a weird parody of triple-A game development. Black Flag stands alone from previous Creed games but also manages to restore the series to its previous high points. I think it’s the best one yet and it’s also the closest thing to a modern, glamorous remake of Pirates! that we’re likely to see.

What a delight it is to be so pleasantly surprised by a game that I expected to be stale and stodgy. Also, in a year that has been mostly about indie for me, it’s a relief to see that Ubisoft, one of the juggernauts of the development seas, can turn its ship around before it founders completely. Black Flag is a lavish blockbuster, cleverly designed and consistently engaging, and it’s hard to imagine such a behemoth emerging from many other studios. In this year of several big budget and big name disappointments, Black Flag is a bracing and timely reminder that big can be beautiful.

Back to the Calendar!

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36 Comments »

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  1. Snargelfargen says:

    “Also the diving sections, which I haven’t written about yet, involve avoiding sharks by hiding in clumps of underwater seaweed, which is so supremely ridiculous even by this supremely ridiculous series’ supremely ridiculous standards that I can’t help but admire it.”

    Asscreed has finally jumped the shark.

    A proper assassin would just blend into a school of monkfish.

  2. The Dark One says:

    I’m Black Flag will prove simply a one-off piractical diversion for the Asscreed series

    Alec ‘Black Flag’ Meer will prove it!

  3. Ich Will says:

    I predict that this coming year, or the one after will be year of the pirate, where every dev feels the need to make a bad pirate game.

  4. Juan Carlo says:

    Ubi needs to make AssSalv a reality. It’d go great with AssBro (or “Ass, bro” as I like to think of it as it makes it seem like you are offering ass to a friend of yours that way, “Ass, Bro?”), AssRev, and AssBlack.

  5. Premium User Badge

    daphne says:

    Yeah, I still feel guilty about it.
    Dude, why. Why can’t you just enjoy a good game for what it is (though it seems that you do, heh)? Also, you guys did call Far Cry 3 the 24th game last year.

    • The Random One says:

      Yeah. I mean, AssCreed may be repetitive, stale and far deep into its own navel, but at least it’s not hateful, fanatical or alienating. There’s nothing wrong with liking a few AAA titles.

  6. realitysconcierge says:

    Today would have been the best day for the Stanley parable :-P

  7. airtekh says:

    Hurrah, AC4 made the calendar!

    One of the most purely fun games I’ve played this year. Captaining a pirate ship feels really cool, and the ship battles are fantastic. Every time I booted it up I wanted to do something different, like exploring some islands, attacking a fort or diving for underwater treasure. Awesome.

    • Premium User Badge

      Snidesworth says:

      I had the same experience. Spent about 10 days totally entrenched in it, the vast majority of that time spent on side activities. They’ve made a rather lovely sandbox, though there are a few dodgy bits (diving section + sharks = no fun).

  8. Low Life says:

    It would seem that Ubisoft is, at least on some level, considering spinning the pirate stuff into its own franchise: http://www.ign.com/articles/2013/12/06/ubisoft-surveying-fans-on-assassins-creed-5-pvp-naval-combat

    I would be much more willing to give this a try if it didn’t have anything to do with AC, as I’ve never found the series fun to play. I mean, they’re games about assassins and the assassinations are the worst part in them – though I guess this one doesn’t focus on that stuff too much.

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      Snidesworth says:

      I’m not sure if it can sustain a franchise but Pirates! with fancy gameplay and graphics would be most rad. Divorcing it from the AC series would let them deviate from some of the series’ kludgey mechanics too. The social stealth system really didn’t fit AC4, especially given most of the sneaky bits were based around hiding in shrubbery or behind walls rather than blending with crowds.

  9. Turkey says:

    Hmm. I might check it out if the sci-fi meta-fiction isn’t too intrusive and gross. None of the reviews have mentioned it too much, so I’m guessing it’s mostly just historical fiction in this one?

    • airtekh says:

      The sci-fi stuff is minimal at best, and there’s much less of it than in the previous AC games.

      You get yoinked out of the pirate experience once every few hours, but it only lasts a couple of minutes and then you’re back to roaming the high seas.

  10. Universal Quitter says:

    Now that it’s been brought up, when are we going to get that Pirates sequel? And will they somehow eff it up?

  11. phenom_x8 says:

    In my Awesome-o-meter AC1>AC4>AC2 (never played Brotherhood though)

    AC1 was my favorite due to the era its took (during crusade) and the location (especially Jerussalem, as a muslim myself, being able to visit and exploring Al Aqsha and Dome of Rock virtually are the most ecstatic experience I have ever done)
    AC4 are my 2nd favorite because of for the 1st time in AC theres possiblity of being the real assasin which means killing target without much exposition from the crowd (I’m barely can’t remember of killing my target in AC1 and AC2 without being chased by the guards in the ends) thanks to its now “working” stealth system (hiding in bush, behind the corner of the wall,on a top of the tree,etc) that also allows me to choose not to kill every guards by using melee option. And last but not least, it’s awesome piratey parts.

  12. malkav11 says:

    I get so tired of people complaining about the metanarrative. Yes, it would have been possible for Ubisoft to make a series of historical games without it, they might even have been fun and sold well, conceivably, but they would have looked very different than the Assassin’s Creed franchise we have now, and removing the metanarrative from the games we actually have would make them dramatically -less- interesting (at least from a story perspective), not more so. The places the story is interesting and full of crazy freewheeling ideas and hidden secrets and cool little reveals and fictional beats? Those are consistently metanarrative elements. The bits where I guess you’re this guy that stabs people and he theoretically has a personality and a life but the game pays maybe 30 seconds of attention to any given bit of them? Those are the historical bits. (Or at least, that’s been my experience with the first three games. I guess in theory III or IV might change that but I strongly suspect they do not.)

    • kwyjibo says:

      People complain about the meta-narrative because it was a cynical appendage just to set up a sequel.

      Assassins in the middle of a medieval holy war? You can’t come up with a compelling story for that without having the fucking Lost numbers pop up? The competing houses in Renaissance Italy? Nothing?

      Dan Brown can fucking do better than that, and he writes sentences such as “The famous man looked at the red cup”.

      • gwathdring says:

        Yeah …. franchises can be thematic. They don’t have to be directly connected to each other through the plot.

        The only reason to do the meta-narrative stuff is if it’s good on it’s own. And … well, you’re welcome to disagree, but I don’t think it is. I think it’s awful on it’s own merits and it’s even worse as a half-hearted excuse to make a lasting franchise–something that requires no such excuse in the first place.

        Pulpy, pseudo-historical action games? Sign me up! The meta-narrative bit is holding the series back. It’s why Black Flag pays limp lip service to the whole Assassin thing instead of being completely proud of the stuff it does all on it’s own without using the main tropes of the series as a meaningless crutch.

        They could have made a more generic brand, but they decided to stick it out. That they’ve sidelined the brand so much in this latest entry should tell you how meaningless it is–whether you enjoy the meta-narrative or not, it doesn’t exist for it’s own sake but to serve the franchise. Which is why it ends up being such crap in most of the games.

        I think the pseudo-historical stuff is kinda crap too, and I have nothing against pulpy sci-fi and conspiracy nonsense. Nonsense can be fun. It’s just … they lump us with both at once and don’t really seem to do both well at once so I’d rather they picked one and personally I’d prefer the one that lets me have a fist-fight with the pope to the one that has me in not-really-cool-enough-to-be-cyberpunk warehouses.

        • malkav11 says:

          Could they do better? Sure. Is it dumb and counterfactual? Sure. But it’s entertainingly dumb, and it’s easily the strongest element of the narrative through the series, enough so that it’s been a significant part of the reason I play them, and enough so that I actually played their stupid little button-clicking Facebook game for more little tidbits and hints at their bonkers backstory. (Though, to be fair, as stupid little button-clicking Facebook games go it was the best I’ve tried by a fair margin in that it had no interest in making you spam your friends or pay real money for anything, and had the faintest touch of actual gameplay in that it asked you to craft resources to open new encounters from time to time.)

          Again, I think they could deliver a better narrative than they have done, but I don’t think that getting rid of the best bit of what’s there would improve matters.

    • Sivart13 says:

      I’m with you, malkav11. In particular, aside from the actual content of the metanarrative (Subject 16 and Minerva/Juno/etc have both become a little tiresome for me) I think the ‘Animus’ conceit helps out game a lot.

      From AC4, it means that ‘fast travel’ on an open world map is trivial because it’s really just revisiting the appropriate stage of your ancestor’s memories. I get a little freaked out sometimes in games like Skyrim where fast travelling from one side of the map to another means taking two game-days doing nothing: it makes the narrative journey of my character seem a little bonkers as I spend the latter half of the game bouncing around tidying up quests for as much in-game time as it took me to beat the main questlines.

      The devs can also freely use the conceit to explain away any number of things. It doesn’t have to present a strictly linear or complete view of the protagonist: witness AC4’s “templar key” missions, which are canonical and take place at a specific part in Kenway’s timeline but can be completed at any order or at any time.

      The one limitation of the ‘Animus’ framing is that it completely removes choice from the equation. Nobody is going to pick from the Red versus the Green ending when they reach the end of the historical story of ACV. But given the freedom of exploration otherwise provided in these games I think the linear story is a fair compromise for me.

  13. thecommoncold says:

    Top picture… Assassin’s Creed 5: Happy Time Water Balloon Fights

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  15. lanelor says:

    AC:BF = FarCry3 + Pirates! + AC :)
    Am I getting old, or the “fun” in this title was to collect every collectible item? Also, please, no more unskippable movies. Please!

  16. chabuhi says:

    MAXDAW? Surely you mean WARDAW. Or JACKFACE!

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    drewski says:

    AssCreed seems like one of those series that isn’t quite cool enough for RPS to like, so it must be pretty good to have won y’all over this year.

    Looking forward to playing it some day, when I have time. 2030 maybe.

  18. LordMidas says:

    I just love this game. It’s a brilliant piece of escapism. Beautiful to behold. And…… fun!!