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The Amazing & Astonishing RPS Advent Calendar: Day 8

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.

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