(The ugly portmanteau in the title is because damnable Uplay's damnable cloud saves system destroyed and rewound over three hours of my progress, which has kept me from getting quite as far into Black Flag as I'd hoped. It also meant I lost a bunch of sea shanties, which was what upset me the most. Is this is Wot I Think? Is it mere Impressions? It's both and neither. Isn't that helpful? PS: in the name of all that's holy, turn off cloud saves in Uplay before you start playing AC4).
It's the best Assassin's Creed yet! Which is 90% because Black Flag, a a third-person action adventure about pirates in the Caribbean, isn't really an Assassin's Creed game in the traditional sense, and 10% because the lead character is from Swansea.
I went to university in Swansea, you see. It's a crap town if ever there was one, but I can't help but be fond of it. Also it's where I played Half-Life. AC4's piratey protagonist Edward Kenway has an accent that appears to be on a cycling tour of the British isles, but when it does settle on a Welsh lilt it fits - it fits the rogueish, laddy character, and it fits this much more playful AssCreed. It's a relief, after the dour AC3. I had thought that game's joyless hero Connor (Kenway's grandson, chronologically-speaking) wasn't going to make any appearance in AC4, but then I realised that the ship's plank was surely an homage.
Anyway, pirates. I suppose you could argue that they can loosely come under the definition of 'assassin', what with all the killing, but let's not pretend this series has ever had much interest in what that word implies. The secret society and ancestor race bollocks which has made what should have been a light-footed tale tediously heavy is still in some evidence, but the vast majority of it has been downplayed in favour of Just Doing Some Piracy. This also entails an admission, of sorts, of what Assassin's Creed games are really about - the pursuit of wealth and power, rather than justice and subtlety. This is a game about blowing up every ship that moves for its loot, finding every icon on ever island for its loot and hunting every animal, both on land and at sea, for its skin (i.e. loot). It is greed, it is the celebration of greed, and it is refreshingly unabashed about it. There is a redemptive narrative thread for good ole boy Kenway, whose jack the lad nature decreases somewhat as the game wears on, but really we're all in it for the yo-ho-ho and the Master and Commander-lite naval battles and blowing up island forts and air-assassinating ocelots (that last is a real in-game mission objective, delivered with an impressively straight face).
While the controls are characteristically convoluted and in some cases discordant (for instance, the run button for on-foot mode becomes the fire cannons! button in ship-captaining mode, which causes no end of trouble), generally it's a pleasure to take the wheel of Kenway's ship, the Jackdaw. The naval component is clearly as much like steering a real boat as drinking vodka is like exercising, but even in its cartoonish ease there's a satisfying weight to turning against the wind, a heft and chaos to unleashing a volley of cannonfire, and a 'we're the kings of the world!' rapture to leading a boarding party onto a defeated enemy craft. When you're out on the seas, it's wall to wall destructive celebration. Press play on both of these at once, basically:
In any just world, it would be, but I'm afraid I've got a bunch more to say. I might do a list, actually:
- I threw my toys out of the pram in the first couple of hours of the game, as it went straight into same old, same old roof-running, exposition and Infinite Tutorial. I'm still psychologically scarred by Assassin's Creed 3's approximately eight hours of telling me how to do things I'd already been doing for four previous games, and the thought that I was in for it again was unbearable. While AC4 is also about 50% tutorial, most of it is for new stuff involving naval exploration and combat, and in both cities and seas it lets you off the leash very quickly, even if it does sit you down and start teaching at you again once you return. This did mean I had to endure being told how to do several things I'd worked out for myself already - please, Ubisoft, make the tutorial in future games something we can outright skip if we want to. There is no Cosmic Law that says story and tutorial have to be bound together like this, and while I appreciate you don't want to scare away series newcomers or people who are rubbish at games, this is not the way. Bad Monolithic Publisher-Developer With A Hundred Million Employees, Bad!
- It's almost more Far Cry 3 On A Bloody Great Boat than it is Assassin's Creed. The most unfettered joy comes from the single-minded pursuit/murder of assorted rare wildlife and methodical destruction of every enemy camp in order to unlock more of the map, only dipping into the storyline quests because you know they'll probably unlock more of such things. Rather than enemy camps involving sneaking and disabling alarms and optionally releasing angry bears into the mix, here you sail up to a fort, bomb the hell out of its walls and artillery with your ship's cannons, then go ashore, and carve your way through an all-out navy vs pirates battle until you find a couple of chief dudes, at which point murder, ho! The fort becomes friendly, and reveals assorted other points of interest/greed/murder in the nearby vicinity. Like every recent Ubi attempt at open world games, it's very much a Cleaning Up All The Icons affair, but it's a party rather than a slog, and unlike Far Cry 3 it isn't laid low by a garbled attempt at an arch, self-defeating meta-narrative.
- The seas (in both sun and storm) and ships and islands are truly beautiful to behold, but the people still strive for uncanny valley-dwelling photo-realism that doesn't quite work despite being clearly lavish and expensive. I'd love it if they could be a little more stylised.
- There is plenty of the more traditional landlubbing, free-running, target-following, floaty Achievement-hunting thingies stuff too, and you won't go short if you that's what you're buying the game for, but the cities - e.g. Nassau and Havana - are a fraction of the size of those in 'normal' ACs. Most of the time Black Flag was as keen to get back to boating as I was, but occasionally it tries to force a game engine which was inexplicably never designed for it to do stealth missions. Tall vegetation which enables auto-hiding has been added in order to achieve this (and because there aren't many houses or cathedrals on Caribbean islands), but crossing between two bushes for even a micro-second makes Kenway stand up in plain sight, like he's forgotten where he is and what he was doing. The AI is designed to overlook such transgressions to a point, but there's a great deal of pointless smoke and mirrors and over-complication going on just to save adding in a crouch button.
- The meta-game, the idea that these historical adventures are the virtual reality simulations experienced by a guy in the near-future, still exists, but with the divisive Desmond's tale apparently having been resolved in AC3, this moves to a mute, unseen futuro-protagonist, played from a first person perspective. Who, it turns out, is basically a QA tester for Ubisoft, who have now made Assassin's Creed about them:
Guh. Maybe there is a joke to be made there, but this telling of it certainly doesn't bring any belly-laughs. Self-reference aside, the future-segments are far better realised and more baggage-free than before, and there's some pleasure in scouring a game developer's office for scraps of secrets, though inevitably it outstays its welcome when there's piracy to be done. I'd still rather the series had the balls to be purely historical action, but this is a definite improvement on its continuity-bloated predecessors.
- In addition to treasure maps and cannon upgrading and rum-selling and whatnot, there's a Moby Dick mini-game, which sees Kenway strip to his smalls and take a rowboat and some harpoons out to try and hunt the giants of the sea (and then turn their skin into purses and things). Lobbing spears at enraged sharks and whales is probably the most ridiculous aspect of the wholeheartedly ridiculous AC4, but also one of its most compelling: solitary man versus wild creature, in single combat. On a boat. Which you can upgrade. "We're gonna need a bigger boat" - no you're not, you just need to spend three thousand sea-dollars on sticking some bits of metal to it.
- The embracing of a more overtly outlandish tone (from a historical accuracy standpoint this is pure pop, even by AC's standards) has freed the game up to fold even smaller features into some kind of in-game purpose rather than just bitty panacea for completists. For instance, the floating letters and pages on rooftops are no longer for nebulous achievements and unlocks, but to add a new sea shanty to your crew's repertoire of rowing songs. Why? Just because sailing across the high seas accompanied by a chorus of melodically bellowing men sounds and feels awesome. Sea travel rarely takes long, as your ship moves cartoonishly quickly and handles agreeably easily, but the closest the game has to downtime is a couple of minutes of singing'n'sailing, and it works well.
Best AC ever, then, but while the nuts and bolts of the series are in there - and again it's still an icon-chasing game - it does feel more spin-off than sequel. If the series is playing for time before it has to truly rethink and expand upon near-exhausted systems that it has relied on for the best part of a decade, this is a splendid way to do it, and after four over-similar, increasingly flabby games in a row, Hey Ho Let's Go was very much the right response. I'm not sure it could get away with it again, though.
Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag is released on PC tomorrow in North America and Friday in the UK. Perhaps it takes its lavishly-rendered oceans so seriously that it thinks they somehow exist on the internet. Oh, and a reminder in case you forgot during the last 1500 words: Uplay is awful and unreliable and do not on any account allow it to cloud-manage your savegames. Settings-General-Uncheck Enable Cloud Synchronisation before you play even a moment of Black Flag.