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Pricking A Pirate's Conscience: Back In Black Flag

A pirate's life for me

This doesn't happen to me too much, given the siren call of the virtual stack of videogames that wobbles atop my mental to-do list each day (oh woe is me, etc), but I keep finding myself drawn back to Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag. In a 'secretly looting Spanish frigates when I'm supposed to be working on something else' sort of way. For several days I have attempted to keep this hidden from my colleagues for fear of getting an earful, but it's time to come clean (and at the same time at least vaguely justify my clandestine nautical habit): I have a piracy problem.

I'm surprised by this, and at myself. I've had a turbulent relationship with the Assassin's Creed series, which is best demonstrated by this infographic:

Or more professional words to that effect.

In short, I was resigned to the fact that Assassin's Creed had become Call of Duty - my sense that this was the Massive Great Mainstream Action Behemoth That Could was all but eroded. Black Flag is different, even though it's as guilty of recycling technology and concepts as any other game in this self-cannibalising series, and even though the reason I keep going back to it is at least as much to do with Blizzardlike compulsion to upgrade endlessly as it is how well-realised the pirate fantasy is. I don't like it, or myself, for that: I know that some reptilian set of cells deep in my brain responds to having short-term rewards forever dangled in front of me, and I know that Black Flag is exploiting that as consciously as does the most malevolent Zynga game. I'd feel better if I just put the game down and sneered at it from a distance.

But the reason I don't is because I'm not simply pressing a button, being given my treat and then desperately hitting that button again. I'm taking the wheel of a pirate ship, I'm travelling across very pretty and sometimes ominously turbulent seas, I'm spying a British or Spanish brig or frigate or man o'war from a distance, I'm lobbing a mortar at it from about 500 feet to get its attention and soft it up, I'm prepare for ramming speed, I'm - THUD - ramming, I'm - BLAM BLAM BLAM - unleashing multiple volleys of cannonfire at its side, I'm - yo ho ho! - leading a boarding party from my boat to the other boat, to a soundtrack of fire and smoke and I just feel like the king of the fucking world.

The game's doing everything it can to make this happen - I realise that too. I realise that it is catering to me rather than challenging me, that this is a test of how much time I want to put in rather than how much effort or skill I can. I realise that I am being fed a power fantasy, rather than anything meaningful or that stretches my ability to learn or to co-ordinate between my eyes and my hands. I realise also that, despite any praise I might bestow on the graphics' realisation of broiling waves or the controls' dependable sense of heft and force for ship-handling, I spend so much the game looking at the mini-map, and its smattering of icons and casual-friendly red-for-danger colouring.

Just as in recent GTAs and Saints Rows and Sleeping Dogs, the mini-map is all, the supplier of the drug I come to these games for. It tells me where my great hunger can next be sated, and I go there because there is an icon there, rather than because I truly believe there will be some great happening, the seed of some great anecdote I will relate to others. There won't be: there will a conflict or a brief climbing puzzle, and I will be given a reward. That reward might be enough to upgrade my ship's hull or cannons or ram, or perhaps give my character a better pistol or more effective sleep darts, but whatever it is I won't actually savour it. I'll use it as a step to reaching somewhere else, defeating some more fearsome enemy, and the greater rewards that will then result.

That's what even the briefest moment of analysis and self-reflection tells me. If I think about what I'm doing I feel guilty, I blame myself for wasting time and performing the same actions time and again with no ultimate purpose behind them. But my eyes and my heart and my blood tell me something different, because however much one might sneer at the sky-high budgets and preposterous resources Ubisoft throw at these games, here there's an almighty pay-off once I arrive at my destination and take my eyes off that damned mini-map.

Much of it is in the animation and sound, I think, for underneath it all pulse the same, mechanical systems that have been the foundation of this series' every instalment. In Black Flag, there's so much on-screen activity for what could have been distilled to just a couple of key-presses - repeatedly shoot cannons at ship, press button to board ship, repeatedly shoot all the men, press button to tear down flag. But here that plays out as a very convincing sense of hauling several tonnes of shuddering wood and metal across a treacherous sea, the world shaking and choking as a couple of dozen cannons lob their dread loads towards a foe that bears down like an oak juggernaut.

I'm just shooting another faceless enemy with a gun that's slow to aim, snarls my inner realist.

No, I'm the commander of a pirate ship, in a pitched battle on the high seas in which anything could happen, fighting through a haze of fog and smoke and sulphur and splintering wood, retorts my inner fantasist. Listen to my crew, as they call 'captain's saltin' himself!' when I dive off the edge of ship, or cry 'captain's aboard!' and cheer when I return. Look at the way my quartermaster respectfully moves away from the wheel as I approach it. They all live for me. They all worship me.

'Pfft, mere routines. It's got nothing to do with you or what you've done', the realist snaps back.

'The plank for you,' says the fantasist with a grin. 'Introduce him to Davy Jones, boys!'

Both are correct. The look, sound and feel of Black Flag sells the fantasy, makes it corporeal, and while this is as guilty as any game of being the bitty pursuit of icons, that MSG kick for more, more, more, here I'm happy to be smoke'n'mirrored by its lavish appearance, by the couple of dozen different, dramatic ways I appear to stab dudes with swords, even if the reality is pressing the same couple of buttons. Boarding a defeated ship is a giddy highlight every time - essentially simple forward motion propels me onto a rope, which swings me automatically and heroically towards the other vessel, like Luke'n'Leia in the Death Star, and then I plunge downwards, landing with my swords planted neatly into someone's back. I HAVE ARRIVED.

More animation, more smoke and mirrors as my crew battle its crew, neither side achieving a great deal (snarls the inner realist), but there's so much activity, so much going on, and I'm in right in the middle of it, having a whale of a time stabbing and shooting and climbing up masts and making barrels explode and tearing down British and Spanish flags. It's all so ridiculous, clearly, but Black Flag sells every moment of it.

There's so much that doesn't work, or at least grates, about the Assassin's Creed games: the hours-long tutorials, the aggravating follow missions, the self-obsessed, lost-to-its-own-lore sci-fi meta-narrative, and most of all a control set that tries to second-guess the player but frequently gets it wrong and throws them off a building (or mast) they're trying to climb up. So much of the game needs rebuilding from the ground-up, rather than recycling into sequel after sequel. I'm amazed that putting another layer on top of this succeeded, but it did. The inherently slower nature of captaining a ship rather than a man on foot reinstates the precision that the free-running system often undermines.

And as I've said previously, the roleplaying concept is much stronger: you're a pirate, a lad who's fallen sideways into the war between Assassins and Templars, and filthy lucre rather than justice/revenge/duty is his goal. That adds logic to the endless pursuit of icons and loot, and it assuages my guilt: it's OK, I'm not being a time-waster, I'm being a pirate! And a pirate's hunger for more wealth doesn't end.

As, at present, doesn't my own desire for more loot, more boats, more icons, more upgrades, more micro-adventures that make me feel like I'm somewhere else, someone else. Someone with a South Welsh accent, a pair of swords, a suit made from cheetah hide and a dicky moral compass. The game's doing its very to ruin this escapism with a narrative that slowly forces more of a conscience onto me, and more of an active role in the bullshit ancestor race backstory that blights this series, but I'm doing my very best to ignore it. So far, it's working. Icons ahead, cap'n!

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