I was never the biggest fan of Assassin’s Creed III. While I felt the mechanics were much improved from the previous games, no small feat since those were pretty finely tuned by the time AC3 released, but the storyline was only moderately interesting and the protagonist just had absolutely no charisma or presence. Admittedly Ezio Auditore da Firenze is a hard act to follow but Connor was blandness incarnate. We went from Altair, who was bland as hell, to Ezio, who was loveable in every way, to Connor, who thought personality was something that only happened to other people.
With the knowledge that Ubisoft would be taking the mechanics of AC3, expanding the sea segments and doing a story that would feature the likes of Blackbeard, Benjamin Hornigold, Annie Bonny and “William Kidd” I couldn’t be any more excited. I’ve always been a huge fan of the history surrounding the pirates of that time period so a game like this felt like it’d be right up my alley. Well see, there’s a problem with that…
The Assassin’s Creed games have always played fast and loose with historical characters but here most of the changes are for the worst and seem to have been shifted in an effort to make the new main character seem like an even bigger badass. In other words it plays out like a fan-fic. Blackbeard is bizarrely a non-entity for the early portion of the game, getting characterization only before his death is to arrive, Ben Hornigold’s somewhat complicated nature as a pirate turning privateer makes him a one-note Templar agent and Calico Jack is nothing more than a Jack Sparrow imitation who spends all of his time drunk, making smarmy remarks and doing a whole lot of nothing.
All of this would be fine if Edward Kenway, our protagonist, was actually even remotely interesting. He spends the entire game pursuing riches at any cost while claiming he hates killing people, even as he kills plenty of soldiers to steal their cargo. Heck he even accepts missions to go out and murder people on the word of other pirates, not known for honesty, all to make some more money. Edward acts as if he’s a freedom fighter of some sort but he’s really just a common thug who happens to be an exceptionally skilled fighter (without any reason for it I might add). Basically he comes off as a sociopath with no regard for the consequences of any of his actions and this is the guy we’re supposed to root for.
To top that off he’s not even an Assassin, he merely dresses the part. He finally becomes an actual Assassin of the order just in the time for the game to end, spending the rest of the time drifting from mission to mission with only the barest hints of a plot holding the whole mess together. The prologue sees him working with the Templars briefly but this ends quickly, taking with it the only interesting plot going on for about 70% of the game and it just never seems to build any further momentum. The rest of the game sees you bounce from mission to mission, ally to ally in pursuit of a fabled location known as The Observatory. Both the Assassin’s and the Templar’s want this place, as well as a man called The Sage who is needed to activate it. But since you don’t even get near this place until Sequence 10 out of 13 you spend the rest of the game chasing dead ends.
This was seemingly done so we could see what an obsession could do to a man, costing him all of his friends and loved ones, which makes for a much better movie than it does a video game. Then it would only take a half-hour to hour to get to the point, here it takes about five or six hours and it ends up being a really boring experience. Honestly it feels like the whole middle section of the game is simply a build up to the final three Sequences or so, leaving much of the game bereft of any real impact to what occurs. Then all the big stuff is crammed into the end in a fairly amateurish manner that does the rest of the game no service.
There are also a huge, almost laughable, amount of glitches. Luckily almost all of them are related to the ships. Unfortunately since that’s a humongous part of the game it can lead to a lot of aggravation. While trying to climb the rigging and masts you’ll often find yourself unable to proceed for no reason. This often can only be solved by moving away from the spot you were using and climbing up somewhere else. You’ll also fall through rigging and the deck, mysteriously appearing in the water for no reason. Oh and expect to get shoved around by the game when waves hit a ship you’re boarding, leaving you unable to defend yourself as you get chopped up. Another common issue is clipping inside of the scenery of a boat, being left utterly defenseless.
Honestly if you’re a patient sort of person all of that might not sound like a huge deal. But with the various side objectives and some of the genuinely tricky stages you’ll have to deal with, almost all involving water battles, these issues can cause you to have to restart a segment you’d rather not have to repeat. Early on this isn’t an issue since mid-mission checkpoints come often but late in the game it can mean having to redo a twenty minute batch of mission because you glitched into a wall.
Another hard hit comes from the graphics which are great for the seas, environments and ships but the characters leave a lot to be desired. Hair and clothing frequently clip through models, hair itself looks like a pixelated blob dropped onto someone’s head and character models have an all-around kind of shabby look to them. Most of them anyways – Black Bart and Al-Tahbi, two characters very important to the late game look pretty awesome but overall the rest of the models have a drab look to them.
With all of these complaints I haven’t even touched on the modern day setting stuff which is actually pretty unique. You assume the role of a video game designer, using a new model Animus to help craft new games from ancestral memories. Machinations within the video game company, a branch of Abstergo responsible for the propaganda that was AC: Liberation, end up dragging you into a whole mess involving hacking terminals, Shaun and Rebecca and a whole mess of backstabbing. It’s actually pretty cool. It’d have been a lot better if you actually had a character with some personality and it wasn’t done from a first-person view. Since you have no personality, or dialogue for that matter, it’s hard to connect with the events in modern day and you just want to get back to the high seas.
While this review may sound like a non-stop complaint fest, technically speaking AC4 is a pretty solid game. The developers made sure that the game has tight controls alongside numerous improvements from the previous games, social features that actually add to the experience and a general feeling of quality and effort put into the whole package. There’s also a whole plethora of things to do such as harpooning sea creatures and hunting animals for upgrade materials, hunting down secret chests, finding sea shanties in towns to give your crew more songs to sing and a damn good combat system that lends itself to the tightest co
mbat controls in the series.
The problem is, that as a fan of the franchise, none of this feels like it’s enough. When you have a series noted for its strong storyline and characters, or at least character motivations in Connor’s case, to have such a bland package tied together by a string of annoyances is a huge issue. Why would they choose on a protagonist with no persona after Desmond? So we can insert ourselves in his / her shoes? Sorry but no, that’s too big of a stretch considering the nature of the game. Give me a character with some personality so I care about the modern day setting ripping me out of being a pirate. Give me a character in those pirate days with some personality so I don’t find him to be a tremendous bore. Give me something, anything to make the cast more likeable!
To put it bluntly Assassin’s Creed 4 is basically a well thought out experience with a really strong art direction behind it that is hampered by terrible writing. The whole experience could have come together for a compelling package but it’s handled in such a roundabout way that it just never meshes together into a package that does any of its constituent parts any real justice and that’s just a damn shame.