To my knowledge, there has never been a home console pirate game done well. Sure, we had stuff like Sid Meier’s Pirates! and its umpteen remakes, as well as a few first-person shooter scenarios that involved taking on pirates, but the swashbuckling sub-genre has never flourished in the gaming world in the same way that it has in novels, movies, and television.
Imagine my shock, then, when a leaked trailer (now made official) for a new Assassin’s Creed game surfaced, showing the latest in a long line of white-hooded assassins boarding ships, sacking ports, and otherwise committing acts of piracy around the Caribbean isles. From the trailers, this game looks like it could actually be good. But … why in the world is it under the aegis of the Assassin’s Creed title?
Assassin’s Creed (AC), as many of you know, is a series revolving around a fictitious rivalry between the Knights Templar and the Brotherhood of Assassins—two nearly mythical forces locked in a battle for the freedom of the human race. While the feud and half of the combatants may be made up, the games’ settings most certainly are not—the AC series’ primary distinguishing feature has always been the tremendous attention to historical detail regarding open, explorable environments. The first game saw the player crusade through Acre, Damascus, and Jerusalem in the time of the holy wars; on the other hand, the second and third games toured the sights of Renaissance Italy, exploring Florence, Venice, and Rome. A fourth game reproduced the grand bazaars and multicultural worship centers of Constantinople, while the fifth game planted you in the middle of the American Revolutionary War, granting dialogues with such tremendous historical figures as George Washington, Israel Putnam, Samuel Adams, and the rest of the Sons of Liberty.
Assassin’s Creed 3, the latest installment of the series, was a weaker game as a whole compared to its predecessors. The protagonist Connor was uninteresting and bland compared to the lively liberties of Ezio Auditore; the setting was, factually, less architecturally interesting than Renaissance Florence or Rome; and, with the notable exception of Israel Putnam, the historical figures were portrayed in a tired, scripted fashion. The game’s one interesting innovation, however, was the introduction of naval warfare missions, which put Connor in charge of a 16-gun frigate that sailed and battled on the high seas. This section of the game was by far the most polished, with great attention to detail, particularly in regard to crewmembers’ movements, nautical terminology, and the general accuracy (or lack thereof) of the weapons of the day. Overall, it was fun—unlike most of the rest of the game.
Now, it seems, Ubisoft has decided to take this one element of gameplay from AC3 and make an entire new game from it. While there is some historical precedent for this strategy (a single level from Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire on N64 spawned an entire series of Rogue Squadron games, for instance), I can’t help but wonder what in the world was going through the heads of the Ubisoft team leaders who made the decision to green-light Assassin’s Creed 4. To take a series whose hallmark has always been its open, explorable historical worlds and turn it into a shipboard pirate adventure seems just a little out there. Interactions with famous pirates such as Blackbeard seem promisingly amusing, but where will the exploration element come from in a game spent mostly on a boat? Again, I’m not saying it can’t work … depending on whom you ask, The Legend of Zelda: Windwaker, which followed a very similar shipboard model, was one of the most successful games in the franchise. But that’s not to say that the model translates universally. One final question is that of the launch timing: With less than a five-month gap between the launch of AC3 and the announcement of AC4, it seems a little early to be announcing the next major installment in the Assassin’s Creed franchise. At the very least, it seems like Ubisoft would want more time to add downloadable content to their latest title before releasing a new one. Perhaps they realize, though, that AC3 just wasn’t very good and want to correct their behavior before people get the wrong idea about the direction of the franchise. I’d like to think so, anyhow.
Well … yo ho ho, here’s to hoping for a better game.