Assassin's Creed 4 — But I Don't Wanna Be A Pirate
Assassin's Creed 4 presents us with two equally implausible flights of fancy: being a pirate in the early eighteenth century, and having a job in the present. The pirate is a Welshman named Edward Kenway who pillages the Bahamas with his brig the Jackdaw. The office drone is an unnamed and eternally silent first-person perspective who acts as a cypher for the player, giving you an opportunity to experience firsthand all the drama and intrigue that comes with using a WiFi enabled tablet. Edward Kenway kills hundreds—if not thousands—of people, stealing fleets worth of ships and treasure as he makes war upon the English and Spanish empires. As a person working at Abstergo Games, you hack into your workmates' computers and occasionally eavesdrop. The pirate part of Assassin's Creed 4 is an overreaching lifesuck of a game with some genuinely great moments, none of which come from its main plot. The Abstergo part of Assassin's Creed 4 is conspicuously pointless busywork that plays like a feature-length apologia from Ubisoft for the continuation of the Assassin's Creed franchise.
The question of its existence haunts Assassin's Creed IV Black Flag, exerting a subtle yet pernicious influence over everything it does, as if the game is a character in a Samuel Beckett play. “Why do I exist?” The game mumbles to itself, pacing a conspicuously empty stage. “I'm the continuation of a franchise that's entering into its seventh year. One could argue that the Assassin's Creed property was drained to its dregs over the course of the three games comprising the Ezio Auditore storyline. Assassin's Creed III saw the death of Desmond Miles, the series protagonist! There have been films, novelizations, comic books, tie-in games for portable systems... When will it be enough? When will this endless conflict between two secret societies over ancient technologically advanced artifacts finally be over with? The series has a lot of flaws, flaws that none of the sequels have significantly addressed! The combat still sucks! After five major games, why does the combat still have to suck? Why are we still making these games? Why can't Ubisoft move on to something different? Why? Why? Why?” Then the curtain comes down because deliberately denying the audience narrative catharsis is a key part of theater of the absurd, but unlike the meaning of life, the meaning of Assassin's Creed 4's existence is obvious. Assassin's Creed IV was brought into being by the same force that drives its pirate protagonist Edward Kenway: a lust for treasure. As long as people keep buying the game, Assassins will keep assassinating, Templars will keep templating, and there'll be another damn alien artifact whose power will end up being beyond any mortal's control, but we'll spend the whole game trying to find it anyway, because what are we going to do, not meddle in God's domain?
I confess, my love affair with Assassin's Creed soured a long time ago. I remember a kind of numbness settled upon me when I turned on Assassin's Creed Brotherhood and saw that it started exactly where Assassin's Creed II left off, in the secret alien room behind behind the Sistine Chapel's altar. (Who knew?) I enjoyed recruiting other assassins and using Leonardo Da Vinci's war machines, but the wider story seemed locked in a kind of narrative stasis. I couldn't shake the feeling that nothing I did mattered or made a difference, and on the rare occasions the story did manage to shake off the cobwebs and grindingly force itself forward, it went places I didn't like. The artifacts of great civilizations have been used as story-driving maguffins since Jason and the Argonauts went after the Golden Fleece, but video games have developed a habitual dependence on alien artifacts to give their heroes something to chase after, and Assassin's Creed has taken it to an absurd extreme, giving us aliens, the manipulation of shifting timelines, a naturally recurring apocalypse, artificial intelligences that transcend time and space, and a parkour Adam and Eve with astonishingly shiny butts. The thing about these kinds of storylines is that while they sound cool in the abstract, they suffer from an inevitable dramatic entropy, where the more you know about them, the dumber they get. Game companies are aware of this, and as a consequence they make a point of keeping the stories as vague and surface-level as possible, using brief encounters with the mysterious extraterrestrial intelligences to keep us from asking obvious questions like “ If the genetically engineered slaves you created rebel against you, why not just make another race of genetically engineered slaves to kill them? How does someone who has a device that allows her to see through time and space and alter the course of timelines encounter any problem she can't immediately solve? If they're aliens, and they knew the solar flare was coming, why didn't they just get in their spaceships and leave? Wait, they're native to Earth? Then why aren't they in the fossil record?! The Templars SABATOGED THE FOSSIL RECORD? God, this is ridiculous.” To keep us from asking questions like these games like Assassin's Creed tend to only obtusely allude to the answers they've been promising us for 50+ hours, which is not only incredibly frustrating but also pointless, since every franchise has their own dedicated wiki staffed by people who've ingested every scrap of media from the game universe and who can explain the game's story clearly and succinctly, laying the increasingly ludicrous plot lines bare for all those who care to look.
I know I'm being severely judgmental, and I also know video games are punishingly difficult to write. Anyone who's read comic books can tell you it's very hard to maintain a coherent plot when multiple writers are producing serialized work for an unflappable deadline, but the fact is Assassin's Creed isn't giving me anything else to cling to. I enjoy zany space-opera lunacy as much as the next socially maladjusted person writing crap on the internet, but Assassin's Creed has consistently failed to give their apocalyptic native alien time travel story any corresponding emotional resonance. I liked Halo 4's story, but it wasn't because I gave two s#!ts about the new bad guy Ur-Didact, a.k.a. The Didact, a.k.a. Shadow-of-Sundered-Star, it was because Cortana was dying, and I didn't want that tiny immaterial super-genius to go. I'll forgive a lot of things if they're buttressed by an emotionally resonant storyline. When people complain that Cortana is just ones and zeros and shouldn't have been able to generate the force field that saved Master Chief at the end of Halo 4 I want to howl “She did it with THE POWER OF LOVE, you heartless bastards!” then rip off my shirt to reveal the enormous R.I.P. CTN 0452-9 tattoo on my chest. My favorite TV show is an anime called Neon Genesis Evangelion about fourteen year olds piloting giant cyborg monsters possessed by the souls of their dead mothers to fight angels; it's a patently ridiculous program, but I love it because the giant city-destroying battles feel like natural outgrowths of characters' emotional conflicts and the universal quagmire of everyone trying to find their place in a demented world. The bizarre symmetry between man and machine represented by Assassin's Creed's Animus is likewise ripe with dramatic possibilities, but the designers are seemingly content to ignore them.
The passage of time and the fact that all of these people died fighting a battle that's still going on centuries later is an elephant in the room Ubisoft categorically refuses to acknowledge. Does Desmond really want to do all the morally questionable things his ancestors did? If he could exert a little more control over their actions we'd get some interesting conflict, but since he's only reenacting memories to locate the Pieces of Eden the narrative is sterile. Whatever existential whiplash Desmond experiences as he straddles the past and future is largely left to our imaginations, since when he raises objections his dad beats him up. There's a good moment in Assassin's Creed Brotherhood when Desmond asks Shaun about the fate of Caterina Sforza, a woman he saved when he was using the Animus and wearing Ezio Auditore like a glove. After two games worth of excitement and intrigue with the character, Shaun tells Desmond that Caterina petitioned to get back her lands but was unsuccessful, and she eventually died of pneumonia. That's sad, Desmond says. That's history, Shaun says, and for a moment, the eerie gap between what actually happened and what Desmond does in the Animus is visible. All of the people Ezio saved and killed died hundreds of years ago, and Desmond can't effect their fates any more than an actor in Macbeth can effect who rules Scotland in the eleventh century. Both Desmond and Ezio are pawns in a much grander game, and all reprieves from death are temporary, whether you're in Florence in 1503 or New York in 2012. It's a poignant moment, but it's one that's subsumed in the larger narrative of Templars and Assassins and First Civilizations, and why linger on the bittersweetly ephemeral nature of human life when there's always another apocalypse just around the corner? There are always more memories to unlock, more superweapons to find, more feathers to collect, or, as in the case of Assassin's Creed 4 Black Flag, more whales to kill.
Assassin's Creed IV removes the possibility of any dramatic shenanigans between the possessor and the posessee by removing the character operating the Animus from the equation, turning them into an empty vessel for the player to observe the game through, but even if there was anything interesting to do in the present, it would be absolutely buried by the deluge of minutiae that constitutes Ubisoft's vision of the Bahamas. The side quests aren't pushed as aggressively as they were in Assassin's Creed III, but they are everywhere all of the time, as omnipresent as Rockstar's contempt for humanity in Grand Theft Auto 5. You won't be asked to tattoo a dick on someone's chest, but you will be asked to shoot an iguana and air assassinate an ocelot, which is just as stupid. Assassin's Creed 4 is absolutely riddled with side quests, so much so that the main quest often feels like it's only an opportunity for Ubisoft to give you more side quests. You conquer a fort only to encounter a set of tempting armor behind a door sealed by five locks you can retrieve the keys for. You infiltrate a Mayan temple only to encounter a secret door you can open if you collect 16 artifacts called stelae. You're finally the captain of a pirate ship! Now you have to get money and metal and wood and cloth to upgrade its hull and cannons or it'll be useless in a fight! Invest in a set of mortars! Get a masthead! Recruit more crew! Increase the size of the crew quarters! Increase your cargo space! It's four in the morning! Didn't you used to have a job or something?
There are definitely good parts to Assassin's Creed 4, even if it feels like Ubisoft provides them almost grudgingly. Ship-to-ship combat has all the grandeur and majesty we've been taught to expect from classical naval engagements. Cannons roar and masts splinter, and when you swing across to take a crippled ship via cutlass and pistol it's a scene of magnificent chaos, it feels like a real pirate adventure until you're forced to use the crappy combat system again. Attacking forts is an equally epic affair that consists of bombarding their defenses from the sea until they crumble and storming the ruins, wading through a sea of fighting soldiers and pirates to kill the governor. Unfortunately, the main story missions just can't compare. There are a few ship battles, but the vast majority of story missions take place on land, and an astonishing amount of those are following missions, and following missions suck, incorporating all the excitement of doing nothing with the possibility that you might fail at it.
The story is, in accordance with the entire Assassin's Creed series, overstuffed and undercooked. The designers felt obliged to include every notable pirate their time frame permitted, having Edward Kenway meet Bartholomew Roberts, Anne Bonny, John Rackham, Mary Read, and Edward Teach, and the story struggles to give them all something to do. Blackbeard comes off the best, existing only to be an awesome pirate and die—which, unless everything I've read about him has been a total lie, is an accurate representation of how the real man lived. Anne Bonny belongs to a particular subset of video game NPCs I despise: characters that only exist to pester the main character about doing the thing I'm playing the game in order to do. Ubisoft presumably knows that people will play Assassin's Creed 4 in order to pretend to be a pirate. Why would they include a character like Anne Bonny, who endlessly hectors Edward Kenway about how he should really stop being such a pirate all the time? Does Ubisoft have any idea how annoying that is? Do they even care? (Also, please stop giving me extra stuff to do during missions to ACHEIVE FULL SYNCRHONIZATION. The whole point of open-world sandbox games is that I get to choose how to accomplish the damn mission. Don't tell me I did it the wrong way. If you already know what's going happen, why do you even need me?) The rest of the pirates exist to eventually betray you in some way, particularly Black Bart, who's really an alien of God-like power who's doomed to be reincarnated eternally and who poses as an I.T. guy in the present to get his beloved ancient artificial intelligence to possess the player and my God this really does sound like its own fan-fiction.
The appeal of Assassin's Creed IV Black Flag is supposed to be simple: experience all the joys of being a pillaging, plundering pirate without all the scurvy and sunstroke and sexual violence associated with the genuine article. As it shakes out however, piracy is ancillary to the main plot, which is itself ancillary to the side quests that crowd the landscape. Giving the player lots of different stuff to do outside of the main plot line is fine, in fact I'd go so far as to deem it fine and dandy, but Assassin's Creed 4's side quests seem to be trying to actively distract you from the main plot, like a reverse Navi from Ocarina of Time, and it's easy to see why. The story wears it's historical conceit like an albatross, and the writers have to do cartwheels to make all the dates match up. Characters often end cutscenes by saying they'll meet each other in a couple of months, but just as often they disappear and reappear with no apparent rhyme or reason, and it's seldom clear just what Edward Kenway's relationship to these people is, or what any of them want. I don't know why Ubisoft felt like they had to include this in the Assassin's Creed franchise instead of just coming up with a new game about entirely fictional pirates on an entirely fictional adventure. It's not like there are millions of fans clamoring for an appearance from Blackbeard, or Ubisoft needs brand recognition to give them an edge in the cutthroat world of AAA Pirate Video Game Titles. No doubt there's some esoteric equation concocted by Ubisoft's marketing department that explains why it's more profitable to cram together twenty different games of wildly varying quality instead of making one good game. No doubt we can look forward to lots of confused, haphazardly executed, conspicuously stupid Assassin's Creed sequels in the future. A pirate's life for me, whether I like it or not.