Assassin’s Creed IV will likely be a divisive entry in the series. The emphasis on sailing the seas and ship-to-ship combat over the usual sneak, stab, run gameplay (not to mention the shift in story away from many of the series’ touchstones), almost makes the title feel like it should have been a whole new IP. In many ways, it probably should have been just that.
Since its inception, the Assassin’s Creed series has generally been about two things: free run/Parkour-style mechanics, and shanking people from haystacks. All subsequent titles were refinements of these ideas with one notable callout: the third title offered a brief glimpse of what it would be like to sail the open seas. Assassin’s Creed IV took that glimpse to heart. It is both the successful implementation of arcade-style sailing, and a highlight reel of what’s wrong with the game’s underpinnings.
A quick disclaimer before getting much further: I’ve kept things as spoiler free as possible for folks, but there may be an occasional slip here or there.
On the historical side, Assassin’s Creed IV takes place during the “romantic” age of piracy at the start of the 18th century in the Caribbean (known then as the West Indies). Our protagonist this time around is Edward Kenway, a Welshman seeking gold and treasure in order to live the comfortable life back in England. Of all the “assassin” characters to whom we’ve been introduced over the course of the series, Edward may be my favorite. He feels, in many ways, the most realistic. Caring little for the motives of either the Templars or the Assassins, he simply wants to be free to seek treasure, earn his fortune, and go home to his wife. It’s a good change from the usual protagonist that seems to blindly adhere to the creed despite many of the revelations that come along the way in the other games.
On the future side is protagonist #23517; ok, even assigning them a number is giving them more identity than is fair. You’re no longer Desmond Miles, the bartender turned reluctant assassin thanks to sitting in a lounge chair and watching your ancestors murder people in creative ways. Instead, you’re a nameless, faceless employee of Abstergo Entertainment - a media conglomerate that is mining the past memories of people using the Animus device in order to come up with new ideas for movies, video games, and TV shows. There’s a lot of meta commentary in these future sequences about the state of the entertainment industry that’s all a bit on the nose, but it’s good to be in someone else’s future shoes for a change. You will spend less time out of the Animus than in previous entries, and you won’t have as many inane tasks to perform when you are. There are even some interesting tie-ins to the overall story/plot of the series, so if you’re a long-time fan, you’ll find some pay off here for a couple of big plot points in the overarching series.
Assassin’s Creed IV’s real strong point is in its gameplay. Specifically, the sailing parts. The very first time I got my own ship and was given the reigns to begin pillaging and plundering as I chose, I didn’t want to do anything else. The “freedom” you were given in previous entries to romp through historical cities always felt a little confining. It’s like you were trapped in a snow globe. You’d run from one edge of the city to the other and inevitably hit that invisible wall preventing you from going further lest you “desync.” Entrance and exit to the cities were only allowed through designated areas. There was an entire countryside sprawled out before you and your ancestor must have decided it wasn’t worth visiting or remembering. In Assassin’s Creed IV, outside of the three major towns that have those same type of gates, you’re free to walk up to the wheel of your ship any time you like and sail off into the horizon. It is true freedom.
Sailing in Assassin’s Creed IV is more arcade-style action than exacting nautical rigors. You can speed up and slow down with the press of a couple buttons, steer and aim with the dual analogs, and fire your guns with the press of a trigger. When facing off against another ship, the arcade aspect becomes even more apparent as you attempt to out maneuver and out gun them until they’re left in a vulnerable enough state for you to board (or just sink them outright). Once you board, it’s back to Assassin Creed’s usual playing style of free run and fighting combos/parrys/counters as you attempt to kill off enough of the opposing crew to break their morale.
Engaging another vessel can be more or less difficult depending on the area you’re in when you do so (different sections of the world vary in their degree of difficulty), and the number of other friendly ships around. Taking on a single craft is easy enough, but when you decide you’re a good enough pirate to take on a convoy of five or six vessels, be prepared to fight for your prizes. Once you do get to that point, it’s addicting. I’ve spent more time sailing and plundering than I have on shore. And every time I do make land, I can’t wait to get back out to sea; though, that’s mostly due to Assassin’s Creed IV’s tropical environs, with all of its possible ledges and outcroppings to jump onto and hang from, clashing with the parkour mechanics.
Assassin’s Creed’s free-running/free-climbing mechanics work best when there are a lot of tall buildings with wide-open roof tops to sprint and leap across. You have a few set targets of where you can climb up, where you can jump, and where you can land. When there are a lot of small shacks with various outcroppings and haphazardly assembled docks with wood sticking out every which way, everything starts breaking down. Trying to make Edward leap to THAT particular beam instead of some thatched siding or one of another dozen nearby choices feels like an artificial challenge. It becomes all the more frustrating when you’re trying to navigate this landscape in the middle of a mission and miss a key jump.
That was a common problem with Assassin’s Creed III, and it hasn’t gotten much better here. It’s almost like Ubisoft made an Assassin’s Creed game of something that wasn’t really meant to be one. Even the assassin lineage traits (i.e., the eagle vision, the leap of faith, the dual blades) feel tacked on and entirely unnecessary. It’s disappointing. Ubisoft could have made a great pirate game; instead, they’ve got a good pirate game ramrodded into an existing IP that was already becoming quite full. This same idea even carries over into the co-op mode.
The Wolfpack co-op mode first debuted in Assassin’s Creed III makes its return here and brings with it a new “mode” called Discovery. The overall goal of Wolfpack is to kill a series of targets as quickly as possible in order to progress through all 25 sequences and win the match before time runs out. The catch is that progression through each sequence is based on the number of points you earn for killing the target(s), with more points being awarded for killing them while remaining undetected, or performing an air assassination, or using one of the multiplayer “perks.” There’s a balance to speed and finesse that has to be struck in order to make it all the way to the end. In Assassin's Creed III, it wasn’t entirely clear that was the whole point, so many of the random matches you wound up in were more akin to a Benny Hill chase scene (with stabbing) than a coordinated effort by a group of highly trained assassins.
The Discovery mode is Ubisoft’s answer to that particular problem. Essentially a tutorial mode, Discovery takes you through each of the multiplayer maps with just the slightest trace of backstory to set up why you’re in that location and what you’re supposed to do. As you progress through each stage/map, you’re introduced to new elements and challenges that you’ll eventually face in Wolfpack mode.
This includes the new challenges that have been added to Wolfpack: Defend and Infection. With Defend, a number of treasure chests (dependant upon the number of players participating) will appear and its your job to defend them from would be thieves. The more successful you are, the more points you earn and the quick you progress to the next sequence. In Infection, a number of targets are “infected” and have to be avoided until you collect a health packet. Doing so makes the targets vulnerable and susceptible to your preferred method of execution.
That’s it for additions to the whole co-op aspect of Assassin Creed IV’s multiplayer. There are no new perks that make racking up those points easier, no special co-op moves (the sync kill is still around, fortunately), and nothing else that really incentivizes playing Wolfpack. While it does require a good deal of cooperation and communication, and it is a lot of fun with a group of friends, it doesn’t vary much match to match.
After a few rounds, you’re likely to find yourself missing the wind in your hair and the salty spray of the sea in your face. It’s great that the Discovery mode made its way in this go around, but it feels like the kind of thing that should have been present in the last iteration. What’s worse, it’s presence now just serves to highlight the stark lack of anything else new.
Permit me a little aside here. Going back to the idea of a new idea crammed inside of an existing IP, after my second day of playing Assassin’s Creed IV, I wondered why Wolfpack was, essentially, the only co-op mode available. Why wasn’t there a co-op mode where you and a bunch of friends could man the wheel, guns, sails, and decks of a ship, take it around the West Indies pillaging and plundering to your heart’s content, and then pull into port to do some missions similar to what’s in Wolfpack? This would be an entire undertaking unto itself that would require reworking multiplayer as a whole, so by no means do I feel like Ubisoft “dropped the ball” for not doing that. I just hope the mechanics and ideas in place with Assassin’s Creed IV aren’t left by the wayside altogether.
I like Assassin’s Creed IV, I just want to like it more. The parts of the game that are its strongest, i.e., the ship-to-ship combat and sailing, the main character, and his story, are not enough to help it entirely escape from those parts that drag it down, most of which are tied around it being an Assassin’s Creed title. The co-op mode is just as fun as it was in the previous entry, but there’s not much there to really warrant repeat playthroughs. In the end, Assassin’s Creed IV is a game that feels… well, like it’s greatness is waiting.
Editor's Note: The Co-Optimus Co-Op Review of Assassin's Creed IV was based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game.