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.