The Backlog: Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag

Welcome back to The Backlog. The Backlog is space where we talk about games from our piles of shame: the game we've had for some time and are just now playing. This week, it's Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag. You can also checkout last month's Backlog here.

*Brace yourselves, mateys, as there be spoilers fer both Assassin's Creed 3 and 4: Black Flag ahead. Should ye not have played these games to completion, be wary, and consider these waters... dangerous*

I've said it before in podcasts, but I think I'll set the thought down in print, just to make it official. The further away from Assassin's Creed 3 I get, the less I like it, and the more resentful I am of the hours I wasted on it. I put the blame for that squarely on two factors: Connor's naivete, and an ending that removes the player from the action.

Why am I bringing these things up in a Backlog feature? Because they are in complete opposition to the things Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag did right. In giving us a protagonist who cared bollocks for the Templar/Assassin feud in the beginning, AC4 mirrored my experience with the series, drawing me back in and earning my respect. It cemented those thoughts with the little details of the conspiracy, and finally tied the whole package up with an ending as weird, satisfying, and full of questions as those entries prior to 3's atrocity.

Maybe atrocity is a tad strong. But I feel it's well earned by AC3, and by Connor in particular. As a character, he was a bit milquetoast, offering nothing but your standard revenge story. Had it not been done better in the previous entries in the series, namely Ezio's own journey into the league of shadowy killers, it still would have been fairly rote. Boy travels to America, Boy meets Indians, Boy falls in love with Indian woman and they have a child, Boy turns out to be a Templar, New Boy grows up, Old Boy's Templar buddies kill mother, New Boy and Old Boy are both pissed and... shit happens.

Regardless of his personal story, Connor's faults as a character are a direct result of his own ancestors. With Altair, star of the first Creed, we were introduced to the conflict and the wild sci-fi ridiculousness that accompanied it. Where Altair was deeply entrenched in the organization, and our familiarity with it grew as he rose up the ranks, the series' next star, Ezio, was an outsider, with his only connection to the conflict being through the secret life of his Assassin father. His story begins as one of revenge, but as it progresses through AC2, Brotherhood, and Revelations, his experience, as well as our own, shapes it into something different. We grow up as Ezio grows up, and through his experiences, we too become the grizzled old leaders of the Assassins.

AC3's auspicious beginning has us in the shoes of Haytham, an experienced character and one fitting of the position most players were in. I make that assumption, that most players had come having experienced the other games, because the big Shyamalanian twist, regarding Papa Kenway would have meant nothing to someone new to the series.

And then... Connor. We, the experienced player, well versed in the generation spanning conflict for the very soul of the known world, are put back into the shoes of a novice, forced to slowly live through the same build up we played through three games ago. Only, it's some how worse because Connor never gets to have those same Ezio moments. Instead we play through hours of conflicted story, with Connor trying to find some middle ground between his people, his Father (the Templar), and his mentor Achilles (the Assassin). We, as players, know this is fruitless, as the very conventions that make up the Assassin's Creed stories, those of Desmond fighting this same conflict in the present/future, but we are forced to watch the inevitable happen. Connor loses everything, and where I am supposed to find sympathy for his plight, I find nothing but indifference bordering on flat out disinterest.

Edward, father of Haytham and pirate star of AC4, is, by contrast, a breath of, well, at least slightly unwashed air. Much like myself at the start of this game, Edward, even when introduced to the central conflict of the series, gives exactly ZERO fucks about Templars, Assassins, or the ridiculousness of their daily lives and interactions with each other. He's in it for the money, for the freedom, and it's only through the course of the game's story that he, I, begin to care about what's going on. He takes the journey we never experience with his grandson, and in the process endears himself to me in a way that Connor (despite the hatchet/dagger combination which guaranteed my purchase) never did.

While the journey itself is an important, probably the most important, part of the story, it's the responsibility of the ending to tie everything together, to show us something different then we started with. For Connor, that ending never happened. With the final two chapters of his story devoted to the death of his father and the exacting of his revenge, Ubisoft is given the opportunity to make good on its responsibility. It not only doesn't do that, it botches both so completely that result is the light, the filter, through which the rest of the game, and its failures, are exposed. Instead of an epic fight worthy of both combatants, a clash of father and son, grandiose posturing versus high idealism, we get wounded warriors, hurt by cannon fire. It's a clumsy back and forth, it's symbolism of both characters' broken spirits - an equally clumsy metaphor.

It's with great surprise then when this low point is overshadowed by his final encounter with Charles Lee. A chase scene, itself a confusing mess of unclear routes and stumble-inducing civilians, ends with Lee and Connor injured, not dead. The death, comes nearly 5 minutes later, DURING A CUTSCENE, where the two, still injured, share a drink, miles away from the where the chase took place. There's no last words, no final explanation, nothing but a nod to signal Lee's acceptance of his fate. The scene comes with no player agency, no button prompts, nothing to make you even feel that you were a part, or involved in the death of a man you spent the majority of the game working towards.

Juxtapose this to the end of Edward's story. Now fully involved in the conflict, he makes his way through the Observatory, facing guards and climbing puzzles, before the final leap, a plunge through the air and into the heart of Torres, who in his death, both chastised the brash young pirate and offered respect for the depth of his convictions. It was a fitting end, one which engaged the player even after the world faded and the final conversation began. It was a complete 180, and left me with hope for the future of the series.

It's a cautious hope though. Ubisoft has so many hands stirring the pot that I am really not surprised AC3 was an eventual result. Given the history we have explored, and what's known about the coming sequels, I can only sit back and watch as the next chapter takes us into Revolutionary France, away from the comfort of the warm Caribbean and back into the heart of the Europe.

Side Note: Realize that while I said a lot, I probably missed the point of this feature. So... Sailing a pirate ship is rad. Eavesdropping missions still suck. Really liked the Hacking puzzles. Couching the whole thing as a game studio was a great idea. Pirates. Arrrrgggh!

Well, that does it for this edition of The Backlog.

Reviewer and Editor for Darkstation by day, probably not the best superhero by night. I mean, look at that costume. EEK!