After last year’s ponderous and risk-averse Assassin’s Creed III failed to be the intended shot in the arm for the increasingly samey historical running’n’stabbing series, AC4 doesn’t get to be the interim instalment its creators perhaps hoped it could be. AC2 was followed by two non-numbered playing for time chapters, but AC3’s colonial US setting and its charisma vacuum protagonist Connor has been unceremoniously dumped already.
Perhaps trying to salvage the dour Connor and his free-running, musket-wielding adventures in early New York and Boston would have been worthwhile, but AC4’s unexpected shift to a pirate-riddled Caribbean and a boisterous, initially amoral lad from Swansea quickly feels like the right decision. ‘Assassin’ in the title or no, this has long been series about the player’s pursuit of wealth and glory rather than stealth and subtlety, so playing as a greedy, sadistic pirate makes perfect sense.
It’s a weight off Assassin’s Creed’s infamously self-regarding shoulders – sure, the laughable overarching tale about ancestor races, apocalyptic prophecies, memory simulators and warring illuminati remains to some degree, but it’s downplayed massively in favour of refreshingly unfettered derring do and dastardly deeds on the high seas.
Things do not begin well, as AC4 spends its first couple of hours mired in the beyond-dreary endless tutorial paradigm that laid the last couple of Creeds so low. Each AC seems obsessed with being as accessible as possible to someone who’s never played another game in the series, regardless of how many grandmothers need be taught how to suck eggs as a consequence, but at the same time it breezily bombards everyone with the continuity-overloaded gibberish it’s crammed into the obese, preposterous plot of the last five games.
Fortunately, both sins give way to relative freedom at around the three hour mark – still far too long to spend being told for the umpteenth time how to jump onto a wall or stick a sword into a nasty man, but a vast improvement on AC3’s agonising 8 hours of tutorial. Better still, the freedom you’re given is not simply the same old running and stabbing, but the helm of a well-armed pirate ship and an ocean full of enemies, islands, secrets and loot.
AC’s traditional roof-hopping escapades are in evidence if you visit larger settlements such as Nassau and Havana, but for the most part you’ll be bombarding the Spanish navy with a round of cannons, harpooning sharks or diving for lost treasure. The game’s as complicated to control as it is broad in theme, but soon enough all of this becomes second nature, and the hunger for cash and upgrades to your increasingly impressive ship becomes overwhelming.
You’ll be greedily scouring the map for the telltale icons which reveal the locations of Royal fleets, blue whales, colonial forts and plantations, and while the whole thing rides on the back of itch-scratching, it’s also a constant party. Naval combat essentially plays like a trailer for Master and Commander: all the drama, almost none of the complexity of ship-to-ship battles, but cannonfire and boarding is a refreshing change from AC’s traditional roof pursuits and clumsy eavesdropping.
It’s compulsive and agreeably ridiculous, with some brilliant scenery and a great sense of scale in its oceanic destruction, but at the same time the nuts and bolts of Assassin’s Creed – parkour, melee combat, architectural puzzle-solving – are treated so perfunctorily, and feel like just one more insulting repeat of what these games have been asking us to do for almost a decade. It does feel like this is Assassin’s Creed trying to bide its time, squeeze the last juice out of this generation of consoles, before it finally has to rethink a few things from scratch. Assassin’s Creed 4 winds up being a great pirate game, which is hardly an over-subscribed marketplace, but whether it’s a great Assassin’s Creed game is another matter entirely.