In May, I was ready to give up on Assassin’s Creed. I’m one of the few people who were genuinely captivated by the original game, back in 2007, and one of the many utterly delighted by the sequel in 2009. While Brotherhood and Revelations offered diminishing satisfaction, AC3 was flat-out disappointing--as if the series had totally forgotten itself in favour of scale, bombast and fucking boats. The very boaty, very bloated, Black Flag was--I thought, back in May--the end of my relationship with the Creed.
If you’ve read my review of Black Flag, you’ll know that my outlook on the game grew significantly more cheery between May and October. However, that was little to do with the actual ‘Assassin’s Creed’ portion of the game, which I still believe needs a brutal editing by the senior creatives at Ubisoft. No, the true beauty of AC4 is the Black Flag portion.
By ‘Black Flag’ portion, I’m referring to the piracy. The bits where you sail around the Caribbean in a big ol’ ship, sinking Spanish galleons, brawling with drunks in bars, and digging up stacks of loot. I love all that. Seems I’m not alone in my opinion either, as everyone I’ve spoken to has said: “Well, it doesn’t really feel like a good Assassin’s Creed game, but I love being a pirate”. I’m paraphrasing here, but the sentiment remains. So, why the hell shouldn’t Black Flag just become a separate gaming series in its own right? No Animus, no wrist-blades, no stern men wearing cowls. Just pirates. And loot. And maybe parrots.
Even after 30 hours of rampant plundering, I’m still keen to dip back in Ubisoft’s virtual Caribbean. I want more quiet little coves, more legendary ships to sink, more shanties to hear as I chop through the water. It’s such a pleasant place to be. I’d happily play another game in the same sort of world (albeit, with plenty of new stuff to see and do), and I’d absolutely welcome the idea of taking Black Flag’s brand of piracy to other waters. If Gore Verbanski can milk four films out of a theme-park ride from Disney Land, surely Ubisoft can squeeze more quality juice from the pirate theme.
Now, if it turns out that the next Assassin’s Creed game will be Black Flag 2, it wouldn’t come as a huge shock. However, that’s not the point I’m trying to make here--not at all. Black Flag needs to divorce itself from Assassin’s Creed for both their sakes. While a separate series would allow Black Flag to become the best, and pretty much only, pirate franchise on next-gen, it would also allow Assassin’s Creed to make a clean break from all the current-gen games (both in terms of story and gameplay tropes) and really rediscover its identity.
Assassin’s Creed’s past is very much holding the series back. The lore is taking ever more ridiculous steps to try and justify itself, which not only baffles regular players, but totally alienates newcomers. The final few stages of AC4 are totally out of sync (haha) with the main themes of the game, and it feels crushingly disappointing when you’re forced to delve back into the claptrap of pre-human civilisations and daft magic skulls. Add to that the fact that the core Assassin’s Creed mission types desperately need a rethink (especially after GTA showed the world how to keep an open-world game interesting and varied for 30 hours), and it’s obvious that the core of the series needs a refresh.
By giving Black Flag the opportunity to become its own thing, Ubisoft can satisfy our demand for scurvy pirate antics (and fill its own chest with booty for another year) and give the Assassin’s Creed franchise time to heal itself. Imagine the fun that could be had if an independent Black Flag game began to evolve its own mission types, which involve ever more outrageous methods of being a scoundrel. Forget eavesdropping--you could maroon your enemies on remote islands, force people to walk the plank, and romance the daughters of sugar barons--very much like Sid Meier’s Pirates. That’s the kind of stuff that could elevate Black Flag from 'good' to 'brilliant'.
Now, I love the series, but what Assassin’s Creed itself needs is a new game set in a totally new time period, with a return to proper stealth and rich, compact worlds. It doesn’t need to bloat further in some ludicrous arms race to build larger maps than its competitors. We don’t need 1000s of meaningless collectables or a hero who can kill 20 people at once--we need an actual Assassin who can weigh his cunning against one target at a time, making each kill actually mean something. Hey, the series isn’t called ‘Mass Murderer’s Creed’. When better to affect this change? With a new bunch of consoles that offer developers new features and tech to exploit. Like now.
Perhaps I’m being unfair. I know a lot of people really like the ‘People Who Came Before’ hoodoo. They like the complexity, the bloat, the formula. Realistically, I don’t see Ubisoft changing their vision for Assassin’s Creed because some bloke wrote an article saying he wants a bit of change--so if you’re an AC lore fan, I suspect you’ll be well catered for in the coming years. I just think that there’s a great opportunity here to keep the stuff people love and maybe rethink the bits that aren’t working as well, using new consoles as a tool for doing that. Liberate Black Flag--let it sail gloriously free as its own game--and give Assassins the love and attention it deserves too.