Playing Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag caused me to ruminate on the franchise quite a bit over the course of the 50 hours I put into it. A lot of the meditations concerned themselves with objective quality, namely the series’ story arc and various character growths. It’s easy to see where all the missteps occurred in the first game and the seemingly aggressive indifference with which Assassin’s Creed III was approached, but it goes much deeper.
I can recall the single question I would meaningfully ask myself at the beginning of each game because it strangely carries massive import for me: what is the new interface going to look like? It’s so strange that something that only serves to provide a path from one metaphysical layer to another—a necessary roadblock to provide intermediate actions—when there’s so much to climb, stab, and discover.
It makes me happy, though, seeing discrete differences crop up within each franchise iteration, even when the interfaces themselves are somewhat lackluster. (While serviceable, the menus in Black Flag are missing any sort of visual movement and excitement.) Slices of DNA-based memories floating in the ether, beautifully minimalist red blocks over gray clouds, and all that sort give the impression of progress in the series.
It then makes me wonder, however, if it is nothing more than an impression, a facade. It’s all fine and dandy to put a new coat of paint and some wax on your old beat-up Chevy, but it doesn’t make the engine more powerful or the steering any tighter.
As we go through each game in the series, it’s obvious the changes made to the game’s core. Ezio’s climbing animations became more varied and the highly repetitive mission structure became slightly less repetitive. Connor finally learned how to strafe ever-so slightly while sprinting and assassinate dudes on the run. Edward then made combat the fastest it’s ever been and figured out how to aim cannons on a ship.
Save for the naval stuff starting in Assassin’s Creed III and the use of other assassins with Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, the improvements are, well, less than substantial. Many of the complaints you can level against the first and extremely divisive game still hold true with Black Flag. Eight games later and they still haven’t figured out that no one likes eavesdropping on guards, tailing noblemen, or spending egregious amounts of time fighting. But guess what: that’s all still there.
To the high point of the franchise (which I consider Brotherhood to be), Ubisoft simply added more layers to the cake until all those problems eventually become peas under the mattress. Improving the villa, recruiting assassins, and buying landmarks were all distractions from the still too-often-annoying combat and sometimes frustrating parkour, the two biggest parts of the games.
Sometimes they were obvious mistakes like the tower defense stuff in Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, but they were quickly excised. And then other times they were iterated on until everyone realized the problems the first time around are inherent to the framework like ship battles. But whether a step forward or a step back or a step in a new direction, none of them directly address the problems that still exist even in Black Flag.
Case in point: the ultimate culmination in things that are horrible with Assassin’s Creed in tailing another ship with your own ship that turns at a glacial pace, like a record player attempting to rotate running, half-frozen maple syrup. Ubisoft wondered if attaching one of the more popular parts of Assassin’s Creed III could fix one of the most hated parts of every other game would create an exciting new amalgam. Instead they created a monster.
Kirk Hamilton’s review of Black Flag opens with a sort of thesis-rumination hybrid. You spend an interminable amount of time running nowhere in each Assassin’s Creed game as new levels and missions load. Running and running and running forever, getting nowhere and seeing nothing. He views it as a question of whether the series has a destination, much like you don’t have one running in those Animus clouds of digital nonsense.
But it seems to me more like it’s running away instead. It’s trying to avoid all the problems the series has cultivated since 2007, closing doors and pulling down merchant stands as you try to catch it to enumerate the issues you’ve had logged in an ever growing notebook. But it can’t run away. It ends up exactly where it began: mired in a pool of its own struggles, festering and unattended.
I still think Black Flag is a good game, just as is Brotherhood and certain parts of, well, all the rest of them. But the series as a whole is lost, a buoy floating in the middle of an endless sea. It bobs up and down with a depressing yet somewhat charming futility, clamoring with increasing frequency and amplitude as the shore becomes an impossible dream. And the ripples quickly die out mere inches from its base. No one sees its desires for a land-side salvation. We only see a buoy floating, bobbing. Heading nowhere.