Friday, May 16, 2014

Why Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag Is Pissing Me Off

No, this post is not about a movie.  It is about a video game.  But, it is a filmic video game, so there.

In early February, I upgraded my tech:  new TV (60 inch Sharp Aquos), PS4 and Xbox One.  The new generation of video game systems had come out mid-November 2013, and I hadn’t bought them at the time because there weren’t any games coming out at launch for either system which piqued my interest.  But since we were redoing the living room in February, the idea was to get everything in one shot, so I wouldn’t have to mess with it later.  To this date, I still don’t have a game for XB1 and only have one game for PS4.  Oddly enough, it was a launch title, but while I was initially interested in it because of the setting, I wasn’t particularly interested in Assassin’s Creed IV:  Black Flag because I hadn’t played any of the previous games in the series.  I didn’t know if it was important to know the backstory before playing the current game.  But I wanted something to play on all the new hotness sitting in my living room, and c’mon, it’s a game about pirates!

Initially, I really liked the game, because it is part of one of my favorite genres:  stealth.  I love stealth games.  Back in the days of PS1 and 2, I loved the Tenchu series.  But that affinity deepened when my lovely wife bought me the first XBox and two games, one of which was Splinter Cell.  I’ve played every Splinter Cell since (except Essentials on PSP, but I do own it and will get around to it someday).  I’ve played other stealth games, too, most notably the Commandos PC games, Hitman 2 on PC and the first two Metal Gear Solids.  I often employed stealth tactics in games like Fallout 3 and New Vegas rather than taking the “guns blazing” approach.  When Dishonored came out, I snapped it up.
So, if the previous iterations of Assassin’s Creed were stealth-based, why hadn’t I played them before?  The first game in the series was set during the Crusades, which didn’t really interest me.  Also, there’s a bunch of the plot connected to the Templars.  This was around the time when The Da Vinci Code was making a lot of buzz.  I don’t get the appeal of the Templars.  But I guess I'm the outlier.  I occasionally get student research papers on it.  The second set of games took place during The Renaissance, and I read reviews where Leonardo da Vinci was a character you could interact with.  You could use his inventions as part of gameplay.  This is where readers may shake their heads at me, but I like a measure of realism in things like games and movies.  Yes, these media are total constructions in and of themselves, but I like as much realism as possible when I am trying to put myself in another time, place, and person.  That’s what allows me immersion.  I’ll give you an example.  I really liked Kessen allowing me to run around in Sengoku Japan.  But when Kessen II and III included magic and became more like Dynasty Warriors, I lost interest.
I almost bought Assassin’s Creed III because it took place in Colonial America and looked amazing graphics-wise, but I never got around to it.  With Black Flag being about pirates, and me needing something to give my new toys a work-out, I picked it up.  And it does look absolutely amazing.  I’ve never seen water rendered so realistically.  Sound is great.  I love it when the pirates singshanties.  And it is a genuinely fun game to play.  Cool array of weapons (pistols, swords, blowpipes), lots of upgrades for your ship, the Jackdaw, interesting locations with lots to do in each.  Sailing is fun and engaging (hunting various kinds of whales and sharks, avoiding [or in some cases attacking] forts and patrols, finding treasure chests and messages in bottles).  And I get to dive and explore shipwrecks while trying to avoid sharks and jellyfish.

There’s plenty to like.  But now, as I have 76% of the game completed, I am getting more and more annoyed.  Here’s why:
The Frame:  I do not play this game.  I am actually playing as a person working for Abstergo Entertainment who has been hired not to play the game per se but to experience memories of Edward Kenway, who (for the purposes of the game) was a real person who lived during the era of pirates.  I experience his memories in order to log data that can eventually be turned into a game.  Again, this is the first game in the series I’ve played, so this meta-narrative has been developed over several games.  It all ties in to the Templars (Abstergo Entertainment is the contemporary version of the Templars, which is a really bad move on their part if they’ve seen current Nintendo and Sony financial reports – video games are not the business to go into for profit and power).  Since I’m not at all acquainted with the previous content of the framework, I really couldn’t give a shit about the meta-narrative, and I’m not really sure how this makes the overall game better.  If anything, it alienates newcomers.  I don’t know – maybe this has been a ridiculously exciting part of the series heretofore, but I highly doubt it.  What sounds more entertaining to you?  Being a pirate or sitting in front of a computer at a cubicle?
The fact that I HAVE to play the Frame:  Nothing takes me out of this game, both literally and figuratively, then when I am forced to play the employee of Abstergo Entertainment.  Apparently, I am wonderful at my job and doing well, but I have this asshole who runs the information booth or Starbucks in the downstairs lobby that always wants me to go hack the mainframe to find out what is going on with research.  Oh my God, I don’t give a fuck!  I was being a pirate!  I was just kicking the British Fleet’s ass!  You want me to do what with the mainframe?  And not just that, but the hacking is so ridiculous.  Let me show you:
Hack Type One is when there’s this globe, and by rotating the globe along lines, you somehow make a connection.  It looks like this:
Hack Type Two is where you manipulate numbers in order to try to match a prescribed wavelength.  It looks like this:
Hack Type Three is like playing Frogger except you are a dot of light instead of a frog trying to make your way across breaks in lines of light instead of traffic and logs.  It looks like this:

Now, my personal experience with hacking has been very low-tech, but I’m willing to bet good money or an organ that this is not how people hack computers.  I’m fairly certain that Edward Snowden would piss himself laughing looking at these “hacks.”  For the first one, I literally just move the joystick around until I get the message that I was successful (how or why is a mystery to me).  For the second, I just fiddle with numbers until I get the wave patterns to match (again, no skill, just moving cursors around).  The third takes more effort (especially after a few beers), but I still make it through.  Then Starbucks tells me to go back to my room and get back to work.  How does this make the game experience better?  I’m truly at a loss for why this time-wasting shit is in the game.  And do you know the reward I get for successfully hacking (whatever that means)?  I GET TO READ INTER-OFFICE EMAIL!  Wow!  Really?  Like I don’t get enough of that in my regular life.  Honestly, whenever I have to log out of the Animus and do anything inside the frame, I feel like the game is punishing me for all the fun I’m having looting and pillaging the world as a pirate.
The Plot:  Again, the premise of this game and series is wedded heavily to the Templars and whatever they were doing at that time and place in history(maybe).  Whenever I have to pursue the missions of the main quest, I let out a little sigh and prepare myself  to hear about motivations and sacrifices and evils that I truly don’t care about.  When I play games, I’m a completist.  That means I like to get every treasure, find every location, get every item I can.  So I’ve been nearly everywhere in the Caribbean and found almost everything, completed every side quest, mission, and found almost every treasure chest and Animus fragment there is.  What is left now is the main missions.  I shouldn’t be cringing.

 The Protagonist.  Edward Kenway.  So what?  Essentially, think of a more rougher, unkempt version of Heath Ledger trying to follow the storyline of Wesley from The Princess Bride.  He lurves a young lass, ye know, but he hasn’t a pot to piss in.  So he sets out from Wales to seek his fortune as a privateer, and through misfortune (or fortune, what have you), crosses paths with an assassin, Duncan Walpole, and assumes his identity for a while and finds out about the Templars and the crazy shit.  It is then he becomes obsessed with the Templars and the Assassins and tries to find out all he can.  This leads him astray from his young lass waiting back in Wales for him (he told her he wouldn’t be more than two years) and is all about obtaining power and wealth and unlocking the secrets of the Templars and Assassins.
Um … no better way to put this … but Kenway’s a dick.
Don’t get me wrong – he gets bent over by many people in this game who know more or are just smarter than he is (not a difficult task), but he doesn’t treat anyone very well in this game.  His quartermaster, Adewale, leaves him, fed up.  He is tossed off of his ship twice (so far) for other captains.  He doesn’t seem to care about anyone or anything except himself.  He’s not what you would call an effective boss.  So when bad shit happens to him in the game (which, during the main quest, is often), I don’t tend to care too much.  I more or less blame him for putting me in ordeals that I now have to get out of.  It’s his mess, but I  have to clean it up.
New Bone and Invisible Walls:  There is one place on the map I haven’t been to yet:  New Bone.  It has treasure I need to dig up, chests I need to find, and Animus fragments.  But can I go there?  No.  Why?  Because this game, which seems so open, is subject to invisible walls.  Some of the walls are actual walls (meaning I get a wall of what looks like blue snot and a message from a game that says that area is not available in my “sequence” yet).  Some of them are what I get when I try to go to New Bone – a wall of ships that I cannot defeat.  Never mind that I’ve defeated the same type and more in other areas of the game.  These fuckers are indestructible.  I can’t get past them. So I’m left to go back to the main quest.  *sigh*
Anne Bonny:  I don’t care.  I don’t care.  There’s this whole subplot where Mary Read (disguised as James Kidd, William Kidd’s “son”) and Anne Bonny were captured and about ready to be put to death until they revealed they were both pregnant (apparently, you can’t put a pregnant woman to death).  This is revealed while Edward is in prison in Jamaica, and Edward learned of James’ identity before that.  While Edward tries to rescue them both from the Jamacian prison with the aid of an Assassin, Mary dies (aww), and the groaning-in-labor Anne is taken away.  Later, she is found on an island with the Assassins, and Edward takes her on as his quartermaster (since the awesome Adewale quit).  Argh!  Don’t pirates know that womens is bad luck on ships?  Now I have to hear her voice call out orders on a boat full of men.
Again, don’t get me wrong – I really have enjoyed playing this game, and there is much more good than bad.  But the bad is starting to grate on me.  I also, in this time span, played and finished Brothers:  A Tale of Two Sons.  It is the opposite of this game.  Outstanding story, great characters, innovative gameplay, very short.  If they make a sequel, I’m in, even though the game was emotionally punishing (for non-gamers, read that last sentence again, because it’s true).  The next Assassin’s Creed is set in the French Revolution.  I won’t be playing.

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