the first few hours: Assassin’s Creed 4

My hopes for Assassin’s Creed 4 were virtually non-existent, to be frank.  It wasn’t just a matter of low expectations; it was simply that, after falling in love with Brotherhood and then being so incredibly disappointed by both Revelations and last year’s straight-up broken AC3, I didn’t want to have to care anymore.  I certainly didn’t expect very much out of yet another annual sequel, especially if it was rushed for a new console launch.

But the positive reviews of AC4 got me too curious to sit back; and when I’m curious, I get frisky; and when I’m frisky, I end up spending money before I have a chance to think about what I’m doing.

And so I bought the PC version.  The deluxe edition.

And after around 3 hours or so, I think I’m in love again.

Furthermore, now that I’ve had this joyous introduction with 4, I think I can better explain what went wrong in Rev and 3.  I mean, I’d finished the first three games pretty thoroughly and probably sunk at least 100 hours of playtime over the course of that trilogy, and so I considered myself a pretty hard-core AC fan; but man, Rev and AC3 immediately rubbed me the wrong way, and I never thought I’d go back after feeling so personally affronted.

Basically, the problems with Revolutions were two-fold.  First, there was far too much tutorializing in the early going.  Again, remember that I’d already played the first 3 games and knew them inside and out – I didn’t need to be interrupted every 30 seconds to tell me how to jump or climb or unsheathe a sword.  And it didn’t help that the controls – in Revolutions, at least – didn’t feel right.

But on top of that, there were all these brand-new systems on top of the old ones; I’d just barely finish learning one new thing and the game would already be teaching me 3 new systems, and it became almost impossible to keep track of anything – not just the moves themselves, but the story and the characters and why the hell I was even doing what I was doing.  There was no opportunity to establish any kind of flow.  (I’ll come back to this point in a second.)

Furthermore, the animation, while still beautiful and graceful, was so heavily prioritized over everything else that I’d miss jumps that I shouldn’t have, or I’d still be leaping instead of swinging a sword.  By the time the tower defense stuff started happening in earnest, I’d all but given up.  I didn’t care anymore; I was doing these things not out of story necessity, but because the developers thought that what made Brotherhood so good was the addition of all these new features, and so they felt obligated to throw the entire kitchen sink and the pantry and the dining room table into the mix for Revelations.

The problems with AC3 are a little less complex; basically, that game was just straight-up unfinished.  I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered so many game-breaking bugs in a major console release; I got stuck in geometry more times than I can count.  To its credit, it did at least get out of its own way and let you do a bit more exploring without constantly interrupting you, and so ironically it suffered the opposite problem from Revelations – it introduced a ton of new features but didn’t explain any of them.  None of the trading or hunting stuff made any sense to me, but it also seemed clear that I’d need to get good at those elements in order to stand a fighting chance towards the end of the game; I gave up on it before I allowed myself to get that frustrated.

So the clearest difference between those two games and this new one, then, is how AC4 just kinda starts and gives you an entire island to figure things out on your own, where you can explore at your own pace, and simply learn through doing and seeing how things work in context.  Sure, there’ll be a button prompt here or there, but for the most part the game stays out of your way.

That first island is brilliant, too, because it’s really well designed; there’s tons of hidden things to find and discover, and since that’s the way I like to play, I had an absolute blast with it.  Reminded me a fair amount of Far Cry 3, actually – and I mean that in a good way, because I really enjoyed most of FC3.

As I said before, I’m playing it on my PC, and it looks absolutely beautiful.  So beautiful, in fact, that it’s the first game I’ve played on my PC where I’ve had to really turn things down and/or off in order to get a stable/playable frame rate.  And even then, on the lower settings, it still looks great – maybe not as great as I’d like in order to take screenshots, but it’s definitely nothing shabby.  (Side note – the “modern” sections of the game tend to lock up on me, though, even on those lower settings.)  Frankly, it really makes me want to either get a new graphics card or… um… get a new console.

Anyway – I’m now in Havana, having synchronized almost all the viewpoints there, and I’ve done a fair bit of exploring and random side stuff (found some buried treasure, snatched a few sea shanties and Abstergo fragments, rescued a few pirates, etc.) and now I’m on my 3rd or 4th mission.  Very much looking forward to seeing what happens next.

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