After nearly a year of pussyfooting around, I finally finished Assassin's Creed: Black Flag on my last week of "vacation." It was time consuming, but not because it was especially difficult. Assassin's Creed: Black Flag is easily the most accommodating of the Assassin's Creed titles I've played to date, a far cry from the first Assassin's Creed rhythm-puzzle style of play, which required fluidly moving in and out of combat, and punished minor mistakes with swift and merciless desynchronization. No, Assassin's Creed: Black Flag's accommodating nature was actually the aspect of it that gang-pressed me into doing something I almost never do with a game: tracking down every collectible to get a 100% completion rating.
Don't get me wrong, my OCD is often tapped by games and wrung into a kind of strange aberrant productivity that propels me to try the same stupid task over and over again in the hopes of unlocking some kind of meaningless achievement or bonus item I don't need. But usually there's a ceiling to it: the shitty "shoot around a wall" puzzle in Wolfenstein that I have to solve to find that gold, requiring an hour of trial and error, is going to lose me. I just don't care about gold that much, the puzzle structure is too obtuse, and I want to hear the next hilariously bad piece of dialogue coming down the pipe in the main story. I'm going to have to solve dozens of other poorly designed puzzles while I play as well if I want to get that sweet, sweet 100% feather in my hat, which means fewer jokes-about-sex-with-a-Polish-woman per hour, and more controller-snapping frustration infiltrating my good-enough shooting. Fuck that!
Black Flag curtails this boredom by making all of its achievements more or less achievable, out of the box. Some of them take more work than others - one in particular, requiring me to kill two people who only stand together very briefly at the start of their patrol pattern at the same time, required the interdiction of a guide - but for the most part, they're all laid bare. Collectibles are highlighted on the map. What's more, "Accomplishments," which were gated in previous Assassin's Creed games, are also highlighted from the get-go. Not only can I see where I need to go to get all the sweet, sweet collectibles out of the box, I can see what I need to do to unlock cheats, costumes, and other stuff I know I'll never use. The end result is a kind of amplification of my instinct to chase shiny things in video games, a propulsion towards readily accessible achievements: if I can see an end goal in sight, I can tackle it, and I'm a lot less likely to be discouraged if I have to beat my head against a wall to do so (and I did, quite a few times).
There's also a great deal to be said for how well-designed Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed titles have become. Black Flag is a remarkably well crafted game, and the puzzles reflect how the intuitive controls that have been in place since the first title in the series have finally been matched with level design that actually permits players to apply the same intuitive principles to navigation that they already apply to movement. If I see a challenge on my Objectives readout, or a collectible hanging in mid-air, I can usually see a path to it in my environment, or get a sense of how a path will emerge if I keep moving around. That's a far cry from the first Assassin's Creed's wacky "flag system," which required me to explore areas I'd never explore and do things I'd never do, or even consider doing, to find items I didn't really need. Black Flag marks a laudable movement away from the hard-core notion that exploration is its own reward: it codifies it to draw players into new places, and then lets players to take in the scenery if they like.
And holy shit, the scenery! I actually spent a half-hour one night sitting on top of an ancient Mayan ruin, staring out into the ocean. There was nothing to be gained by doing so, no achievement on the docket, though I had been drawn to the area by a collectible marker on the map. It was just a beautiful sight, and it gave me a chance to reflect on just how amazing the world that's been crafted around me in this game could really be. That's the real power of Black Flag: it's not that it can compel me to collect random bits of light, it's that it can compel me to collect random bits of light while making me feel like I'm being rewarded just for navigating the environment. To someone who grew up playing Everquest on a broken 3D-add-on video-card that interpreted the entire landscape of the game as white polygons flushed in pink shadows, the fact that a developer has created an environment I take in with the same intensity I apply to a painting is insane.
But it is a painting, in many ways. Artists worked hard to design those areas, and make them into beautiful, functional works. The effort is hardly new, it's just that the quality of the finished product has improved so dramatically and completely that here, at long last, is an environment where I can sit and take in not just an image or a character or an object, but a world. The medium of games has always aimed at accomplishing this, it's just been striving against invisible barriers along the way. Black Flag surmounts them without apparently trying to do so - in aspiring to craft an immersive landscape, they so fully succeed that I can immerse myself and simply inhabit a space if I choose to do so. At one point, I found myself sailing a great distance without using travel mode, taking in the sounds of the sea, tacking against an oncoming wind, the same way I would in a real sailboat. The end result wasn't tedious or awkward. It was wonderful. It reminded me of sailing with my dad, and it actually made me understand the process of tacking against the wind more fully. Inhabiting this virtual world, full of cute little shortcuts, and avoiding those shortcuts, made me understand something sailors have been doing as long as they've been sailing. I could do this, mind you, but I didn't have to. If I wanted to, I could just move the ball forward by disabling things like "wind impacting sea travel," or I could just open up a map and press X over the map icon I want to travel to.
And therein lies the rub: Black Flag arguably streamlines itself too well. Most of the story missions are easy, particularly if you ignore the optional objective requirements. You can breeze through some of them in five or ten minutes, which makes the story often feel less like a narrative frame, and more like a kind of checklist: killed this guy, killing this guy, will kill this guy. Occasionally the pace slows down, but it happens in fits and starts: some missions will pass in swift, violent fugue, others will drag on with conversation set against beautifully realized landscapes. The very ease that made me seek out every last chunk of collectible love in the game feels off, somehow, when translated into narrative structure. I find myself missing the kind of drawn-out carriage chases and pope-fights of Assassin's Creed 2's definitive revision on the series. Instead of taught chases through ancient ruins, I'm permitted to circumspectly stroll around the outskirts of them until, poof, stab in the neck, cutscene, memory-reset.
I think I might be alone in lamenting this change. Assassin's Creed has always been an ambitious series with some remarkable heft behind its gameplay and environment design, but the first game consisted of missions that involved long periods of buildup that most players found unpleasant. I say most players, because I never felt that way: to me, they were raw catharsis, the opening movements of a dance I learned in my youth that I stumblingly perform without thinking, again and again. Every entry in the series has dedicated itself towards balancing these disparate elements: AC2 made the story missions more character driven, and broke up the pattern that the first Assassin's Creed's limited mission types imposed on play. AC3 made the landscapes and models of play more diverse by making dedicated play in fully realized non-urban environments a staple of the series, instead of a break from play-as-usual, and made its story missions into more scripted, individuated sequences. Black Flag is a step back from that script-heavy production, in one sense, but in moving away from those longer, more directive mission archetypes, it's generated a framework that allows it to streamline things that are, I think, sometimes best left drawn out: character development, narrative development, and dialogue all exist partially divorced from play in Black Flag, occurring largely in cutscenes, or in long sequences of naval travel. That is not to say that I especially liked following people down the streets of Venice while carrying a box, but I did enjoy bantering with a slaver as I chased him across the rooftops of Jerusalem, uncovering the complexities of the plot he was a part of through his taunts. I miss the space for that sort of banter to occur, and that's exactly what Black Flag, with its superlative streamlining, the same superlative streamlining that permitted me to dig through every inch of the game world, has eliminated.
I'd lament the loss further, but I can't bring myself to linger. There's just too much other amazing shit happening in Black Flag. And then there's Unity, floating on the horizon of my backlog, inching closer with each tack.