Assassin’s Creed: Pirate Edition is a game you can approach from two angles. It’s either the next entry in a series that isn’t currently too sure where it should be going, or a stroke of simplicity that’s utter genius. Despite finger wagging and sage nods from Ubisoft to assure us that this isn’t just a pirate game, what we’ve played of Black Flag argues that this isn’t the case. Assassin’s Creed 4 is an open world pirate game - and from what we’ve played, it seems like a bloody good one.
The recent splurge of phoned-in nonsense that spread like a pandemic across the industry caused many of us to forget that pirates are awesome, as proved Sid Meier's Pirates!: a game which proved addictive to the point of temporarily erasing my requirement to eat food, or wear trousers.
This potentially trouserless paradise is the real crux of what Black Flag might be able to offer. Assassin’s Creed 2 and later Brotherhood both proved equally morish even without mother-flipping pirate ships, baby. Ten minutes into my hands-on demo – when the German journalist watching me play got bored and wandered off to watch another station – I realised I was looking at something pretty damn cool.
“You can go and explore that island, if you want?” suggested the Ubisoft employee, his enthusiasm audibly starting to wane after three failed attempts to get me to stop sailing around in circles shooting cannons at anything and everything nearby. I’m on a beautiful boat, on a beautiful ocean, and I’ve got at least four different types of cannon. Islands can wait. I’m busy.
Speaking more directly to my sensibilities, the demo dude points out that I can use the d-pad to tell my crew to start singing sea shanties. Rigging the sails up to maxi-turbo mode, the camera swings way back to give me a glance at the beautiful ship that will function as Black Flag’s Monteriggioni Villa – a moving castle that you can tweak and upgrade, while keeping it stocked with a crew of expendable humans.
Cannons on the front of your ship fire long-distance spinning bola bastards that are great for wiping out a ship’s mast, the side cannons cause traditional chaos, and aiming to the back of the ship lets me drop a cheeky pair of exploding barrels. You can’t just hold down the aim button and swing 360 degrees to cycle through the four sets of weapons – if a ship escapes the firing angle of your cannons, you have to release the left trigger and move the camera round to select a different set of weapons, or physically maneuver the ship into a better position. If you’re feeling pro you can free-aim the cannons while still retaining full control of the ship – which is something I can’t wait to gradually master.
My attempts to board enemy vessels aren’t as slick as those shown in pre-canned demos, but if anything that comes as a relief. Mr. Pirate hops into the water, and fails to catch the escaping boat despite some proper Benny Hill swimming. When things finally do go to plan, the satisfaction is tangible. Captured ships earn better rewards, even if it isn’t as fun as just straight-up smashing them to pieces.
Crates of loot/booty/'looty' can be picked up from the sea by tapping a button, while capturing boats brings up the option of salvaging it to repair your own, or sending it off to join the fleet, leading into an optional mini-game that you can play on a tablet device. Ubi are going big on the dual-screen stuff this year, and while I’m not 100% fussed about this method of enhancing games, what they’ve done here looks fairly swish: have the map of the world on your lap and set real-time waypoints without menus. It's the exact sort of thing that makes me want to spend money I don’t have on things I don’t need.
With the exploits of Desmond and Danny-f**king-Wallace happily wrapped up in Assassin’s Creed 3, Ubisoft can finally put the sci-fi nonsense on the sidelines and concentrate on creating era-simulators. The noises it has made in interviews suggest the Animus will take a back-seat role, and the interface elements seem notably grounded - the glitchy electronic elements that pop up in the world seem downplayed this time, which suits me perfectly.
The desire for previous entries to tell a story always seemed to get in the way of what I like the most: exploring a world at my pace, and gradually working towards 100% completion. Black Flag has the potential to offer that and something far more satisfying than explosive hype. A bit of comfort-food gaming wouldn’t go amiss.
Everything I’ve seen and played so far makes Black Flag look like Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood: Pirate Edition. It won’t shiver any unexpected timbers, but it may well provide the kind of satisfaction that finds me hungry in a darkened room, only wearing pants. Hungry in your pants, with pirates. Ahoy!