Assassin’s Creed IV has many problems, most of them inherited from Assassin’s Creed III. The free-running is sloppier than ever and actually trying to go to a particular place quickly (say, the top of a mast to take a flag) feels like a struggle against the game’s mechanics rather than a use of them. Combat, especially swordplay, is a mess plagued by a useless camera, and while stealth has improved slightly it’s not strong enough for the demands the game makes of it, especially in tailing and eavesdropping missions. The story is silly and inconsequential – in both the past and in the modern day the status quo is essentially unchanged by the events of the game – and is told very poorly. About the only thing that the game does right is the open-world pirating. Why do I want to fix it, and how?
One of the problems with the sea combat, and one that goes to the core of the game, is that the expansive sea battles and plundering have nothing to do with the Assassins, or (by and large) their skills. Mechanically and thematically the various parts of ACIV almost never talk to one another. There is this pirate sim, and then there is this trading sim that shares almost no resources with the pirate sim, and then sometimes this character gets out of the boat and sneaking and stabbing and story things happen. The pirate sim also co-exists very uncomfortably with the Assassin storyline. In the latter, Edward Kenway grows disillusioned with his quest for wealth and power and the meaningless death he causes along the way, while in the former Edward is still gleefully swinging on a rope onto a man o’ war to kill 20 sailors, 2 officers, and a captain en route to claiming a hold full of rum.
I feel like the game would work together better, at least mechanically, if ACIV were a better pirate sim. Popular fiction would have you believe that pirates commanded mighty ships and went into battle against the full force of European navies, but this was hardly the case. Pirates generally commanded smaller ships – sloops and schooners – and mostly avoided ship-to-ship combat against proper naval vessels, which usually outgunned them. They would operate by ambush, striking from inlets and shallows they knew well to attack merchant vessels. If a military boat showed up they took it by stealth if possible but more frequently they fled into places where because of shallow water or complex obstacles the military boats could not follow.
This connects, at least conceptually, with the Assassin side of the gameplay, which is about approaching unseen, striking quickly, and fleeing to safety. What ACIV lacks are mechanics to create this pirate game. There are no non-military ships (the game absurdly insists its pirate lead does not kill civilians), for one thing. Depth is not modeled, wind direction and speed are much less significant factors than they were in ACIII, and currents may as well not exist. As such, the factors that would (properly) make piracy similar to assassination are missing from ACIV‘s simulation. Putting them in – generating “hiding zones” in the sea from which Edward Kenway might make a deadly strike – would make the game a more coherent whole.
The problem with this approach is that capturing a Spanish Man o’ War is so much fun. There is something really enjoyable about dancing the inferior Jackdaw around massive attacks to incapacitate an enemy ship. I could do without most of the boarding stuff, honestly, but the hard-fought ship-to-ship combat is a blast.
So, a better way to improve the pirate game is to just lop the assassin game right off of it. Throw that away. Frankly, it sucks at this point, and there needs to be a serious rebuild of that core game before I’ll be interested in it again.
Instead, make a more complete pirate game. On a low level, put some of the sailing back into it. It’s not necessary to get super specific about how to tack, but make depth and wind more important considerations. Give that game seasonal weather so that danger zones shift. Add a layer of crew management (a la Skies of Arcadia) and fleet command – remember that many of the legendary pirates actually commanded small flotillas, not just a single ship. Make a game that’s not just about slugging it out with cannons, but about using the landscape and weather intelligently to defeat superior enemies.
And once those enemies are defeated, have something more compelling to do with the captured ships – namely, sailing them. A few historical pirates are identified with a single ship, but most of them upgraded or swapped regularly (Bart Roberts captained many ships, although most of them were named Fortune or Royal Fortune). Even the Queen Anne’s Revenge was an upgrade for Blackbeard – a merchant ship he captured and then loaded up with cannon. One of the strangest parts of ACIV is capturing a frigate or man o’ war and sending it off to schlep olive oil down to Africa. As a real pirate, Edward would almost certainly seize that ship for his own uses.
This would be a way to automatically build progression into the game. Starting out, your pirate may have nothing but a small sloop with a few guns that e can only use to pillage small merchant ships. Improving this starting vessel allows em to finally take on a decent-sized enemy, which e can then outfit for more piracy. Working eir way up allows em to take larger and larger prizes, but in order to gain enough money to sustain eir crew and repair the ship, e must work in waters that are more heavily trafficked and thus more frequently patrolled by strong military ships.
This is not to say that there can’t be a trade-based fleet sim in there, but it should feature resources that cross over between the trading level and the plundering level. If routes become dangerous (because of other pirates) then put the player in the position of pirate hunter for more ship-to-ship (or fleet-based) combat. Basically, make the trading sim an integral part of the game rather than a bare-bones element tucked into a closet.
Eliminating all these free-running zones would also allow for a larger and more spread out open world. Although its world is decent-sized, ACIV feels crowded – you’re never all alone on the open ocean. There are always a few ships or a half-dozen islands in view. Worse, those ships just sort of sail around in circles. A true pirate game where ships are going to and from somewhere along paths of least resistance, and there’s a lot of open ocean, is one where choices about where to sail and when have weight and consequence.
Really the problem I have with the pirating in Assassin’s Creed IV is that the shipboard mode feels too slight, and too disjoint from the rest of the game. It’s much more fun than the rest of ACIV, but it’s rarely more interesting. So, there’s nothing that wrong with it, but it can still be fixed by lopping off the part of the game that fits worst and making the pirate sim deeper and more integrated with the trade sim. The result would be a more coherent whole, and a pirate game I’d be very eager to play.