NYT VIDEO GAME REVIEW: Does It Say ‘Arrgh’ When You Make a Kill?


Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag Delves Into Pirate Lore, Stephen Totilo writesin this review for The New York Times.

The pirate adventure Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is nearly as long and almost as beautiful as an actual vacation to the tropics.

This new video game’s main story line casts its player as the fictional early-18th-century pirate Edward Kenway and can run 30 hours to its narrative conclusion, still leaving half of its glimmering Caribbean unexplored. In that time and in the adventures beyond it, virtual travelers may explore a period-precise Havana and Kingston, Jamaica; visit Nassau, the Bahamas, and Tulum, Mexico; and sail to dozens of islands. They may see churches, slip through plantations, kill British and Spanish authorities (to a pirate, they’re all bad) and take to the high seas to plunder a galleon, harpoon a whale or follow a treasure map to a buried chest.

Over all, Black Flag’s Caribbean archipelago is a nice place to be, if you don’t mind the killing.

Assassin’s Creed is among gaming’s most exotic feats of annual engineering. Developed by hundreds of game makers from around the world for the multinational company Ubisoft, and led by a team in Montreal, it is, arguably, modern pop culture’s most effective nonliterary vehicle for cultural tourism. The series transports players to the vast cities and countrysides of the 12th-century Holy Land; cities of the Italian Renaissance and the American Revolution; and the late-18th-century New Orleans. Ignoring the story lines, players can walk down the streets of places from history books and mingle with commoners of the era.

The protagonists have also been an atypically diverse bunch, from the Syrian-born Altaïr Ibn-La’Ahad of the first game to last year’s half-Native American, half-British Connor né Ratonhnhaké:ton. Assassin’s Creed IV sails a more conventional tack with the white, Welsh Kenway at the helm. This time, the game player is a pirate. Blackbeard, Anne Bonny and a battery of other famous pirates are along for the voyage, too. In terms of popular culture and historical tourism, this is a less bold choice, a seemingly unnecessary move toward the mainstream for a franchise that sold 12 million copies of last year’s game.

The lack of daring subject matter is outweighed by the execution of the pirate fantasy. We may spend part of the game stalking corrupt politicians and enemy agents on the streets of old Havana, but it is on the sea where the game sparkles. There, Kenway is in command of an upgradeable two-masted pirate ship with the freedom to spot British brigs and Spanish schooners; aggressively unload a variety of cannon shot into their hulls; and sidle up, crew against crew, leap onto the opposing deck and swordfight with the enemy captain. No moment in this huge game is more satisfying than the successful sinking, on a stormy sea, of a convoy led by a massive British man-of-war. It’s fun to be a pirate.

The new game is less successful as an assassin adventure, repeating much of the land-based play seen in preceding installments. At least it finally gives players the appropriate means to hide and track enemies stealthily while disturbing less of the civilian population.

Assassin’s Creed games have long mixed their historical fiction with some Dan Brown-style “Da Vinci Code” paranoia. The titular liberty-loving Assassins are in a perpetual rivalry with the controlling Templars. The Templars have enlisted a number of historical figures who, it turns out, need to be killed. Assassin’s Creed IV’s Kenway is a deviation. Not technically an Assassin, he co-opts their careful killing ways to earn gold coins and, perhaps, in a subplot that paid off beautifully, honor a wife left on the other side of the Atlantic. His arc nevertheless is shallow; he’s a forgettable lead.

Late in the game, Kenway tells his quartermaster, Adéwalé, “I feel like I’m running errands, not living my life.” Indeed, much of the story can be ignored, and the pirate-infested Caribbean can be used as a playground for diving to wrecks, climbing jungle trees and hunting white whales. In so-called open-world games like these and Grand Theft Auto, after all, the environment with which you interact is the star.

Curiously, a new character is emerging in the series: Ubisoft itself, presented mostly in the form of self-parody in the guise of a fictional video game company, Abstergo Entertainment. We can play small sections as a developer in Abstergo’s Montreal headquarters. Our job is to help turn Kenway’s life — mined through DNA-sniffing gadgetry — into a mass-market video game adventure. We can also read management’s emails. The team debates whether games of this type could sell well if they focused more on peaceful, uplifting moments of humanity. Conflict is needed, someone argues. Violence sells.

It turns out that Abstergo is also a front for the villainous Templars, who search for history’s secrets when not creating entertainment to numb the population. In these sections, Ubisoft almost too cheekily aligns itself with the bad guys and justifies its inevitable 2015 Assassin’s Creed, set during yet another violent moment in world history.

However ignoble or civilization-enslaving the meta-narrative suggests that Assassin’s Creed games may be, the series remains fun and culturally rich. The Caribbean pirate vacation is a worthwhile stamp on its passport while also a warning against the franchise’s becoming too safe or too much of a self-referential joke.

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is rated M (Mature) for sexual themes, strong language, blood and violence.

For the original report go to http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/30/arts/video-games/assassins-creed-iv-black-flag-delves-into-pirate-lore.html?_r=0

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