Assassin's Creed is not what it used to be. Yes it has the climbing and the hiding and the jumping off of rooftops to stab up to two people through the skull for the crime of guarding a collectible that you desperately want for reasons that you forgot many hours ago when you took on the task of opening every single frivolous chest of pocket change across the ancient land. But now it has new things added to this tried and tested and then rehashed formula. It's got boats now. Big old pirate boats where your collection of merry buccaneering NPCs sing shanties that you've collected as part of a further collectible gathering ritual and presumably bought back to the ship to teach the men to chant to speed along the journeys ahead. Journeys that will be fast travelled as soon as the option presents itself.
You may remember there being boats in Assassin's Creed 3. They were a small part of that game that was more of a small aside, and an optional one at that, an activity that the game barely seemed to care that you even play. But then people played it and realised that for all intents and purposes it was basically the only shining part in that shit heap of a finale and so the next game became all about boats.
Let me clarify first though, that I sure do love the boats. The more boats the better was what I wanted after Assassin's Creed 3 and with Black Flags I was bestowed with more mano a boat time than I could possibly wish for. I personally felt that Assassin's Creed was the final stumbles of the series in its purest form. The system was old now, the broken combat had run out of excuses, there was little room for variation and most of all the Desmond arc had been dragged on for so long that the charm of the series had been scratched and scuffed away to leave a bloodied corpse that couldn't carry on much longer unaided. It's one crutch, the reason that people had continued to return, that being the overarching Desmond narrative had now come to a close and without it Ubisoft were clearly worried as to how they'd get people to come back since the promise of same shit, different time period wasn't really going to work for long.
So Ubisoft took it upon themselves to reboot the franchise and give the fans exactly what they want on a scale that I've never seen before. People responded positively to ship combat, okay then, give them exactly what they want. Even before I'd bought Black Flags, I had an email from Ubisoft due to my Uplay account with a questionnaire asking me about what I liked from it and what I would like to see in future titles.
It seems Ubisoft want to make Assassin's Creed into the new Call of Duty and release a yearly instalment, but instead of rehashing out minor tweaks, they want to purpose build every sequel to add in all the features that the fans want. At first glance, I don't hate this strategy. If you don't take the time to change things substantially then your audience will dissipate as the sales numbers for COD Ghosts demonstrates, even if those numbers are still astronomically high compared to anyone else. They tried to claim a reboot with Assassin's Creed 3, but didn't change all too much and the critical and commercial response reflected this. Black Flags was their first step into this experimental strategy of basically custom building a game that reflects the desire of the consumer. It's basically a game run by fan service and based on how much of an improvement Black Flags was over the most recent iterations, I'd say they pulled it off pretty spectacularly.
It may be fan service, but it's the finest fan service that I ever did see
Assassin's Creed Revelations made me suspicious that the series was basically on cruise control and Assassin's Creed 3 all but proved that to me. It was a hard loss to take, as much of a first world loss as that is, but it was good to let go of the series as anything important and finally enjoy it, not as a squandered opportunity to conclude an epic story of the fight for liberty fought across generations, but simply as an entertainment delivery system that it has now become.
There are problems with this strategy. The first is that yearly releases will eventually dip in quality, especially with how much bigger and more refined games are expected to be now. Looking at Black Flags, I have no envy for anyone on that development team. There must have been endless sleepless nights just to get everything working as well as it does, especially as it was also a cross generation game. There will be a stumble and Ubisoft will once again have to reboot it with some other ludicrous mechanic that the customers leap on and one day they won't execute it as well as Black Flags and release a an Assassin's Creed game with a gimmick that is so shoe horned in that it buries right to the brain stem of the series and puts it out of its misery for good.
My second concern, which is really the point of this article is the fear that the series will become even more of a consumer directed game than it is. If there was ever a literal example of the proverb that a camel is a horse by committee, then I have no doubt that 3 years down the line the Creed series will be left just as mutated and sickly as a consumer run, historically based, free running fighting camel could ever become.
I mentioned the email questionnaire that I received earlier. If you haven’t seen it, then here it is and you may notice the small point that it's long as hell. It even asks you what other games you liked and implies whether or not future Creed games can be more like them. One of the options is even whether or not you'd like an Assassin's Creed game without Assassinations and just pirating. I doubt that they'd bother to start up a new IP, since that is dangerous and risky, so it'd make more sense that they'd make an Assassin's Creed game with no assassinations in it if the fans asked for it. Which is a thing that would make no sense.
But this kind of stuff, although pandering to my two worries that I listed above, is a type of market research only capable with the internet. At the mere whiff of the fact that your consumer has bought your product, you can instantaneously dump a massive questionnaire in their laps and ask them to give a detailed break down of how better it can serve you and keep you spending. But this instant access has an even more intrusive element when it involves asking you questions about the game while you're playing the game. A thing that Ubisoft has done in Black Flags.
Having completed the first mission of the game, I noticed on the summary screen that at the bottom it asked me to rate the memory. I thought it was odd, but then realised that the entire whole of Black Flags has taken a very meta turn and now it's not direct memories from Desmond's brain that you're experiencing, but instead the current set up for the future segments is that you're a games tester, testing a new game comprised of memories. These memories have been extracted from a brain, the previous owner of that brain I won't mention as it will be a spoiler. You are basically reviewing the extracted memories and seeing which ones are the most fun.
So when the game asked me to rate it, I did because I thought it was just fitting in with the whole aesthetic of the game. But then I realised when my PS3 went offline that this option didn't work. It suddenly dawned on me that the game hadn't just gone a little bit meta, it had gone the a whole extra level of self referencing. I was in fact the game's tester, reviewing the quality of Ubisoft's new game and working out which elements of it I liked, which ones I didn't and then immediately reviewing and rating the level that I had played so it can be fixed in the next instalment. That instalment being Assassin's Creed 5.
Ubisoft have skipped an entire level of customer feedback here. They used to wait for sales and critical responses, then they avoided that by sending out questionnaires after you've played the game. Now in their impatience for approval and feedback they've taken it the next step and now ask for updates on how to improve the game while I'm playing the game. Will they improve the version I'm playing? Nope. But they may in the future give me a better game than the one I was just playing that I will have the honour of paying for again.
I don't mind Ubisoft trying to create the best player experience they can. It's great that they care enough to at least appear concerned with my enjoyment, but using me as market research while I'm trying to enjoy the product that I paid for is just a step too far. It's the video game equivalent of being in a restaurant and having the waiter come up to you and ask if you're enjoying your meal every five minutes. I hate it then and I don't appreciate it now. It's a step too far. They're supposed to be immersing me in the game I paid for, and not badgering me for feedback. I didn't pay to be their market research, I paid to enjoy a game, but Ubisoft in their thriving for feedback have closed a gap that was there for a reason.
I'm not going to stop buying Ubisoft games. I think of all the big studios they do seem to take the biggest risks with their IPs and create very enjoyable and well made games. But I do think this kind of information gathering is a step in the wrong direction. It may be helpful for them but it's too full on. It's too intrusive. I'm not offended by it morally, but I do think it's bad business practise and I would like it to stop here before it gets any more present. I can only imagine in the future it'll get worse and they'll hide it in cleverer ways, with my companions asking me whether I enjoyed the motorcycle chase set piece that I just pulled off and whether I'd like to try something similar to it again at some point, all the while whistling a distracting tune and staring awkwardly towards the sky. So rate every mission one star as I have now done and stop this bullshit before seeps its way any further into your experience.