Assassin’s Creed takes to the sea and comes adrift

Black Flag’s seafaring impresses the critics, but the series is in danger of losing its identity.

Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed franchise is no stranger to critical praise, though it has a tendency to deceive. Of the five console games released in the series so to date, three have undergone a degree of post-launch revisionism: the first game was bold but ultimately disjointed, Revelations asked the player to revisit settings and characters one too many times, and Assassin’s Creed 3 was a jumble of ideas that lacked the charm to compensate for the flaws in its execution. That’s the tone of the general discussion today, but it was far rosier in the past.

Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag is the sixth game in the main series – the fifth in little more than four years – and has once again been greeted by the sort of critical reception that makes one forget that digits below 7 even exist. Much has changed since Altair first stalked Jerusalem’s narrow streets, and Black Flag pushes even further into uncharted territory, swapping out the density and detail of the city to pursue Assassin’s Creed 3’s fondness for the great outdoors – specifically, the open sea.

“From a graphical standpoint, Black Flag’s world is built to amaze regardless of which console generation you’re playing it on”


And Edge can barely contain its enthusiasm for that change, proclaiming Black Flag as a new benchmark, “not only for Ubisoft’s series but for open-world gaming.” Partly, this is down to the novelty of being allowed to play at being a pirate in the first place – a rare setting for a game, if not entirely unheard of – but the sheer breadth and beauty of the world that Ubisoft Montreal calls to mind the huge landscapes associated with games like Oblivion and Skyrim. Black Flag is a visual feast, whatever your console.

“From a graphical standpoint, Black Flag’s world is built to amaze regardless of which console generation you’re playing it on,” Edge’s 9 out of 10 review states. “The tropical foliage in jungle environs has a more dynamic lilt and sway. Watching a cutscene of Edward [Kenway, the protagonist[ speaking to his quartermaster Adéwalé at the stern, the current-gen version assumes your eyes are focused on the conversing men and soft-focuses the background details such as water and passing land, while the PS4 version maintains distinct water surface detail and crisper wood textures on the boat. It’s noticeable, but feels more like the step up we’ve become accustomed to between existing console and PC games.”

And Black Flag’s world provides more than enough excuses to explore its extremities. Assassin’s Creed games are famed/reviled for the surfeit of activities/busywork they contain, but Edge notes a greater effort to make that content fit the lovingly rendered context. The series retains its sense of history and place, fully embracing the pirates life – with its attendant grizzled captains and salty seadogs – and allowing that to inform the gameplay systems and the ways they link together.

“There are echoes of Bethesda’s open-world RPGs, gradually taking you from straw-chewing peasant to legendary badass, so much is there to upgrade. Use your plunder to expand Kenway’s arsenal. Outfit your ship, the Jackdaw, with stronger cannons, or a fetching red-striped sail. Build taverns, brothels and beach-party bonfires in your very own hideout on the Inagua islands. Craft inventory and health upgrades out of animal pelts.

“We never felt like we had enough gold to buy everything we wanted, which seems engineered to push you out to sea to do what pirates do best: raid other ships.”

“Where Edward can feel slow on land, the Jackdaw is lithe and responsive, from the simplest act of sailing to the most pitched of sea battles”


One thing is certain, a point of praise in just about every review out there: Black Flag does ships very, very well. What many saw as the single greatest feature of Assassin’s Creed 3 is now the core of the entire game, allowing Ubisoft to base its world around a sprawling Caribbean archipelago and add depth to mechanics that did not even exist in the series until a year ago. For Eurogamer, this is most welcome, as it allows Black Flag to transcend those systems that have began to degrade due to age and overuse.

“If successive Assassin’s Creed games have worn you down with the same ageing systems…you should know that these things are still prominent components of Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag,” Eurogamer’s 9 out of 10 review states. “You should also know, however, that while they may bog you down occasionally, they are pushed comprehensively into the background by the many other things that you spend your time doing in this open-world sequel.”

And the most successful of these “many other things” are the naval combat and navigation. Indeed, the focus on seafaring completely alters the nature of the experience: the cities are no show-stopping, living museums, as Rome and Constantinople were; Black Flag’s Kingston and Havana are admirable destinations in their own right, but they really exist as venues for moving the story along and earning gold. For Ubisoft Montreal, this time the destination is actually the journey.

“The real game is out at sea,” Eurogamer notes. “Standing at the helm of the Jackdaw, the whole map is open from the start – although the southern seas are more treacherous than the north – and almost every island, peninsula and slip of land has its own combination of viewpoints to scale, treasure to dig up and secrets to reveal. What’s more, the transition from ship to shore is non-existent – you just pull up wherever you like, dive overboard and walk up the nearest beach.

“There’s a great balance and zip to the way you pinwheel around the game’s vast oceans, stripping treasure maps from corpses and sailing to their coordinates, eyeing up schooners and frigates through your spyglass and weighing the value of their cargo against the difficulty of the fight they’ll put up, diving to shipwrecks and underwater cave networks, harpooning sharks and whales to fashion new pouches and armour, and just ramming and broadsiding anyone who gets in your way. Where Edward can feel slow on land, the Jackdaw is lithe and responsive, from the simplest act of sailing to the most pitched of sea battles.”

However, while Black Flag is often very entertaining, some critics have pointed out that it doesn’t feel very much like Assassin’s Creed. Of course, that could be argued as a good thing – originality and innovation are two of the most prized qualities in any game – but there is a growing sense that the series has strayed too far from its core ideas, and the whole construction is starting to look unstable. For Polygon, which awards Black Flag a measured 7.5, the, “the narrative and character strength that held previous Assassin’s Creed titles together…are weaker than they’ve ever been.”

“The moments that best defined the game for me existed separately from the series that came to define Ubisoft this console generation”


“Previous Assassin’s Creed games – particularly the main, numbered games – have revolved around the war between Assassin and Templar, the turning points, the meaningful moments. Assassin’s Creed 4 is content to sit on the edges of that greater conflict. Edward isn’t the series’ traditional lead, and his absence of allegiance hangs throughout the game. The inclusion of Assassin’s Creed’s fiction feels haphazard and often cursory; even assassination feels perfunctory. Assassin’s Creed 4 is more comfortable wandering the ocean in search of one big score.”

For clarity’s sake, it’s worth pointing out that Polygon had just as much fun on the high seas as those that scored the game a point or two higher, but the main focus of its criticism is more esoteric than the sort in which the games press generally trafficks. Indeed, the source of fun and satisfaction in Black Flag feels so distinct from previous games in the series, it is only in its niggles and blemishes that the Assassin’s Creed DNA really shows,

“Aside from the brief moments outside the Animus VR construct in which Assassin’s Creed 4 takes place, the moments that best defined the game for me existed separately from the series that came to define Ubisoft this console generation.

“This was my biggest problem with Assassin’s Creed 4. For all of its mechanical improvements, for the wonder I felt as I sailed the ocean, orca, dolphins, even great whites breaking the surface to my port side as I outran a royal trade armada, for the excellent performances and character moments throughout … it felt disjointed. Directionless.”

And Polygon isn’t alone on its introspective island. This curious sense of dislocation surfaces in a number of Black Flag’s reviews, regardless of the score at the end, but none explore it in quite the same detail as Kotaku. Despite giving the game a “Yes” rating, and declaring it, “the most mechanically assured, sturdily designed game in the series,” the bulk of its verbose review is dedicated to where Black Flag fits into the complicated web of mythos and mechanics Ubisoft Montreal has created – and, more pointedly, the ways in which it fails.

“Where lies the heart of this series? After six years and seven games, are we any closer to something resembling a destination? And is that destination-and the volumes of ongoing lore and backstory supporting it-even necessary, or could this game have simply been about pirates?”

Certainly, Black Flag’s many distractions have a greater sense of purpose than, say, Assassin’s Creed 3, and Ubisoft has used some of the knowledge accrued from Far Cry 3 to build them into a framework of mutual dependence, but the sheer volume of content remains overwhelming, and ultimately feels like a distraction. The screen is awash with information: ratings, scores, percentage tallies, information on the next meta-challenge, all in ignorance of the events in the narrative and the inner lives of its characters.

“Where lies the heart of this series? After six years and seven games, are we any closer to something resembling a destination?”


“Here I sit, playing a game until three in the morning, all because I need to get enough money to purchase a stronger rowboat. I need the stronger rowboat so that I can harpoon enough great white sharks to upgrade my armor, and I need to upgrade my armor so that I can take more damage when I try to board that Man of War. I need to board the Man of War so that I can get more metal, which I can use to reinforce my ship’s hull, so I can take on a fort…

“Every time I untangle myself from Black Flag’s disconcertingly absorbing scaffold of rewards and challenges, I can’t help but question my motivations. Why on earth have I been doing this stuff? Was it intrinsically enjoyable, or was I simply hooked on the small rush of regularly accomplishing small goals? Why does the armor upgrade require shark bones? Didn’t I just make something similar with deer hide?

“Black Flag often feels like two games: One, a pirate game in which you can ram your ship into an enemy brig before leaping onto their decks. The other, a bog-standard Assassin’s Creed game, in which you follow guys on the street, decipher a novel’s worth of lore and backstory, and leap off of buildings into piles of hay.

“The first game feels exciting, fresh and at times sensationally fun. The second game feels increasingly tired.”



Marvel Launches Creativity Studio Stylus, App for iPad

Marvel Creativity Studio Stylus

With Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. tearing up the airwaves and a new Thor movie headed to theaters early next month, what better time to unleash a comic book-themed stylus for drawing on the iPad?

Disney Consumer Products and Marvel Entertainment have announced the launch of Marvel Creativity Studio Stylus and a companion app for the iPad, which allows kids to draw and even animate their favorite comic book superheroes.

Priced at $34.99, the Marvel Creativity Studio Stylus is available at retailers everywhere, while a deluxe version sold at and Apple retail stores includes a limited edition zippered carrying case. Both versions include unlimited access to all content and future updates, and the Marvel Creativity Studio app for iPad is available free from the App Store.

Created by eKids, the app allows users to learn how to draw, color and animate a wide range of Marvel superheroes and villains from the company’s latest animated adventures: Avengers Assemble, The Ultimate Spider-Man and Hulk and the Agents of S.M.A.S.H.

“Leveraging the comic drawing history of the Marvel brand with the innovation that eKids brings to the table — or in this case, tablet — this product delivers a fun experience with endless play value,” said Josh Silverman, executive vice president of global franchise licensing and commercialization at Disney Consumer Products.

The Marvel Creativity Studio Stylus also works with the free Disney Creativity Studio app, which features beloved Disney and Pixar characters, also available from the App Store.



Telltale Announces Walking Dead: Season 2; Clementine Confirmed as Playable

Last year Telltale Games almost single-handedly redefined the quality of narratives in video games with its universally acclaimed Walking Dead series, and today the studio announced what we can expect during its highly anticipated second season. There’s not much to go on at the moment, but one thing’s for sure–we’ll now be seeing the story through the eyes of Clementine, the little girl protagonist Lee Everett sought to protect in Season 1.

The teaser trailer doesn’t reveal much, and indeed, much of it shows assets from the first season.We catch only glimpses of what Clementine will face as she ventures out into the world on her own, and as you can probably expect, much of it has to do with fighting off zombies with button prompts.

We don’t even know when we’ll get to see the new episode, aside from the ever-so-vague “later this year” and the news that Telltale should finish all installments sometime in 2014. But if you want to get a head start, Telltale tells us (ha) that you can save 10 percent off the price of the Mac version with a season pass pre-order, which will let you buy all five episodes for a total of $22.49 either through Telltale’s own online store or through Steam.

But that’s not all. Telltale also related that the Game of the Year edition for the first season should be on the way soon, which will bundle the core five episodes plus the 400 Days expansion into one package, along with a behind-the-scenes video and the game’s wonderful soundtrack. Oddly, neither an iOS or Mac version was listed for this release.



Hotline Miami 2 assault scene under consideration

“We didn’t add the scene just to be controversial”

Hotline Miami

Dennaton, the creator of Hotline Miami, has removed a controversial sexual assault scene from the sequel’s demo and is currently reconsidering its place in the finished game.

“We respect everyone’s opinion. We felt like we might have to have the whole game for that scene to work, or maybe we were doing it wrong. It didn’t come out the way we wanted it to,” developer Dennis Wedin told RPS.

The scene in question was first brought to media attention by writer Cara Ellison, who objected to the handling of a sexual assault scene within the Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number playable demo.

“The control is taken from me by the game, and my character, the Pig Butcher, pins her down and drops his trousers,” said Ellison.

Wedin added that the intention of the scene wasn’t just to be controversial, and that there is much more to the two characters involved than is shown in the demo.

“We’re gonna see how people react to it when we test the whole game. We’ll get opinions and stuff like that. We’ll see how we can present this in a good way. In a way that we want it to come across. Not just as provocative. That’s not our meaning at all.

“I respect people’s comments and the fact that people voiced them. That’s how they feel. Our scene made them feel this way, so we have to think about why and if there’s something we can do to make it better. I don’t think it’s right to just say, ‘You’re wrong. You’re just looking at it wrong.’ That’s not the way to go.”



Daily Reaction: How Publishers Try to Control the Media

July 24, 2013 Written by Dan Oravasaari


The long wait is finally over: The Daily Reaction crew of Seb and Dan are back at work and complaining about something. Today, a leak outing Microsoft’s plan to bring self-publishing to the Xbox One angered the platform holder because they were shocked that journalism had just happened.

Dan: Earlier today, Game Informer leaked Microsoft’s plans to bring self publishing to the Xbox One. This forced Microsoft to confirm the news, but their response to GI’s leak has caused a bit of a ripple. According to Game Informer’s Andy McNamara:

Even though we reached out to MS hours ago, we of course didn’t get the official statement as MS is reportedly “angry” about our story

MS reached out to a few publications to clarify the situation and it seems that, in a bit of a tantrum, they gave GI the cold shoulder.

The games industry has not always been known for its maturity, but for a publisher of MS’ size to blatantly respond to a situation that is the standard practice for most industries outside of gaming takes things to a new level. Games journalists rarely get a chance to shine in any form like the world media, as other ‘real-world’ publications break topics about the NSA spying on people, and we try to break information about announcements. Similarly, the outside world will not care about MS finally adding self-publishing to the Xbox One, so Microsoft should realize the leak just isn’t that big of a deal and it is people just doing their job.

This ultimately breaks down to a much bigger issue that stems to the reason for a publisher to become hostile towards their media: A lack of control. The games media does not have the power that other publications have – we are split between trying to balance the information we can obtain ourselves and what we can and can’t say through our embargo system. Publishers feel that they can manage the information that goes out to the press and only get out positive information in the time frames they want, but seem to forget we are a free press system still.

The most infamous and publicized event to represent this is the Kane & Lynch review by GameSpot, that launched journalist Jeff Gerstmann into the public spotlight when the publisher’s marketing team took issue with his score. Control over the media is far from a new concept, as the media in general usually relies on bigger powers for information, but they also act as a balancing force to keep those powers in check.

Moments like this may seem small and trivial to the general public, but the pressures of a system that allows retaliation for due diligence will have bigger repercussions for the audience much further down the line.

Seb: This is just depressing, so it’s the perfect topic to kick off DR’s return with. Sadly, this is nothing new – publishers have far too much control over the games press, and they believe they are entitled to it.

The games press mostly regurgitates press releases, covers events publishers hold, previews games at publisher preview sessions and reviews games sent to them by publishers. That’s mostly unavoidable, and not always bad – for example, E3 can be great for the press, and can be even better for the readers.

Publishers do this because it is essentially free advertising – every time we cover a game trailer, that’s thousands upon thousands they’ve saved on YouTube ads. But they seem to think that’s the press’ only purpose, getting upset like spoiled brats every time the press do their job – holding the industry to account.

Honest reviews are vital for obvious reasons – people need to know if a game is terrible, and it helps ensure publishers at least try to make something good. But covering what is wrong with other parts of the industry is just as important – for example, the press’ part in covering why self publishing was so great for the PS4 is one of the main reasons Microsoft has now backtracked and ‘embraced’ it.

In the past, when the press didn’t do as their masters bid them, they would be blacklisted (completely shut out of any press events, interviews etc) – Kotaku was temporarily blacklisted by Sony for leaking Home’s existence, while Activision reportedly blacklisted for writing about something viewable on Amazon. Despite both these being legitimate pieces of journalism, publishers contacted them letting them know they were blacklisted.

That doesn’t happen any more. Now, they don’t let sites know. Instead, they simply stop inviting you to as many events, don’t send over as many games, or agree to do as many interviews. It’s just childish, and pathetic.

However, Game Informer is huge, a massively powerful gaming outlet whose coverage can literally impact the sales success of a game (and platform) to a noticeable degree. Microsoft can’t afford to be petulant for too long to GI. Sadly, the same can’t be said for the smaller sites, and even here at a medium sized site we’re aware of missing out or review copies and event privileges suddenly, just after a scoop or a harsh review (according to Metacritic, we are noticeably harsher than the average critic) is published. Because they don’t outright say ‘you’re blacklisted’, we can’t outright say ‘Capcom is trying to blacklist us for being journalists’, but it is something that’s happening.

It’s a sad indictment of all that is wrong with the industry, but as publishers are reliant on the press, it is becoming increasingly clear that they don’t have as much control as they think they do. There will always be some members of the press who don’t just follow what a PR company is telling them to do, and if that number rises it will become harder and harder for publishers to try to exert any authority over them.

We need to draw attention to this every time it happens, as this bad publicity will put pressure on publishers as public support rallies behind GI/etc for covering the truth. Equally, the press cannot shy away from covering things that will make people unhappy – be they publishers or readers. The only thing that matters is the truth, and journalists should strive to uncover it no matter what enemies they make.