I've great respect for Ubisoft's developers, as it's quite rare that they don't deliver. Especially their ability to renew their franchises by incorporating new mechanics - such as Assassin's Creed, with Black Flag offering a fresh experience despite the fact that we're fifteen games into the series now.
Actually, there's about ten Assassin's Creed games on the mobile platforms alone. Gameloft was once in charge of development on a decent platformer, but on the whole it is Ubisoft who has delivered the series in smaller form. Many of these more outlandish interpretations have sported solid gameplay, even though they didn't have much in common with the traditional games.
Assassin's Creed: Pirates uses mechanics we first experienced in Assassin's Creed III with Connor's warship, which again became the flesh and blood of Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag: sailing and battles at sea. As the title suggests, this latest AC game focuses on pirates and adventures at sea.
You're presented with a large open 3D world, and while the game doesn't impress the same way the console versions did with their deep level of detail, Pirates manages to capture the same atmosphere. With the sea spray hitting the ship and sunbeams shining through the sails, the game still looks great, and the water animations are some of the best to date on iOS.
An Abstergo map gives you the big picture; a map of the first location, Devil's Rock. There's a further six - locked - icons on the map, which lead to another huge area with a satisfying slice of the world to be freely explored. Come game's completion the seventh icon turns out to be promise of future update with more content.
As with Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, gameplay is about sailing and stealth. Though as you never leave your ship in Pirates, the latter is about sailing through enemy waters without being spotted. Sneaking in Pirates is visualised through a birds-eye view, much like the classic Metal Gear Solid, as you have to avoid touching the enemy's field of view while sailing towards a target.
In addition to following the main story, there are plenty of side quests. You can easily spend days rescuing shipwrecked sailors, finding all the treasures, freeing slaves from slave ships, mercenary killing, buying new ships (of which there are five) and upgrade them with loot . You can also sail in simple rallies or naturally uncover the familiar AC vantage points (here in the form of light towers, which also take the role of instant travel points), and you can go do what you want as soon as each map's intro to the main story has been completed. It's all good, clean, sandbox fun.
It all sounds quite good doesn't it? Unfortunately, that is rarely the case, as Ubisoft have clearly low expectations as to the abilities of mobile players.
Simple one-touch entertainment is fine for a platformer like Rayman: Jungle / Fiesta Run. The genre works best with haptic feedback, so on touch, simple game control is preferable. But for a game filled with potentially magnificent sea battles and strategic decisions, we'd have preferred if Ubisoft went all out - either offering a difficulty choice, the amount of options or the depth of the fighting. Provide the player at least an opportunity to have a bit challenge or create a little variation.
Here's what you end up with doing in the game, whether you sail to a destination, find an enemy, are surprised by an enemy, fight a boss, sneak or attack the innocent, the result if the same.
The game switches camera angle for a battle between you and the ship (or ships). Cue a swirling piece of music, and you switch between defensive and offensive phases. The enemy get first strike, and you must either press left or right on the screen to dodge the attack, or, if you've a power-up available, the screen's middle to stop their attack.
You do this three to five times. The camera angle shifts to your side, and you have the choice of firing one of your weapons (up to five, dependent on craft). This repeats until the fight is over.
Not once during the eight hours I spent on the main missions did I come even close to dying. In fact, I fought off an enemy while reading an article in my local newspaper. It's incredibly boring. It's also what you'll be doing for the main part of the game.
The different weapon cool-downs could, in theory, make it a little exciting, but the only fear I experienced when waiting for them was that the enemy would start attacking again , and I'd have to perform another dull right / left dance without a shadow of danger. Perks earned by hiring crew members are close to not mattering when there is no challenge. I have rarely played a game so good looking and offering so much potential, only to be so completely bored.
Sid Meier's Pirates and Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag have shown us how such games should be cut. There should be more content and variety. Why not let us board the ships? Even if the combat was as controlled and touch-heavy as Infinity Blade, that'd be great. Give us some proper puzzles. Allow us to look for treasure. Even Gameloft's BackStab offers real climbing and pirate stuff on mobiles in the best AC style.
An option to set the difficulty of the game would help a lot. If not to break the monotony then at least make the reaction-based battles fun because they're harder.
The most disheartening of this criticism is that when the game is complete, you can sail freely on all maps and solve all the side tasks to the fullest. Suddenly, the enemies are much faster , they hit much harder, and the game feels finally like you almost have a chance of dying. It is even close to being a lot of fun especially in the defensive part of the fighting.
It's a shame, because the technical side of things is magnificent. Virtually all the basic mechanics are in place and working. The interactive map is intuitive to use . The light RPG elements are fine. A few pieces of music seem like lifted directly from Black Flag and, on the iPad Air, the light reflections, fog and life at sea is amazing. The last map especially offers excellent storms, sparkling lightning, soaking rain and roaring waves. It looks awesome.
Maybe the game's been designed to provide fun for the inexperienced of very young touch players. Assassin's Creed tailored to an audience that is used to Farmville clones (fortunately, without even a shadow of in-App purchases). It'll hardly do wonders for fans of the series. Assassin's Casual? Yawn rather than Yarrr.