As I type this, the Jackdaw’s slowly sailing towards the Cayman, and I’ve got 2300 nautical miles to type this.
One of the best parts of games like Ultima VII or the Might & Magic series was the feeling of exploration. There was a vast world, and while there were a series of actions you needed to perform to progress the story, you could dick around, collect treasure and solve as many sidequests as you wanted for hours and hours and hours. While I really enjoy the Bioware RPG model, the fact is that there’s no way to go down a fun little side road and discover a small town with a little mystery or anything like that. Every location in the game is helpfully noted on a big map where you select your route, be it of Ferelden or the Milky Way, and what used to be a huge, majestic viewscape became yet another menu in a genre that, other than majestic viewscapes, is basically made up of menus.
But Electronic Arts assassinated the Ultima series, Bioware’s putting out fun story-based games with essentially linear series of events, and lord knows Square Enix seems terrified of putting a navigable world map in a Final Fantasy game. The fact of the matter is, for some reason, the abstraction of the navigable world map is dead.
It was always my favorite part of any RPG; leaving a town and seeing the gigantic scale of the world, crossing rivers, mountains and oceans, never mind the elated “fuck you” rush of finally getting a car, or boat, or airship, and giving the middle finger from on high to geological formations that had stymied me for hours and hours. As you play, the world gets smaller as your transportation options increase in number — but there’s no taking away that initial “wow” factor. However, as demand for verisimilitude grew, it seems developers became increasingly reluctant to embrace a world map that’s on a different scale factor from dungeons, towns, etc. Even in Ultima VI onward, the wilderness was on the same scale as more in-depth areas, which led to ridiculous bullshit like it taking as long to get from one side of Britain to the other as it did to get from Britain to, I dunno, Yew or Trinsic. But videogames aren’t about replicating reality, they’re about simulating just enough reality to make a metaphor clear, and using it to allow you to explore something you can’t explore in real life. At least to me.
I think that’s why I hate sewer levels and dark spaceships and bland office buildings: I mean, look, Call of Duty series, if I wanted to hang out in a war-torn hellscape city I don’t need to play a videogame, I can just drive to Detroit. I think my favorite part of a videogame is exploration, and I want to explore flying racist cities and underground temples and fields of purple grass with two suns in the sky, not shit I see every damn day. It seems to me like the games that give you the most exotic, breathtaking locations are the ones where you run on rails the most, with the notable exception of Xenoblade Chronicles, which featured some of the most brilliant art direction and world design I’ve ever seen, horribly muddied through a blurry-ass 480p Wii resolution limitation. But even that game is a series of connected areas; imagine how much more awesome it would have been if every area of the Bionis’s body had been fully mapped out, and you were able to fly around the damn thing in an airship.
In any case, I haven’t played a game in a very long time that gave me that feeling, that rush of a gigantic, beautiful, painstakingly created world where A) I know what the next thing to do is but B) I can decide not to do it and just explore and fuck around for hours and hours and hours, and in every nook and cranny is a fully detailed quest or set of characters or treasure or whatever.
Until Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag.
(I’ve reached Cayman by now, obviously, but the pause button is hit.)
The series flirted with open worlds with III’s Frontier between Boston and New York, but that was just a vast empty expanse of wilderness with huge expanses of woods with jack shit in them. Additionally, III totally ruined the series’ viewpoint mechanic, requiring you to actually run around this gigantic empty area in hope that you might find a chest you missed so you can try to perform that game’s dumb lockpicking minigame while redcoats are bayoneting the shit out of you.
IV hits just the perfect balance. There’s a gigantic world, yes, and you can explore wherever you want, but the game gives you just enough information that you’re not wandering around aimless without holding your hand. Unknown locations are designated with question marks, and you can find chests and ships while sailing to them. Sometimes you’ll take a detour to blow up a ship with some sweet booty, sometimes you’ll find a smuggler’s cove or a warehouse and line your pockets. If you blow up a fort in an area, it exposes the entire area on the map, so you can find all the stuff you’ve missed without having to comb over every square nautical mile of area in the game. There’s grinding to an extent, yes, but the reward structure is tiered so that you never have to grind too much before you get a tangible upgrade. It’s a hamster wheel like Cookie Clicker, yeah, but it’s one with an endpoint that leads to more and more fun shit like boarding gigantic ships or solving Mayan puzzles or letting you live out your Ahab fantasy as you harpoon a white whale. There’s ALWAYS something new to do, and it’s never far away; the very well-implemented fast travel mechanism allows you to get where you’ve already been without taking away the excitement of finding new places to go.
I don’t usually 100% games, but this one, I think, is going to be the exception. I don’t want to leave a single quest unsolved or endangered species slaughtered. Every single mechanic in this game is fun, from hunting to sailing to taking over forts to, especially, boarding other pirate vessels. I’ve been running around the game world finding collectibles, and unlike, well, almost every game mechanic in III, I’m not finding it even remotely tedious.
I feel pretty confident in saying this is the best Assassin’s Creed game since Brotherhood. It’d probably be the greatest in the series if you combined this game’s incredibly polished, well-balanced, fun gameplay with the far more mature and thought-provoking narrative of III. Then again, that was a game about Pyrrhic victories and winning the battle while losing the war, while this is a game about pirates being totally awesome and colonialism being for chumps, so maybe it better suits the gameplay. I dunno.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go explore the Caymans and hunt down a Templar key.