Plundering your freedom
To be a pirate is to value freedom above all else. If you plunder enough gold, instill enough fear, and get out before the world tears you down, you can be the most free man or woman in the world. At least that’s Assassin‘s Creed‘s take on those maligned malingerers of yesteryear. Don’t expect anything more historical than that in Assassin‘s Creed: Pirates, the latest mobile take on Ubisoft’s blockbuster franchise.
If you decide to take the plunge on this pay-for-it-once affair, you’ll find yourself free to rebel against monarchy, liberate slaves, and blow away galleons – all without having to leave the comfort of your own ship’s wheel. One of the most popular features of the last two console Assassin‘s Creed games has been naval combat. Like any good privateers, the developers of Pirates seized on that goodwill and ran with it, creating an entire game around the concept.
Most of the game plays out in one-on-one ship battles broken into stages of offense and defense. While on the offensive, you wield a number of cooldown-based armaments ranging from time-delayed mortars to good old-fashioned broadsides. Once the enemy’s own timer fills it’s time to dodge incoming fire with a tap to either the left or right, depending on the angle. Five consecutive dodges earns you a chance to interrupt and start shooting back early.
Combat isn’t particular complex, or even that difficult. But when the gorgeously rendered waves start to churn and the music starts to swell it is quite thrilling – for a time. Actually, let’s talk about the music. The soundtrack features the same swashbuckling, rope-swinging, rapier-rapping tunes as Assassin‘s Creed IV: Black Flag on consoles, which is to say that it’s fantastic. There’s just far less of it.
In fact, much of Pirates recycles liberally from its console counterpart. The music, the sea shanties, the ship models – even the primary characters mime the unscrupulous buccaneer and his African first-mate (the latter even uses voice samples pasted whole-cloth from Black Flag). If you’re not familiar with the console game, this likely won’t offend. If, like me, you’ve scoured every corner of the Caribbean looting treasure chests and Animus fragments on PlayStation 4 or Xbox One, it might feel like cutting corners, especially when the smaller audio selection loops for the umpteenth time during your travels.
That’s another problem with Pirates. When they say pirates lived life to excess they didn’t mean the time it took them to get anything done. The world of Pirates is presented as a half-dozen discrete maps. When not directly doing battle, players traverse by sailing in the traditional fashion or drawing routes on said maps to one of dozens of activities, like collectibles side quests, high profile targets, and more. Every level earned also unlocks new crew members carrying new, randomized perks, new ships, new upgrades, new regions – in short there’s never not something new. There’s no denying that players get great value in terms of content.
Unfortunately, getting to that content is a literal grind. Each new region is artificially gated behind level requirements that increase with each discovery. Getting to the second region only takes a single level-up. Transitioning from the fourth region’s minimum requirement to the fifth’s, however, requires three times that number. With a single story mission per region, this was likely done in part to buffer the game’s length, but considering how much “optional” content is already on-hand, it’s totally unnecessary and disrespectful of both the player’s time and the very freedom the thin plot pitches.
I suspect there may be another reason behind Pirates‘ forced grind. While the game currently costs five dollars up front and remains completely free of microtransactions (a decision I personally think should be commended), I have a sneaking suspicion this wasn’t always the case. Randomized perks, a dozen types of currencies and ammunition, level-gated content – it all seems ripe for abusing the player’s patience. Pirates feels as though it was originally intended to be free-to-play, and converted to the “premium” model at the eleventh hour (though five dollars is hardly exorbitant).
The result is a net positive that won’t torture your wallet, regardless of how it started, but I would have preferred the ability to travel where I want, when I want, and let the game’s difficulty curve naturally inform me where I was and wasn’t meant to be. Assassin’s Creed: Pirates is still a steal at the current $5. There’s a massive sense of reward in eking out every resource and collectible from a given region before turning to raze the next, and there’s plenty of opportunity to do it. An unfortunate lack of freedom just makes that return on your time a diminishing one.