I’m currently going back through games for my year-end review, and one name pops out constantly in my notes: Assassin’s Creed IV. But it’s not for the reasons you’d expect. If anything Assassin’s Creed IV perfectly sums up the biggest problem with the entire series, which is that it’s far, far more fun to do literally anything other than the main quest. Here’s why.
The Side Missions Are More Fun
Assassin’s Creed III was justly roasted for its climactic chase at the end of the main quest. But while Assassin’s Creed IV didn’t quite have a mission that bad, it also made the biggest problem of III a lot worse.
Here’s a game where you can spend hours sinking ships, sneaking into warehouses, hunting down scumbags, finding buried chests, destroying forts, getting into fistfights, exploring shipwrecks, fighting sharks, finding puzzles, and upgrading the Jackdaw, your pirate hideout, and Edward Kenway like Pokemon. The shipboard combat alone can eat up hours of your time and is practically a game in of itself. When you pop out of the Animus, it’s fun to hunt down post-its and hack computers. Everything else in the game is more exciting than what’s supposed to be the centerpiece.
The Main Quest Missions Are Dated and Dull
Assassin’s Creed IV finally brings the franchise a decent set of stealth mechanics. Which is great, because the main quest missions consist, far too often, of walking behind dudes while being “undetected.” Maybe there’s a light bit of combat or stealth mixed in, but too often, it’s walking behind dudes as they yammer about stuff you honestly don’t care about.
Even worse, it’s on rails, half the time, and the only way to really nail it is through trial and error. Oh, and then there’s that wonderful countdown clock that appears the microsecond you get out of “range.” Granted, “follow” missions are never the most fun in any game, but most games limit them to one or two. The franchise, at this point, seems to be clinging to the concept out of sheer stubbornness.
The Story Breadcrumbs Are Boring
One main mission in particular stands out, in IV. Kenway is in Kingston, following a slaver and the man he’s got on the inside. You have to stay in range of the conversation while hopping from hiding place to hiding place. But there’s literally nothing in the conversation that you need to know. It’s literally busywork justifying the main quest.
The Main Missions Are Badly Paced
The worst part of the above mission is, when you finish it… you discover it was all for naught anyway, because you’re seen and have to fight a bunch of mooks anyway. Why would you do that, when you could ram ships with your ship instead?
The entire franchise is like this; III had you walking from a cutscene to another cutscene constantly, for example. The pacing has always been terrible, true, but it’s getting to the point where the franchise is being known for it.
What To Do Instead?
It’s fairly clear that the franchise is going next-gen in a big way when the inevitable next entry arrives in a year or two. So, here’s a modest proposal: Make it a game where you’re solving a mystery, and you can only piece the clues together by completing side quests.
When you complete an assassin’s contract, you come away with a hint to find something in a location. Emptying out a warehouse has you stumbling across a letter that guides you to another location. Digging up a secret includes a hint to go to another location.
Assassin’s Creed is best when the player is granted control. How about writing a story that gives us that control?