I have to say that there’s something special about Assassin’s Creed games.
The first things that drew me to them were the historical settings. As a former history major, I’m always on the lookout for games set in past time periods — but they’re few and far between. Assassin’s Creed games piqued my interest for making the past seem like an exciting place to be, and they do a riveting job of transporting players to another time and place. Sure, they may make history a little too glossy and over-the-top, but I still love the vintage feel of their escapism.
However, playing Black Flag recently, I realized there’s something else I love about Assassin’s Creed games: They’re easy. It’s hard to go wrong with these games. Occasionally I’ve failed a mission because I wasn’t paying attention or didn’t manage to distract that one last guard, but it doesn’t feel punishing to try again. And if my protagonist is trying to be stealthy but instead attracts the attention of a dozen armed guards, I rarely sweat over it. As they attack me — often one at a time — I just time my counters with care and then flip them onto the ground or fire a quick gunshot to finish them off. It’s no big deal.
Black Flag also features the good old naval combat. Sometimes you’re just steering the ship. It’s really beautiful and relaxing when you’re in the middle of the ocean, with nothing in sight except maybe a picturesque little island off in the distance. It captures a feeling rarely found in action-packed video games: the bliss of a quiet day. Other times, you’re carefully maneuvering the hefty ship around obstacles or navigating through a storm, but these are often slow-paced sorts of challenges. And other times times, you’re caught in the midst of a major naval firefight, cannons smoking. But it’s not complicated. It’s a breeze. There are very few buttons to remember, and the pace is comfortable enough to give you a little time to set up your shots across the water. Maybe it will get more challenging later in the game, but so far, I’ve loved the excitement of the atmosphere without the stress of the protagonist’s imminent demise.
It’s refreshing to play a video game that just lets me play. I don’t always have to prove that I’m skilled at everything it throws at me; Black Flag is more about having fun. In Assassin’s Creed, the stories are never very realistic, and neither is the action — but that’s the beauty of the franchise. These games ask their players to dive into this glamorous recreation of the past and make it their playground. And because the combat is so easy, everybody feels like the coolest kid there. It actually helps with the immersion, in my opinion. I’m not thinking about myself as a video game player — “I didn’t press the button fast enough!” “Oh no, not another super hard stealth mission!” — I’m just running around a coastal town, recruiting aspiring young pirates and dropping into haystacks sometimes.
Not everyone is as enamored with how easy Assassin’s Creed games are. Kirk Hamilton’s 2011 Kotaku article gives an argument that it’s a little boring to be so invincible, especially if you compare it to games that are refreshingly challenging, like The Witcher 2.
But does every game need to be challenging? Stealth games can be particularly punishing, and that’s why I often get too frustrated and fed up to finish them. I believe Assassin’s Creed does a great job of encouraging stealth by setting up missions for them. For instance, there might be a cluster of guards in one area and a clear shrubbery-lined path to the next set — so you know exactly who you should take down first and where to go next. Maybe it’s a little bit of hand holding, but I don’t mind in this case. And while it’s sometimes bad to get caught, a lot of times it doesn’t matter; you’ve got your sword and pistol ready for those moments. I appreciate that lack of punishment. Assassin’s Creed is nice to me. It feels friendly.
I haven’t played all of the games in the series, so I’m sure some feature more difficult combat than others. I do remember that one of the first PC games I bought was the first Assassin’s Creed, and it was challenging to use the keyboard for all of the maneuvers. I was just getting used to PC gaming; I’d probably do better now. But a shooter would have been a much more natural introduction to the mouse-and-keyboard style!
In any case, playing Black Flag lately, I’m happy to be playing a game that lets me just shut off after work. It also lets me take my time waking up on the weekends, when I don’t feel like being conscious quite yet. Black Flag just ushers me through a gorgeous, cinematic experience and lets me have fun.