Late To The Party: Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag, And The Lost Nature Of Sandbox Games


If finally finished up Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag this week after Nvidia gave me a free copy with my graphics card back in 2013. Playing it made me realize things about how sandbox games have gradually strayed from their original design principles and how that relates to today’s trend of open-world games. Much has been said about how Ubisoft does open-world games, but I think Black Flag in particular highlights its issues because it actually contains a unique and fun classic-style sandbox game buried underneath a lot of modern trends.

I imagine more than a few people have said Black Flag could have just been its own pirate game without having to be an Assassin’s Creed game. I’ll go as far as to say the parts of the game I really enjoyed were basically all the parts that didn’t have to do with being an assassin. Underneath all that, Black Flag really is “Grand Theft Boat.” The seafaring and piracy part of the game in my opinion does a good job of following the classic sandbox game design points that many have probably forgotten today.

Grand Theft Auto is the sandbox game that inspired the current wave of open-world games, but it actually comes from a long tradition of open-ended game design stretching at least as far back as the 80’s and from what I can tell primarily coming from Britain. These tend to be games that put players in the middle of large environments full of systems, and within these systems players can do whatever they want to make their way, typically falling into a particular gameplay loop.

GTA’s “loop” involves jacking vehicles, causing mayhem or completing objectives, attracting the police, evading the police, rinse-repeat. Rockstar has refined that loop a lot over the years to make it more and more immersive, but always keeping it centered around the core of player-driven vehicular mayhem. An early pioneer of this tradition is the space game Elite. A central loop of that game is buying goods in space stations and flying them to other star systems. You can also choose to fight enemies for bounty, attract the police to cause mayhem, mine asteroids, or other things. No Man’s Sky promises to be a similar game but with a big emphasis on exploring planetary surfaces. Those and similar space games center all their mechanics around a core of flying space ships and making money. They are about two things: being a skilled pilot and a skilled capitalist. GTA is also about two things: being a skilled driver and being a skilled criminal. What ultimately makes these loops appealing is they have the capacity for a lot of emergent events as their systems interplay.

In the same fashion, you could say Black Flag’s naval gameplay is about being a skilled ship captain and being a skilled thief. Like I said: Grand Theft Boat. Its most engaging activities are raiding ships, robbing warehouses, and finding treasure. The “loop” is raiding ships, selling the proceeds for money, using that money to upgrade your ship, and making bolder raids against stronger ships. Ubisoft did a surprisingly good job of creating a sandbox loop out of the Caribbean pirate fantasy. I just wish that’s all this game was.

It’s also why I wish Rockstar had made a pirate game. Out of all the companies making sandbox games, I feel like Rockstar is almost the only one in the mainstream spotlight that still knows the original appeal of them.

Maybe this is just my tiring of Assassin’s Creed, but I pretty much tried to avoid that whole part of Black Flag. I reluctantly did the main quest but avoided almost all the side assassination contracts. I pretty much just traveled on land to get treasure (and new shanties) and raid warehouses. Creed started out as a standbox game with its own loop too, but it never fully got off the ground.

The original Assassin’s Creed is about getting intel, stabbing people, and getting away. It’s a sandbox game about being a skilled spy and assassin. Its problem is its systems aren’t varied enough to bring about a lot of exciting interplay. Ubisoft added more systems in subsequent games, but from Assassin’s Creed II onward made things more linear and less, well, sandbox. Missions where you’re stuck on one path or fail if things don’t go exactly one way break me out of the feeling of what open-world games are supposed to be. Actually even GTA suffers from this these days.

The new space games coming out offer an interesting and fresh return to the old ways of completely leaving players to their own devices without any missions. It could certainly be in line with how some people prefer playing GTA by having fun without touching the missions, which is where I most enjoyed Black Flag. In that respect you could call No Man’s Sky a “true” sandbox game.

Anyway, my other big problem with Creed and basically every Ubisoft open-world game since 2009 is how it handles collectibles and secrets. This is where Ubisoft tries to combine the traditional sandbox with another school of open-world design — the open-world RPG, or action adventure game.

I guess a good analogue to what Ubisoft wants might be Zelda, which is very much a game about finding things. You spend a lot of time in those games finding secret items and things buried everywhere. This is also common in RPGs, and it’s easy to guess that Ubisoft wants the same kind of feeling in its open-world games, or at least thinks it’s a good way to extend the time a customer plays a game before trading it in.

I just don’t like how Ubisoft implements collectibles by directly pointing out their positions on the map every time you take down an enemy base or climb a tower (another mechanic it’s exported to other franchises). Here, hunting for secrets is no longer about actually hunting for secrets, but instead about highlighting icons on a map and reading right over to them. In Zelda or an RPG, finding secret loot is usually about solving a puzzle, finding clues, skillfully spotting out things sticking out of the environment, or just general curiosity. Ubisoft’s open-world games have turned finding secrets into busywork.

The funny part is, Black Flag actually does have some collectibles that are cleverly hidden and requite some actual skill or investigation to find. The treasure maps are a great example, making players rely solely on vague visual descriptions to find treasure. Some of the collectibles hidden in the underwater smuggler dens are fairly well-designed too. There’s one collectible I remember that’s immediately visible once you enter a room, but it’s not immediately apparent how to reach it. Didn’t most collectibles used to be designed like this?

I think what Ubisoft has been doing is inspired by things like the orbs from Crackdown. I haven’t played that game but from what I gather, grabbing its orbs is fun because of that game’s unique sense of movement. This logically makes sense for Creed’s unique movement system. More importantly though, sandbox games like Crackdown and Creed have to spread their collectibles like they do because their maps aren’t as carefully designed as those of an RPG, much less a Zelda game. Zelda games are basically giant labyrinths rather than free-roam terrain.

You don’t see GTA games encouraging you to collect a bunch of stuff plastered all over the map. Rockstar knows (generally) what it’s games are good at. If it had made a pirate game, it would probably be entirely focused around the core loop of raiding ships and getting money, and there would be deeper and more varied gameplay surrounding that loop.

However, you have to remember that a lot of what Ubisoft puts in its AAA games is based on throwing in more and more things it thinks will translate to wider appeal and more sales. It wants CreedFar Cry, and Watch_Dogs to be games for almost everybody, and so to an extent they kinda have to try to fuse aspects of disparate genres. Now sure how you factor in GTA selling 30+ million copies while sticking to what it’s good at, but oh well.


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