By Matt Gosper
Over the past few years, it’s become fairly common to see companion games released alongside Ubisoft’s flagship Assassin’s Creed titles. Previous instalments like Altair’s Chronicles or Assassin’s Creed II: Bloodlines have acted as direct extensions of the main games’ protagonists, whilst Liberation on the Vita introduced an entirely new playable Assassin in the form of the charming Aveline de Grandpre. Assassin’s Creed: Pirates is another slightly different step for these side titles, taking place as a sort of prequel to Black Flag – but not starring an Assassin. Pirates tells the story of Alonzo Batilia, a pirate not affiliated with the Assassins or Templars in the Golden Age of piracy. His story revolves around the hunt for the lost treasure of French pirate La Buse.
Gameplay-wise, you’ll be playing a pared-down version of the naval sections of flagship title Black Flag. Sailing about operates much the same as it does on the Jackdaw, with the added bonus of being able to steer using the phone or tablet’s accelerometer – a minor addition, but it does give you that feeling of spinning the ship’s wheel. You’ll travel around different zones participating in a few key activities; speed races, fetch quests and naval battles. The races and fetch quests are decently well done, not feeling tedious to complete or too repetitive in their frequency.
The naval combat is a double-edged sword. Compared to Black Flag it’s very basic and arcadey, with timed recharge of your cannons/swivel gun and a timed ‘dodge’ move (which consists of a timely gust of wind to push your ship left or right). This means that each battle is just a matter of timely button presses, as opposed to a matter of any real skill or luck. At face value this seems like a negative for the game but when you consider the platform it’s delivered on, this helps the game adopt more of a pick-up-put-down mentality. You can play in short bursts and still gain a sense of accomplishment, rather than having to devote a decent chunk of time.
As you progress through Batilia’s story, you’ll gain access to upgrades and perks for increasingly more powerful ships. These upgrades are handed out at an even pace, meaning you’re never too far from your next reward. Being able to swap perks in and out for different situations – faster ship travel, damage reduction and so on – helps make the game feel more rounded overall. Strangely enough, there are no microtransactions in the game or pay-to-unlock upgrades, and they don’t really feel necessary either. Given that Black Flag does have a few pay-to-win DLC options, this seems an odd move from Ubisoft, but not an unwelcome one.
Visually the game is a little bit uneven – whilst ships are well rendered and the water effects are BEAUTIFUL, landmasses and other background elements feel a little basic at times. Granted, detailed islands become less of a concern when you never leave your ship, but compared to the brilliant texture, shadow and reflection work in the ocean rendering it sticks out like a sore thumb. Likewise, the writing is fairly simple – Bastilia’s story starts with him being broken out of a prison ship by a pirate, only for him to immediately throw a free ship at him and say, ‘go nuts’. You’ll have passing encounters with both sides of the Templar/Assassin dispute as well as cameo appearances from Black Flag characters, but realistically you’re here for a quick bit of gaming so it’s no great loss to not have a sweeping story.
Whilst I was a little disappointed that Pirates has no direct link to the main title in terms of perks or unlocks, it still stands on its own as a fun, if shallow, mobile game. It’s a good distraction for those loading screens in Black Flag, or for feeling a bit swashbuckle-y on public transport. Arr.