It was inevitable. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag had me piloting Edward Kenway and his crew through the perfect blue waters of the Caribbean for days, and it was only a matter of time before I just had to go for a swim.
Unfortunately, this little aquatic jaunt turned out to have a profoundly disappointing effect on my immersion in one of my favourite games from 2013.
I decided a change of clothes would be in order first; the flowing black robes that made Kenway look like the Dread Pirate Roberts are good for jaunts into town and makes standing on the aft castle an exercise in style, but soaking them in seawater would probably just ruin them. I switch to my whale skins and toss my cloak to First Mate Adéwalé. I like to imagine the look of incredulity on his face as Captain Kenway blindly leaps into the briny blue.
The water is thick, almost soupy. It churns as Kenway’s legs thrash behind him, but there are no bubbles, no splashes, no rapidly-refilling cavities as his arms gouge through the surface to pull him along. I stop for a moment to check my bearings, the pirate bobbing casually as waves lifted him up and down. Only up and down though; there are no currents to wash me away. I could remain here for an hour, a day, and not change my geographic position.
Never drowning, never moving.
I begin to wonder if there’s anything below the surface. My mind conjures up images of sharks, or more mysterious marine life, rising up to greet Kenway with snapping jaws and dragging him down to the murky depths beneath his water-treading feet. Then I remember I wasn’t doing two highly specific things (bell-diving or harpooning), and therefore sharks had no physical presence in the fabric of the universe. So my concerns for Edward’s health quickly dissolved along with thoughts about his inexhaustible stamina.
In the distance, I see Spanish and British ships moving along some common trade route, and I have a wicked thought – I’m going to steal a boat, all by myself.
I readjust my trajectory, directing Kenway towards the shipping lane. As I get closer, I notice something peculiar; boats are actively avoiding my path. At first I thought they were just casually following the winds and natural routes, but I was wrong. Every single ship I swam before tacked hard to swing around me, giving me a wide berth, keeping themselves well out of arm’s reach. A man at sea, drowning (well, I could have been), and these sailors were dodging me like a plague victim.
I’ve never had to ambush a boat before, so there’s another experience Black Flag can tick off the list. I eventually manage to position myself in such a way that a ship just has to come within grasp, and I haul myself aboard the rigging. It was a small British ship, probably just patrolling the trade routes for pirates like myself.
One thing I immediately noticed was that the ship was still sailing around as I clung to the side, and that my own Jackdaw was becoming an increasingly small shape on the waves. In fact, it hadn’t even moved since I had leapt from the deck. I’d been swimming around for a good 15 minutes, and not a single crew member thought to maybe try and keep up with me? Stern words and floggings would be had once I returned.
Discretion may be the better part of valour, but every second spent sneaking would lead me further away from my stationary ship. So I hopped over the railing (right foot first, of course) and proceeded to cut my way through the crew. My dance of death is mesmerising enough to draw the helmsman away, and the British ship slows to a halt.
Eventually, the final lobster falls to my cutlass. Nothing happened. I ran around and cut off British flags and destroyed powder kegs. All the things you do when you board a ship normally in the game, only without the grappling hooks and excessive cannon fire. But to no avail; it seems there is no reward for single-handedly taking a prize. That disappoints me greatly.
I wander the deck aimlessly, trying to find the triggering action that will kick off a win condition for this little mini-game I created for myself. Eventually I get bored, and start taking pot-shots at other passing ships with muskets stolen from fallen crewmen. No one slows or stops, not even noticing when some unlucky Spaniard gets plucked from the rigging of his trade boat. The Jackdaw also ignores musket-shots thrown their way, stoically staying perfectly still in the water.
Determined to salvage my prize, I leap back into the water and begin the ten minute swim back to the Jackdaw. My aim is to get back, direct my crew to the ghost ship now floating in the near distance, and claim it ‘properly’. The crew cheers as they see me clamber back on deck, soaked to the bone. Kenway maintains his roguish smirk but I am glaring at each and every one of them, judging them harshly for their ineptitude. I grasp the wheel and turn to seek my prey.
Only it isn’t there anymore.
The time and distance taken to return to my ship had been enough for the game to reset the area and vanish my conquest. All that effort and time spent for nothing. I am more than a little annoyed.
My crew scrabble around the deck as I order the anchor raised and the sails dropped. I return to the open waters, aiming to acquire some more prizes the right way, the way the game suggests. I’ve learnt my lesson, not to come up with my own ideas. I’m upset by this – Assassin’s Creed IV had been excellently made up until this point, and it baffles me that the designers wouldn’t consider the idea that characters might want to swim in the ocean that makes up fifty-percent of their game.
As I’m sailing, I spot a man, cast adrift on a ramshackle raft. I slow the Jackdaw and have the crew pull him on board. Unlike the AI, I’m only a pirate, not a monster.