For most console and portable gamers, the Assassin’s Creed series is (or should be) a household name as far as open-world objective-based action is concerned. However, it hasn’t really made much of a splash on the mobile scene (the exception being the now ancient Altair’s Chronicles ($4.99)). With the recent launch of Assassin’s Creed Pirates (Free), iOS users now have an opportunity to experience some of what the most recent console offerings have featured. Unfortunately, several aspects of Pirates bring it down, leading to a gameplay experience that could have been better.
Before anyone gets any big ideas, let’s get it out there that Pirates is not a full-fledged Assassin’s Creed game in any manner. In fact, there really isn’t any of that assassin-filled gameplay that comprises the majority of the content in the console Assassin’s Creed games. Pirates explains this away in an introductory Abstergo cutscene that introduces you to Alonzo Batilla, a young captain whose life intersects with the fearsome pirate La Buse. It’s this crossing of paths that serves as your motivation to hop in the Animus and play as Batilla as your goal is to uncover the secrets and life of La Buse. Overall, while the tale falls short of the grandiose tales told in other Assassin’s Creed games, I found the story in Pirates to be decent enough.
Considering Batilla’s role as being purely a captain, Pirates focuses exclusively on the ship-based gameplay that was introduced in Assassin’s Creed 3 and made integral in the recently released Assassin’s Creed 4. There’s nautical combat, a variety of ships to purchase and outfit and a decent upgrade system with a variety of perks that are earned via level-ups. It’s all wrapped up in a visual engine that I found pretty impressive on current generation iOS hardware.
Unfortunately Pirates’ gameplay, while plentiful, is pretty formulaic and monotonous. The basic goal is to start a region, attack ships, complete missions, gather resources and use said resources to purchase/upgrade new ships and travel to the next region. Each region typically contains a tons of side quests, a story mission and lots of ships to attack (or avoid). Side quests range from ‘Assassin’ quests that have you sneaking your ship past enemy patrols by drawing a line across a map to ‘Race’ quests that have you guide your ship quickly through checkpoints. The quests that focus on exploring and piloting your ship are by far the best parts of the game and feel most like an actual Assassin’s Creed game. The missions that incorporate more ‘mobile’ elements feel out of place and overtly simplistic. Meanwhile, story missions typically combine the various types of side quests with cutscenes that advance the story (and give big rewards).
One area that I thought was done well is Pirates’ ship upgrade and feat system. Completing side missions and destroying ships earns both experience points and a wide variety of resources. The resources are used to purchase ship upgrades while the experience goes towards an overall leveling system that unlocks new ships, feats, and maps. While the ship upgrade path is pretty linear, I was impressed with the large amount of feats as well as the potential combinations that can be applied. There’s certainly enough here to customize the majority of Pirates to an individual playstyle.
Regardless of your playstyle, you’ll spend the vast majority of your time in ship-to-ship combat. Unfortunately, this is the aspect of Pirates that falls the most flat. Once you encounter an enemy ship you’ll engage in what is essentially turn-based combat that has you attacking the enemy with a variety of cannons that are all on timers until your opponent readies his weapons. Once that occurs, you’ll enter into the defensive phase that has you dodging attacks by moving forward or backwards outside the cannon range. It doesn’t make much sense and offers very little in terms of strategy. There’s nothing wrong or game-breaking about the combat; it simply borders on being boring with that feeling being exacerbated by the fact that you spend so much time in combat to begin with.
There’s no question that fans of the series should check out Assassin’s Creed Pirates. There’s plenty of content, impressive visuals and some pieces, like the actual ship navigation, do a great job of emulating its console brethren. However, elements like the boring combat and the monotony of the side quests make a lot of that content somewhat disappointing. One could certainly argue that there’s a far amount of monotony in other Assassin’s Creed titles as well, but at least those have large open worlds to provide some variety. That key is missing from Pirates and keeps it from being a better offering.