When Black Flag was first announced, it never really hit me at how great an open-world pirate game could really be. Since so many past iterations were comfortable with walling off players in mini-sandboxes rather than letting them run free, Assassin's Creed IV really scratched that itch so many people had been longing for.
The mobile spinoff Assassin's Creed: Pirates doesn't offer that same sense of freedom, but it captures the essence of sailing around causing general debauchery just fine. You'll spend the entire game in your ship, but if you loved that aspect of Assassin's Creed IV, you're probably going to like Pirates.
Assassin's Creed: Pirates (Android, iPad, iPhone [reviewed on an iPhone 5])
Developer: Ubisoft Paris
Release Date: December 5, 2013
You'll play the role of Alonzo, a pirate who has captured the interest of the legendary La Buse -- and after a chance encounter, you're given your own ship to wreak havoc on the world. But the story doesn't really matter in Pirates, as it never really goes anywhere or touches on any significant plot points in the slightest. You basically just run around as Alonzo doing pirate stuff willy-nilly, but the catch is, it's actually pretty fun. Just like Black Flag there's very little "real world" or Abstergo-based narratives here, leaving the focus almost entirely on the pirates. In fact, there's not even a significant "assassin and templar" connection (although you will meet both factions), for better or worse.
Sailing can be done in one of two ways, both of which have their advantages. One is a top-down RTS style where you can trace your finger across a map to any route you wish -- and the other is your traditional Assassin's Creed "behind the helm" view, complete with all the bells and whistles that the Jackdaw had in Black Flag. The ability to switch between the two is very convenient, as I'd find myself sailing distances with the RTS view, then switching back to first-person to check out the immediate surroundings.
Although there isn't a giant open world, there are a number of miniature sandboxes to jump between, all of which have their own unique landmasses, treasures to find, ships to battle, and locations to uncover. You'll also be able to do side missions like racing, stealth sailing, and of course, fetch quests -- the latter of which are thankfully rather short and action-packed. Given how well the game controls I would have been fine simply with the ability to roam around and blow stuff up, but the extra parameters are a welcome addition.
To be clear, Assassin's Creed: Pirates is not a realistic simulator in the slightest -- so don't go mistaking it for the next Sid Meier's Pirates. Actual combat is a bit of a mixed bag, as it has almost no depth to it. In fact, you could say it's a straight arcade experience, complete with giant "dodge bonus!" icons on-screen. All you really need to do is select a cannon when it's off its cooldown, aim it, and occasionally dodge left or right when an enemy boat fires at you. Having said that, it prevents fights from being bogged down slog-fests, and you won't find yourself avoiding confrontation given how quickly each duel goes down. On the flipside, combat can often become predictable and dry, despite its short length.
Should you want to upgrade your ship, a host of options is available, including crew members that add unique "perks" to your vessel. It's addicting to saturate every bit of gold in each area just to upgrade your crew and your ship, as the results are tangible and meaningful. It immediately reminded me of a more pared-down crew mechanic from Skies of Arcadia, which is easily a good thing.
Somehow, possibly through a sheer act of God, Ubisoft hasn't implemented a microtransaction "boost for XP" or "real-money currency" scheme in Pirates. I couldn't believe it at first, and I looked for them in utter disbelief for some time, but my efforts were fruitless. As a result, progression feels natural and not built around sapping your cash. Ubisoft, if you're listening, do this more often, and your audience will love you for it.
Assassin's Creed: Pirates is a very silly game, but it's a great distraction if you're left wanting more after Black Flag. With a host of content, tons of customization and fast-paced combat, there's hardly a dull moment in Pirates. The fact that there's no money-grubbing microtransactions to ruin the experience is the cherry on top.