Assassin’s Creed 4 and the next-gen AI problem

Gamers have focused on better graphics and game scale to mark what defines “next generation” console gaming. However, it’s disappointing that artificial intelligence hasn’t been given the same scrutiny; strong AI makes a game more unpredictable, challenging and immersive. Assassin’s Creed 4, Ubisoft’s latest adventure epic, needs work in the AI department.

It’s a shame because AC4 otherwise exemplifies what I expected out of a next-gen launch title. There’s a much larger world in AC4 than earlier Assassin’s Creed games with huge amounts of ship combat, treasure hunting, and exploration apart from the game’s main storyline. Graphics are stunning and run at a fluid 1080p resolution on the PS4. Water and facial animations are especially impressive compared to games I’ve played on “current-gen” consoles.

Unfortunately enemy AI is poor, seemingly unchanged in quality from the now four year old Assassin’s Creed 2. For example, when a group of enemy soldiers surround you in hand to hand combat, only one or two attack at a time. Also when you’re spotted, enemies run blindly at you. There’s no attempt at a sneak attack, flanking or a defensive position. In addition, AC4 has a lot of fighting on rooftops and ship decks where enemy AI is easily confused. Soldiers tend to cluster precariously near deck or rooftop edges where a quick attack can knock them off to their deaths.

AC4’s solution to this inept AI in later stages of the game is to either overwhelm you with sheer numbers of enemies, hoping you’ll make a mistake, or ramp up AI speed, making sword or gun combos more difficult to execute. But these feel like riffs on the same difficulty adaptations that we’ve relied on since 1980s arcade shooters. With next generation console hardware, I expected better.

I’ve considered an alternative reality where AC4 has its explorable world and mission count slashed in half. The subsequent millions in development savings are invested into smarter enemy AI, AI that strategizes and retreats from fights when they are overwhelmed for backup. I’d also add in a GTA-style “wanted” level on land that ensures you could be ambushed any time (to the game’s credit, this already exists for ship combat on sea) as well as some extra consequences to dying.

These gameplay changes could have huge upsides for users: repetitive gameplay (and thus boredom) decreases significantly. Hand to hand combat is more difficult and varied. Because enemies can flank and ambush you at any time, there’s a undercurrent of tension to otherwise mundane in-game tasks. And as enemy AI gets smarter, players will be forced to rely more on stealth and “hit and run” assassinations, even when artificially set mission objectives don’t explicitly require it.

Sadly, I doubt Ubisoft is listening to my suggestions; there’s a perception among AAA studios that better graphics and long, safe single player campaigns keep sales high. That attitude has to change for AI to be prioritized, but given the millions at stake for large studios that’s unlikely. So I’m hopeful smaller indies will keep iterating on AI. With their strong showing from 2013 (e.g. Brothers, Gone Home, Gunpoint) and increased presence on powerful next-gen hardware, here’s hoping it’s just a matter of time before game AI dazzles us.