AC IV's Controversial, Online Singleplayer Features Make Game Easier

The fun, rich single-player campaign of Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag is more enjoyable and less tedious if you play the game with an active online connection. Without a connection, multiple valuable features are not available.

Curiously, the game's publisher Ubisoft seems to be walling its online features off unless users activate an online pass, dubbed a Uplay Passport. The Passport is free to new purchasers of ACIV but will cost $10 for anyone who gets the game used or borrows it from a friend.

While Ubisoft has yet to comment or clarify the extent to which it is gating some features with its Passport, we think we've been able to figure most of it out. And while reports yesterday focused on the Passport being needed for ACIV's optional Fleet mini-game, it goes further than that. We believe that the game's other useful singleplayer online features may be gated by the Passport as well. (We're actually appealing to those of you who have the game to help us confirm.)

The Passport is activated by inputting a code printed on a flyer that is included with boxed copies of the game. Presumably, digital copies of the game will activate the Passport on their own. Text on the flyer indicates that, among other things, it provides "access to the full single-player experience."

AC IV's Controversial, Online Singleplayer Features Make Game Easier

The Fleet game is an expansion of some of the assassin training mini-games offered in recent installments in the series, though those didn't require an online connection. In ACIV, players send ships, rather than assassins, throughout the Atlantic Ocean to battle other ships and hopefully make successful trades.

The Fleet game can be played within ACIV or separately on the game's tablet-oriented companion app. It's more or less a board game with real-time elements. Players start with just a few ships but can add more by capturing them in the main part of ACIV. The ships have stats for speed, firepower and cargo storage. The Atlantic is drawn with possible trade routes. The point of the game is to build a fleet, send tough ships into dangerous shipping lanes to destroy enemy ships and then to send fast ones through the shipping lanes to make money.

It's a game of stats, commodities, and time-management. Ships can be scuttled for gems. Gems can be spent to buy more docks. Missions must cool down before they can be tried again. And, supposedly, your progress speeds up if more of your friends are also playing. It has some of the hallmarks of a social game, but with more real strategy and no microtransactions.

Here it is, briefly, in action:

Playing the Fleet game well earns the player some much-needed money. In a game—that is the whole of ACIV—where normal treasure chests only contain a few dozen or a few hundred coins and really good cannons for the ship you sail can cost tens of thousands, it's useful to have some ships out on money-making errands. But since these ships can take hours or even days to sail back, Fleet isn't actually a huge in-game money-maker.

Why require online for this? It's possible that Ubisoft is checking your friends' progress to network your fleets in some way. It's hard to say. I played the game the weekend on a retail PS3 prior to its official release and, as far as I could tell, didn't have any friends who were also playing it. In fact, I didn't realize the game was using an online connection to enable it. I'd inputted the Uplay Passport code already and was none the wiser.

Here's how the game introduces you to the Fleet game and then stops you in your tracks if you didn't activate the Passport:

AC IV's Controversial, Online Singleplayer Features Make Game Easier

The Fleet game is, in my opinion, skippable. If you don't get it, you miss a nice additional feature, but you're still getting a heaping amount of content in the game, probably 30-50 hours of missions and sidequests if you want to do everything (I finished the game in 28 hours with a 63% completion rate.

But here's the catch: my colleague, Kirk "distant descendant of Blackbeard (not kidding)" Hamilton finished the game at nearly the same completion rate—65%—but in five hours' more time. Further, he didn't sail with as upgraded a ship as I did and didn't dump 10s of thousands of coins on upgrades to his pirate hideout. The reason is because Kirk was always strapped for in-game money and I was not. He had to run a lot of small assassination missions to get the money to upgrade his ship to survive key storyline missions.

The reason Kirk was strapped for in-game cash and I wasn'tis because I took advantage of ACIV's other single-player online elements: its social goods that come in the form of Royal Convoys, white whales and social treasure chests.

Yes, social treasure chests. See?

AC IV's Controversial, Online Singleplayer Features Make Game Easier

Whereas the dozens (hundreds?) of regular in-game treasure chests that you can find while exploring ACIV's high seas and deep jungles contain dozens or hundreds of coins, social chests, I found, always include nearly 1,000. They spawn in all sorts of unexpected locations and, when they do, you get an alert that you've found one as well as a notification that the location of the chest will now appear in the copies of the game that your friends are playing. That's kind of neat, but, more importantly, valuable.

What's better than a social chest? A Royal Convoy. While you can sail the game's Caribbean and find regular convoys of ships that you can plunder for about 1,000 coins, if you find a Royal Convoy, you can plunder for 10,000 coins. As with social treasure chests, you either have to find one of these convoys while playing online or you have to have one generated on your map, triggered by a friend discovering one while they're playing. You will not find these if you are playing offline.

There are also white whale locations that let you hunt the game's version of Moby-Dick. That'll get you some valuable hide. Both the social convoys and social whales run on a timer. You don't have to attack the convoy or hunt the whale when you find them, but you'll see what, if memory serves, is a 24-hour or so counter ticking down until they disappear from the map.

We haven't been able to confirm that the social chests/convoys/whales require a Uplay Passport. But, if being online at all with this game requires a Passport, then they do. No matter what, they do require an online connection. We've asked Ubisoft to clarify. In lieu of them doing so, we're hoping that some of you out there can say whether you've been able to access any of these online features without the Passport. If so, please mention it in the replies below or e-mail me.

It had seemed that online passes were going out of style this year. It also seemed like the idea of playing ostensibly single-player games with an online connection was still an unproven concept. Happily, you can play the vast majority of ACIV without the online-connected features offered for the game's solo campaign. But even if they merit being tied to an online network, it's another thing to have Ubisoft seemingly tie those online features to an online pass. We're not sure why Ubisoft did that other than to penalize used-game consumers and the kind of pirates that this game isn't about.

We'll update you as we find out more. Please return the favor, if you can.

To contact the author of this post, write to stephentotilo@kotaku.com or find him on Twitter @stephentotilo.