Too often when a video game publisher offers a phone or tablet app to complement their latest hit game, the result is an undercooked app that doesn’t add much to the experience.
So I’ve been pleasantly surprised by Ubisoft’s companion app for Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, which is available for free on iOS and on Android tablets (not to be confused with the standalone mobile game Assassin’s Creed: Pirates). The app has a clever hook into the main console game, and doesn’t feel like a cheap attempt to placate investors (Look, we’re paying attention to mobile!) or to extract more money from players.
At first glance, the Assassin’s Creed IV companion app is just a duplicate of the main game’s menu system. You can view the world map and track your mission activity while you play–logging in with a Ubisoft account keeps everything in sync–and at any time you can read up on lore and listen to the awesome pirate songs (or “shanties”) that you’ve collected from around the Caribbean. On its own, this is a helpful addition for tablet users, but not essential.
The companion app’s killer feature is the “Kenway’s Fleet” mini-game, which lets you earn in-game currency and treasure by sending your ships on trade routes. These same missions are available within the main game, but having them on your tablet means you can keep earning money even when you don’t have time to sit down in front of the television.
You start with a few vessels that can run a handful of short trade routes. Send a ship on its way, and you’re free to put the tablet away or use other apps. A few minutes later, the ship comes back with a little bit of loot, and more trade routes open up, taking more time to complete but bringing in much greater rewards. The idea is that you can hop into the app to send your ships out, then come back later in the day to cash in.
To make things more complicated, the more lucrative trade routes are too dangerous to travel right away. To clear a safe path, you must fight in simulated battles, in which you stack your best ships against enemy vessels in a game of statistics. By winning these battles, you reduce the odds of losing ships when they’re out at sea, while building up more supplies to trade.
With the few ships you’re given at the outset, you can earn a nice chunk of change. But to really build things up, you’ll need to capture more ships in the console game. This involves venturing out on your own boat, boarding enemy vessels and fighting hand-to-hand with the opposing crew. Any ship you take over can be added to the fleet, and as you capture better ships, you can junk your old ones for more resources.
The result is a genuine connection between the tablet and the console. The more time you spend building up your fleet in Assassin’s Creed IV, the more you can accomplish in the companion app. You get useful rewards in the form of money and treasure, and all it takes is a few spare minutes knocking out enemy ships and setting up supply runs. If you don’t feel like running around in search of treasure chests in the main game, the companion app is essentially a shortcut to more loot.
I wish more companion apps were this well-thought out. Recently I was disappointed by Call of Duty‘s iPhone app, which lets you edit your multiplayer weapon loadouts but doesn’t let you create loadouts from scratch or purchase new guns and attachments. And while standalone mobile games like Mass Effect Infiltrator and Halo: Spartan Assault reward players with experience points in Mass Effect 3 and Halo 4, respectively, neither console game hooks back into the mobile game in meaningful ways.
Ubisoft is demonstrating how it should be done: Instead of just tacking on a glorified menu system, or creating a paid standalone mobile game with some minor incentives for console players, Assassin’s Creed IV gives tablet users a real way to keep playing the actual game, and offers big rewards for doing so. And despite the rampancy of in-app purchases and downloadable content in newer console games–including Assassin’s Creed IV itself–the companion app is completely free. If you have an iPad or Android tablet, it’s definitely worth a try.