Review: Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag Is A Series Turning Point
Assassin's Creed has been an annual affair for 5 years now and just when the series looked to be on a collision course for whatever hell Resident Evil is in, Ubisoft managed to breathe fresh life into it with a title that serves as a major turning point in the series. The game has quite literally changed, people. It looks like the ocean breeze really does work wonders.
- Worth The Time?Oh, definitely
- Things LovedThe breathtaking beauty of the world, digging for buried treasure, plundering ships and swimming beneath the ocean's surface gave me a fat, hard... smile. The visceral and violent combat offers some challenge but is ultimately fun as is the stealth which the game focuses more on. There is no shortage of things to do and places to discover. Upgrades and all activities are both necessary and fruitful. The game makes you feel like an assassin again. Shout out to Blackbeard.
- Things HatedAbstergo Interlude modern-day sequences left a bad taste, the story left no after-taste whatsoever. It is dull and felt empty. This series needs to overhaul its core mechanics. Enemy AI is embarrassingly dumb and there are technical issues which have endured in these games for years. Upgrade system feels a tad shallow and missions are painfully repetitive. Activities are just plain repetitive for the most part.
- RecommendationSeries fans should love this new direction. If you're looking to escape from this world, that of Black Flag is certainly not your worst alternative.
- Name: Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag
- Genre: Pirate Sim
- Players: 1
- Multiplayer: 2-8
- Platforms: PS3, Xbox 360, PC, Wii U, PS4, Xbox One
- Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
- Publisher: Ubisoft
- Price: R620 (PS3, Xbox360, Wii U), R435 (PC), R699 (PS4, Xbox One)
- Reviewed On: PS3
Oh wow, where to begin. This empty canvas that is a blank Word document really is intimidating. Now, I could fill it with an brilliantly written review or change the font to Helvetica, mash the keyboard with a hammer and that’ll be it. From a distance both will look good but only once you look closer will you notice just how much detail and care went into the former. Of course, I’m talking about how things could’ve gone with the truly massive open-world that Ubisoft crafted out of the Caribbean with Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. It could have been pretty but empty and meaningless. What we got instead is as rich and nuanced as the region itself. Boom! We just kicked this bitch off with a clever extended metaphor.
I have a very personal bond with Assassin’s Creed, I mean the original game is one of the reasons I bought a PS3 and it may well go down as (overall) one of my favourite series of this console generation. The first game was an amazing concept that took the idea of reliving memories, tosses us into the 11th Century Crusades and delivered a fantastic narrative experience with gameplay that served its purpose. There was this amazing recreation of three cities but not much to do in them. Here we are at the sixth game in the series and it has evolved into something quite different. We’re still getting incredibly recreated portals to a bygone era that has you feeling like you were there but now there is a mind-boggling amount of things to keep you occupied while narrative takes a firm backseat role.
I suppose I should do the usual boring stuff like fill you in on the story. It’s been awhile since I did one of these things. I’m a tad rusty.
Now, every AC title has a modern day premise but Desmond is dead so instead you fill the shoes of an Abstergo Entertainment employee. Entertainment because they use ancestral memories to produce video games in association with Ubisoft in order to fund the Templar agenda. I’m not joking, this is a real thing. It’s ridiculous and pretty light-hearted. Your first job is to scrub through Desmond’s ancestral memories from the 18th Century to find usable footage for a game being developed. That game is Black Flag (but by another name). So basically you’re playing a game where you’re playing a character finding footage for the game you’re playing. That’s about as meta as you get without involving psychotropic drugs.
Remember Connor, the protagonist from Assassin’s Creed III? Well, in Black Flag you play as his grandfather, Edward Kenway – a swashbuckling privateer turned pirate hailing from Wales sans the indecipherable dialect and Gareth Bale ears. Edward is in the Caribbean because nobody likes British summers and it is here that, whilst out on the seas, he finds himself shipwrecked on a small island after the ship he was on is attacked by another which happens to have an assassin aboard. As you’d expect, they both survive and face off on the island but Edward wins, assumes the man’s identity and gets swept up into the long in the tooth feud between Assassins and Templars.
If that sounded contrived, that’s because it is. It’s the only reason he gets involved in everything and yet it could have served a great purpose in really getting perspective on Assassins vs Templars from a neutral and seeing which way Edward sways. Alas, that doesn’t really happen so it’s an opportunity missed. Fret not though, there isn’t much contrivance beyond this initial setup because there isn’t much of a plot to speak of. That said, some of the things that happen in this narrative reek of ludonarrative dissonance (using that term makes me clever, right?) or simply don’t make a lick of sense.
There are story missions, sure. However, when planning a story most writers have a few key moments they might want or crucial scenes and then the real trick is in connecting all this together. The writer for Black Flag sort of just stopped at that planning phase. The story is a series of random events, tentatively connected and often without any appreciable payoff at all. They largely serve as tutorials for a number of the things you have the liberty to do in the game. My lord, there are a lot of things to do but we’ll get there.
While clearly an after-thought, the story is dull and the twists can be seen from 20 000 leagues. The worst thing about them is just how darned repetitive they are in structure and the actual content of the mission itself.
Yeah, I’m going to talk about gameplay now. Bet you thought I was going to make a smooth transition from story to gameplay, huh? Guess again, this review is choppy as the ocean in a storm.
While mercifully overhauled in some areas, the gameplay is what we’ve come to expect with the exception of some lovely new additions. Edward has the typical array of guns, swords, hidden-blades, smoke bombs and darts at his disposal. Just like Connor before him, technically after but whatever. You can upgrade your tools of death or upgrade Edward himself with swanky new threads and better protective clothing. Coin will only get you so far though because to upgrade protective clothing, gain bigger pouches and more you’ll need to go hunting. There are over a dozen animals to hunt from ocelots to iguanas, whales and sharks. The satisfaction of aerial assassinating an unsuspecting leopard is immense. As is the feeling of accomplishment when you take down a great white. There are some rare animals too such as a white whale.
Stop me if this is sounding familiar. You’re not insane, this system of hunting and crafting was in fact pinched from Far Cry 3. It’s simplified a bit and scaled back but just as enjoyable, rewarding and necessary. It’s also way cooler to harpoon a whale than chip away at a shark with a sniper rifle or bow.
The combat system is no longer a case of chaining attacks together until everyone is on the ground with such ease that you don’t even need to look at the screen. This time around it feels far more visceral (I don’t exactly know what that word means either) and makes you feel like a swashbuckling badass that mixes his cocktails with gunpowder. It’s fast, brutal and best of all, does require some focus and skill to really become proficient in it. It’s by no means difficult to win a fight but there is at least some challenge now. A typical brawl will go something like: slice, counter, stab repeatedly, dodge attack from behind, jab through the neck, slice and dice for a bit then gunshot to the kneecap to round things off; a pentagram of bodies surrounds you.
Not many games have provided me with so much fun when it came to wielding a pair of cutlasses.
Funnily enough, the game promotes stealth. Most missions have “do not engage in combat” as an optional objective. Mission areas are littered with hiding spots from which to eliminate enemies. More importantly, stealth felt clunky and like the hard way around in the last two games but here it feels natural. Granted, the mechanics governing this stealth are a wee bit outdated and rather limited.
You’re limited to hiding in bushes, haystacks, conveniently placed cupboards or around corners or always have to whistle to attract a guard before eliminating them. It gets repetitive at times but there are other moments when you feel like the coolest assassin that ever was. Granted, it’s simple also because the enemy AI is dumber than jellyfish. I got into a tussle with three guards in a restricted area and another four who were just 15m away were not alerted somehow.
With the right circumstances and the right setting, the stealth feels quite satisfying but this happens infrequently. Let me paint a picture. Use trees to sneak past a throng of guards unnoticed, get up onto the battlements of the fort you’re infiltrating. Make your way around offing all the enemies you encounter. A ledge kill here, a sleep dart there, a light stabbing and maybe round it off with a double aerial assassination. All whilst running from one bit of cover to the next or hanging from a ledge to avoid detection. It can be quite exhilarating. No really, I mean it.
Wait a minute, isn’t this guy a pirate too? Pirate Assassin! Or Ninja Pirate™ if you’re going to be politically correct about it. What do pirates need? That’s right, scurvy, syphilis and sex appeal. A ship wouldn’t hurt either. As such, Edward is pretty tight with the likes of Blackbeard, Calico Jack, James Kidd and plenty more. It really does dunk you straight into the Golden Age of Piracy. I recommend acquiring this game illicitly if you can just to keep in the spirit of things. That was a joke, piracy is really, really bad and pirating games kills platypi. Most of these characters come off like extras from those movies with Captain Jack Sparrow save for Blackbeard and James Kidd who were actually pretty interesting.
Like in Assassin’s Creed III, you get to take the helm of a ship except this time it makes sense in the context of the game. You’re a pirate after all. After stealing a ship, Edward names it The Jackdaw and so you are given a means with which to traverse the frankly gargantuan open-world. You have a good chunk of the Caribbean to explore with key locations such as Havana, Kingston and the pirate port of Nassau. Oops, I should wrap up what’s what with the ship first. Curse you, train of thought.
The Jackdaw is an extension of Edward, it’s even filled with seamen (I’m not just a comedic genius but a general purpose genius too), and as such you can upgrade it. You’re a pirate so your means for upgrading comes from plundering resources off other ships after incapacitating them and rendering the crew helpless to stop you through some naval combat. You can purchase new weapons such as mortars or upgrade the existing ones you have as well as bolster the ships armour, so to speak. If you’re feeling fruity then feel free to change the colour of the sails or add a different figurehead to the bow. I opted for a phoenix.
Controlling The Jackdaw is simple and intuitive, the thing’ll turn on a dime it’s so manoeuvrable. This comes in handy during combat when you’re constantly changing direction, circling ships and dodging enemy fire. It’s about as fun and rewarding as combat on land albeit with the added glee of getting to cruise up next to the wasted ship and board it to claim your plundered prizes. You’ll need progressively more skill as the ships increase in size and strength. At some point you’ll need to upgrade your ship though or it is quite impossible to last any longer than two seconds against something as imposing as a Man o’ War for example. If you don’t know what that is, it’s a huge-ass boat with lots of guns.
I put the game through a test here. In AC III you could go through the entire game with nary an upgrade purchased and it would still be pretty easy but in Black Flag that’ll get you killed, mate. You can probably manage fine on land without upgrading Edward but at one point I opted to buy the man some new clothes instead of upgrading The Jackdaw’s cannons. I then went up against a Man o’ War with maybe level two ship upgrades and got my ass handed to me. A finely dressed ass, mind you.
So yeah, you should upgrade the ship. Definitely upgrade the ship.
One qualm I had is that the upgrade system, specifically for Edward seems very shallow when compared to perhaps Far Cry 3. For a game this size, with the amount of hours you can pour into it – I logged around 30 and that was focusing on story with a minimal amount of other activities done – there should be a deeper upgrade tree but then that would beget the game itself upgrading from some rather simple and slightly outdated albeit functional mechanics.
Okay, we were talking about the game world and all the locations. So you’ve got these major towns that are all as expansive and detailed as you’d expect them to be at this stage in the series. They’re filled with the vibrant life and atmosphere of the time but also enough side activities to keep you docked in one port for some time. There are secrets to discover, chests to loot, assassination contracts to carry out, shanty song sheets to collect for your crew (they sing the songs while out on the ocean, it’s quite enthralling), the usual viewpoints to scope out and a couple of unique side-missions that might pop up. You can also hit the local tavern, get plastered and then win a terse game of checkers. You might even take to a spot of hunting, I accidentally got into a tussle with a crocodile during a mission once. Guess who won.
Venturing out onto the open sea, the world is your oyster although I’m not sure what your pearl would be in this case. There are myriad smaller islands to explore, each with their own secrets, viewpoints to scope out, wildlife to hunt and treasure maps to pilfer from corpses. Find the X the map points to and you’ll be digging for buried treasure. I liked those a lot because the maps are usually outdated or contextual so you need to use some lateral thinking and geography to figure out where Edward should dig. There are also Mayan artefacts to find which, when all collected, unlock a special reward that isn’t penicillin. Not interested in old relics? Well, how about some Mayan puzzles then?
Each tiny island is begging to be explored and you have only to point your ship in that direction to get there. From the get-go the entire world is open to you. In between these there are ships to be plundered, marine life to be hunted, Spanish fortresses to be captured and shipwrecks to make the Titanic jealous. Of course, like icebergs all the good stuff is below the water’s surface so go-go gadget diving bell. Using this, Edward can swim down to wrecks and claim some treasure, hide from sharks, avoid getting stung by jellyfish or access hidden coves that are only accessible from the water. Of course, you could just marvel at how gosh darn pretty everything looks under the sea. Even on the visually “weaker” current-gen versions, the ocean, wide open vistas and under the sea aspects of the environment are quite gorgeous to gaze upon.
Don’t let the beauty fool you though, the seas are prone to impenetrable fog or worse yet, storms that threaten to destroy your ship with rogue waves, water spouts but unfortunately no sharknados.
There are some truly beautiful environments but on the whole game looks pretty darn good. It’s not without its technical issues though. Issues that have simply been left in since Revelations of earlier. NPC pop-ins, random jerky animations, context-sensitive buttons doing the wrong thing at the wrong time. Free-running is a little more stable and less buggy than before though still having a tendency to stall on a ledge or climb a random wall when that’s not what you’re trying to do. That said, Edward is the best-handling assassin yet. Funny, I thought it would be under different circumstances when I expressed to the world how a man “handled”. He’s nimble and darts between people with ease while scaling structures with far more ease than his Native American grandson. This is owing a little bit to smarter world design in the way building are structured for climbing and free-running.
While the primary missions of Black Flag are, on the whole, nothing to write home about they at least stand above their predecessor in that you are not subjected to what is effectively a six hour tutorial before the game actually begins. Everything moves you forward and progresses what little story there is. What is increasingly annoying and tiresome is how every story mission seems to comprise at least one instance of tailing an enemy, or eavesdropping or following/protecting an ally. It gets bothersome and the annoying nature of most eavesdrop or tail segments made me want to gut a whale. In a few paragraphs I’ll recount what is perhaps the most memorable story mission of them all but first, a rant from our sponsors.
How is Edward so skilled with the tools of an assassin given nothing more than the training that becomes a degenerate pirate? It’s basically saying that anybody can be an assassin as long as you look the part. This can be wished away with some light suspension of disbelief but wait, there more. For most of the game Edward doesn’t really align himself with Templars or Assassins and even when he does, nothing really changes. There is little indication as to how Edward will become the man who shapes Haytham Kenway, future Templar. Nor is there explanation given for why the Assassins waned to become practically non-existent in AC III. In fact, here they seem pretty strong and the number of female assassins with exposed mid-riffs suggests they should have high recruitment rates.
Oh, and that modern-day premise? At times you have little Abstergo Interludes where you play as the Abstergo Entertainment employee and do certain things. Some things that happen here make no sense and the final sequence is absolutely ridiculous. It goes for shock value without any shred of coherence.
I want answers!
Okay, rant over, it wasn’t a very good rant though. I give it a 4/10. Oh wait, numbered scores are taboo, right?
Let’s move right along with the broad details of perhaps my favourite story mission in the game and one that will allow me to tie a nice bow on this review.
You’re out in a bayou, it’s dark and you’re tailing an enemy ship through the twisting clumps of trees. It’s foggy too, perfect werewolf weather. You have to keep your distance while acutely navigating The Jackdaw. The enemy ship passes by a guard tower and to continue tailing them you need to hop off, sneak around and eliminate the guards on watch. Then disable the alarm bell and sail by silently. The boat you’re tailing stops and a rowboat continues onwards. Again, you hop off onto land and tail the boat on foot. Darting between cover, watching from the cover of the trees overhead and running stealthily behind guards at derelict structures to seek a vantage point. It’s more stalking than stealth and frankly, in this mission I loved it.
This is an Assassin’s Creed game where I actually felt like an assassin again. I felt powerful and yet the shadows were my best ally. Actually, conveniently placed bushes but we will never give thanks to common shrubbery. After the last game which some nicknamed Warrior’s Creed for its penchant to turn every situation into a battle, the way Black Flag balances empowering stealth and visceral combat is impressive.
Another thing which shone brightly is the level of coherence in everything you do, the way each activity is cohesively wound together. At least, that’s with most of the things you do. They’re either your means of earning money or acquiring the means to upgrade Edward and The Jackdaw. Activities such as hunting for buried treasure and exploring the ocean below the surface may not serve much purpose but they’re perhaps at the top of my list of activities because of the absolute fun factor involved. The unbridled sense of wonder you get when you look around at the majesty of the ocean life around you or the tangible feeling of reward you get when you find that buried chest.
You’ll notice I’ve stopped calling them side activities and that’s because, for once in an Assassin’s Creed game the narrative was an afterthought. The real value in Black Flag comes from exploring the vast world and taking in all that the game has to offer. In doing what you want, when you want.
It’s a turning point for the series, heading into the territory of games such as Skyrim albeit with nowhere near the depth or variety of activities just yet. That’s one criticism to be levelled against Black Flag, while there is plenty to do assassination contracts are all pretty much the same, fort takeovers are generic as are ship plunderings. You’ll scarcely notice the abundant repetition but it’s quite glaring sometimes and does the game few favours. Mercifully this never leads to the game feeling like a grind. In short, a bit more variety within specific activity types next time, Ubisoft.
The focus in Black Flag is this beautiful, expansive open-world filled with things to do and places to discover. You can’t go five minutes without finding something to do and therein lies what makes this game an amazing experience. The world is yours to explore and absorb. You do with it as you see fit. I was running from some guards and stopped to pet a cat. Found a goat, looked it in the eyes and shot it point blank. Why? Because I can. While sailing, the weather is perfect, all around you beauty, the crew is singing that song you like and suddenly a whale jumps out of the water on your starboard side. It’s unscripted, organic moments like these that make Black Flag memorable. Everybody will have their own stories to tell because the game is what you make of it.
While caught in the heat of a naval battle, reinforcements may arrive and you could flee to a nearby island or you both may be caught in the midst of a terrifying storm. Things can be unpredictable and dynamic.
It’s a paradigm shift for what Ubisoft is trying to give you with these games but Black Flag is all the better for it. It’s far from a perfect game, the little technical issues, dumb as doorknobs AI, repetitive missions, fairly shallow range of upgrades and the frankly empty narrative can’t be ignored but then neither can the absolutely amazing experience that the game serves up. Ultimately, if you’re in this for the story then a) that ship sailed a long time ago on this series and b) look elsewhere. If however, you’re looking for an open-world experience, look no further. I’d go so as to say that in terms of the pure experience, freedom and richness of the world Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag offers one of the best open-world experiences I’ve ever had. It’s just a pity this experience get bogged down by the trappings and shortcomings of the game governing it.
As a game it’s quite good but as an experience, few can challenge it.