Review: Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag
Assassin’s Creed IV is the fifth Assassin’s Creed game in five years, pretty crazy right? But whilst some of the past entries gained notoriety for offering little variation in character and setting, Black Flag takes to the seas with astounding ambition, and proves to be as much of a step forward for the series as Assassin’s Creed III was last year. This latest title removes a few of the previous game’s most notable flaws, keeps a few, and adds a couple of new ones, all whilst retaining the signature Assassin’s Creed gameplay.
Assassins Creed is what it is, and I think we’ve got to the stage now where just about everyone accepts that. Each entry in the series offers a familiar experience, but it’s usually an enjoyable one. Despite it’s pirate theme and focus on sailing, Black Flag is unsurprisingly no different, and has all the familiar gameplay mechanics you’d expect. You free run effortlessly across buildings, assassinate your enemies with the hidden blade, and climb towers to ‘synchronise’ with the environment. Occasionally you climb things by accident and it’s frustrating. There are new abilities, but many of these are of little consequence. You have a blowpipe that can send enemies to sleep or make them go crazy, and the ability to ‘stealth swim’, allowing you to sneak past enemies by swimming underwater. These are subtle changes that give you new options for playing levels, and enhance your stealth abilities, but if you don’t like Assassin’s Creed then clearly this won’t change your stance on the matter. Plain and simple.
Whilst on land, there are areas of Black Flag that that are fairly similar to the towns and cities seen in previous Assassin’s Creed games. You’ve got the familiar assortment of haystacks, ledges and flat roofs, all predictably placed to allow for effortless freerunning. But Assassin’s Creed IV has a level of variety which surpasses that of pervious entries in the series, and this includes plenty of new and diverse locations. What’s perhaps most impressive is how quickly the scenery can change, and you can seamlessly move from a deserted tropical beach to dense jungle to a hidden pirate cove in a matter of minutes. When this kind of variety is injected into the game’s missions, the result is not only a high point for Black Flag, but the entire Assassin’s Creed series.
However, the actual mission design is inconsistent to say the least. At times the levels are well thought out, varied, and story driven. But at others they are tedious, frustrating, and boring. As with Assassin’s Creed III, certain parts are incredibly rigid, especially when you are forced to play stealthily, and alerting an enemy results in game over. Here you are forced to replay the same linear section of a level until you’ve nailed it perfectly, which can be tricky when the A.I is so unpredictable. Running for even a fraction of a second is almost guaranteed to get their attention, yet you can rustle around in bushes as much as you like. It doesn’t matter that you’re head is sticking out of a shrub and everyone who’s gone to investigate has mysteriously disappeared.
But this is a minor issue, as it’s only relevant at certain points in the game. To counterbalance this, you also have some extremely well thought out levels that allow for a perfect mix of stealth and action. Running through the jungle and taking out guards without losing momentum is awesome, and many areas have room for multiple play styles to be used. However, there are a few of Assassin’s Creed’s more unfortunate traits that can’t help but get in the way of non-stop pirate adventure and fun. In particular, eavesdropping and stalking targets just plain sucks. It’s a tedious part of the series I’d wish they’d just drop, and Black Flag in particular doesn’t need it. This is a massive game with plenty of stuff to do that’s actually fun.
Stalking your enemies back to their hideout isn’t even restricted to land anymore, and the game’s most uninspired element can also be enjoyed on the high seas this time around. Of course then naval system from Assassin’s Creed III makes a welcome return, and there’s a large amount of enhancements that have been implemented to secure it as a fundamental part of the game. Both the actual sailing and the shooting have been improved, although it’s perhaps the variety in sea based tasks that proves to be the biggest change. When you’re not following other boats you’re out exploring, plundering, and fighting your way across the Caribbean, and for the most part this is pretty damn fun.
Whilst original for the Assassin’s Creed series, pretty much all of the sailing features have been stolen from Sid Meier’s Pirates, although activities such as attacking enemy ships are made more involving by the addition of classic Assassin’s Creed mechanics. Having weakened an enemy ship, you can leave the wheel and jump across, air assassinating a foe on the way down. It’s pretty damn incredible the first time this happens, although the lengthy process of ship battling can become tedious. A fierce battle against the Navy might be fun the first time around, but all of these fights are pretty much the same, meaning they can drag at times. It’s also very difficult to attack only one ship at a time, and once a battle has begun the nearby fleet is almost guaranteed to join in.
Because of this, collecting plunder can feel a bit like a grind, and this trait continues to a lesser extent on land, where tasks such as recruiting crew members and bribing officials are constantly repeated. There are times when these activities are forced upon you by the story, either as part of the missions themselves or by requiring you to purchase certain upgrades. This feels a bit lazy, but for most of the time you can opt to stay out of trouble.
The problem isn’t only that things take too long, but also that you have little motivation to become a stronger and more notorious pirate. You can upgrade your ship, but can’t steal a better one (Sid Meier’s style). Also, you start the game as an already kick ass pirate. Rather than beginning vulnerable, the opening scene shows your uncanny knack for avoiding death, and you won’t be an hour in before the game has presented you with a massive boat and a loyal crew. Not only that, but Black Beard is like one of your best friends. There’s no working your way up or anything, you pretty much start on the top.
Having said that, the story to Assassin’s Creed IV is generally good, and fixes the problems that really frustrated me about the last game. Conor was an incredibly weak lead, and in comparison Edward Kenway is far more compelling. The supporting cast is pretty great too (mainly James Kidd) and the inclusion of several of history’s most well-known pirates is cool. Assassin’s Creed III’s ‘epic’ attempt at storytelling is gone, and a more grounded narrative set over over a shorter period of time works much better. In fact, Ubisoft might have gone a little too far, and compared to the highly motivated (yet deeply unlikeable) Conor, Edward’s tale lacks drive and purpose at times. At the very beginning he steals the identity and mission of an assassin for literally no reason, and for most of the game you’re simply looking for trouble and adventure.
This actually carries on outside of the Animus too, although here I have zero fault with it. Desmond’s overly dramatic ‘save the world and resolve things with my dad’ mission was pure garbage, and the present day storyline of Assassin’s Creed III left a very sour taste in my mouth. But Desmond is dead, and I like the new silent protagonist a lot better. Elements from the other games are tied in well, but this is very much a new chapter in the story, and I like it a lot. Your new character’s purpose is to quite literally filter Desmond’s memories for the good bits so they can be turned into a virtual reality pirate experience. You’re out the animus less, and when you are, you’re in a nice office and not a horrible cave.
Exploration and adventure have always been two tricky elements of the Assassin’s Creed games. Both concepts have always been present, but there’s always been a sense of distance between the player and the world. Unfortunately this is still true, although there are still times when the feeling of adventure takes over. The pirate setting is awesome, looks gorgeous, and for the most part plays great. Black Flag is the most technically advanced game in the series yet, which is saying a lot, and I’m certainly interested to see how the game performs on the next gen consoles. I played the game on PlayStation 3, and experienced the usual array of glitches and bugs found in an Assassin’s Creed game. Most notably there were several times when the sound effects cut out. There’s also a couple of other problems that a new console won’t fix, including a waypoint system that is made incredibly confusing by the map’s mix of land and sea, and a fast travel system that often results in the game loading up the area just outside where you’re going, and then having to load again.
But for the most part, Black Flag is huge fun to play. The sailing is great, the story is quite good, and the soundtrack sounds appropriately similar to Pirates of The Caribbean. It’s not perfect, but Assassin’s Creed never is, and for a yearly instalment this is an ambitious and (relatively) unique game. I’d put it down as my personal favourite in the series, and if you overlook a few of the flaws then this is a great chance to take to the high seas and enjoy the golden age of piracy.
Other great games about pirates: Sid Meier’s Pirates, Galleon, Skies of Arcadia, The Secret of Monkey Island, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker