Platforms: PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360 Xbox One, PC, Wii U
Publisher: Ubisoft Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Genre: Action-Adventure Platform Played: PlayStation 4
Pirates are few-and-far-between in the realm of video games. Even though some have tested the waters on these historic individuals, none have been able to truly capitalise on piracy in a memorable fashion. The Assassin’s Creed franchise has thrown their hat into the ring, in order to try and deliver a pure, piracy-induced experience.
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag benefits from one of the most intriguing and interesting characters in the series. As we are introduced to the young pirate named Edward Kenway, we are almost instantly allowed to start exploring the world as we see fit, fixing the extended introduction which was delivered by its predecessor. It is the year 1715, and we follow Edward, as he ventures around the open waters of the Caribbean, which contain well known pirates from history, such as James Kid and Edward “Blackbeard” Thatch. The main narrative benefits from some amazing voice work from the main cast of characters, each individual providing a unique voice that not only works well with the world they inhabit, but also makes each character memorable in their own right.
Edward’s story provides a fresh take on the Assassin’s Creed formula. Instead of following an upcoming assassin who knows of the ongoing Templar/Assassin war we have seen before, Edward is a simple pirate, looking to earn coin at all costs. This emphasis on his goal to earn money meant that Edward doesn’t take sides throughout most of the main game, instead using each side to his own advantage. His story definitely hits some high notes when Black Flag focuses on the pirate aspect of his life. Unfortunately, the series continues to acknowledge the Templar/Assassin war, and in these moments, the narrative takes a repetitive turn fans will have become accustomed to. Black Flag is also held back due to its desire to introduce an absurd amount of eavesdropping and tailing missions. Both mission types are used frequently, and they never provided much narrative meat, these missions have been around ever since the original Assassin’s Creed, and they continue to be a bland addition.
Black Flag will take almost 40 hours to truly explore the main narrative and the expansive world Edward has access to. I found that the first few sequences of missions were mostly extended tutorials on features Black Flag has to offer, which Edward can access if you decide to explore. This means that I continuously had Black Flag hold my hand, as it explained features I had already encountered during my exploration of the Carribbean. Black Flag also brings back missions which take place in the real-world – outside of the Animus. Surprisingly, these aspects were actually interesting. Even though the missions themselves are fairly basic, the information and secrets players can unlock if they choose to undertake these tasks definitely enlighten those interested in the Abstergo side of Assassin’s Creed running narrative.
Aside from the narrative at hand, players are given an extensive array of side-missions and activities to accomplish, which range from harpooning sea creatures in an effort to gain materials to craft upgrades, finding buried treasure to find blueprints to upgrade your ship, diving underwater to investigate shipwrecks, boarding enemy ships to increase your crew, and encountering forts that, once destroyed, reveal locations on your map. These features are very similar to those found in Far Cry 3, and although it has been seen before, Black Flag greatly benefits from these additions. Unlike Assassin’s Creed III, I felt like I was constantly rewarded for doing side-activities that incentivised me to continue exploring the expansive-sized map.
Destroying and taking over forts in Black Flag was one of my personal favourite activities. These naval battles were intense, as you have to avoid both enemy fire from the fort, and from the surrounding ships. Once it is destroyed and you have breached the enemy fort, you will encounter a huge battle between a large number of pirates and military alike, as you hunt down their military leaders to take over the fort itself. These moments provided a grand scale to the task at hand, and conquering the enemy territory felt ever-satisfying.
Black Flag continues to offer imprecise traversal controls, which will see you randomly climbing objects you did not want, or jumping from tall locations to your death more times than it should. If Assassin’s Creed III rubbed you the wrong way with these gameplay problems, Black Flag will not smooth over your opinion any time soon. Running in Black Flag is still associated with the same button which is also used to climb, meaning you will see Edward run up walls time after time even if you don’t want him too. Sadly, combat situations and stealth sections suffer from some incredibly lacklustre AI enemies, too.
There were plenty of times where I would shoot an enemy while his partner – who was less than a meter away – wouldn’t react to the noise. There were also plenty of times when enemies wouldn’t notice me kill one of his comrades when looking directly at the event taking place. When combat does take place, I found changing weapons on the fly to be quite cumbersome, as changing weapons is associated to the D-pad, and multiple times, switching weapons wouldn’t even be recognised. Because this system takes place in real-time, there were many moments where Edward would “apparently” be conducting sword kill animations while he was holding his hidden blade, as the game struggled to keep up with what weapon was selected during the hectic action.
Black Flag’s best moments are when you are exploring the insanely huge world on offer, which allows Edward to use his ship of choice – the Jackdaw – to explore almost every inch of the Caribbean. Black Flag is absolutely stunning – from the beautiful vistas, detailed jungle sections and the gorgeous underwater scenarios. Each area of Black Flag is complimented by the excellent sound design, which is most impressive when you are at the helm of your ship. Sailing through the picturesque ocean as Edward barks orders to his crew, only to have them slowly lose themselves into a musical sea shanty are some of the most memorable moments. The atmosphere provided here adds to the enjoyment of exploration.
The visual experience of sailing is also improved due to the altering weather effects, which can see rough storms hit the Jackdaw, including twisters. These moments increase the intensity of sailing, and will even provide new strategies during naval combat if a storm arrives, as you use waves for moving cover. The visual display is jaw-dropping, and only scratches the surface of what next generation hardware can bring. During these hectic moments on the open sea, there can be almost a dozen ships in the current vicinity. What is impressive, however, is the fact the game never dropped its frame rate during the entire experience.
Black Flag possess some rapid load times when fast-travelling between locations, and even transitions from cutscene to gameplay seamlessly. These aspects make the entire world feel cohesive, and allows you to get lost in the beautiful world on display, without any hitches.
When Edward encounters enemy ships, he has the options to sink them or board, and take them over. Boarding the ship will allow the player to either sacrifice the ship to repair the Jackdaw, coerce the crew on board to lower the Jackdaw’s wanted rating (which increases the more ships you sink) or send the ship to Edward’s fleet. Edward’s Fleet is similar to the Assassin Missions in previous Assassin’s Creed titles, as you delegate locations for your ships to travel and they will return with loot and money depending on their likeliness of completion. The mode is fairly bland and repetitive, taking place in real-time which can see ships take upwards of a few hours to complete missions. The Fleet feature is also connected online through Uplay, so if Uplay is down or you are offline, these options will be obsolete.
The multiplayer features of Assassin’s Creed also return in Black Flag, refining the already responsive cat-and-mouse gameplay that has intrigued many a gamer. Players will have access to standard Deathmatch modes, as well as domination, and capture the flag varieties, and the returning Wolfpack mode. The newly included maps tend to fold into one another, and lack unique traits or interesting locales. One map is actually eerily similar to a map I encountered in Assassin’s Creed III last year. Players also have the ability to utilise micro-transactions, which will allow a level 1 player to purchase a level 55 ability if they provide real money. It is a method that could turn the tides on new players, who may face overpowered foes with stronger abilities then their level will suggest.
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag trumps the previously disappointing Assassin’s Creed III, providing one of my favourite entries in the ongoing franchise. Black Flag is as its best when it forgets the Assassin/Templar war, and focuses on being its own separate entity in the pirate world, which provides a greater look into one of the best characters the franchise has seen – Edward Kenway.
Black Flag also encounters some of the same problems that have been an issue in the series. It is a shame these flaws have not been ironed out, and could easily turn off those who have had enough of annually dealing with these problems. However, Black Flag excels due to the exceptional emphasis on discovery and exploration, the Jackdaw’s ability to freely set out amongst the world making for an enjoyable experience with some amazing visual and audio accompaniments.
+ Beautiful visuals, excellent audio
+ Edward Kenway
+ Sailing amongst the beautiful open world
+ Insane amount to do
– Traversal gameplay problems still included
– Assassins/Templar war narrative holds back the pirate story
– Eavesdrop and tailing missions all too frequent