Platforms: PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, WiiU
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal (Assisted by other Ubisoft Internal Studios)
Ratings: M (ESRB), 18 (PEGI), MA15+ (ACB)
The word ‘pirate’ has been making waves in the early part of the 21st century. Starting with Disney and the Pirates of the Caribbean movies in the early 2000’s, to anyone being able to download anything from pirating websites, to teenagers ruining words like Swag, which has been used to describe free stuff since the 18th century. There have been jokes and gags and mods in games with a theme of pirates vs. ninjas which is a debate that continues today (pirates would totally kick their butts!!). In the videogame world though, I’ve always found the theme of pirates to be lacking. Sure Disney put out a few games to milk the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, but those games were sort of meh, and we had a jewel from Sid Meier’s Pirates!.
Meanwhile, the previously mentioned idea of pirates vs. ninjas must have been bouncing around Ubisoft headquarters. Over the past few years gamers have demanded over and over that there be an Assassin’s Creed game set in Feudal Japan. “We want a game with ninjas!” cried the internet! Ubisoft responded with, “Sorry but we just don’t see ninjas working.” And as the internet sobbed in disappointment Ubisoft came back and said. “What about pirates?” All was suddenly right with the world again.
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is just what we needed. It’s not ninjas, its better! Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is a departure from the 10 hour tutorials, bland story and boring ending that plagued Assassin’s Creed III. Gone is the protagonist with the personality of a toaster and gone are the tedious story sequences of Desmond Miles. What is a left is a game with a story that has fun with itself, offers an alteration to the 21st century plotline and does something a little bit different with the standard Assassin’s Creed plot formula.
Allow me to begin with the story, which is awesome. Black Flag’s story is about Edward Kenway, the grandfather of Connor Kenway (the protagonist of Assassin’s Creed III), who left behind a wife in England to become a privateer during the golden age of piracy in order to make something of his life and better provide for his wife. Unfortunately for Edward, privateering was not as profitable as he previously thought it would be and so, as they say, “a pirate’s life for me”. Edward is soon set upon a life of rum, freedom, sailing and adventure and, oh boy, what an adventure it is. Unlike the standard Assassin’s Creed story of a man falling into the clandestine war due to a family tragedy, Edward finds himself stumbling upon the Assassin order by coincidence. Rather than hunting Templars because it is the ‘right’ thing to do, Edward is only doing it for the money. A pirate right down to his bones, Edward is in it for himself and no one else.
What we have here then, instead of the standard Assassin’s Creed revenge story, is instead a coming of age story about responsibility, true freedom, sacrifice and friendship. It is the perfect tone for a game set on the high seas. On those seas you’ll find plenty of interesting characters as well. Among your shipmates is the quartermaster, or First Mate, Adéwalé, known affectionately as Adé. Adé is an escaped slave who believes that his life will always be harsh, no matter what country he is in, yet as the quartermaster on a ship he believes that The Jackdaw (Edward’s ship) is a country where he knows all his countrymen and they all know him; they may not like each other but there is mutual respect. You also happen across famous pirates of the time, including Blackbeard who acts as a mentor to Edward, teaching him that it is sometimes better to appear as a devil, rather than fighting like one.
Without spoiling too much of the narrative, I found it to be a fun and worthwhile story that takes you all over the Caribbean. I will touch on the 21st century plotline quickly. Assassin’s Creed IV has you playing as an Abstergo Entertainment employee from a first-person perspective. It features a simple storyline that has you reviewing the memories of Subject 17 (Desmond Miles) for what you’ve been told is footage to make a pirate themed game for people to play in the Animus. Playing through will reveal the the typically sketchy Abstergo activities via hacking mini games, which are actually rather entertaining. There is not much more to the 21st century segments beyond that. It moves the story along a little, and you meet some familiar faces from prior Assassin’s Creed games, but it is nowhere near as special as the open world your character is being paid to explore.
Speaking of, the world of Black Flag is quite possibly the most impressive, immersive and beautiful this side of Skyrim. There are three main cities to visit: the pirate haven of Nassau; Kingston, Jamaica and Havana, Cuba. Each of these offers a unique atmosphere. Nassau feels like a giant fishing village; overseen by a giant fort, it has marshlands and plenty of pirate antics running amok in the streets. Havana is reminiscent of the cities in the first two Assassin’s Creed games, with plenty of opportunities to climb to great heights. Kingston is more akin to the towns of Assassin’s Creed III and Liberation.
Aside from these cities, the seas are home to assorted small islands and villages. On the open seas there is much to do as well. Having been bedridden for most of this week, I have played about 43 hours of Black Flag. In that time I have fought anything from gunships to man-o’-wars; gone hunting for the Great White Whale; found messages in bottles and treasure maps, which have led me to buried treasure and, yes, I’ve also plundered hundreds of ships.
Sailing on the high seas is not easy, though. Hunting whales can be dangerous business, as you can run out of harpoons before you make the kill or the whale can destroy your boat. Combing islands for buried treasure can be rough if you run into the local wildlife. Killing predators is no longer as simple as a quicktime event, as you must now fight them. It is certainly not easy and I found myself succumbing to claws and teeth more often than I care to admit. Fighting on the seven seas is not easy either. You cannot attack a man-o’-war and expect to get them first try. Just like in Assassin’s Creed III, you need to upgrade the Jackdaw to be prepared to combat the heavy hitters.
Some great gameplay modes are in Black Flag as well. I have already mentioned that hunting has returned from III but another game mode that has returned is taking over enemy forts. In Black Flag you will find plenty of island forts that want nothing more than to use their many cannons and mortars to send you to Davey Jones’ Locker. If you manage to destroy the fortifications, you can then dock and take out the commanders and officers, unlocking Assassination missions as well as revealing all the hunting and collectables that are in the area. Assassination missions bring back something that I have found lacking in recent titles. Rather than a simple case of tracking and killing a target, some of them are really elaborate. I have been sent on Assassination missions that required me to sail to islands halfway around the game world, sneak onto the previously mentioned island, stalk my target and then kill him quietly so I could unlock some cash bonuses. This truly brings back an element to the series that makes Assassin’s Creed great again.
Edward’s arsenal comprises of up to four pistols, two swords, the token hidden blades, a blow pipe and, very late in the game you gain access to a rope dart. Compared to Connor’s arsenal in Assassin’s Creed III, Edward’s feels more limited, though you do have the ability to pick up and use the odd throwing knife, enemy muskets, swords and axes – though you cannot keep any of these. Core combat has also been limited. Whereas Connor was able to counter with any weapon and create some impressive combos, Edward can only counter with melee weapons. Attempting to do so with pistols sees you switching to pistol combat mode, meaning he automatically shoots whoever he is targeting and keeps the pistols out for more. This really interrupted the flow of combat for me, since I really loved the ability to counter smaller enemies in Assassin’s Creed III with melee, while countering the heavies by smacking their attacks aside, kicking them in the face and finishing them off with a firearm flourish.
One of the gameplay elements that I had mixed feelings towards was the revamped wanted system. In Black Flag this system has been changed so that, when on the open seas, you can be stalked by bounty hunting ships though boarding can quickly remove your wanted level. In the towns you have no notoriety status and as soon as you break sight with the enemy you can quickly go back to causing havoc. There are practically zero consequences for causing general mayhem as a result. Some players may love the freedom while others might argue that pirates were wild and care-free, but I missed the thrill of avoiding the guards while trying desperately to find a wanted poster to rip down.
This feeling applies to missions as well. I admit to having mixed feelings towards this one, but when doing missions where you had to follow a target in most Assassin’s Creed games you would fail if spotted by a guard. Nine times out of ten in Black Flag I found myself able to avoid these mission failures by engaging in open combat with the guards and then wonder how my target did not hear the shooting, stabbing and screaming and choose that moment to get the heck out of Dodge. Follow missions have returned as well, and yes there are plenty of them and yes they are very VERY tedious.
Moving on to the graphics and sound. A little while ago I did a soundtrack spotlight on Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. In it I spoke about Sea Shanties. Sea Shanties are Black Flag’s answer to III’s collectible notebook pages. Instead of chasing after pages that eventually unlock boring inventions, you unlock songs that can be sung by your crew while sailing between destinations. Some may find it annoying, and there is an option to turn them off, but for myself I loved them to the point of singing some of them when I was taking a break from the game. Aside from that, Black Flag has a really great pirate themed soundtrack with amusing light-hearted tracks mixed with sinister themes and dynamic themes for situations like playing stealthily and racing against the clock. Graphically, Assassin’s Creed IV is beautiful. The water looks great, character models are really well done and the motion capture is spot on. Blood splatter, as always, shows up on the terrain and characters just enough to be convincing without being ugly. In the open environments you’ll see staggering drunks, dolphins chasing ships, storms destroying towns and frigates, and you will even run into the odd water spout. Altogether this makes Black Flag a really good looking package and that is the impression from the current-generation version. I have it pre-ordered for the Xbox One and will either update this review or write something regarding the visual performance difference it in a few weeks.
To close, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is a highly accessible, very addictive adventure on the high seas. It features a great story with well written and well-acted characters and plenty to distract you with outside of this. Aside from the dreaded Follow missions, a few nitpicks in the combat system and some dissatisfaction with the AI, Black Flag is a fun romp in an open world with seemingly endless possibilities for exploration and adventure. It looks great, sounds great, and is a terrific game to play before the new generation of consoles. I highly recommend that readers pick this up for whatever console you have, be it this generation or the next.