Change is never easy. But often, it’s for the best. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is a prime example, since it brings plenty of changes for Ubisoft’s flagship franchise.
From a hardware perspective, Assassin’s Creed IV comes during a console shift, launching with next-gen while still catering to the old. Black Flag also marks the first game where Desmond Miles is no longer the present-day protagonist. Instead, players take on the first-person perspective of an Abstergo Entertainment employee who must “research” 18th-century buccaneer Edward Kenway for the sake of a Pirates of the Caribbean rip-off movie the company wants to make. At least, that’s what they say—but if you look carefully, you’ll see there’s a lot more lurking beneath the surface.
The biggest change, though, comes in the story of Black Flag and how it’s told. In Edward’s tale, the Assassin-Templar war gets pushed into the background and serves as little more than white noise compared to the battle Edward has within himself. It almost feels like the series is trying to ease you back into this overarching conflict that consumed the last couple of Assassin’s Creed titles, making Black Flag the best time in a while for newcomers to jump into the action. The lack of overall narrative progression might worry longtime fans, but the story also seems to be laying the foundation for future games by introducing a lot of new pieces.
The story pacing also sees a dramatic shift compared to previous titles—and it’s a far cry from the dragged-out exposition of Assassin’s Creed III. From the second you start the game, you’re thrown right into the thick of it, piloting a ragtag ship in the middle of a raging storm. From there, Edward quickly acquires his hidden blades, his ship (the Jackdaw), and a first mate. Soon, he’s pirating and plundering with the best of ’em. Quite literally, in fact. Blackbeard, Calico Jack, Ben Hornigold, and every other infamous Caribbean captain of the early 18th century knows Edward somehow—and when you see them, rum will be drunk and laughs will be had. In fact, I wish the game offered the opportunity to work with each one a bit more, but since the cast is so large, you only scratch the surface of all your pirate brethren, and it becomes more noticeable as you peel back all of Edward’s layers.
But through all these interactions, we see a blending of personalities we haven’t really seen before from a single hero in the series. Edward exudes charm and charisma that’s only dashed by his own brash stubbornness, similar to Altaïr from the original Assassin’s Creed. But Edward’s also an established man right from the get-go, with deep-rooted relationships and a reputation that’s well-known—similar to a much older Ezio from the Assassin’s Creed II trilogy. He may not get his proper Assassin training until later in the game (which made me wonder how he became so quickly accustomed to the hidden blades), but he’s been sailing for several years when we meet him, and his backstory’s only fleshed out through short flashbacks.
Despite the advanced life experience Edward’s acquired by the time we first meet him, he also has enough room to still undergo a dramatic character shift over the course of the game. While Black Flag may take place within the short time period of only a few years, Edward grows as a character through each subsequent Animus sequence until he evolves into someone worthy of upholding the Creed, and he takes on a persona that will be quickly recognized by fans who read the Assassin’s Creed book, Forsaken. It’s simply the most dramatic character shift of a single character in one game in the series since Altaïr.
Speaking of things we haven’t seen since Altaïr, that brings me to the gameplay. Making a huge return in Black Flag is an emphasis on stealth. Infiltration missions are a frequent task for Edward to further his cause, and though getting spotted won’t always lead to a mission restart, it will lead to dozens of guards swarming you—and unless your swashbuckling skills are top-notch, it might as well be an instant fail.
Aside from the infiltration missions, Ubisoft’s made some tweaks to the infamous tailing sequences—mostly in the form of an overhauled Eagle Vision system. Now, besides seeing the group affiliation of everyone in a crowd, you can also tag your targets. This allows you to see them through walls and buildings so you can follow them from a much farther distance than in previous entries. I’m afraid this new vision is way too overpowered, though. X-ray vision and Eagle Vision should not be one and the same, and this is just overkill, making these missions easy to the point they feel like a waste of time. And if you want to go old-school and not use it at all, the layouts of the island paths aren’t really set up for that design, so you’ll fail a lot more than the developers intended—and it can become frustrating.
One change that most fans will be thankful for, however? The new gun mechanics. They’re akin to what you might find in a more traditional third-person shooter, which makes taking aim and pulling off headshots a breeze. Of course, sometimes you need to take into consideration the bobbing of your boat when boarding an enemy ship out in the ocean, since that can easily throw off your shot.
Now that I mention your ship, the biggest gameplay element in Assassin’s Creed IV is being out on the Caribbean Sea. This is easily one of the most addictive and well-put-together game mechanics I’ve had the pleasure of playing in quite some time; it was a blast using my spyglass to look for enemy ships, boarding them, and then having that ship’s crew at my mercy. When the game’s story made me go back on land, I was honestly disappointed, because I never wanted to leave the water.
There’s so much to do out on the open seas that it’s easy to become lost in the search for buried treasure, hunting sharks, laying waste to smuggler coves, and violently seizing military forts—and you forget there’s actually a story tying all this together. If you make a speed run and just do the story, you’re probably only going to get a 15-to-20 hour game. But if you’re a completionist, you should double those numbers.
Another part of what makes sailing in the open world so enjoyable is the attention to detail. Seeing whales jump out of the water for a breath of fresh air, Spanish and English ships suddenly engaging each other several nautical miles in the distance, or a storm randomly coming together overhead and you have to start swerving and taking cover to avoid waterspouts and rogue waves was phenomenal. And everything looked crisper and clearer than you’d think was possible on next gen.
What really makes the pirate life so fitting for an Assassin’s Creed game is the freedom—with sailing virtually wherever you want, plundering whatever you wish, and stabbing whoever you want in the face serving as the perfect metaphor. The game’s story holds your hand just enough so that by the time you’re done with the first quarter of the tale, you’re ready to roam about and do whatever you wish. In regards to upgrading your ship and Edward’s belongings, there’s a bit of a grind when it comes to the Jackdaw, since you need to board other ships to get the necessary materials and loot. By contrast, you can buy all the pelts necessary to craft Edward’s upgrades directly from shops if hunting animals isn’t your thing.
Besides the story, there’s also the meta-game revolving around Kenway’s Fleet, which allows you to take captured ships, slap a black flag on them, and send them on special missions around the Caribbean—think recruiting Assassins in Brotherhood, Revelations, and Assassin’s Creed III. If your ships successfully complete the missions, you get cash. Unfortunately, this segment would’ve been more enjoyable if the ships got stronger the better they did—much like how you can upgrade the Jackdaw here or how assassins would level up in previous games. One unique difference is the ships can get into a battle minigame to help make trade routes safer—and increase the likelihood of a successful voyage.
Kenway’s Fleet also takes full advantage of the Black Flag iOS companion app so that you can actually send ships out and make money in-game and work with friends to clear trade routes without being tethered to a console. It’s a cool idea, but all it really made me want to do was get back to my controller faster so I could go back out on the ocean and get more ships for my fleet.
So, the single-player’s pretty damn expansive, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any multiplayer additions. The one that will draw everyone’s eye, of course, is the Game Lab. This allows players to fully customize multiplayer matches like never before, drawing from every other mode in the game. Also, Wolfpack has seen an upgrade, with new objectives besides group killing added—including protecting treasure chests or killing multitudes of “infected” soldiers.
In all, this is one of the most complete Assassin’s Creed releases to date. I think longtime fans will appreciate Edward’s story and how tight everything feels, but it might be shocking how little the Assassin-Templar conflict actually moves forward. Think of this as laying the groundwork for the next story arc—almost like a monthly comic book. The pieces are being put in place, and during the process, you’re getting to play the greatest pirate game ever conceived.
Black Flag might not topple Assassin’s Creed II from its perch as the pinnacle of the franchise, but if you love swashbuckling and high-tension adventure on the high seas, this is as good as it gets.
|Developer: Ubisoft Montreal • Publisher: Ubisoft • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 10.29.13|
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag doesn’t move the franchise forward as a whole—but it doesn’t need to. Instead, this is probably the best pirate simulation in gaming history that successfully lays the groundwork for what’s to come in the series.
|The Good||The high-seas adventures add a whole new dynamic to the Assassin’s Creed franchise.|
|The Bad||Overpowered Eagle Vision.|
|The Ugly||18th-century dental plans.|
|Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is available on Xbox 360, PS3, Wii U, and PC. The game will be available on PC on November 19th, and is a launch title for PS4 and Xbox One. Primary version reviewed was for PS4.|