Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag – Review

Looks stunning. All the time.
Looks stunning. All the time.

The first thing that strikes you about Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is just how insanely good looking it is, even on PS3 (version played) and Xbox 360. Videogames have thankfully veered away from the perpetual brown and grey hues in this console generation (for the most part anyway), but nothing is as colourful, vibrant and full of life as Assassin’s Creed IV. When I first started playing, after a brief bit of naval warfare, I was presented with the protagonist lying on a sandy Caribbean shore. I had to stop and just take in the scenery for a few minutes before continuing with the opening mission. Truly breathtaking shimmering seas and glorious blue sky, surrounded by luscious green foliage and the feeling of a living world before me. ‘Amazed‘ doesn’t cover it.

The second thing you notice, after a glance at the map, is just how vast the game is! The level of detail on just one tiny island is fantastic, the fact that the whole map promises to be as detailed is staggering – and once you start to move around, it doesn’t disappoint!

You play as Edward Kenway – a pirate who is looking to find himself infamy and fortune, sailing the seven seas (specifically the Caribbean seas in Black Flag). Though we know him to be the Grandfather of Assassin’s Creed 3‘s Connor, the game doesn’t really bash you over the head with this information, it just allows Edward to be Edward. When we first take up the role, he is not particularly established as a pirate, but is looking to work his way up (flashback sequences support the idea that Edward has relatively recently taken up piracy to help make money – but also that he is enthralled by the romance of being a pirate). He sees an opportunity to make some quick money by adopting the guise of an assassin – and suddenly our hero is born.

Once you start moving him around the island, you may notice some subtle differences to movement. Everything has been refined to make movement quicker and more responsive. Edward is not as ‘twitchy’ as Altair and Ezio or even Connor from previous Creed games, you can make subtle adjustments to the direction you’re running – without sending him racing off on a random tangent because you dared tap the thumb stick slightly to the left.

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The original Motley Crew

Climbing mechanics have also been improved to make everything a little swifter and slicker – and with good reason it turns out. Ubisoft decided that things were a little too formulaic – especially the story missions and elements of the combat – in Assassin’s Creed 3 (I believe fan feedback may have aided this decision). So when approaching combat in Black Flag they decided to make it a little bit harder, making death a much more likely possibility. The enemies are armed with guns and / or swords and work together, effectively, to end your life. This means you are likely to take more hits than before. On top of that, each hit you take eats harshly into Edward’s life bar in the top left corner of the screen.

To counter-balance this, they have made the escape mechanics a little quicker, so breaking from the enemy eye-line and getting yourself hidden is a viable last resort, if combat is not going well. They have also brought across from Creed 3 the idea of regenerating health. Stay hidden for long enough – and Edward will recuperate. The flip side to this is there are no health items for quick recovery in combat either!

It’s a system that, whilst not a huge leap over previous games, works incredibly well to add some tension to combat – and to guide you towards the other approach.

Stealth.

Now, it’s no secret that I enjoy a stealth game – so a higher emphasis on stealth combat feels like a superb evolution of the game mechanics to me. What started in Assassin’s Creed 3 has been brought across and improved in Black Flag. Stalking zones (that allow you to stay hidden as you cautiously move around) are back and are numerous, yet natural, within the long grassed, overgrown bushed and large leaved Caribbean environments. Hiding around corners and whistling to get enemies attention has also made it into Black Flag and works especially well in the smaller environments (like escaping from the bowels of a galleon, or stalking your way through Caribbean caves). On more than one occasion, I cleared a whole island (or restricted area of a larger island) of enemies without being seen. Using a combination of stalking zones, aerial kills and distraction, you can work your way an area or island, stabbing, pushing and even shooting your foe without taking a single hit. Some missions even offer an ‘avoid combat’ optional mission objective. You have to plan and time your approach carefully, but it can be done. I feel quite comfortable in  stating that Assassin’s Creed IV has the best stealth mechanics in the franchise. Even sailing your ship stealthily is an option!

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Large islands, tiny islands and sunken wrecks – all ripe for a plundering!

The environments, whilst all Caribbean themed, are bountiful and diverse. There are three large cities spread throughout the frankly enormous map (20 minutes sailing end to end), these have the buildings and structures that will seem familiar to Assassins Creed veterans. High towers, churches with spires as well as numerous smaller buildings spread throughout the area. There are wells, cupboards, doorways, piles of straw or dried palm leaves to hide in, crowds with which to blend in and so on. The smaller islands (of which there are many) provide much greater variety and a break from the norm.

A collection of smaller dwellings or a fortified tower at one end; a cave, small forest or crocodile filled swamp might be at the other end of a medium sized island. The smallest islands might hold as little as a tree and a couple of rocks (on which may be hidden one of the games many secrets).  Occasionally you may even find a few interesting characters with whom Edward can interact (especially if you include pulling a treasure map off of a rotten corpse).

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Edward Kenway

Edward is a charismatic lead character – part Heath Ledger, part Chris Hemsworth – and has an easy, nonchalant manner with all he encounters. This really plays into the freedom the player has to take on story missions or delve into side quests. Nothing ever feels like it needs to be taken care of right away. It makes you feel you are living as a pirate, following the pirate way of life, exploration, plundering sunken treasure or getting into a bar brawl all feel as much a part of Edward Kenway’s everyday life as the scripted story sequences.

Before long in the story, you are able to take hold of a ship and a crew of loyal pirates (a pirate crew can be acquired either by freeing captured pirates, helping them out in a fight with soldiers or hiring them from a local drinking hole – this last option I rarely took as they just never felt as loyal!). Once at the wheel, you start to appreciate the true size and scope of this game! Yes, the map looked big before, but once you’re out sailing on it – you feel the awesome size first hand! The sea looks amazing as it swells and crashes against your ship. The changeable weather can bring in towering rogue waves that are more of danger to yours and your crews safety than most enemy ships. The next moment might bring you a calm, sparkling sea with a serene blue sky above – at which point you’ll notice hundreds of Islands large and small, all full of little secrets, animus fragments and treasure to find or wildlife to hunt and skin.

It’s almost intimidatingly huge at first, but once you approach the first small island and clear it of all tasks (you can check your progress in each area – large or small – by holding R2), you know that it’s going to be one hell of a fun challenge!

For me, this is where the heart of Assassins Creed 4‘s brilliance lies. The protagonists casual indifference to the main story (at first especially) really promotes the exploration the game has to offer! Whereas games like, the admittedly superb, GTA V fell down was the urgency in some sections of the incomprehensible narrative that was at odds with the bizarre freedom the game offered. The fact that government agents are breathing down your neck- you need a lot of money quickly- yet choose to hunt for letter scraps or take in a round of golf was always jarring to me. Not so in Creed 4 – it always feels like you are a pirate first and that looking after your crew, your ship – or upgrading your weapons by hunting and crafting is important, necessary and perfectly in line with the main story (not that the story is without drama, it’s just handled better as a whole game).

Stepping onto a new island is always exciting. The bigger islands may contain multiple viewpoints (thankfully not all churches – now we have treetops, cliffs or shipwrecks too), assassin contracts as well as assorted chests to loot and fragments to find. The smaller islands may have but a single viewpoint, fragments, secrets and a bevy of animals to hunt and skin! The secrets might include letters in bottles – or the aforementioned treasure maps on corpses (it’s all very cliche piratey stuff – but the game pulls it off brilliantly without seeming cheesy).

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Move seamlessly between ship, land and sea.

Even just sailing from place to place is fun – as commands are called out, warnings of what is on the horizon yelled back and rousing sea shanties are sung allowed by the crew! Of course, fast travel to every location you’ve visited helps cut down on sailing familiar waters, making the sailing extra appealing as it’s always towards new territory (some of which is uncharted).

Ubisoft have worked hard to blur the line between story and side quests. The game boasts a long story, about 20 hours of gameplay, with a further 60 hours of side-questing also available. However, the way the game is set up, you tend to naturally blend the two as you play. A main mission might take you to a specific area and get you to upgrade your ship, then you’ll be left in that location, free to explore, veer off back to something you noticed on route to your location, or pursue the next story marker. More often than not, you’ll want to have a look around, each island is so enticingly beautiful! One word of caution, though exploration is usually a very rich and rewarding experience, be careful not to get too close to the ‘Four Corners’ of the map. I won’t spoil what you’ll find their, just be aware!

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Hunting the giant whales is quite the challenge! The Howler Monkeys, not so much.

The game’s mechanics also promote exploration at every turn. You can’t just hop through main missions until you have enough money to upgrade Edwards armour or weapons. In fact, you don’t need money at all. Edward is a pirate – so fashioning new weapons, holsters, bags for ammunition, etc. is all done naturally through hunting, gathering materials and crafting. Likewise, upgrading your ship requires you to salvage materials from sunken wrecks (that you have created in some cases) and hunting in the ocean! Weapons and such can be bought through stores (and you’ll need money to upgrade your ship too), so finance still plays a part, but has a smaller role than in some previous Assassin’s Creed games. The best use of cash is probably either upgrading your ship, or – once you acquire it – upgrading your pirate cove. The Cove upgrades can have a direct impact on the gameplay, allowing you to hire dancers or pirates for free etc. Making missions later in the game easier to approach (or at least giving you a wider array of options). You may prefer to make your ship a beast first, then look at your cove – again, you are given the freedom of choice!

Each element of gameplay feels perfectly balanced with the others around it, meaning you are never without something to do, but also that the ‘something to do’ fits perfectly with the main plot and you never have to do anything that seems out of character or that feels like procrastination. What’s more, because each island (and even the uncharted seas) come with their own achievement list, you constantly feel like you are making progress. It’s great to completely clear an island of objectives and secrets, then move on to the next island in accordance with the plot you make for yourself!

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Plundering the ocean floor presents a different kind of difficulty

So with characters, plot, sub-plots, side quests, movement, combat and stealth mechanics all perfectly balanced in one of the best looking games of this generation (and let’s not forget, Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag will also launch on next-gen consoles making it even prettier!) – is there ANYTHING wrong with this game?

Well, sadly, sort of. Abstergo Entertainment.

Thankfully, the days of traipsing around the ‘modern’ world as Desmond in some pseudo sci-fi, after school programme are FINALLY over. What they have been replaced with isn’t bad as such either. Instead of taking the third person action on as Desmond, you now take on the first person role of ‘yourself’ – on your first day at ‘Abstergo Entertainment’ – a subsidiary company of Abstergo Industries from previous games. You start as just a guy doing his job – delving into history to see what can be learned. Looking backwards to move forwards. There are some interesting little hidden gems within the first-person world too. I even had a good read of the employee hand book and discovered the nature of the exploration of historical timelines.
You’re no longer restricted to exploring your own ancestry, you can look back into the bloodline of ‘donors’ – such as Desmond Miles. I also learned that you can only explore an ancestors timeline up to the point of the ‘conception’ of the next link in the chain, the genetic memories having been past on at that point. All very interesting stuff (although I was left wondering just how old Ezio was when he had his children?)

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Abstergo missions can be fun, but are a stark contrast to the brilliant Caribbean adventure.

Even if it isn’t quite as nonsensical as before, it pulls you, unnecessarily, out of the awesome pirate world when you don’t want to leave. It also allows Ubisoft to do some things like restrict parts of the map (“that memory is unavailable at this time”) or move the timeline about when needed, but there are other – less fourth wall breaking – ways to do it. It’s fun that when reading the about the Abstergo Entertainment history in the employee handbook it mentions a joint venture between Abstergo Entertainment and Ubisoft – the game itself loads up with a Ubisoft logo AND an Abstergo Entertainment logo too. I guess the idea is to bring you further in to the ‘research’ Abstergo does and make you feel even more a part of the game world. For me though, all this does is remind me that I’m playing a video game, something I am more than happy to forget when in control of Edward – even if it is an ‘Inception’ like game within a game. There is some fun ‘corporate espionage’ story gameplay and further mysteries and secrets to discover – but, for me, it all just got in the way.

The good news is, the Abstergo – out of animus – gameplay is not at all game breaking. It IS actually fun in places, just not AS fun as swashbuckling it up as Edward Kenway – some of the missions can even be ignored if you want to dive straight back into the Caribbean adventure. It’s also set in a fairly dull, empty, modern environment, devoid of personality – and your movement is somewhat restricted. It’s like an environment that is the polar opposite of Edward’s world. I just wish there was an option to turn it off completely.

So where does this leave us? For me, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is near perfect. Everything just fits together so well, it is all interlinked in such a way that you actually want to experience everything. From the essential gathering a crew to fill your ship, to chasing down the sea shanties they will sing. You want it all, because Edward would want it all! It’s easy to control, challenging to play, has a huge variety of things to do and is possibly the most beautiful game on the market.
The light-hearted, free spirited, pirate way of life lends itself brilliantly to the often bleak Assassin’s Creed universe, refreshing a franchise that was dangerously close to becoming tired.

Ubisoft have listened to fans, kept what they knew to be good in the game and improved or removed everything else. They have, in short, crafted not only the best Assassin’s Creed game ever, but one of the finest games of this generation. It is the perfect game to bridge the gap between this and the next generation of consoles and I will certainly be ‘upgrading’ to the next-gen version to experience the whole game again!

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**NOTE: What? No multiplayer? Yes there is an extensive multiplayer suite to delve into too! However, we will be tackling this in another article! Staty tuned to Twinstick Gaming for more info coming soon!

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