Review: Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag (Current-Gen)

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ATTENTION: Assassin’s Creed 3 is shamelessly spoiled in this review, so if you haven’t played it yet and want to find out the fate of Desmond Miles and co, I’d skip reading this

Black Flag tells the story of Edward Kenway, charming/roughish pirate who seeks fortune, whilst stumbling upon the Assassin’s Order and their vicious fight against the Templars for humanity. It sounds engaging and deep, but it’s not really. I feel I only was vested in this game because of my love for pirates and nautical based themes, and the story just kind of flew over. Big names like Blackbeard, Charles Vane and Calico Jack make appearances, but they amount to similar cameos as the historical figures in Assassin’s Creed 3 were, ergo not much impact. It’s a story that’s more grounded thanks to the final bow of Desmond: no more end of world bullshit, it’s a simple pirate tale mixed with the Assassin’s Creed template without the need to juxtapose crazy cult figures and bullshit end of world theories into it. I guess Desmond was good for one thing.

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In a surprising twist, the plot for the ‘present day’ plot is not only engaging and interesting, but an absolutely hilarious bit of meta-narrative worthy of Kaufman himself (Charlie Kaufman, that is). Playing the role of an Abstergo employee digging through the memories of previous protagonist Desmond Miles to create the ‘perfect entertainment piece’ for the audience, you have to sift through the memories of Kenway in order to discover and create material to make it a mass produced game. It’s incredibly self-referential, clever and intriguing, especially when the layers start to fall and a more sinister plot is discovered. Not only was this an incredibly interesting plot, but it was the very first plot in the Assassin’s series where I WANTED to play it. I found myself laughing at some of the self-deprecating and meta jokes Ubisoft were clever enough to put in, and there are a couple of very welcome easter eggs that scream of potential for crossover franchises (coughWatch_Dogscough).

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Black Flag runs quite poorly on the PS3, no sugarcoating that. Frame rate chugs like crazy, pop in is evident everywhere and outside of the free-run animations not much stands out. The open world is immense and deep, but the graphics take a hit. The atmosphere on the ship is clearly the only standout here: rain hitting the deck, watching your crew run around whilst you engage in ferocious battles, it would be absolutely spectacular if there wasn’t so much cluttering the UI. Honestly, I’d love for the game to ditch the present day concept entirely and just focus on the Assassin’s Creed past; just imagine a game like Black Flag without any of the immersion-shattering parts. While I lauded the present day plot, I also would not mind seeing it disappear if it meant this happening.

It’s no competition to which version you should get: if the DRM is gone, then PC gets 100% of my vote, otherwise the next-gen consoles are looking much better, though I’d wait for the whole 900p/1080p mess to resolve itself, because God knows no one wants to be a part of that right now. The PS3 version runs well enough, but I KNOW that there are better versions out there and if you had the choice, there’s my vote.

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The menu system has been COMPLETELY overhauled, and thank God for that, since the franchise’s UI have ranged from terrible to completely fucking atrocious. Though I’ve fairly sure they’ve recycled the menu sounds from Splinter Cell (you can quote me on that, I’m very confident of this) the menu’s are fluid, easy to use and the map is actually easy to access for once. No longer waiting for the map to load agonizingly slowly, then agonizingly trawl my way looking for my objective, it’s been simplified to great effect.

Sounds are solid, especially Kenway’s voice actor. Fits the character exactly, I found myself liking (or at the VERY least, tolerating) Kenway because of this, which is more than I could say for Connor from AC3. Voice acting all around is solid. Can’t really think of many negatives here, or many positives. It’s good. The orchestral score is fantastic, and it absolutely shines during the combat, completely immersing myself into the pirate life. That’s not to mention the dozens of sea shanties. Black Flag nails the pirate look, the pirate feel and the pirate sound.

AC Gameplay
Let’s get the worst out of the way: the core combat on foot is an absolute disaster, and it is completely monotonous and boring to slug your way through dozens of enemies when Ubisoft have created a combat system this uninspired. The age old ‘wait for counter, then chain kill’ system is here, yet it’s not even half as fun or engaging as Brotherhood’s combat, despite the advancements everywhere else, simply because it’s just not challenging at all. Mashing dronelessly to kill enemies is incredibly dull, and not only are the chain kills and combos completely unsatisfying to pull off seeing as they require the skill of a 3 year old, but the kill animations are incredibly drawn out and just boring to watch. The sword/blade combat is boring, it’s unchallenging and it’s just taken steps backwards. Ubisoft need to really just completely overhaul their on-foot combat system and start from scratch, because what’s left is unsalvageable. There’s some nice sword and pistol sets to buy to make the monotony less…monotonous, which is always a nice touch.

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That said, the core components of stealth and assassinations are quite fun. The stealth has been overhauled for the better, and it works well in Black Flag. Hiding in bushes, luring guards to their death and silently assassinating a whole convoy is a thousand times more satisfying then mindlessly mashing the attack button in face to face combat. Assassinating from air is always a slice of fried gold, and I’m glad to see the inherent fun and style of assassinations remain as strong as ever.

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Fortunately, the two things that Assassin’s Creed 3 got right are done magnificently well here, this being the ship combat and the free-running. AC3 was criticised heavily for its lack of focus, and here I can see the attention into the ship gameplay was not a throwaway. I don’t recall having this much fun in a pirate themed game since…ever. Controlling the Jackdaw is wonderful, it feels like a real ship, customizing and upgrading it is not only essential, but actual motivation to go out and do side quests, and the love for the pirate life is evident here. Sea shanties can be collected around the world, chasing them down on foot, money is actually challenging to collect, and the weather system is impressive. Things like storm and fog actually have an effect on gameplay, as wild hurricanes threaten to tear your ship apart, and rouge waves attempt to capsize you. It’s a battle against man and nature, and the ship combat is absolutely breathtaking.

Hearing the score swing into action, firing cannons and swivels and barrels into ships that double the size of yours, then boarding them, swinging from rope into air assassination into quick combos and igniting explosives, it is absolutely magnificent and more than makes up for the bland on-ground combat. Attackable forts around the world add another dimension to the combat; taking a leaf from Far Cry 3’s outposts, consisting of withering down the exterior’s defences with the ships’ weapons, then running on foot to assassinate the head officer. The fort mechanics are wonderfully fluid, engaging and challenging, with a nice decent curve of difficulty to accompany the ship’s eventual upgrades. However, it is a shame that it gets so repetitive. Things like unlocking taverns (which consist of the exact same bar fight every time) and boarding ships don’t change objectives, and it’s a shame to not see a mix-up of objectives. That being said, the core components are so damn fun that it’s hard to see it as a negative, but even eating ice-cream every day for a month will become boring and repetitive. The diving sites provide a necessary annoyance: having to dive down shipwrecks is fine despite the finicky controls (seriously, will we EVER get a game with good underwater controls?) but the top tier upgrades are tied to these sites, which make them a chore to go through, albeit a near compulsory one.

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Free-running has been fine-tuned so well that I don’t even look back on AC2/Brotherhood anymore. The overhauled animation system that debuted in Assassin’s Creed 3 was great, and here it’s near-perfection. My main complaint in the series was that free-running never gained any momentum. Climbing over a bar in the old games would stunt your progress even if you were running full pelt. Not anymore; running into objects will have Kenway vault over or duck under them with equal parts grace, speed and style, without losing a step in momentum. Running through crowds is now done organically without the need to hold down an awkward button, and the world has been fine-tuned to accompany Kenway’s free-running actions, with ledges, ramps and nature itself all being climbable objects. AC3 harped on about its blend of free-running between the natural world and buildings; Black Flag makes good on that promise. While we won’t see the style and skill equal to, say, Mirror’s Edge’s system (and I doubt we ever will), this is the next best thing.

And finally: the hunting system. While still not as engaging as Far Cry 3’s system (despite being ripped out from it entirely) mainly due to most on-ground upgrades being unnecessary, it’s a hell of a lot better than AC3. I felt myself actually stopping at harpooning sites, actually going out of my way to upgrade Kenway’s weapons and health not because I NEEDED to, just because the system was much better crafted than in AC3. I was surprised to see myself spend so much time hunting, it’s not a stand out feature and it suffers from repetition much like the rest of the game (thankfully the canned animations before/after the hunt is skippable) but it’s a welcome one.

AC Conclusion
Assassin’s Creed Black Flag is a strange game. There’s many things wrong with this game, so much I can nitpick and groan and put down, and Ubisoft have had more than enough of my time and money (and yours!) to not warrant forgiveness or for me to look over these things, yet I find myself completely and utterly immersed in this game. One of the deepest, most addictive sandboxes I’ve found myself playing this year (edging out even GTA V in terms of depth and fun). The ‘Assassin’s Creed’ logo on it isn’t really justified, as it has become its own game, and very unlike an AC game. Black Flag does many things wrong, but when it reaches its highs, they’re the highest the franchise have ever been. Buy it on console, next-gen or now, buy it on PC (hopefully if the DRM will be removed), just play this game and acknowledge the first right step that Ubisoft have done with this franchise in years.