Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag for Wii U, PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360 and PC
Well, talk about a pleasant surprise. After Assassin’s Creed III, a game I consider to be an utter disaster, my hopes were not high for the Assassin’s Creed franchise. The prospect of a new game the following year didn’t fill me with enthusiasm, and I thought I was done with this series. Happily, I’ve been proven completely wrong with Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, the best Assassin’s Creed game since the second one, and a game which scratches an itch I didn’t even realise I had.
Black Flag takes us back in time from Assassin’s Creed III, focusing on the adventure of the stoically dull Connor’s grandfather Edward Kenway, a Welsh pirate who left to seek his fortune during the Golden Age of Piracy. Edward soon becomes a pirate of some renown, rubbing shoulders with historical pirates such as Bartholomew Roberts, Anne Bonny and, best of all, Blackbeard. A chance encounter sets Edward against the Templars, who seek access to a First Civilisation temple with the help of an enigmatic figure known as the Sage. Although not a revolutionary such as Connor or Ezio, Edward’s personal material interests align with the Assassin’s as he works with them to find the Observatory before the Templars and achieve the fame and fortune which he believes to be his right.
Of course, this is an Assassin’s Creed game so you’re not actually playing as badass pirate Edward Kenway, you’re playing as someone reliving the genetic memories of badass pirate Edward Kenway. After series protagonist Desmond reached his confusing and nonsensical end in Assassin’s Creed III, the present day story shifts to a new, unnamed silent protagonist. You are an employee of Abstergo Industries, a game company which seeks to create videogaming experiences from genetic memories taken from an Animus. They’re working with a French company known as Ubisoft (hmm) to create a game based on the life of Edward Kenway, and you are a researcher for the game…yeah. Of course, there’s a wider conspiracy going on, and it’s not long before our protagonist is recruited by a figure known only as ‘John from IT’ to investigate the Templar cult at the head of Abstergo.
The plot for the 18th century stuff is a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand, the actual stories of piracy and adventure are incredibly compelling and enjoyable. The stories of great pirates such as Blackbeard and Mary Read are compelling, exciting and surprisingly emotional. I loved the story of the pirates defending their haven of Nassau from the auspices of the British Empire, and overall Black Flag has the best cast of supporting historical figures in any Assassin’s Creed game. However, there are some major draw-backs. I’ve always been a staunch defender of the First Civilisation, Assassins vs. Templars storyline which has underpinned the series, but in Black Flag for the first time it felt tacked on and forced. Edward’s reluctance to join the Assassins means that the wider plot often feels remote and pointless, and returning to it drew from the far more enjoyable grounded narrative of Edward’s adventures with history’s greatest pirates.
One element of the plot that I did love though was the present day sections. Is showing the development studio of the game you’re currently playing self-indulgent and silly? Well, yes. It’s not necessarily even done particularly well. Still, for a major AAA game release from a huge publisher to attempt something so meta and clever must be applauded. This is the territory of quirky indie games, but with the resources that Ubisoft have at their disposal we have both a really interesting undermining/parody of the AAA focus grouped game development of a blockbuster, as well as an expanding of the intriguing modern world setting. That said, the Juno storyline is forwarded an infinitesimal amount, and is more about deepening our understanding of this setting and what’s going on there. The self-deprecation of these sections was highly appreciated, and a couple of intriguing connections to the heavily anticipated Watch Dogs certainly don’t go awry either.
So, from a gameplay perspective Black Flag bears most in common with Assassin’s Creed III. The combat is the same, the free-running similar and the stealth systems and sailing pretty much the same. See, I hated the mechanics of Assassin’s Creed III, so I’m as surprised as anyone that Ubisoft was able to salvage those mechanics into working well. The free running feels satisfying again (if not quite as much as in the first two), and combat is, at least, functional. Best of all though is the massive improvement in stealth mechanics. For a series based on assassinations, the Assassin’s Creed games have had some horrible stealth mechanics. They were worse in III, but they weren’t great to begin with. Although it’s not going to exactly give Dishonored a run for its money, stealth is finally a viable option in an Assassin’s Creed game! It’s much easier to tell where you are hidden from the enemies, and although it’s still irritatingly contextual, the indicators are finally clear. Ubisoft subtly fixed the broken mechanics of III, but it’s impossible to deny that the mechanics are still pretty clunky. Much like GTA5, I can’t help but wonder why these huge companies are seemingly incapable of creating satisfying controls. Still, all said Assassin’s Creed IV simply plays well, which cannot have been said for III.
The main draw of Black Flag is the massive expansion of the sailing sections from III, but with us now exploring an open world filled with things to do. The ship combat was epic in III, but an extra element of chaos and strategy in Black Flag ticks a nautical itch I didn’t even know was there. Boarding an enemy vessel is a surprisingly fluid, organic and fun experience which never stopped feeling epic the dozens of time I did it during my time with the game. This is the most content packed Assassin’s Creed game to date and best of all it’s all actually fun. Alongside the story missions filled with epic set piece moments are optional assassinations, naval contracts and a handful of other fun diversions. Now, I’m an adult and collectibles in games don’t hold much draw for me anymore, but goddam it if I wasn’t going to meticulously seek out and collect every single optional sea shanty for my crew. As a side note, I played Black Flag on Wii U, and although having the map visible at a glance was nice, it’s a shame that nothing else was done with the tablet controller. Still, it’s pleasantly superior to the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions (if not quite up to the PS4, Xbox One or PC versions), so I was happy enough with it.
Similarly to Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, the out of Animus gameplay is completely different to the in-Animus gameplay. Rather than running and assassinating we’re walking and…er, hacking. There are a handful of different hacking mini-games, which aren’t nearly as challenging and cool as those of Assassin’s Creed II, but certainly weren’t bad enough to get dull. Ubisoft probably take the right approach in Black Flag by making the large majority of the modern day stuff optional. You probably only have to play about half an hour outside the Animus, but if you’re one of those people (like me)who enjoy the modern setting, there are plenty of intriguing chunks of lore to be gleaned by exploring the Abstergo Offices, and hacking it’s computers, in more detail. The voices to abandon the modern setting have gotten even louder with this instalment, and I do wonder if Ubisoft will one day make the modern stuff entirely optional. This would be a good way of pleasing long term fans such as me without potentially alienating new-comers to the series, or those who are simply sick of this element.
Black Flag succeeds well in its presentation, although the usual Assassin’s Creed niggles are present as well. Although the environments are gorgeous, and the ocean highly atmospheric, there are all of the little glitches and weird moments that we’ve come to expect from this series. Still, this game provides that immersive pirate experience I’ve always wanted, and the visuals play a large role in that. The music is suitably pirate-y, with the sea shanties standing as the clear highlights. The voice acting is up to usual Assassin’s Creed standards, with Edward’s voice actor helping to make him stand up alongside Ezio. The supporting cast are brilliant, such as the cross-dressing Mary Read, with the surprisingly nuanced portrayal of Blackbeard standing as the highlight.
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag has rescued the reputation of a series which, at its best, can be one of the most inventive and interesting in mainstream gaming. If the rumoured pirate spin-off is real, I’ll be thrilled, but I’m mostly excited to see where Ubisoft go next. It feels good to be excited about the future of Assassin’s Creed again.