Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag review
The law of diminishing returns is a phenomenon present across all forms of media. Something that once seemed fresh, new and exciting will gradually become stale, uninspiring and bland. We’ve seen it with movies, music and television, and games are no exception. Assassin’s Creed III may have sold millions from brand recognition alone, but creatively it was a step back for a once great series. Riddled with bugs and controls over-simplified to the extreme, it was disappointing but perhaps not surprising for what has become an annual franchise. So, a mere year later, is it unrealistic to expect Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag to be any good?
The thing is, sometimes people manage to find a way to break that law. ACIV sees the team taking a step back, reassessing what people loved about the series in the first place and coming at it from a new angle. What really helps is that the angle in question is PIRATES.
Honestly, Pirate’s Creed would have been a more fitting title for this game, and believe us when we say we mean that in a good way. The series has always excelled at dropping players into a slightly exaggerated form of history and letting them soak in the atmosphere, and ACIV is utterly oozing with it. Everyone loves pirates, and rightly so, they were bloody cool. This isn’t a Disney version of the infamous outlaws either: these guys are ruthless, underhanded and downright nasty – just the way we like it.
Our pirate in question is Welshman Edward Kenway, grandfather of ACIII hero Connor. Leaving Wales with dreams of making it big, Edward quickly falls into a life of crime and, as we join his story, is already an established privateer in the early 18th Century Caribbean.
The tone of the game is much more fun than that of ACIII, thanks largely to its protagonist. Edward has the same cocky swagger that made players fall in love with Ezio Auditore, full of bravado and the skill to back it up. The game opens with Edward meeting a mysterious assassin. Does he help the man, in doing so realising his own potential as a member of the order? Does he bollocks – Edward kills him and steals his outfit, intending to receive the reward his recent victim was promised.
Edward is very much a pirate first and an assassin second, to the extent that the vast majority of the game will pass before he even becomes a member of the order. All focus on the greater good is gone as Edward is out for himself and himself alone. It’s a refreshingly selfish, arrogant character in a series that tends to lean towards the pious.
He might not technically be an assassin, but Edward can still do all the stuff that comes with years of training. As far as character control goes, this is the same game as ACIII, albeit tightened up a bit. It’s perhaps the biggest problem the game has: ACIII suffered from over-simplified controls, and Black Flag is little different. Free running is as simple as holding R2 as you move, a method so simple it often feels as if the game is playing itself on autopilot. The biggest problem of the series also returns, with Edward sticking to every object he comes across as you run from A to B. Players will obviously want to traverse the world as quickly as possible, but when running also makes the character hop onto every little bit of scenery nearby, precision becomes a chore. It’s not uncommon to run towards the wheel of your ship, only to hop onto a little ledge in the way and stubbornly refuse to come down. Series fans will be nodding their heads knowingly. It’s not a deal breaker, but it is an irritation that the team has seemed unable to fix over the years.
Combat is also still a bit rubbish, again easy to the point of playing itself. Nearly every foe can be killed by countering, and those that can’t merely require a press of X to disarm them before attacking with a killing blow. Cutting down vast hordes of enemy dudes does make you feel like a badass to begin with, but the lack of challenge removes any sense of accomplishment.
So, in the ways Black Flag is similar to ACIII it is similarly irritating. It is the ways it is different that set it apart.
No good pirate is complete without a ship, and after a couple of hours Edward becomes the owner of his own brig, The Jackdaw. The pacing of those early hours is very slow, but as soon as you take the helm of your ship the game opens up and suddenly, the world is yours to do with as you please. The open world is absolutely huge, stretching out for leagues in every direction. Where do you want to sail? What do you want to see? It’s up to you.
This is where the power of PS4 makes itself known. The leap in graphics quality isn’t enormous, but substantial enough to be impressive. Everything is crisper, cleaner and that bit more realistic, with a draw distance that extends for miles to create incredible views. It helps that this is a very colourful game, all verdant green jungles and deep blue seas as far as the eye can see. The game is almost entirely without loading, only the transitions between the main world and a few large cities requiring a pause. Subtle things like weather effects also benefit from the next-gen tech, with foliage blowing realistically in the wind and some of the most realistic torrential rain we’ve ever seen. It’s not a huge leap forward, but it’s a pretty decent step.
Sailing around and seeing what you can discover is where Black Flag is the most enjoyable. There’s a sense of serene peacefulness as you plow through the waves, similar to how we felt playing The Legend Of Zelda: The Wind Waker a decade ago. The physics of the ocean are excellent, the Jackdaw rising and sinking with the swell of the tide. This is most impressive as you battle through a storm, trying to survive enormous rogue waves and roaming whirlwinds as your ship gets bounced around and your crew clings on for dear life.
The ship and its crew have a real character, and you’ll grow fond of your floating wooden home. Best of all, the crew can be commanded to sing sea shanties as you sail along, bursting into tune at the press of a button. It sounds minor, but is priceless in adding to the atmosphere. Sailing along a quiet breeze as the sun sets and your crew sings of lost loves, you’ll almost be able to smell the sea salt and feel the wind in your hair.
It’s not all peace and quiet though, as ACIII’s naval combat makes a return, improved and upgraded to become the best part of Black Flag by a long way. English, Spanish and civilian ships litter the waves, and as a pirate it’s your job to pillage and capture them as you see fit. The Jackdaw is initially fitted with a chain cannon in front, rows of heavy cannons on both sides and explosive barrels on the back. Players not only sail the ship but aim and fire the weapons, a complicated control scheme that seems worlds away from the simple on-foot fighting. Learning how to best control your ship might take a while, but becoming a skilled helmsman is extremely rewarding.
The Jackdaw has a huge amount of upgrades available, from stronger cannons and armour to brand new weapons, such as a very useful mortar. Some of the larger ships, like the huge Man-o’-wars, pack an enormous punch, so you’ll need as many upgrades as you can afford. Edward can check out ships with his telescope, finding out at a glance the cargo they are carrying as well as their relative level of power. Huge ships that will originally destroy you slowly become viable prey as you upgrade your ship, and the feeling of progress and vindication when you finally take them down is great. There are even a few elusive ‘legendary ships’ – optional encounters that will require a fully upgraded Jackdaw and some extreme sailing skill to emerge victorious.
Cripple a ship and Edward can choose to either sink it or try to capture it by pulling up alongside and reeling it in. These captures are extremely exciting as Edward and his crew leap over to the other ship and take out its crew at close range. Captured ships can be stripped for repair parts or sent to Edward’s fleet to be used in a mini-game mode similar to the assassin’s order from Brotherhood and Revelations. If you can’t be bothered, just sink them – you’ll still get the precious booty.
It has to be said though: there are a lot of boats in this game. Even though the world is huge, it’s rare to have no other ships in view. They litter the landscape and, although it’s useful for gameplay purposes, does spoil the immersion slightly. We doubt there were ever this many boats roaming the Carribbean, nor did pirates ever capture five ships in 30 minutes.
The story tying all this crazy piracy together is never particularly inspiring, although seeing plenty of legendary pirates pop up as characters is entertaining for history buffs. There’s still the same old sci-fi nonsense that marred the other games, but thankfully it tends to take a back seat here to the story of a lawless man trying to make his way in the world.
The main criticism of the story is an over reliance on a few core types of missions. Tailing and eavesdropping in particular happens far too often, quickly becoming a chore as you slowly follow some people and wait for them to elaborate on the plot point at hand. The lack of player input makes these levels a slog but they seem to be mainly consigned to the main storyline, so players fancying something else can always swan off to greener pastures.
And boy, there are plenty of those. The main story itself is huge, taking a solid 25-30 hours to get through, and the amount of extra content heaped on top is gargantuan. Getting the elusive 100 per cent in Black Flag will take some serious commitment. Besides the obligatory collectables, players can take on extra assassination missions, send their fleet out to perform tasks remotely, explore undersea wreckage for elusive booty, hunt sharks and whales via a fun harpooning mini-game, raid storehouses for stuff to sell, craft and upgrade their kit with various animal skins, track down ancient Aztec treasures and recruit new sailors to their crew.
It’s easy to keep track of what you have and haven’t done thanks to a decent map, slowly unveiled by the player. On land this is done in the classic manner of reaching high points and ‘synchronising’, while at sea the map is revealed after taking one of the various naval ports that dot the landscape. Do either and the surrounding area will be filled in, detailing everything of note in a small radius.
Some might dislike having every little collectable marked on the map in advance, but in a game with such a huge amount of things to do it’s a great help. Simply knowing where these things are doesn’t remove any challenge, as a lot of them require some thinking to actually reach.
The map is accessed by pressing in the touchpad, and can be navigated by touching, swiping and pinching the pad like you would on a tablet or smartphone. Using your thumbs to pinch and stretch to zoom the map in and out quickly becomes second nature, and moving the map with a swipe is great. This is precisely the kind of simple but useful idea that we want to see more of with the PS4 touchpad.
So, that’s the majority of how you’ll be spending your time in Black Flag, a fun adventure that is better at sea than it is on land. Remember though that this is still an Assassin’s Creed game, and wouldn’t be complete without a nonsensical present day section. Luckily for all of us, the infuriatingly boring Desmond is gone and done, replaced with… you. The present day bits are now first person, as your nameless character reports for their first day at Abstergo Entertainment, the new videogame development arm of the Templar-run Abstergo Industries. Using the genetic memory of Desmond, the player is tasked with sifting through the life of Edward Kenway in an attempt to make a videogame of his life. Of course, there are some nefarious forces behind the scenes and plenty of conspiracies that make things harder than they should be for our eager new employee.
These modern day levels have some enjoyably meta moments, the Abstergo Entertainment offices apparently based on those at Ubisoft Montreal. They don’t outstay their welcome, or interrupt the main game to the same extent as Desmond’s bits in games past. Curious players can go around hacking computers to find out little snippets about what’s going on, but those eager to get back into the pirate life can usually do so in a few minutes. We aren’t sold that the series needs this modern day hook, but if it insists on keeping it, this is the way to do so.
Thanks to the fact we played the PS4 version and the difficulties that caused, we unfortunately weren’t able to try out the multiplayer component of Assassin’s Creed IV. Rest assured that there is more than enough single-player content to warrant a purchase, and we will cover the online element at a later date. By all accounts it’s similar to the online of previous games – a surprisingly decent multiplayer mode that favours a slow pace and careful play.
After the disappointment of Assassin’s Creed III, Black Flag being such an enjoyable return to form is a really pleasant surprise. The classic complaints of sticky movement and rubbish combat make a return, but the rest is such an enjoyable package that they don’t ruin the experience. As far as pirate simulators go, we don’t know if we’ve ever played a game that made the lifestyle seem this much fun. Thanks to a great new protagonist and enjoyable naval combat, this is the easiest Assassin’s Creed game to recommend since the glory days of ACII and Brotherhood. There is still plenty to fix, but this is a step in the right direction.