Game Review: Assassin’s Creed IV – Black Flag
Platform: Xbox360, XboxOne, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PC, Wii U
ESRB Rating: Mature 18+ with Intense Violence, Intense Threat, Partial Nudity, Alcohol Referencing, and Strong Language.
Multiplayer: Competitive matchmaking and co-operative modes available.
I’ll be the first to admit that whilst Assassin’s Creed III was a decent game, for an entry in the Assassin’s Creed series it fell a bit short of the finish line. The story started out with promise but gradually tail-span into blandness and became far too predictable, and the fact that the antagonist (Haytham) was far more interesting than the protagonist (Connor) by quite some margin didn’t make things any better either. To top it off the core mechanics of the series had not aged well and the game itself was clearly laboring by adjusting to a entirely new graphics engine. It was not a bad entry by any stretch of the imagination, but it certainly did not meet the standard a fantastic series such as this warrants. With this latest entry Ubisoft have clearly not only learned from their shortcomings with Assassin’s Creed III but have decided to play to that game’s greatest strengths, as a result we now have “Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag”.
In a surprising move for the series the story of Black Flag takes players back in time from where they last left off to and plunges them, metaphorically and physically, into the ‘Golden Age of Piracy’. That’s right, we’re delving into Depp and Rush’s territory this time around. However you won’t see over-the-top pirates and the supernatural here (zombie pirates, ghosts, krakens, goddesses, etc), instead you’ll get what is an undeniably brutal and arguably historically accurate depiction of a time when a select breed of men and women truly lived free. Those savvy with the period or with popular culture in general will notice the infamous pirates of the era present here: Edward “Thatch” Teach, Benjamin Hornigold, Charles Vane, Jack Rackham, Anne Bonny, and Mary Read.
Our ‘hero’ this time around is a British privateer-turned-pirate called Edward Kenway. From that surname you can probably guess, considering the years this story takes place in, that Edward is the father of Assassin’s Creed III’s antagonist Haytham Kenway and the grandfather of its’ protagonist Connor. What makes Edward stand out among the other protagonists this series has seen is that he has a completely different mind set than any of them. Altiar became an Assassin through a sense of duty, Ezio became one to seek revenge, and Connor became one fueled by idealism. Edward on the other hand, and this is something of a spoiler here, is not actually an Assassin in the purest sense. Sure, he wears a similar outfit and learns the tricks of their trade, but he is purely out for #1 throughout a hefty chunk of the story and has very little patience for the creed or their war with the Templars. This isn’t a pirate story pretending to be Assassin’s Creed however as Edward does inevitably become embroiled in the ongoing war between these two sides. If I flat out told you how Edward becomes aware of the enduring conflict and how he comes to play a significant part in it’s course I’d be practically spoiling the entire story, so I will set aside a separate article which will cover his story in-depth.
Combat and exploration on both land and sea is absolutely phenomenal here in Black Flag, leagues ahead of anything the series has seen thus far. It takes everything that was great about both said systems in Assassin’s Creed III and fine-tunes them to near-perfection. Edward’s fighting style will feel similar to veterans as it foreshadows the style used by his future grandson Connor in the sense that it is acrobatic and flows freely. Unlike his grandson however Edward has no reservations about fighting dirty and is exceptionally ruthless to his opponents more so than any other Assassin. One neat addition to combat is that Edward can carry up to four pistols and can freely aim them if need be via a third person over-the-shoulder view, very useful for picking off a rooftop gunner or shooting a fleeing target in the back. Outside of combat Edward moves with feline grace through the sweeping cityscapes of Havana and Kingston, cities which are fantastic throw-backs to the exploration and free-running of Assassin’s Creed II. Asides from the main city hubs there is a staggering abundance of uncharted territory in the form of jungles and Mayan ruins to explore, something I still haven’t gotten tired of.
Many players, myself included, complained about the occasional graphical bugs which plagued Assassin’s Creed III but Ubisoft has clearly taken the time to iron out such bugs this time around and as a result proceedings flow by very smoothly. Still, there are moments when you will notice an occasional texture pop-in but they are very few and far between. The game really pushes the current-gen consoles to their absolute limits and I can only imagine what Black Flag will look like on the next-gen consoles due out later this month.
This brings us to where Black Flag really shines. The naval aspect of Assassin’s Creed III was limited but arguably the highlight of the entire show despite it being nothing more than a pass-time. Here however naval exploration and combat constitutes a good 60% of the overall content. Spending more time off land than on it is a risky move for an Assassin’s Creed title and I’ll admit that I was dubious when news first landed of Black Flag’s setting. My silent faith was rewarded however because the naval exploration and combat here is not only phenomenal, it creates the best pirate game in history without even intending that as it’s main focus. Edward’s ship, the Jackdaw, might as well be the second protagonist of the story as both he and the player spend a great deal of time with it and improving it as much as they are improving Edward’s own abilities. Although I mentioned city hubs earlier the entire West Indies is the real world hub for this story. When they are at the helm of the Jackdaw the player has complete freedom to explore every island, cove, shipwreck, port, and uncharted territory on the shrouded map. There is an absolutely INSANE amount of content here which extends the 30+ hour story by another 30 hours at least, and there is also DLC on the way! Having this much freedom, abundance of content, and sense of exploration is something the series has been sorely lacking ever since Ezio’s quest across Renaissance Italy and here it returns with cannons blazing (literally).
Edward does not use the title of ‘pirate’ just to sound cool, he and his crew get up to all sorts of piracy shenanigans throughout the story, and you, the player, are there to dictate proceedings. Sea battles are nothing short of epic in Black Flag. Spy your quarry, fold out the full sail and bring death and destruction upon them. During battles gunpowder smoke billows everywhere, shrapnel and pieces of hull fly around like a hurricane, gunshots ring out like a chorus, and that’s not even getting into how even the weather can play a role with squalls and tornadoes occasionally blowing in and reducing entire fleets to shipwrecks before your eyes. Gain enough infamy through your actions and you end up being pursued by pirate hunters and eventually the Royal British and Spanish navies if you make enough of a reputation for yourself. Battles such as these against legendary ships and captains (HMS Victory and Horatio Nelson anyone?) make for some of this game’s most epic moments.
Despite having a small handful of problems with the graphics engine which I’m confident will be completely relieved with the PlayStation 4 and XboxOne versions of the game the Black Flag flies high for this series, a series which really needed a refreshing breather from tropes which were in danger of wearing out their welcome. Black Flag delivers an engaging story which takes the lore of the series into uncharted waters and weathers the storms of change, never betraying its’ roots but understanding that the series needs effective updates to take it into the next generation of gaming. The story campaign will take the average player a good 25-30 hours to clear on the first play through and the leagues of additional content will keep completionists and kleptomaniacs happy for months to come. One pressing question remains however: Is it worth buying Black Flag for the current generation of consoles when the PlayStation 4 and the XboxOne can be seen on the horizon? If you have plans to purchase either of the next generation consoles I would say wait for them and make Black Flag your first purchase with the console. The current generation version is not too far behind graphically but I imagine the experience would be pushed from excellent to legendary by the refined capabilities of the next gen consoles.
This game really requires two final scores based on that ending note.
PlayStation 3 & Xbox 360: 9/10 (Excellent)
PlayStation 4 & XboxOne: 10/10 (Legendary)