We’ve seen franchises exhaust themselves time and again in the world of videogames. Once a game becomes an annual event, selling in excellent numbers but often stifling itself creatively, from a consumer perspective, it’s easy to get bored. Assassin’s Creed has clearly suffered from this very situation – ACIII sold millions, but had a lukewarm critical reception and felt like a mess of half-baked ideas. So is it unrealistic to expect Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag to be any better?
ACIV sees the team taking a step back and reassessing what made the series a success in the first place, before coming at it from a fresh angle. It helps that this angle in question is one of the most popular and character-rich periods of history – piracy in 1700s Caribbean. The Assassin’s Creed series has always excelled at dropping players into a slightly exaggerated form of history and letting them soak in the atmosphere, and ACIV is a similarly great example. Several games have tackled the era, but few have pulled it off this well. Our pirate in question is Welshman Edward Kenway, grandfather of ACIII hero Connor. Leaving Wales to become a privateer, Edward quickly falls into a life of crime and is already an established pirate as the game begins.
This is a far more lighthearted game than ACIII, thanks largely to its protagonist. Edward has the same careless arrogance that made Ezio Auditore so popular, a far cry from the boring Connor. Edward is a pirate first and an assassin second, and this extends to his motivations and attitude. he is a refreshingly selfish character in a series that tends to lean towards do-gooders.
When it comes to controlling him, this is largely the same game as ACIII. Control is once again 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 a button as you move, a method so basic it sometimes seems as if the game is playing itself. It also causes Edward to stick to every object he comes across as you run, a familiar AC problem. It’s not uncommon to run towards something, only to hop onto a little ledge in the way and stubbornly refuse to come down. It’s never been a deal breaker, but appears to be a problem that the development team simply cannot fix.
The other big problem is combat, again easy to the point of playing itself. holding back and waiting for a counter is still the failsafe way to kill almost every foe in the game, and those that can’t be taken down this way simply need to be disarmed with a single button press first. huge battles can be exciting, but the lack of any challenge also removes a feeling of achievement.
In the ways Black Flag is similar to ACIII it is similarly disappointing, but luckily this is a game with a surprising number of new and different ideas. Several cited the naval combat of ACIII to be its best aspect, and sailing is a huge focus of Black Flag. pass the first few hours and Edward becomes the owner of his own brig, The Jackdaw. Initial pacing is slow but as soon as you take the helm of your ship the game opens up and allows you to do your own thing. The open world is absolutely huge, stretching out for leagues in every direction.
The potential for exploration is exciting. This is where the benefit of playing on a next-gen system becomes apparent. The leap in graphics quality isn’t enormous, but substantial enough to be impressive. Everything is crisper and cleaner, and a draw distance that extends for miles creates some breathtaking views. It helps that this is a very colourful game, the verdant green jungles and deep blue seas a nice cure for the deluge of brown that fills most triple-A releases.
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 great looking rain. It’s not a huge leap forward, but it’s a good first step.
Sailing around for the sake of exploration and discovery is where Black Flag is the most enjoyable. There is sense of serene calm as you set off into the blue with no destination but your own curiosity. The physics of the ocean are impressive, the Jackdaw rising and sinking with the swell of the tide. Battling through a storm is thrilling, trying to survive enormous rogue waves and roaming whirlwinds as your ship gets bounced around and your crew clings on for dear life.
Ship combat has been improved and upgraded to become the best part of Black Flag. English, Spanish and civilian ships litter the waves, and as a pirate it’s your choice to destroy and capture them as you see fit. The Jackdaw is fitted with a number of different weapons on the front, back and sides, with players not only sailing but also aiming and firing the weapons. It’s an initially complicated control scheme, a stark contrast to the easy on-foot fighting. Once you’ve had some practice and really feel in control, emerging victorious from huge ship battles is a rush.
The Jackdaw has a huge amount of upgrades available, from stronger cannons and armour to brand new weapons, such as a very useful mortar. The player can spy on far ships with the 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, lending a feeling of growth and vindication as you become a force to be reckoned with.
An incapacitated ship can be either sunk or captured 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. Both ships are entirely climbable, and leaping down to the enemy boat from your own mast is the kind of superhero athleticism that the series excels at. Captured ships can be stripped for parts or repurposed but if you really can’t be bothered, sinking them still nets the player the goods onboard – a welcome nod to accessibility.
There is no shortage of boats to destroy; even though the world is huge, it’s rare to have no other ships in view. The amount of them is slightly silly, elbowing immersion to the side and reminding you relatively sharply that you’re playing a game, but it’s still preferable to having to spend ten minutes sailing around, searching for a target. The story tying it all together isn’t particularly inspiring, but benefits from the likable main character and swathe of infamous figures that make an appearance, such as Blackbeard. It suffers a bit from the same sci-fi nonsense that littered past games, but luckily this is kept to a minimum.
The biggest problem with the main story is an over reliance on a few core types of missions. Tailing and eavesdropping in particular is an objective that appears far too often and quickly becomes tiresome. Existing to further the plot, following some other characters slowly as they give exposition on the situation has never been much fun. Luckily, there is plenty to do aside from the main quest. 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 sharksand whales via a fun if desensitising harpooning minigame, 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. The story alone will take around 25-30 hours, and with all of the above and more to get through, getting that 100 per cent is a time consuming task.
Keeping track of what’s been done and where is easy thanks to a surprisingly good map. Accessed by pressing in the touchpad, the map 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 is easy and moving the map with a swipe is great. This is precisely the kind of innovation that we want to see more of with the PS4 touchpad. As an Assassin’s Creed game, Black Flag wouldn’t be complete without a slightly unwelcome present day section. The endlessly boring Desmond has finally, and thankfully. departed and players instead now control a new employee at Abstergo Entertainment, reporting for their first day at work to delve through the memories of Edward Kenway and make a game of the best bits. It’s silly and it’s meta and, of course, there are some nefarious forces behind the scenes and plenty of conspiracies that cause things to quickly spiral out of control, but there’s no need to pay it any mind. Curious players can go around hacking computers to find out snippets about what’s going on, but those eager to get back into the pirate life can usually do so in a few minutes.
If the series insists on keeping this modern day hook, this is the way to do – unobtrusive, quick and painless but with the capacity for exploration. Assassin’s Creed III was sadly something of a disappointment, but Ubisoft Montreal must be commended for learning from its mistakes. The endless problems of easy combat and sticky, simple running may return but the rest is entertaining enough to make up for it. An energetic new protagonist, a focus on piracy and pillaging, excellent naval combat and a huge, beautiful open world make Black Flag an easy game to recommend, and a decent way to kick off the next generation.