Bigger, Bolder, Better. Those three words definitely define Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag as it takes the Assassin’s Creed franchise’s first major steps off the mainland, and sails out to the seven seas. Combining elements of traditional Assassin’s Creed stealth gameplay with the loud and aggressive pirate lifestyle was no easy feat, but Ubisoft have managed to pull it off. The game offers players the freedom to play how they want and to make their own fun through the variety of side-missions, collectibles and other goals to accomplish. This gameplay freedom, combined with an unrivaled visual beauty and audio that really captures the pirate lifestyle results in Black Flag being the best game in the franchise by far.
Taking place prior to the events of Assassin’s Creed III, we are placed in the role of Edward Kenway (father of the Templar Haytham Kenway, and grandfather to the protagonist of Assassin’s Creed III; Connor Kenway), a young pirate who becomes entangled in a life or death struggle against an a member of the Assassin Order. After learning that the Assassin was part of a Templar plot that could result in fortunes unforetold, Edward is ready for treasure and ready for adventure.
A great facet to this game is how Edward grows as a character. Older Assassin’s Creed games would have the protagonist remain largely the same throughout. Most of Ezio’s character development happened in-between games, while Connor remained a stoic brat for the entirety of his story. Edward however starts off as a brash pirate captain with the clear goal of amassing a fortune enough for him to buy some land and a little bit of respect back home. Through his travels he will don the stolen robes of an assassin, fall into a Templar meeting, and realise that there is more to life than being happy at the expense of others.
While it delves into some serious topics, Assassin’s Creed IV is an overall more lighthearted and fun story than its predecessors. Pirates work surprisingly well with the themes and motifs that the Assassin’s Creed franchise has been built on, namely the Assassin Order’s goal of freedom for all. This lofty and happy vibe to the gameis in no small part due to Captain Kenway himself, who is witty, charismatic and a downright smart-ass at times. He is a much happier character than we have come to see from the series recently. Not only is he light hearted and a bit of a jokester, he is also incredibly likeable and downright relatable at times, not only in his demeanor but in his dreams and goals in life.
We also can’t forget that the Assassin’s Creed series is constantly filled with cameos and appearances from famous historical figures, and Black Flag is no exception. Aside from Blackbeard himself; Edward Thatch, we also get to meet other famous sea dogs like Calico Jack, Mary Read and Anne Bonny.
Assassin’s Creed IV had a difficult road to travel – combining the elements that have defined Assassin’s Creed with a new, nautical setting. Prior to playing Black Flag, I was concerned that this was going to be difficult to tackle and that we would simply end up with Pirate’s Creed. However, from the moment I picked up the controller and entered the game, I happily realised that this was far from true.
At this point in its life, the Assassin’s Creed has definitely defined itself. The slow, methodical and precise gameplay makes the series what it is (for better or worse) and taking it out, or changing it too wildly will result in a game that just shares a name. Luckily, all of the typical Assassin’s Creed gameplay mechanic that players know and love have made it into Black Flag, and are still very much the focus. This slow gameplay approach can make it difficult to play Assassin’s Creed for marathon sessions, but is a staple of the series and is still incredibly fun.
For the crux of the game you play as Edward, (and only Edward), who already has the skills to be a top assassin, but lacks the knowledge of what being an assassin truly means (largely because he ISN’T an assassin when the game begins). This is one of the game’s strengths. In the last game, you were treated to a lengthy (and I do mean lengthy) tutorial sequence featuring Haytham Kenway, before ever getting to play as Connor (and then doing a lot more tutorial). Black Flag instead throws you straight into the role of Edward, and provides you with hints and on-screen prompts to help you along your way. The tutorial sections for new skills as you unlock them are integrated into the story near seamlessly, that it doesn’t feel like you are being guided at all.
The game is split so that you will roughly spend most of your time on-land completing storyline missions, while the seas are for travel and side-quest stuff. The story missions follow the same style as the previous games; having you either hunt down a particular person, sneaking up on unsuspecting soldiers, or eavesdropping on conversations. Combat on land has also remain largely unchanged, however the way in which Edward fights really changes up the flow and pace of the game. Unlike previous protagonists, Edward’s standard arsenal includes two swords, his wrist blades, and more guns than you could count. His attacking style is much more brutal and a lot less elegant, which helps define him as a pirate.
While you are out at sea, there are a thousand and one different things you can do. The ocean really is your playground and much like a pirate, you are free to travel it as you see fit. The game’s massive map means that you will often be sailing towards your next main plot quest, only to find a small island worth investigating. Some islands are populated, and have more treasure to discover and villainous types to kill, while others are smaller and may only have one or two collectables for you. These collectibles come in the form of Animus Fragments, Treasure, Mayan Stones, and a few other secrets that I wont spoil for you here. The game is filled with Assassin’s Contracts, which can shake up the game. You are told to sail to a particular island, and find a Templar commander, and ending him quickly. These let you use all of the tricks in your assassin’s arsenal, and are a great way of earning money.
There are also sections of the ocean filled with aquatic creatures to hunt. Everything from great white sharks to the elusive white whales are available, and hunting them will give you certain bonuses (like the ability to craft new items and clothing). Some animals are easier to hunt than others, with the White Whale providing the toughest challenge (despite its difficulty, there is just something inherently cool about gabbing a spear and going all Captain Ahab on the creature). If hunting isn’t your style, then you are also able to dive to the depths in search of lost treasure. This ability isn’t unlocked until later in the game, but is a lot of fun, and the underwater sections are a sight to behold.
The sea-faring sections of the game are some of the most fun you will have with a controller in your hand to date. A lot of the mechanics have been taken from Assassin’s Creed III, and improved on substantially. Your ship is bigger, and you are tasked with keeping it maintained, as well as upgrading its look and combat efficiency. As a pirate captain you are constantly on the look out for new crew members, which become vital during your naval battles. You gain crew either by paying them, or by rescuing wayward pirates who are in trouble.
Sea combat has undergone a substantial upgrade from ACIII, not only in the way you do battle, but in the end result. Firstly, the weapons have all been made more fluid to access, with each camera direction giving you access to a different weapon. Facing forwards will give you the Chain-Shot designed to take out enemy masts. Facing backwards brings up your fire barrels, which serve as floating mines, and aiming port or starboard brings up your broadside cannons, which do the most damage to your enemies. The game also has a swivel gun that is firable whenever the enemy’s ship has an exposed weak point, and a new weapon; mortar, which help you rain down on distant ships. It is up to you to drive your ship in and around opposing vessels, to use the best weapons for the job.
Following tiring battles, you can either sink ships to the briny deep, or board them. Boarding them takes longer and there is a risk of losing crew members, but the rewards are usually worth the risk. More salvage, and the chance to repair your ship, lower your wanted meter, or recruit another vessel into your fleet are well worth the extra trouble that boarding an enemy can be.
There are also the sections of the game set during the present day. Here you will play in a first-person setting, acting as a new employee for Abstergo Entertainment. You are in charge of playing through the Animus memories of Edward Kenway to determine the most fun and exciting memories that players of future Abstergo games will enjoy. There is a lot of tongue in cheek humor here, and a lot of real-world easter eggs, such as the memo that details how Ubisoft and Abstergo teamed up to release Assassin’s Creed: Liberation. Overall, these sections aren’t necessary to the gameplay, and most of them have you performing small hacking minigames to get access to files. These files to give players a clue as to where the series is going from here. Since this is Abstergo, players will know that there is a more sinister plot involved, and the files you unlock through these present-day sections tell the story of just what that devious plot is.
Multiplayer is also back, and follows the same formula as pervious entries in the series. It does away with the traditional deathmatch style of competitive multiplayer, in favour of a stealth based cat and mouse game, where you have to lure your opponent into thinking you are a normal NPC on the map before making your kill. The ability to customise your character and their skills as you improve is nothing new, but it allows you to really branch out and create the multiplayer character you want to make. While it isn’t a game-changer, its inclusion is always welcome, and is a fun alternative to the rest of the multiplayer games out there.
There is no other way to describe Assassin’s Creed IV than to call it beautiful. On the brink of the new console generation, Black Flag really shows how far we have come in seven years of gaming. The thing that will capture most people’s eyes first, is the clarity and picturesque appearance of the water in-game. The water, especially the shallower areas are by far the best looking water sections I have ever seen in a video game. The crystal blue shallows of the tropical islands fill you with the desire to just stop, stare and wish you were on a holiday to some tropical beach somewhere so that you can just stare at water like this for hours on end. However, it isn’t just the shallow water that stands out in Black Flag. The dark and murky depths are really well defined too, although sometimes the jump from shallow to deep is sometimes really jarring, especially if you are looking down on the ocean floors as your ship crosses over.
The rest of the game is similarly beautiful, and really captures the feel of the Caribbean seas during the 1700s. Ships all look fantastic, and the locations all look stunning. Everything from the trees to the rocks and the differences in the houses really makes Black Flag come alive. It is definitely the best looking Assassin’s Creed game, and as I said above, the best looking game I have ever seen, which makes it a fitting bridge to cross over console generations.
When dealing with the ocean, it is the subtle sound effects that can make or break your immersion, and luckily Assassin’s Creed IV really captures them perfectly. Black Flag is a game that you can just listen to. The sounds are all magnificently done, and really add to the whole theme and feel of the game. I think it is safe to say that at one point or another, everyone has imagined being a pirate. The freedom, the gently rolling waves, wind through your hair and the sounds of a crew singing a sea chanty all make the dream seem glorious. Well Black Flag has got you covered there. Simply standing on your ship, listening to the gentle wind blow against your sails while your crew whistle and sing really makes you feel like a pirate captain.
The voices of the characters are all incredibly well done too, with the voice actors giving their all. Matt Ryan (Of Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior fame) in his first video game appearance leads the cast of stellar voice actors, and really brings life to Captain Edward Kenway. His voice manages to convey that brash, cocky persona that Edward needed, and he is a lot of the reason that the character is so charismatic and charming. The rest of the crew all exceptionally voice their respective characters, including Nolan North, who is in not only every main-series Assassin’s Creed game, but just about every game of the generation.
If there is any fault to be had with the audio, it is that at times it can grow incredibly repetitive. There was a section of the game, where I was sailing the seas instead of heading to my next destination. Whenever I would fast travel, load a save, or have my ship be brutally torn asunder by an opposing fortress, I would be treated to the same page of dialogue about heading to meet Master Kidd and collecting treasures for the crew along the way. It was fine the first time, and the second time, but every time after that it really started to become tiresome.
Taking to the seas was a bold move for a franchise so heavily rooted on land, but it has paid off spectacularly. Black Flag is the biggest, boldest and best game of its genre. The combination of traditional Assassin’s Creed mechanics, with an updated sea-faring system really makes for a game that is as wild and varied as the lifestyle it aims to emulate. While the game’s slow, methodical pace makes it difficult to play long marathon sessions, it is still an outstanding experience, and with its visual beauty, and subtle audio nuances that really capture the pirate lifestyle, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is a near-flawless package, and is the strongest and most enjoyable entry in the series to date.
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