Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag Tag-Team Review

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This is how I imagine the planning session for Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag went: Ubisoft brings in some branding guru, who says to them, “Hey, guys, you know what you need?  A pirate game.”

And the Ubisoft designers look around the table at each other, and one of them finally speaks up. “Hey, sure, cool— except we’re kind of working on this Assassin’s Creed thing right now, and—”

“Great, fabulous,” says the branding guru.  “Just go ahead and make that into a pirate game.  And if you could somehow get rid of all of the present-day stuff you did in the last games, that’d be great.  Let’s tone down the Assassin’s Creed part of it and really ramp up the pirate thing.  People love pirates.”

Story

You begin inside the Animus as Edward Kenway (the grandfather of Ratonhnhaké ton from AC3), privateer/pirate-at-large, resident heartthrob and ne’er do-well, who ends up washed up on an island shore, chasing an assassin because … well, because Kenway’s a pirate, after all.  Kenway kills the (not very good) assassin and takes his hood, and the game kicks off.  (“See, here’s what you do,” says the branding guru.  “He can be wearing the costume— but he’s a pirate.  Perfect, right?”)  As Kenway, your role is to travel between three primary cities, Havana, Nassau, and Kingston, and interact with various historical pirates, most notably Blackbeard, in some sort of vague, nonsensical search with the Templars for a man called the Sage and something called the Conservatory.  The Conservatory, in true Bond-villain style, will enable the Templars to see everything that every world leader is doing.  It’s hard to understand what Kenway’s true motivation is here, beyond some generic cut scenes regarding a woman who might be his wife and a hateful father-in-law and a desire to have money, because, again, he’s a pirate.

Out in the real world, you’re a nameless faceless new employee of Abstergo Entertainment whose job it is to sift through Desmond Miles’ memories in search of future material for an Animus-powered film.  There’s a sinister(ish) ulterior motive here, but you’ll have to find it yourself.

Gameplay

The mechanics are virtually unchanged from the previous games, but that’s fine, because Ubisoft doesn’t need to mess with a pretty good thing.  Most of it involves walking, hiding, diving into hay, and quietly pursuing people while using your eagle eye vision.  You hide in the high brush, you whistle, you gut a guy, you drag his body away.  It’s mostly a stealth game, like its predecessors, and if you’re not a fan of stealth (or, like me, just bad at it), it’s going to be a bumpy ride.  If you’re also like me and you want to break away from long West Wing-style walking-and-talking sessions and get on with your bad parkour self, it’s also going to be a very long game.  The parkour is occasionally clunky, but maybe that’s just because I kept falling off of things.

A large part of Black Flag has to do with the business of being a pirate– that is, attacking Spanish-flagged ships for their rum or other supplies, hunting animals to create better weapons and gear, navigating your ship through rough waters, and running after music sheets that will provide your crew with new shanties to sing.  Black Flag is, at its best, a pretty good pirate RPG(ish).  It seems to exist on the premise that everyone wants to be a pirate, and it may be right.  For what it’s worth, all of the various pirate-type activities are pretty entertaining– thereby fulfilling that whole people-love-pirates theme I’m sensing.

Graphics and Sound

Black Flag sure is pretty, but it takes place in the Caribbean, and it’d be super depressing if it weren’t.  In the moments where Black Flag recalls its predecessors the most– in the long climbs to the tops of churches and masts to get an eagle eye view and dive into the hay bales below you– is where the game is at its prettiest.  Those crystal clear blue waters are enough to make you want to put up your feet, and, well, become a pirate.  The sea is beautiful, the changes in weather gorgeous, and if you don’t want to visit the Bahamas after you play this game, then you need a better TV or computer.

The voice acting’s all fine, in a sort of standard yar pirate kind of way, and almost everyone, including the ugliest characters, look like they belong out of central casting for a pirate movie, or at the very least a romance novel of a pirate movie.  It’s a game you look at for the scenery, and in that respect, it succeeds.  The music is also thematically appropriate, and the sea shanties are easily my favorite part of the entire game: nothing inspires you to be a pirate more than your whole crew singing to bolster you up.

Issues

So, you know what?  Black Flag is pretty fun.  Being a pirate is, in fact, pretty fun.  (Yeah, yeah, branding guru.)  It’s also occasionally boring.  I personally found it difficult to go back to my game when in the middle of a sea battle trying to control a ship that handles like a drunk rhino (credit to BioWare for that line).  That said, for every one of me, there are probably a hundred people who absolutely adored the sea combat.  It’s certainly a sight to behold as your crew shouts various piratey things while hurling themselves across the water to a burning ship.  And there’s something really beautiful at lowering your sails and taking off towards the sunset, the spray in your face.  Yes, branding guru, you’re making me love being a pirate.

There are a lot of cut scenes, too, most of them not unwieldy, but it does sometimes feel like a game where you run and walk and hide just to get to the next dramatic (or undramatic) story moment.  The problem of motivation I mentioned above mostly just means you have to accept the fact that you’re running around doing things simply because someone’s told you to– or, because, thinner still, you’ve been told by Kenway himself that it’s time to get some money.

And this may be a niggling comment, but Ubisoft seems to have listened to my imaginary branding guru, because the game kicks off with you as Kenway, before you even go into the Animus.  Why?  Who knows.  Probably because people love being pirates.  (I told you so, says my branding guru.)  You’re given roughly four minutes of some vague bookending where you are told, inanely, that you are now going to be running through Desmond’s memories for research, and then into the Animus you go.  You can leave the Animus at any time, but there’s no point for the vast majority of the game, except that you can wander around the office while no one acknowledges you, have conversations with no one, look at some artwork on the walls, and then go back into the Animus.  It’s an artifice that mostly seems to exist to remind you, vaguely, that this is an Assassin’s Creed game— in mechanics, if not completely in spirit.  This is probably a significant win for people who felt like all that Desmond stuff was silly anyway (and they probably wouldn’t be wrong, though I miss him already).  The game occasionally remembers where it came from and harkens back to that, and the only real problem with this is that it distracts from what the game really is: a fine pirate game indeed.  RIP, Desmond.

This all goes down to what really is the bottom line: don’t play Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag because you love Assassin’s Creed.  Play it because you love being a pirate.

Multiplayer

Not out yet, but look for it soon.  Ubisoft has already released several details of the multiplayer, which has always served the previous single player-focused games well, and it looks like you’ll be able to change weather conditions and various other perks– but no sea battles.  Yet.  It sure does look cool, though, so check out the below:

Notable Extras

I feel like most of the game is extras, in some weird way.  The best parts of it are when you wander away from the story quests, which are mostly just nonsense anyway, and you run around a deserted island or interfere in the affairs of strangers.

SpawnFirst Recommends …

Okay, geez.  Being a pirate is a lot of fun.  There are places in Black Flag that may feel a little like the video game equivalent of white noise, but everyone loves pirates, so put your feet up, look out at the coast from the bridge of your Jackdaw, and embrace your inner pirate tendencies.

Fox Jester – Second Opinion: 8.0/10
Story

Assassins Creed: Black Flag is set in the early 1700′s and you are introduced as being Haytham Kenway’s father (Conner’s father from AC3), Edward Kenway, a privateer with dreams of success and shiny dubloons. You immediately get into the swing of things, stabbing people in the kidneys, punching people in the bladder; the good stuff. Unfortunately this game is less about being an assassin, and more about being a pirate. The assassins actually barely make a glimmer of an appearance in this massive game.

The story keeps you going with intrigue and promises of booty, but falls short when you need to upgrade your ship to stand a chance of continuing through. In my opinion, the real story is in the “Present day” where you are a…hmm, maybe I shouldn’t spoil it. Let’s just say that if you pay attention to the details in the early parts of the “out of Animus” experience, you‘ll find yourself laughing wickedly.

I found that the actual plotline was less of a straight one, and more of a curved dotted one that had you wondering where it was going from time to time, sometimes emerging confused and disoriented, and sometimes yelling “CALLED IT!”

Graphics & Sound

I’ve come to expect improved graphics and flawless cut scene-to-play integration from a lot of games releasing lately…and in the case of AC4, I was let down. While the transition from cut-scene to playable gameplay is actually fairly smooth, I found that some objects in cut-scenes failed to render, or faces twitched out, making me chuckle like a 3-year old on a caffeine high.

The graphics in Black Flag are not leaps and bounds better than AC3. Actually they’re right on par. Some instances have you actually wishing that you were in the serene, yet deadly tropical landscape, while other experiences leave you wondering where they dropped the ball, and whether they were too focused on making realistically-rendered water, and forgot some texture work. The flora, water and smoke are all extremely well done, though the NPC’s leave something to be desired.

The ambient sounds included in this game are really immersive. The board creaking underneath footsteps, waves crashing against the coast, the trees and bushes rustling in the wind, envelop you in the experience.  Voicework is adequate and solid as well.

Altogether a solid experience with good visuals, just not really an improvement over the last game, and a great auditory experience.

Gameplay

Not much has changed in Black Flag from its predecessor, except for the enthusiastic use of munitions. Firing off 4 pistols into a crowd of shocked enemies has never been so much fun. Combat is a lot more fast-paced, requiring good timing and a decent combo of reflexes and knowledge of the controls. Stalking zones, and running through trees were brought into the series in Assassins Creed 3, and have been implemented again in this game. This makes taking out enemies require a creative mind, and a a fair amount of patience.

Naval combat is the main feature of this game, considering that most of your time will be spent aboard a ship, dodging sea devils (water funnels), and rogue waves that can decimate half of your crew in a single sweep. If you are good enough with your ship, as good as I was (yes I’m bragging), you’ll be able to board a Man O’ War early on in the game with some very precise maneuvering. Unfortunately, you need to upgrade the living heck out of your ship in order to continue most of the plot.

Multiplayer

I find that the multiplayer in the Assassins Creed series was always a let-down, and Black Flag poses as no arbiter of change. The mechanics are exactly the same as AC3, with a few new gadgets thrown in. Stalk your prey with little to hide behind, potentially stab them, or get punched/backhanded and have to start over again, or get assassinated before you can even reach your target. I find it a monotonous experience with little variety. As dry and rage-inducing the standard game type is, I still do enjoy the newest one that was introduced in the previous game.

Wolfpack, where you join together with other pirates to assassinate people en masse. Doing synchronized kills and racing against your friends to kill the target first, unless you actually want to cooperate. There are different NPC’s, with varying abilities who have assassin skills to avoid you, or use heightened perception, and it always keeps you on your toes. With each new level, the stakes get higher and the missions get more difficult. You can play this game mode solo or with friends.

Issues

The difficulty range in missions is completely varied and non-intuitive. Some are a breeze, walk through, stabby mcstab stab, walk out. Then you’ll play another mission immediately after it that requires 3 rage breaks and a bottle of Tylenol. I understand that varying difficulties make the game more interesting, but damn, I’m just trying to tail a guy, so don’t put me through 2 separate restricted zones and then bench me with a sharp right turn into a no-cover-at-all zone.

Aside from my mentioned multiplayer woes, the singleplayer is actually fairly fantastic, and the close to 12 hours going through it will fly by. (You’ll only notice when your wife walks in and dumps a baby with a soiled diaper on you saying “Why don’t you make like a pirate and clean this booty.”)

SpawnFirst Recommends… BUY NOW

I have looked forward to this game since the end of the previous title. My expectations were met, and some exceeded, and I’d recommend this game for a purchase. No renting, no pirating…haha…but honestly, this game was solid throughout. If you’ve played the previous games, Black Flag will be a great addition to the series, and if you haven’t…you are going to be very confused. Get the game for the single player experience and consider the mediocre multiplayer a tacked-on extra.