Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag Review
Written Tuesday, November 26, 2013 By Richard Walker
Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag is one of those games that simultaneously launched for current and next-gen consoles, along with the likes of LEGO Marvel and CoD: Ghosts. And like those games, Black Flag for Xbox One is the exact same game, but with marginally prettier visuals. That means all the same frustrations we had with the Xbox 360 version persist, meaning a similar review.
Did you like the naval seafaring bits in Assassin's Creed III? Then you're going to absolutely adore Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag. The majority of the game involves sailing all over the bloody place, from the exotic climes of Havana to the lawless pirate town of Nassau. Did you hate the sailing bits? Then chances are you won't be overly keen on ACIV. Like cheap sausages, Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag is mostly water. And rusk, pig rectum and other mystery pig bits.
Telling the story of Connor from AC III's grandpa, Edward Kenway, Black Flag's new protagonist is a charismatic, uncompromising pirate with a dream: to own a plot of land and get back to his missus in Wales or England somewhere. Bristol or something? I wasn't really paying attention. ACIV's story doesn't really grab you from the off, and takes a long, long time before it actually gets going. Where Assassin's Creed III threw you something of a curveball during its opening chapters, ACIV plods along at a snail's pace, saving its juicy bits until the closing sequences.
"Eww! I can see what you had for dinner!"
Consequently, the game can be something of a chore at times, with ACIII's tailing and eavesdropping missions lazily reheated and wheeled out on numerous occasions. Boredom inevitably sets in during these instances, and you might actually be longing for the freedom that the Caribbean Sea has to offer, where the story's strictly limited missions fail to deliver. It's at sea that Edward is most at home, and as such, it's in your captain's cabin where you'll be able to manage your fleet, apply upgrades to Edward's vessel, The Jackdaw, and change your weapons and outfits. It's your hub, your mobile base, the place where you'll meet and greet with your first mate Adewale, and rub shoulders with your loyal crew.
It's actually the sections at sea that prove the most memorable and engaging, as you build up the Jackdaw's hull armour, firepower and its cosmetic appearance right down to its billowing sails and the carved effigy on the ship's bow. When you initially board the Jackdaw, it's a stolen vessel, caked in rust and corrosion, a real 'fixer upper'. Edward too is no assassin. He's a man who happens to be in the right place at the right time, using the assassin's robes for his own ends, in keeping with the unscrupulous, deceptive nature of his character. Everything Edward owns is effectively 'borrowed', but he has a talent for murder, free-running and climbing with style. Obviously.
Strictly speaking, Edward is a pirate first and an assassin second, which is something that's reflected in the missions and gameplay. The majority of the game taking place at sea means that Black Flag feels less like an Assassin's Creed game, and more like a game of naval warfare that happens to be set during the Golden Age of Piracy. Ubisoft Montreal occasionally remembers to throw in some bits where you're assassinating targets too, but usually not before tailing them and eavesdropping on their yawn-inducing conversations. This happens all too often. We hated the tailing and eavesdropping missions in Assassin's Creed III, so why they're back in force for the sequel, we don't know.
Luckily, you can now provide feedback on each mission once you've completed it, submitting a rating out of five stars. This is a smart and canny move that should ensure Ubi takes into account what works and what doesn't for the inevitable sequel next year. Despite a litany of patience testing missions and general frustrations, Black Flag does manage to do a lot right.
"Shh... I only want a quick hug."
The open world is a sprawling tropical paradise that's a pleasure to both explore and behold, almost entirely free of the glitches and bugs that plagued the previous game. That goes double for the game on Xbox One. It's undoubtedly gorgeous, but hardly pushing what the console is capable of. Edward too is a far more appealing character to spend time with than his old stick-in-the-mud grandkid, Connor. And though the story really only begins to pick up steam towards the end, Black Flag spins an interesting enough yarn and presents you with plenty of involving content to delve into if you're willing to sail around looking for it.
Diving for lost treasure and resources among shipwrecks, rescuing shipwrecked crew, looting schooners and frigates, or simply sailing the azure ocean while your salty sea dog crew sing shanties (collecting runaway pages unlocks new songs), are just some of the activities on offer, unlocking fast travel points to make navigating the vast world a bit more manageable.
Gathering resources enables you to upgrade the Jackdaw too, and eventually you'll also acquire a hideout on land. Great Inagua becomes a safe haven for you and your men, with its own tavern and shops where drunken debauchery, fighting and womanising is all fair game. Black Flag's world is truly ripe with opportunity; the perfect place for a pirate like Edward to thrive, alongside his associates, Blackbeard, Charles Vane, Benjamin Hornigold et al.
It's a shame that this variety seems to exist solely outside of the constraints of the narrative, as you'll often find that the same activities are repeated ad infinitum throughout the story. Plantation areas and enemy strongholds are usually enjoyable stealth jaunts in which you sabotage alarm bells and systematically take out English, Spanish or Portuguese soldiers one by one, but the game's AI is still incredibly skittish and on occasion, completely illogical or outright stupid. Combat too remains largely untouched, evolving very little in any meaningful or noticeable way. Granted, Edward has two cutlasses and two flintlock pistols, meaning he can pull off some very cool moves, but it all feels far too familiar.
"Tell me you like my dance, or I'll hook ya."
Six games in, and you'd have thought the series might have attempted an overhaul, but Black Flag is by and large, business as usual. There are Mayan temples and ruins housing intriguing puzzles and mysteries, assassination contracts to carry out, forts to take over and a myriad of other collectibles and asides that make Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag an incredibly generous package as far as content is concerned, but for the most part, it's nothing you haven't already done in some form or another in previous Assassin's Creed games.
Naturally, there's a present day element to play through once again too, although this time you adopt a first-person viewpoint, wandering around the pristine corridors of Abstergo Entertainment. It's oddly meta, with the developers of the simulation speaking in French accents like Black Flag's real-life devs, and talking with their bosses about meeting deadlines on yet another historical simulation. Perhaps even Ubisoft Montreal is growing weary of having to churn out an Assassin's Creed title each and every year?
This time around, the present day segments arguably prove even more annoying than before, despite their brevity, breaking up Edward's story and draining any sense of momentum. Irritating hacking mini-games don't help matters either, with one particularly dreadful example being an abhorrent little Frogger-style activity in which you have to guide a white dot through narrow gaps in red lines. Again, it'll push your patience threshold to the limit.
Sailing: a gentleman's pursuit. Or something.
It's perhaps unusual that multiplayer proves to be the most compelling part of ACIV, offering yet another incredibly robust offering that neatly builds upon last year's effort. A new cast of assassins and some refinements to the gameplay mechanics make this quite possibly the tightest iteration of AC multiplayer yet, with Wolfpack offering enjoyable co-op fare with a new 'Discovery' mode to help initiate new players, and a range of competitive game-types to put your stalking and killing skills to the test. Multiplayer is all about deception, pursuit, social stealth and more: everything Assassin's Creed should be about. Essentially more of what's gone before, AC multiplayer still stands out as something unique that can be played for hour after hour without feeling stale. Maybe adopting more aspects of multiplayer for the next game might be a good idea.
It's a little odd then that there are less multiplayer achievements this time around. The majority are devoted to completing the single-player story, and as ever, there are few smart and inventive achievements thrown in for good measure. Another robust Assassin's Creed list, and one that's good fun to complete. On Xbox One, all the achievement pictures are the same though, which is a bit lazy.
Black Flag on Xbox One is a more spectacular game to look at, but the gap between this and the Xbox 360 version is actually rather slender. The 360 version already looks great, so the Xbox One iteration in essence looks identical, albeit with a slightly higher level of detail, lusher foliage and slightly more dynamism and effects during storms at sea. It certainly looks nicer, but if you've already played the 360 version, there's little to no incentive to upgrade.
More than ever, Assassin's Creed is beginning to feel tired, and after six games, it's perhaps not all that surprising. Black Flag marks the point at which it might be high time Ubisoft Montreal put the franchise on hiatus for a while, if only to go back to the drawing board in an effort to make Assassin's Creed feel fresh and exciting like it once did. It's something that won't be easy to achieve, but for the time being, the Assassin's Creed current template may have run its course. If next year brings more of the same, Ubisoft could be looking at a series in steep decline.
Once again, Assassin's Creed delivers another pleasant orchestral score, all strings and brass. The voice acting is incredibly patchy though. It's either good, or completely awful. Some performances sound distinctly 'am dram'.
As a current-gen game leading on next-gen consoles, Assassin's Creed IV receives only a slight visual upgrade, benefitting from better rain effects, storm clouds, smoke, character detail and resolution. It's hardly a compelling argument to trade in your Xbox 360 copy, and you don't ever really get the sense that the game is pushing the Xbox One in any way.
Black Flag feels like the sixth game in the series. Regurgitated tail and eavesdrop missions might make you want to cry, and there's seemingly very little in the way of real innovation or change on show. It's both frustrating and immensely disappointing that this plays like every other AC game before it. But then, what did you expect? Even more annoyingly, the next-gen version displays the same twitchy, stupid AI and gameplay irritants. Boo.
Though the story is long, it takes far too long to get going. Mission objectives lack variety and you'll likely find yourself wanting to give up and play something else. That said, there's a range of inviting optional content that'll keep you occupied between suffering through the narrative sequences.
A pretty decent list with some clever achievements chucked in among the usual story completion ones. A good balance and spread, making for one of the better Assassin's Creed achievement lists.
A solid but ultimately uninspired instalment in the series, Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag is comprised of ideas that are starting to wear thin. Anything but a major overhaul will do for the next game, especially now that we're at the dawn of a new console generation. No doubt Ubisoft Montreal is hard at work concocting the first true next-gen Assassin's Creed, because this certainly isn't it. By no means a complete shipwreck of a game, Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag is merely indicative of a series that's treading water and in serious danger of being consigned to the bottom of the sea. Can we have samurais next or something?
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