Ahoy, me Hearties! Now, from where do I start? Oh yeah, Blimey! Assassin's Creed IV Black Flag is damn good game!
Ubisoft's done it again! The latest installment Black Flag maybe the best Assassin's Creed game to date. Why "maybe"? I'll explain it more as go through, but for the moment know that you are in for a treat with Black Flag. Pirates have always been cool, the whole "culture" or their way of life and that period has always been interesting, but we haven't really seen a great portrayal of that, especially in games.
Black Flag redeems that and gives us the best look at what living in that time looked and felt like, if you don't take in consideration the whole Assassin's Creed fiction running in the background. And that is my first problem with this whole pirate setting and the way it connects with the Assassin's Creed fiction. I f*cking love Assassin's Creed, I think it's the best universe ever created. Mixing real life events with amazing real and fictional conspiracies, I can say it's the best thing ever. And I loved every Assassin's Creed game to date, the excellent story, the excellent conspiracies/secrets and the gameplay, with every game expanding on the last. So where is the problem I have with Black Flag you might ask?
Well, the main reason I love AC games is the story and that sweet AC fiction thrown in. It started with the first Assassin's Creed mind bending ending, continued throughout Ezio's adventure and Haytham's/Connor's life, culminating with the fantastic ending/alternative ending of Assassin's Creed 3. Now comes Black Flag...
*****SPOILERS***** Desmond is dead, he was fried at the end of Assassin's Creed 3 when he choose to save the world and released a bigger evil into the world being that Juno. Now knowing the genius writers of the team over at Ubisoft and taking in consideration what they have done so far, I was expecting to be blown away by Black Flag's story, but I was kinda let down. As I said Desmond is dead, but thanks to the new advancements of the Animus tech, anyone can tap into someone else's memory and relieve the experiences of their ancestors. The concept is extremely cool and as many of other reviewers have said "The possibilities where the story can go now are endless", but I think, at least to me, it lost the charm that made the universe of Assassin's Creed the most unique and special of them all.
I really liked Desmond, even though he was a tool most of the time, but still I liked him. Seeing how he grew from a random bartender to a hero, it was done in a nice way and I somehow connected to him, felt what he had gone and was going through. And seeing how the writers just killed him that easy or that his Assassin friends let his body fall into the hands of Abstergo without even trying to recover him, I don't know... it felt wrong. But what I know or I want to believe is that he will be back in a glorious way and will be the one that fights the evil that is lurking inside Abstergo's servers, but I don't wanna go into more spoilers so *****END OF SPOILERS*****
In the present day you play or control a nameless and voiceless dude who works for Abstergo Entertainment in a first person perspective. WTF is Abstergo Entertainment you might ask? Well, it's a front for the "evil" Abstergo to finance it's operations through monetizing ancestral experiences or so it seems. They sell the experiences as games, movies, books to everyone, so basically they provide entertainment using the material extracted from different subjects. The Animus has also changed and it's now a Oculus Rift type headset that anyone can buy in stores and use to experience everyone's "memories" as long as they have the access. This whole concept is cool, but it also doesn't make any sense whatsoever. I mean Abstergo kidnapped Desmond and kept him prisoner for god knows how long to go through his ancestral memories, in the utmost secrecy, but now they are selling the technology to everyone???!!! For entertainment???!!! Yes, in the game they say that these "experiences" will be heavily edited to suit the market, but still having random employees searching throughout history's darkest (or brightest) days with all of the secrets, conspiracies and all kind of sh*t that can change the whole world...still doesn't make any sense. Sure your character comes across Shaun and Rebecca, the two Assassins from the previous games, but how you get involved with the whole Templar vs Assassin ordeal feels fake and stupid. If I or any other person would come to uncover the secrets your character comes across in the game, I would freak out and get the hell out of there as fast as possible. But the dude doesn't feel or say anything and continues to work for both Abstergo and the Assassins following orders like a robot.
But enough about the present, let's jump a few hundred years back in time to The Golden Age of Piracy. It's just perfect. Like I said in the Assassin's Creed III review I wrote months back, as soon I got into the open sea with Edward and the Jackdaw I remembered Bilbo's quote "I am going on an adventure!" And what an adventure it was! You play as Edward Kenway, Connor's grandfather, a British privateer-turned-pirate and eventual member of the Assassin Order. Life in Britain was hard for him and his family, without a job and penniless, he set sail for the Caribbean hoping for greatness and treasures beyond the imagination, but things didn't really go as planned. The game starts in the middle of a naval battle between Edward and what appears an Assassin, but Edward doesn't know that. Both ships are completely destroyed and the only two survivors are Edward and the Assassin. Shipwrecked on an island, Edward starts chasing down the Assassin ultimately killing him. While searching his corpse, Edward finds an interesting letter talking about a big reward for the man he just killed. So Edward take his clothes and heads to the destination as the Assassin to collect the promised reward spoken in the letter, but little did he know. He reaches the destination to find that the man he killed was an Assassin who turned on the Order to go work for the enemies, the Templars, and the story picks up from there. Without knowing, Edward gives the Templars a map with all the known locations of the Assassins in exchange for the reward. Stuff, that I won't spoil, happens and Edward is introduced to the whole Assassins vs Templars ordeal and Edward starts the "quest for redemption".
This was really cool, cause we haven't really seen this done before in an Assassin's Creed game. Edward is a pirate so for the first few hours in the game, he is both an Assassin and Templar, meaning that he will do tasks for both of them as long as they pay, until he learns the ugly truth behind the Templars and their agenda. That's the true portrayal of the pirate spirit, free to do whatever pleases him and treasure/coins before everything else. But that's not entirely true. Now I don't know if what was said in the game is true, but the pirates wanting freedom from the King, kinda got together and worked toward a bigger goal, that of a free Pirate Country, an independent country. And seeing the work done by the pirates toward this goal, was just fantastic. But Edward wasn't alone in this, real-life individuals like the legendary pirate Blackbeard or Charles Vane and Benjamin Hornigold etc. joined him. I can talk for hours about what, how and why the pirates did these things, but that would spoil the excellent (sometime heartbreaking) moments in the game.
As I said, Edward learns about the Templar's agenda, their evil plan so he starts fighting and hunting them down as we have already seen in the other Assassin's Creed games. We see him grow as a person. At first he worked for coins and treasure, but later he starts fighting for ideals and for what is right, that's the Assassin spirit taking over. And this growing is done in a such excellent way by the guys at Ubisoft, making Edward the second best (Ezio FTW) Assassin ever. I mean at first when he learns about the Observatory, this powerful tool or weapon if fallen in the wrong hands that can spy on everyone, Edward wants to use it for personal gain. To get information about trading routes, ships filled with gold, blackmailing etc. normal stuff for a pirate. But these thoughts change, when he sees the real power of this machine. Now he is set to destroy and bury it, so no one person or faction could have all that power. And as I said, it's amazing! Sure the story gets a little complicated in the middle. We in Albania have a word for this and that's "koklavitur". Pirates betraying one another, Assassins and Templars doing the same thing, switches in ideals and concepts, things that were difficult to follow... it all got really messy at some point, but it all made sense in the end. A powerful ending if I might add...
The game also touches themes like slavery and racism with Edward's quartermaster Adewale, an big bulky African black man. I expect more with the DLC Freedom City that stars Adewale as the main protagonist, but I can't really talk more about since it isn't out yet. Also for the PS3 and PS4 versions, there are 3 exclusive missions starring Aveline de Grandpre, the Assassin from AC: Liberation on PS Vita that is also coming early next year for the PS3, PC and X360. She is tasked by Connor to find and save this particular girl, but I don't really understood why. Maybe it's explained in Liberation or there was something I missed in AC III, I don't know. Oh yeah, I also wanted to talk about the possible settings for the next Assassin's Creed games that are teased in-game in the present day, but that would take way to long. I wrote an article titled "Where should ACV take place?" , but I don't think it will be that, not ACV at least. It will be set in... nah I am just going to say "Judgement is Coming".
But enough about the story, let's talk about gameplay. To me gameplay has always come second in an Assassin's Creed game after the first being the story. That has not changed for Black Flag. The gameplay is exceptional and fantastic, but then again so it was 3 games ago. The basic mechanics like the free running, climbing and combat haven't really changed that much from Assassin's Creed Brotherhood. Sure the team have refined these mechanics to almost near perfection, but there has been not a drastic change in anything. But then again, if it ain't broke don't fix it! The only changes I felt in the game were the new free aiming mechanic, meaning that you can aim manually now TPS style, the dual-wielding of swords and quad-wielding of pistols which make Edward a true badass!
The biggest change in Black Flag is the naval stuff. The map is big, extremely big and has a more than 70 unique locations to explore. And how do you reach these destinations? Well, ladies and gents, I present to you the Jackdaw. This is Edward's ship and you use it to travel and explore this massive world. Pirates, as I said, are all about three things: rum, plunder and women. And plundering is a big thing in Black Flag. While travelling in the open sea, you will find other ships in different sizes and from different countries. In the past AC games, there were these meta-games where you sent your Assassins to complete jobs in different countries. Well, that returns in Black Flag with a twist. Instead of Assassins, you have a fleet to command and send to do different mission and trade across the Atlantic Ocean. How you expand your fleet, has to do with the naval combat. When you find a ship or ships in the open sea, yeah you can choose to stay away from them, but where is the fun in that? You are a pirate, god damn it, shoot them with your cannons first, ask questions later! The naval combat missions on ACIII where the coolest thing ever and seeing that Ubisoft expanded it in Black Flag making it bigger and more cooler, it's great.
If you attack a ship, you can choose to destroy it with the cannon barrage or you can choose to board it, pirate style. Boarding is really cool. Once you have caused enough damage to the ship, you can board it. You can use the rope to swing in, you can climb into the ship from the sea or you can jump from Jackdaw's masts to the other ship masts. And depending from the size of the ship, what you have to do in order to capture it, changes. For small ships you have to kill X number of privateers, for larger ones you have to kill X number of privateers, kill the captains/officers, destroy the flag or destroy the ammunition supply. Once these mini objectives are completed you have three choices from which to choose: 1- Repair the Jackdaw 2- Send the ship to your fleet 3- Lower the notoriety by releasing the captured prisoners. After you have successfully boarded a ship you get everything it had in it's cargo. Rum, sugar, wood, cloth, metal coins, ammunition, it's all yours. Destroying the ship earns you half of everything the ship had. Destroying and boarding ships will increase your notoriety. The higher the notoriety, the more powerful hunters will come for you, 4 stars and a Man-o-War and a Frigate will come for you and if you haven't upgraded Jackdaw, you are in for a brutal punishment.
Upgrading Jackdaw is very important and is vital for progressing through the story or just being able to explore the world. You can upgrade Jackdaw's armor, its weapons as the cannons, heavy cannons, mortars, chain cannons, swivel guns, fire barrels and the ram in front of the ship. To upgrade you need resources as in money and materials. And in order to get those you need to board many ships. These systems are tied together and they work, but it also make boarding kinda boring in a way. You need a lot of resources to fully upgrade the ship and that means grinding or farming ships and that get annoying really soon. But in the end it's worth, cause when fully upgraded the Jackdaw is a force of nature, nothing can stop it. Not even the legendary ships...
Apart from upgrading the Jackdaw, you can also upgrade Edward himself, his equipment I mean. And this system works exactly like the one Far Cry 3 had, skin animals to craft a specific equipment. There are monkeys, pigs, rabbits, crocodiles, panthers etc. but the coolest of all are the sea animals. Harpooning is a new activity to do and it's very satisfying. Once you find the spot in the world where a shark or whale has been spotted you start the harpooning activity. You stand on a rowboat and you have to throw harpoons to kill the animal. It's simple to describe and yet difficult to master since the animals move in "unpredictable" trajectories. Other activities are tavern fights, playing checkers, collecting Animus fragments, letters, opening chests and finding buried treasure Red Dead Redemption style. All of these are cool and make sense for the time. You can also sell the captured cargo, all in one time, not the boring way like in ACIII and you can use the money to buy outfits, new weapon sets and decorative objects. You can also upgrade the Pirate Cove, something like the Davenport Homestead in ACIII, but not that expansive as that was. There are also two badass looking outfits you need to unlock that are worth the hassle.
The missions and side missions are what you would expect from an Assassin's Creed game. Tail this, eavesdrop that, kill him, loot that, stay hidden and out of combat, infiltrate that etc. The optional objectives for each mission return and I can say that those keep things interesting and sometime can prove to be a challenge. There are also naval contracts, that are exactly like the ones ACIII had, but this time around it's open world meaning that you can do them how they suit your playstyle. Each of the locations has its chests, fragments, missions to collect and do so you can "100%" them. There are also underwater sequences, where Edward goes underwater to explore the remains of ships, finding treasures while avoiding sharks and other seas creatures or explore hidden caves. There is enough content to keep things interesting for at least 40 hours, that's how it took for me to get 100%.
What else? Well, multiplayer returns and they say it's improved and way better than it was on ACIII, but I didn't really saw that. Multiplayer didn't sound like a great idea for Assassin's Creed, but I guess it worked in the long run. I don't like it, I didn't like it in Brotherhood, Revelations or III and I still didn't like it in Black Flag. I played it for a few hours just so I had something to say about in the review, but I don't have anything nice to say about it. In every match I got in, people were just running around, leaping from buildings, killing one another with no stealth whatsoever! This time there is also a co-op mode and that also felt stupid, since everyone on the team ran towards the targets killing them abruptly. Game Lab sounded cool and it is cool, setting up custom games like only pistol kills etc. but I am not a person who's gonna dive deep into that. Multiplayer in AC games has always been "You either love it or you hate it" and I am more towards the second one.
Presentation wise, this game is fantastic. Visually it's impressive to say the least. I played it on the old-gen (PS3) not current-gen (PS4) and still it looked astounding. The color palette is vibrant and the lighting makes it gorgeous. The vegetation looked fantastic and the sea...OMG. If you select "travel speed" the camera goes way back and you see the whole ship sailing through the gorgeous sea while the crew sing shanties. It's simply beautiful. Havana and Kingston are beautiful to explore and quite big, also the underwater sequences are fantastic even though the controls are a bit funky. The weather effects also look gorgeous, rain and storms and the waves crashing into the Jackdaw, it's almost real and remember I am talking about the PS3 not PS4. Character models, face expressions and the animations are top notch, like in past AC games. Sound effects are also really really good. VO also perfect in both English and Italian (I fu*king love that language). Oh and I almost forgot, the sea shanties are fu*king great, a true pirate radio! Now it would have been all perfect if it wasn't for the sh*tty frame rate. On old-gen it doesn't run that great, screen tearing is present at times, the frame rate drops really often and when it's steady isn't that great too. But this is only for the old-gen (PS3 and XBox360), none of these problems are present in the current-gen (PS4, Xbox One and soon PC).
Bottom Line: Assassin's Creed IV Black Flag is a fantastic game. The present day story, if you dive in deep like I did, will not make any sense, but the secrets you discover while hacking are cool as hell! Edward's story is fantastic and even if it doesn't make any sense at a moment, it redeems itself in the end. Gameplay is good as ever, more streamlined and the naval experience is fantastic. Presentation rocks, but the frame rate issues and some glitches that have plagued AC games in the past are a big problem. If you are getting a next gen console, please wait and buy Black Flag for either the PS4 or Xone. But the game is still really good for the PS3 and X360, apart from the problems I pointed out.
Thanks for reading!
Assassin's Creed IV Black Flag was reviewed on a PS3 using a promo copy provided by Ubisoft. Assassin's Creed IV Black Flag is now available for PS3, X360, PS4 and soon for PC, WiiU and Xbox One.