Terrorize the high seas and battle yet another crop of those damn Templars.
PC Release: October 29, 2013
By Ian Coppock
Ah, Assassin’s Creed. The Call of Duty of open-world video games. A series that washes the exact same premise through various historical settings, and rushes it out like clockwork year after year. When I first heard about Assassin’s Creed IV two years ago, I was worried that a series I enjoyed would eventually fall on its own sword. I was worried that Black Flag would be bereft of fresh ideas and functioning mechanics. My prediction came true last year with the release of Assassin’s Creed Unity, a game whose horrendous bugs and glitches have made it a laughingstock, and a glowing example of everything wrong with the games industry these days.
But what about Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag? Well, as it turns out, Black Flag might be the boldest, and consequently best, Assassin’s Creed game ever made. Were it that its predecessor or successor had such balls.
Black Flag is the first Assassin’s Creed game I’ve played in two years. Assassin’s Creed III turned me off of the series for a time, what with its awful game mechanics, strict free-roam controls and a story ending that made Mass Effect 3‘s conclusion look good. Eventually I was compelled to return to Ubisoft’s flagship series with a more refined lens, and am glad to say that I am happier for having done so.
On with the plot: Black Flag continues the series’s long-running war between the Assassin and Templar factions, though the modern-day story drops Desmond Miles (thank God). Abstergo Industries now has the ability to examine genetic memories without a human host, so the modern-day portion of the game follows a silent research analyst who is assigned to the story of Edward Kenway, our leading man. Kenway’s story takes place long before the events of Assassin’s Creed III, in the Caribbean during the Golden Age of Piracy.
Edward Kenway is not an Assassin. He’s completely unlike Altair, Ezio or his future grandson Connor. To put it bluntly, he is an asshole.
Edward starts out as one of thousands of young European men seeking to make their fortune in the New World, which in the early 1700s was a euphemism for pirating the shit out of the Caribbean islands. Our hero is no less inclined toward violently relieving merchants of their cargo, until the day the ship he’s on makes the brilliant decision to attack an Assassin vessel. Through a little bit of guile and a ton of sheer dumb luck, Edward falls into the middle of the Assassin-Templar war and their race to find an artifact hidden somewhere in the West Indies. To the Assassins and Templars, it’s the ultimate weapon. To Edward, it’s the ultimate score.
Through additional mishaps that had me laughing and shaking my head (something that the Assassin’s Creed series had forgotten how to provoke), Edward “borrows” a Spanish brig that he converts into a kickass pirate ship, and acquires a bloodthirsty crew to ply the waves with. Though formidable, and happy to wear hoods that aren’t his, Edward is no Assassin, and is happy to let the two factions play against each other until he finds a shakeout that earns him a ton of money.
If you’re reading a sigh of relief in these words, that’s not a mistake. By Assassin’s Creed III, the premise of a young man thirsty for justice being trained to mastery by a grumpy old Jedi fascimile had gotten reaaaaally old. Assassin’s Creed IV kicks that formula in the mouth with Edward’s story. Sure, he might end up joining the Assassins at some point in the story, but his path into the brotherhood is refreshingly unorthodox. Plus, he’s funny, like really funny, and even though he’s being a dickhole to everyone around him whenever he’s not busy sizing them up for pocket change, he remains relatable.
The supporting cast in this engrossing adventure are mostly legendary pirate figures. During my 50 hours or so cruising up and down the Caribbean, I saw Edward befriend the likes of Blackbeard, Benjamin Hornigold, Charles Vane and Ann Bonny. A few original characters, including the supposed bastard son of William Kidd, round out the sizeable group of whacked-out islanders.
While the Assassin side of our story has changed significantly for the better, the Templars in our tale are the same power-hungry old men we’ve seen in the past five games. A combination of fictional and historical characters plot to take over the Caribbean, just like they plotted to take over the Holy Land… and Italy… and the Ottoman Empire… and the United States… nothing I write about the Templar characters will be anything Assassin’s Creed fans haven’t seen before. If you’re not an Assassin’s Creed fan, I’m not sure why you’re starting things out by reading the review of the series’s sixth game, but… welcome!
And speaking of the Caribbean, holy crap, yes, let’s speak of the Caribbean. Assassin’s Creed IV has by far the largest map of any AC game to date. Everything between the southern tip of Florida and the northern coast of South America is yours to ply and plunder. From the brightly colored rooftops of Havana to some truly spectacular Mayan ruins in the Yucatan, and all the dozens of islands in between, there’s no shortage of things to gawk at in this game.
And gawk at I say quite literally. I was impressed with the visual quality of Assassin’s Creed IV. The game is beautiful and colorful, and all of its various weather and visual effects are stunning. I was particularly impressed by the realistic looking rainfall onto surfaces, and the pleasant contrasts between the white sand, turquoise oceans and other gorgeous visuals. This game has every color in the rainbow and then some gracing its palette, and it’s the first Triple-A game I’ve played in a while whose graphical and visual fidelity have so stunned me.
The other thing that’s awesome about Black Flag‘s open world is how easy it is to navigate. Naval missions were introduced in Assassin’s Creed III as a breakout means of fun, but they always took place in carefully cordoned-off, linear missions (just like everything else in that damn game). Black Flag seamlessly integrates on-foot navigation with seafaring. You can sail to an island, drop anchor, dive off of your ship into the crystal-clear water, and swim onto the land to have whatever mayhem you will. Then, you can jump right back on your ship and sail to the next destination. The cities require an area transition, but everything else is present in a single, glorious over-map. I happily sank dozens of hours into exploring this vast paradise.
To ensure maximum fun in exploring the Caribbean, Ubisoft tore out all of Assassin’s Creed‘s game mechanics and put back just the basic necessities. The keys on the PC version have been remapped more intuitively, for a start. Combat is the same, ridiculous counter-kill and kill-streak bullshit we’ve come to expect from Assassin’s Creed, but the mechanics are simple to learn. Fighting enemy guards is formulaic, as there are only three types of enemies each with a certain, easily exploitable weakness. But it’s still fun… somehow. What did you do to my brain, Ubisoft…
Because this is a Ubisoft game, Assassin’s Creed IV has no shortage of side activities, though this time they actually felt fun instead of just being there to fill the space. I remember rolling my eyes at Assassin’s Creed III when it challenged me to kill five bears with a hidden blade. That’s not side questing, that’s just busywork.
In Black Flag, by contrast, there’s a ton to do. In addition to hopping off your boat to explore islands, you can accept assassination and naval contracts that are thankfully about killing people again, instead of throwing two smoke bombs at one guard under three minutes or some random shit like that. You can free pirates to join your crew, and find sea shanties for the drunken bastards to sing as you lazily sail around the islands. Black Flag also rips off of Far Cry 3‘s animal crafting system, in which you use pelts from slain beasties to make new holsters, pouches and other equipment.
At sea, you can dive deep underwater to salvage shipwrecks and elude sharks. You can hunt for whales. You can claim Spanish forts for the pirate republic in the Bahamas. You can upgrade your ship to deflect mortar shells and shit liquid fire. The piece de resistance, since you’re a pirate, is firing at and then boarding enemy ships to take custody of their cargo. Resources can be spent upgrading your ship, your sexy pirate cove (yes, you get a pirate cove) your weapons, or getting drunk off of your ass.
While Black Flag’s box of toys is engrossing, to say the least, the game had some ridiculous flaws that I couldn’t not shake my head at. The entire production is riddled with basic bugs and glitches. I found that my audio levels adjusted themselves to fluctuate wildly. I’d be sailing along on the ship no problem, only to have my ears bleed when Edward walked ashore and the sound of his boots jumped up by about 8,000 percent. I also got stuck inside more than a few rocks and walls, which is just… come on. That’s basic shit, Ubisoft, that’s little league bugs no company of your size should be allowing onto the market.
Assassin’s Creed‘s mission design also continues to suffer from some confusing flaws. More than a few times I would complete a bonus goal to the letter, only to somehow miss it. The biggest problem was the story missions’ complete lack of imagination. Two out of three missions in this damn game consists of following somebody. Hey, follow that guy, hey, we need to tail that ship, hey, follow the buddy of that guy you followed last time. It’s not a deal-breaker but I had to laugh at how absurd it was; a huge studio with dozens of engineers and programmers and this was seriously the element that merited the most attention?
The other thing that I found kinda funny was how the game hides the cruelty and bloodshed of piracy from the player. Every single ship that you board and set to the torch is crewed by same-faced Spanish soldiers. The game finds other ways of forcing Edward to own up to his lifestyle choices, but robbing the ships of any civilian crews left the game missing some emotional weight. It left the piracy feeling more like an adolescent fantasy than a down-to-earth fact of history. But then again, Assassin’s Creed hasn’t really ever been about facts of history, has it?
Still, for all its bugs and repetitive gameplay, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is a badly needed breath of fresh air for a series that had gone stale. It broke with tradition by introducing a non-traditional protagonist, and stripping down the cumbersome monster of side-activities back to some fun things to do. Additionally, the game introduces a few strong female characters that are far more than attractive set pieces. Such characters are rarer than gold dust in the games world today, and I’m glad someone at Ubisoft recognized the need for one. Black Flag even sees Edward getting apprenticed to one, which is one of those things that just doesn’t happen in video games. I almost couldn’t believe what I saw.
Do you know why else I think it would be worth your time to drop whatever you’re doing and buy this game right now? It’s not just because of the open world, or its fun activities, and its certainly not for the modern-day story whose presence bears little more mention than the sentence I gave it up top. It’s because it’s an Assassin’s Creed game that finally delivers some emotional payoff. Until now, the series has really only given epic payoff, which is akin to a huge explosion at the end of an action movie, or that one scene in Michael Clayton when George Clooney gets Tilda Swinton arrested.
Black Flag is a great Assassin’s Creed game because it strips away the immortality of the Assassins with Edward. We have a very flawed but therefore relatable character who, for all his jokes, has some very somber moments. There’s a poignant death scene in the game that had me brought to tears, and it’s the catalyst for Edward’s redemption and ascension into a higher calling in life. Because of that, the Assassins, the Templars, and all of their fights are a lot more powerful. We want to fight the Templars because of human reasons, not just ethereal lore spouted by objective markers.
Black Flag evokes empathy, not just awe, and that’s why it’s the greatest Assassin’s Creed game ever made. Go buy it. Put up with the occasional bug and the annoying tailing missions. You’ll thank me for it later.
You can buy Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.