Late to the Party: Assassins Creed IV: Black Flag
It is with some trepidation that I approached the fourth, or sixth if you count Brotherhood and Revelations, entry in the Assassins Creed franchise. While I thoroughly enjoyed the Revolutionary War setting of Assassins Creed III, I couldn’t shake the feeling that all of the uniqueness and mechanical variety had been wrung out of its protagonists’ hooded robes. But then I remembered that I felt similarly about Brotherhood and how much more depth recruiting, training and relying on my own merry band of assassins gave the game. And I thought that the nautical component of Assassins Creed III was one of the best things about it. I needed to believe that Edward Kenway’s piratical odyssey could entertain, educate, and surprise me with equal measure. Did it? Before I answer that simple question with an extensive answer I need to make clear that, as this is a very late review, and I don’t live in the deepest reaches of the Mariana trench, which might be the only place a review of this game hasn’t reached I have to say that what others have lauded, and criticized did impact my playing of, and now writing about the game, but what is most relevant to you dear reader is whether or not my experience differed greatly from those other critiques.
At its outset Black Flag wants to make itself very clear that you will not be experiencing will not be a force an overly serious narrative drenched in Templar and Assassin political intrigue. But unlike Altair, Ezio and Connor, becoming an Assassin or a Templar was never your fate, you just happen to wake up next to one after your ship was sunk and after killing him Edward, believing that a substantial profit can be made by getting to ‘the Observatory’ masquerades as a member of the Templar order and presto, the game’s name is legitimized. But you never forget that Edward, through some rather forced and uninspired flashbacks to his earlier life, and the secondary characters that have a habit of bringing it up every chance that they get, is after riches and glory and nothing more. The story in and of itself is quite enjoyable to participate in with a decent amount of variety to the missions. One thing I didn’t like about the storytelling was a reliance on bush based surveillance to discover an important clue about a larger objective that required you to tail and then eavesdrop on your quarry, it felt like the developers were really trying to reinforce the idea of this game being a stealth game but neglected to add a crouch button.
Like every game in the series you come across a host of historical figures that make you feel like you are participating in major historical events and for the simple wow factor of interacting with some of the most influential figures in human history. In Black Flag this cast includes Blackbeard, Anne Bonny, Charles Vane, Calico Jack, and William Kidd/Mary Read. As you are spending hours traipsing about a very convincing rendition of the Caribbean sinking frigates, man-o-wars and merchant ships, diving for booty, and listening to what your crew would do with a drunken sailor you feel less compelled to jump into the next story mission. So when a sweeping musical overture is playing to add a sad note to what is happening to a a character you barely remember meeting my heart strings remained resolutely un-tugged. I had a deeper bond with my crew, who would regale me with songs I fetched for them at every port and greeted me with a hearty roar whenever I came back aboard. And if I were to pick one significant character that I cared for it would be Adewale, my first mate, who was instrumental in my securing my ship, the Jackdaw, who didn’t put up with my guff and always reminded me that I need to put the needs of my crew ahead of my own. Even though I found his constant parroting of my orders to raise and lower the sails to be grating into my twentieth hour. I can’t wait to jump into Freedom Cry and learn more about him.
After five games the mechanics of being an Assassin are becoming old hat, climb a tall structure to reveal the world and all of its points of interest, scramble over rooftops taking out guards that accost you on the way to your next story mission, complete said story mission, buy some new gear to feel more like a caped bad ass and repeat. Who knew that simply adding a crafting layer over all of that would make it feel fresh and new? When crafting requires you to hunt on land and sea (with the merchants serving as a cop out option), dodge sharks prowling through coral reefs, carefully scrutinize every treasure map, and give you a reason to chance a broadside into a ship the size of a brownstone you can’t help but think, where have you been all my life? Knowing that the same team that designed the crafting system in Far Cry 3 that enriched it so very much was responsible for the side activities in AC4 I should have expected to be as pleased as I was. But, like Far Cry 3 I made it my mission to upgrade everything I could whenever I could, making later stages in the game less of a challenge than they might of if I had divided up my priorities equally.
Unlike AC3, Assassins Creed 4 does a much better job catering to our innate desire to use rooftops as our path of least resistance to the next objective instead of awkwardly stumbling into civilians and soldiers every three steps by making the Havana, Kingston and Nassau much more architecturally dense. I still jumped in a direction I didn’t want to on occasion and had a particular difficulty ascending ladders if I wasn’t already running in their direction before hand, then again maybe that’s a quicker way of getting to the top.
I tossed a smoke bomb or two and fired off a few pistol volleys but I found myself waiting for my assailants to make the first move, pushing the counter button and then sitting back and watching Edward sticks his sabres into their gullets and those of everyone else that was standing within a five nautical mile radius. Naval combat is the star, and the progression of your ship’s power is equally well handled so that as you explore continually more dangerous waters you never feel overpowered and therefore makes your victories that much more satisfying. Even though Ubisoft has done to its best to give you as many different resources to collect from the various types of ships that you’ll come across, and options as to how to deal with them repetition will eventually get the better of your naval escapades. Eventually, especially when my ship was at the peak of its power, I began to intentionally avoid attacking my fellow sailors and get to my next mission way point as fast as I could.
I bought the game on PS3 and got about a quarter of the way through before I jumped into the Ps4 version and started all over again. As many have said, and I completely agree, there is a noticeable difference in terms of texture resolution, lighting accuracy and framerate consistency between the two versions. But the best thing about the visual design in AC4 is that the graphical differences make no difference in how impressed I was by its presentation. Perhaps that has something to do with my living in Jamaica for three years, but watching the sun set over the bathwater warm azure blue waters and hearing the chirp of cicadas in the darkness brought a nostalgic tear to my eye that made the polygon count and resolution differences irrelevant.
This is the most well rounded Assassins Creed game with a flew flaws that keep it from being my absolute favorite. Namely in being forced to care about characters you don’t spend very much time getting to know. The visual presentation is stunning and sailing never gets old. I am extremely impressed by how solidly put together the entire experience is and hope this isn’t the last time we see Edward Kenway.
+Freewheeling about the Caribbean with my vociferous pirate crew and the stern but lovable Adewale
+Crafting makes the world that much more believable and immersive
+Lovingly crafted Caribbean world
-Non player characters aren’t emotionally compelling
-Overly simplistic combat