Review: Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag

I didn’t like Assassin’s Creed III. I thought it was an uninteresting, buggy mess. The tree climbing mechanics were underused, the towns were bland and badly designed and the frontier felt like a complete chore to traverse. I enjoyed the story of Connor and Haytham, but everything else was a convoluted mess.

Developer: Ubisoft
Publisher: Ubisoft
Reviewed on: PS3
Also Available On: Xbox 360, PC, Xbox One, PS4, Wii U
Release Date: Available Now (PS3/360); November 22nd (Xbox One/PS4/PC/WiiU)

BRB-Score-5

Because of this I was extremely skeptical about Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. I feel that Ubisoft’s most favoured series slips in quality slightly with each installment, and I don’t think I could bear to see it slip further, especially with the latest game being set around eighteenth century pirates, which is easily the best era of pirates.

Luckily, Ubisoft seem to have taken all my fears into consideration – because what followed (once I’d gone through the mandatory fifteen minute install) was an adventure unlike anything I’d ever experienced. Not just in the Assassin’s Creed franchise, but gaming in general. Now, I should probably explain that this review is for the single player only; the multiplayer review will be following shortly after. And be warned, there are some spoilers for Assassin’s Creed III (Desmond dies, ha!), but if you’re reading this then you’ve probably already finished it, or just don’t care. Either way, you have been warned.

Assassin’s Creed IV takes place during the last few years of the ‘Golden Age of Piracy’, and chronicles the adventures of Edward Kenway, a privateer turned pirate, as he sails around the Caribbean in search of the Observatory, an ancient site believed to be full of enough riches to allow any man to retire ten times over. The road to this prize is full of danger, deception and the struggles that come with the changing of times.

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The roster of famous pirates on offer is incredible; Blackbeard, Anne Bonny, and Calico Jack Rackham to name a few. As always, Assassin’s Creed takes some serious liberties with the actual stories of these pirates in order to fit their own characters and ideas into the mix but, for the most part, all of the key moments of the era in which the game is set are here to be enjoyed and be a part of. Ubisoft has done a great job at recreating key moments from this time period and, despite some pretty tenuous linking of characters to the Assassins and Templars, it doesn’t detract from the overall quality of the story.

From the word go, Kenway is free to run, jump, and climb as he pleases, with the opening island serving as much of a playground as it is a tutorial. Everything has been refined, making this particular assassin the smoothest controlling ancestor in the series. Stealth has been given a huge upgrade this time around, with Kenway now turning grey when he’s hidden from enemies be it be standing with a group of people or hiding in the grass. Stealth take downs are more satisfying than ever, making Kenway feel like a real danger to his enemies.

The trademark free-running of the Assassin’s Creed series is present, correct and a mere squeeze of the right shoulder button away. I ran into a couple of traversal issues, mainly at strangely shaped synchronisation points and oddly angled trees, but for the most part the free running was smooth and intuitive and is an enormous step up from previous titles.

All weapons and tools are now selectable from the D-pad in real time; it’s a small change, but is one that makes a huge difference to the flow of the game.  Pressing up and down cycles Kenway’s hand to hand weapons, whilst left and right cycle his tools. Equipment selection in this manner allows for some creativity and freedom during combat previously missing from the series.

Kenway isn't adverse to kicking them while they're down

Kenway isn’t adverse to kicking them while they’re down

When in a fight, Kenway will draw his weapons and take a stance. From here, pressing square will attack with the equipped weapon, triangle with the equipped tool, cross will break an enemy’s defence, and circle will parry an incoming attack. Incoming attacks are broadcast via a red icon above the attackers head, giving plenty of time to execute a counter attack.

On land, there is an abundance of things to do and collect. Treasure chests, animus pieces, and sea shanties lay waiting to be found in towns and on islands. Mayan puzzle artefacts must be solved in order to collect items for a purpose revealed to Kenway later in the game. Warehouses can be raided and robbed by the captain and his crew, information can be bartered for; the amount of things to do outside of the story is tremendous.

Hunting makes a return too, the by-products of which can be used to craft equipment and outfits or sold for profit. This has no bearing on the main story, but it’s a nice distraction when exploring new areas; and some of the outfits look pretty cool. There are also assassin contracts that take Kenway all over the Caribbean hunting down his target, as well as other challenges that lead to some nice unlockables that I’m going to keep quiet about, as to divulge now would ruin the surprises.

The only problem I found with the vast amount of things to do, as well as the freedom allowed from the get go, is that continuity gets thrown out of the window. By the time certain elements were introduced via a short tutorial in a story mission, I’d already been doing them freely for some time. I appreciate the freedom granted to the player this time around, especially since Assassin’s Creed III was so restricted until around half way through. In its defence, there are a couple of mission types that are locked out until later on in the game, I just found it weird that I was free to do assassination missions that targeted Templar commanders before Kenway even knew what a Templar was.

Find corpse, get treasure

Find corpse, get treasure

A huge portion of Assassin’s Creed IV takes place on the high seas, where you take command of Kenway’s flagship The Jackdaw. The Caribbean is split into several regions that vary in difficulty. There is just as much to do whilst sailing as there is on land too; there are new locations to discover, which can then be explored on foot, enemy forts to destroy and take over, giving Kenway and his men control of the region, and disclosing the locations of various collectable and points of interest on the map.

Animals can be hunted in the sea too through a harpooning mini game which is reminiscent of Resident Evil 4’s lake boss, and is sure to have PETA setting upon Ubisoft with pitchforks and flaming torches. Kenway stands in a row boat and must throw a harpoon at the unsuspecting sea creature, a successful hit securing it to the boat and taking Kenway for a ride. During this time the idea is to throw harpoons at the animal until it’s dead, at which point we’re treated to a rather graphic video of it being hoisted onto the ship. It’s pretty nasty stuff, and to be honest I did cringe at it the first couple of times, but it’s a credit to Ubisoft that they felt they were able to put such a graphic (and no doubt controversial to some) element into their game, it certainly does a service to the authenticity of the setting.

One of my favourite aspects – which surprised me greatly – about being at sea was the naval battles. They are so well implemented that it’s almost criminal not to declare war on every ship sailing by. The Jackdaw has two main attacks during sea battles – broadside cannons and a forward-shooting chain shot. The weapon about to be fired is dependent on the position of the camera; if the camera is side on against the ship the cannons will be selected whereas pointing the camera forward selects the chain shot. Holding the left bumper makes it possible to fine-tune the trajectory of the projectile, with the right bumper unleashing your weapons. It’s simple and it’s fun, but the battle doesn’t end when the enemy ship is aflame.

I'm on a boat

I’m on a boat

Once the enemy ship’s health has been worn down to almost nothing it becomes possible to board it. By approaching the ruined ship and holding circle, Kenway’s crew will begin to anchor and drag the two ships together, making it possible to board. When boarded, you have to complete one or more objectives in order to successfully take the ship; be it kill a certain amount of crew, destroy the flag or kill the captain. Once the ship has been taken it is looted and can either be used to repair or upgrade the Jackdaw, lower Kenways wanted level, sent to Kenway’s fleet or have its materials sold off. It’s cinematic action at its finest.

Upgrading the Jackdaw works in much the same way as crafting and is even more important, especially when nearing the end of the game. Upgrades are either aesthetic or practical, allowing for a decent level of customisation that allow you to make Kenway’s flagship equal parts unique and deadly. There are countless ships and fleets to battle with, and even a few legendary ships to try and sink. Also, truth be told, bringing down a Royal Navy fleet never gets old either.

There are also sunken shipwrecks to explore, with the help of a diving bell, on the sea floor; these wrecks are full of loot, long forgotten chests and collect animus pieces. Whilst underwater, Kenway is completely unprotected, so must use stealth and cunning (and seaweed) to hide from sharks and other dangers roaming around the wreckage. It’s a nice change of pace from the rest of the game, and the underwater world is absolutely beautiful.

There are also Community Events; random encounters with rare animals, fleets, or treasure chests, the positions of which are uploaded to the maps of any of your friends playing at the time for them to hunt down. It’s a nice touch, and just adds to the vastness of the Caribbean. In fact, there’s so much extra stuff to do, the story itself only counts for around 50% of the game, with the rest going to exploration and plundering.

Crime buster's of the sea

Crime buster’s of the sea

Of course, this wouldn’t be Assassin’s Creed without the mandatory ‘present day’ sections to tie the whole story together, and this time round Ubisoft are offering something a little different. Assassin’s Creed III ended with the death of Desmond Miles, and Juno being released into the world to act out her plan, whatever that may be. A year has passed since then, and Abstergo are using Desmond’s DNA and Animus technology to create virtual reality video games.

In a move that doesn’t so much break the fourth wall as absolutely shatter it, the character in the real life sections of the game this time around is, well, you. You are a researcher for Abstergo Entertainment, a division of Abstergo Industries tasked with creating these ‘games’. The bulk of these sections involve walking around the Abstergo Entertainment offices hacking computer terminals and collecting post-it notes. Who needs swords when you can have stationery?

Hacking takes the form of three mini games; the first asking you to move a ball of light around a grid covered sphere until the goal is reached; the second is basically Frogger; a ball of light needs to be moved from one side of the screen to the other while avoiding hazards; and the third is the tried and tested ‘make the wave patterns match up’. Your reward for hacking terminals is snippets of back story, hints to the future of the series and some pretty decent self-deprecating humour focussed around annual releases and World War II.

Thankfully, there are only a few of these present day sections, and each generally only lasts a few minutes before returning you to the swashbuckling action. By making these sections first person, Ubisoft are making you a character in their story; everything is seen through your eyes, NPCs are interacting with you and you chose to return to the plundering when you are good and ready.

Beautiful visuals make the world feel alive
Improved controls make for smother experience
Pirates
Amount to do can be overwhelming
Present Day is still a thing
Henry Rollins doesn’t do a voice in it

As a whole, Assassin’s Creed IV is a phenomenal game. It’s the biggest and most ambitious of the series by far and the constantly changing gameplay and exploration makes it next to impossible to get bored. The beautifully vibrant world and the moving score by series newcomer Brian Tyler really helps to bring the world to life in a way not seen since Assassin’s Creed II. Fans of the series will instantly fall in love with the world and the characters on offer in this instalment.

Ubisoft have managed to create a magical experience that, for me, makes Assassin’s Creed IV the best in the series and has fully restored my faith in a franchise that seemed to be growing stale.

Review copy provided by Ubisoft
Official Game Site

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Comments

  1. Nice review Rik.

    How does Edward compare to Ezio as a character, personality wise? I loved Ezio’s self-assured ladies man persona. Conor’s brooding, moody attitude really irked me after a while. Here’s to hoping Edward gets some of Ezio’s swagger. (I hate myself for saying swagger)

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