“Black Flag quickly ranks as my favorite Assassin’s Creed. It’s everything an open-world game should be: enormous, addictive, and completely worth pouring hours into…
Ubisoft does a magnificent job of making you feel like a high seas hardass. The development team didn’t lightly nudge into the pirate theme, it tackled it full-on.”
So this review is a wee bit on the late side. My last posted review was Batman: Arkham Origins from all the way back in October. Whoa-ho I suck. Something about critical analysis that just jams up my typing fingers. Even now, I’m pausing after every sentence to shove a chocolate chip cookie down my gullet, appearing to be in deep, sugary reflection on my next words when, in actuality, I’m just looking to avoid writing. That’s me, man. But when you fall off the horse, you have to get right back on. (There are no horses in this game, incidentally.)
Ubisoft returned to us with yet another annual installment of their prime breadwinner – Assassin’s Creed. It’s becoming much too often of an occurrence to see a gigantic publisher funnel its money into the same established IP year over year. Revisiting the same worlds, recycling the same gameplay; this annualized repetition hungrily eats away at a property like Ebola.
That’s precisely why Black Flag’s team deserves a hearty round of applause. Despite being the sixth main installment in a franchise that’s not even a decade old, Black Flag sails past the waters of stagnation and delivers on an engrossing, do-what-you-want open-world adventure that actually bends its aging formula in the pursuit of pure and simple fun.
Probably my favorite characterization choice in the game, our hidden blade wielding, hood wearing protagonist, one Edward Kenway, isn’t actually an assassin. He merely killed one and stole his robes. Worse, Edward goes ahead and impersonates the poor bastard hoping to score easy money. Black Flag doesn’t even properly chronicle Edward’s journey from miscreant to assassin. Instead, it (smartly) focuses on his rise as a successful, often ruthless, pirate captain.
What begins for him as a simple want to earn enough so that his wife and eventual family will want for nothing spirals and degrades into a mad, endless chase for profit. The best thing about Edward isn’t that he’s a piece of shit, it’s that he’s a likable piece of shit. Unlike the honor bound quests for revenge endemic in Ezio and Conner’s stories, Black Flag spins a yarn about an outlaw shooting for the stars. Even when Edward inevitably runs into the Assassins’ Brotherhood and learns of their mission, he’s undeterred from his own self-serving goals. And it’s fantastic. Edward is complicated, dynamic, and interesting – the polar opposite of his grandson.
As Edward’s career unfolds, a rogue’s gallery of, well, rogues weave in and out of his life. It wouldn’t be Creed if you didn’t bump elbows with historical figures, and the Golden Age of Piracy means you’ll meet (and sometimes fight alongside) Blackbeard, Calico Jack, and Mary Read. Mary deserves extra compliments as a wonderfully written supporting character whose duality stretches beyond her roles as pirate and assassin (you’ll see).
The villains, or Templars, of this story suffer a terrible bout of flatness, though. Their motivations are clear as they are boring, and most if not every climatic showdown with a Templar target ends in you just (easily) descending on their heads and watching a cutscene where they gloss over their Templar-y philosophy during their death throes. In a narrative where your hero is a morally ambiguous pirate wearing a dead man’s hallowed robes, your bad guys really have to up the ante. And for a whole game dedicated to pirates, the utter lack of a hook-handed enemy is a crime with no equal.
Privateer of the Caribbean
At the offset, ACIV appears instantly familiar to fans who’ve trucked with the series since Altair. The stealth components are just as you remember them from the last time you donned the hood. The parkour inspired free-running and platforming perfected in ACII are back. The counter-heavy combat has been transported from ACIII. Minor tweaks are present, sure – like being able to tag enemies in the environment with Eagle Vision – but the Assassin-y bits of the game remain largely unchanged from yesteryear’s releases. The formula’s smoother than ever, let’s not downplay that, but it’s treaded territory.
What’s dramatically altered is the game’s open-world, which now tethers jungle thick islands and rustic seaside towns together with the gigantic, navigable Caribbean ocean. The naval aspects prototyped in Assassin’s Creed III are hammered out and refined this time, making your time traveling open water a genuine pleasure. Very early on, you’re able to take control of your ship, the Jackdaw, and this design choice was either an incredible ploy to hook me on the pirate’s life or a huge oversight as it ensured I didn’t give any kind of shit about continuing on the linear path the campaign straddled me to.
Black Flag soars highest when your free to pursue your own goals. Be it by hunting down the hundreds of collectibles scattered in the massive world, or by taking on one of a litany of assassination contracts, or the new naval contracts which have you engaging ships at sea and feeding their hull salvo after salvo of cannon fire, or harpooning ocean giants (forgive me PETA), or diving deep below to the watery graves of wrecked ships while fending off circling sharks in the pursuit of booty. I couldn’t get enough.
Maneuverability can be rough, especially when you have to painstakingly turn the entirety of your ship just to face an enemy that’s been soaking you with artillery strikes the whole while. Naval battles are airtight otherwise and, God help me for saying this, a pirate’s delight. Taking on Spanish frigates, pounding them to a helpless halt, boarding their ship, then dicing up their crew until they capitulated their ship and their goods is so astoundingly fun, I welcomed conflict after conflict. And being able to use plundered loot to upgrade your ship’s proficiency? It’s hard not to venture off the campaign’s rigid path to burn up hours just exploring.
Next to Next-Gen
My time with ACIV was one of the first experiences to induct me to the next-generation of consoles. I had some trepidation picking the game up for my PS4, since my playthroughs with this series on the PlayStation 3 have been rough – everything in the garden from sluggish frame-rate to game busting glitches.
I’m pleased as hell to report Black Flag runs like a dream on next-gen. The frame-rate is nearly flawless. Lighting effects make for some gorgeously rendered scenes. The water effects… Goddamn the water effects are pretty. From rough seas to serene blue. It’s extremely lifelike, and crazy to watch in motion, especially when chaos like a dogfight amongst a storm’s crashing waves breaks out on your screen.
Little else goes beyond visual flourish, however. There’s nothing the next-gen version can do that the current one cannot. It’s a prettier, more stable game, which makes it the preferred version, just don’t expect to see anything utterly earth shattering. We’re a while off before dev’s really make the PS4’s engine roar.
Jack of All Trades
Some of my favorite moments in this game are coasting through the waters (my crew joined in song, one of many legitimately listenable “shanties” they sing), venturing to an uncharted plot of land, jumping overboard, and going off to explore at my leisure. I may find treasure. I may find a rare animal to hunt, their skin opening up new crafting options to deck Edward out with. I may even find a fight. I’m usually hoping I find a fight.
The sweeping saga of Assassins versus Templars and the enigmatic First Civilization doesn’t feel as urgent or, really, all that relevant this go around, but that might be testament to how strongly the game’s pirate gimmick is pulled off. The series’ staple modern day elements and infusion of science-fiction still manages to be a unique framing device, but Edward’s story doesn’t play that major of a role in the greater pantheon of the mythos, which is a shame for as excellent a character he is.
Whether I was laying siege to a fort or wielding rapiers against a dozen soldiers, Ubisoft does a magnificent job of making you feel like a high seas hardass. The development team didn’t lightly nudge into the pirate theme, it tackled it full-on. It also serves as a (somewhat) historically accurate looking lens to an era homogenized into fantastical romps by fiction aimed at kids. It’s intriguing to watch the pirate community of Nassau fight, often violently, for the right to self-govern rather than portrayed as patch-wearing bandits (though there’s plenty of that). The narrative leaves something to be desired, but very little else in the game disappoints.
Black Flag quickly ranks as my favorite Assassin’s Creed. It’s everything an open-world game should be: enormous, addictive, and completely worth pouring hours into. You don’t often see this kind of experimentation on big budget franchises. The attempt is more than refreshing; it’s successful. You’re going to make say something else I should be slapped for, but here goes – this pirate’s life is for you. Great, now I hate myself a lot.
Sound: When the Hollywood quality score isn’t playing, the world is teeming with sonic life. Impressive work.
Visuals: Though stiff character animations rear up (often), this is a next-gen beauty. A tidal wave of particle effects and realistic lighting washes throughout the game.
Playability: When not out at sea, controls are familiar to anyone that’s donned a hood before. Tiny locomotion issues pop up, especially in tight corners, but this is as smooth as Assassin’s Creed has ever been. Naval battles are an ungodly amount of fun.
Replay Value: I’ve completed the campaign and I’m still tracking down everything this game hid in its nooks and crannies. This is an open-world worth revisiting.
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag
Developed By: Ubisoft Montreal
Published By: Ubisoft
Available On: PC, PS3, PS4 [reviewed], Wii U, Xbox 360, Xbox One