As the latest iteration in the franchise, Assassin’s Creed IV had quite a tall order ahead of it. It had to be bigger and better than previous games, and make up for the problems in Assassin’s Creed III. Burdened with comparisons to previous games, as well as other sandbox giant GTA V, there was a lot of pressure for Assassin’s Creed IV to be something amazing. For the most part, it delivered.
Leaving behind the world of morality from the American Revolution in AC III, we return to a more debaucherous time in the form of early 1700s Caribbean. You take on the role of Edward Kenway, a lying, cheating pirate. He ends up dumped into the middle of the war between the Templars and assassins without much of a clue about what’s going on. In fact, through most of the game he is simply pursuing his fortune rather than worrying about the ethics of who he kills. Basically, he is the exact opposite of Connor from Assassin’s Creed III.
In fact, most of the game seems built around being the opposite of the previous game. In many ways, this had led to a much more enjoyable game. However, it also led to some serious inconsistencies and problems.
Looking at the character of Edward Kenway, he is a bit of a rogue. Having left England to seek his fortune, all he really cares about is living a free life and doing as he pleases. It’s nice to have the hedonism after Connor’s excessive morality. However, Kenway does go through some character development and even grows a conscious. Unfortunately, the flow of how this happens makes little sense; it almost all seems to hinge on the death of a certain character, and yet Kenway even acknowledges how little he actually knew said character.
A major gripe about Assassin’s Creed III was that it took too long for the game to get started so that players could have fun in the sandbox. Black Flag opens the game up almost instantly. Get through the first mission, and all of a sudden you have free reign over Havana. The openness, however, leads to some blatant and serious inconsistencies. There you are, running around town, picking up Assassin missions and saving pirates in distress when you are not yet an assassin and have no ship for the pirates to join. It’s become clichéd to even say it, but that’s ludonarrative dissonance right there. I was happy to run around and find collectibles and explore the city, but where are those saved pirates going? And how do I know what to do with those pigeon coops?
This is made all the more confusing when you actually get to points in the game when specific side missions are explained. I had already completed a bunch of these extra activities before doing so as part of the main plot. It just made the game feel untested to me – did no one play the game from the beginning during the test phase and point out these discrepancies?
As far as the sandbox goes, the game is massive. No, really, it’s enormous. There are hundreds of islands, off-shore dives, towns and cities to explore. Each area has treasure to find, collectibles to discover, as well as numerous side missions and activities. Some of the side activities will be familiar to those who have played the previous games – you can chase down couriers and execute people in assassin missions. New side activities include solving Mayan puzzles and embracing your inner Ahab as you hunt down Great Whites. That’s to say nothing about naval activities.
As would be expected when playing as a pirate, you get to sail around the Caribbean, attacking ships and plundering their booty. What more could you really want? Once your ship is upgraded, it becomes a fun and easy way of making cash as you sail out and take on entire naval convoys. By combining the ship battle with a boarding fight, taking over other vessels stays nuanced and interesting. Plus, until you find your targets, you get to sail on a beautifully designed and rendered ocean, filled with opportunities to hunt sharks or watch as whales jump out of the water. Oh, and your crew will sing awesome pirate shanties as you sail.
But it’s not just ships you can attack. Each section of the map has a fort – if you take control of the fort it serves as a viewpoint for the ocean, revealing treasure, hidden islands and hunting opportunities. However, again, these revealed some lack of testing. The first time I encountered a fort, it was directly in my path as I sailed from one plot point to the next. However, I was no where near a high enough level to take on the fort, nor had their been any explanation of taking them over. Eventually, I was made to conquer a fort as a plot mission, after which time I decided to sail around, mastering the seas. However, the difficulty of the forts do not necessarily correspond with the difficulty of the map areas. For example, one fort in a medium area had nine defences and killed me every time, while another fort in a hard area only had five defences and was easily overcome. These can be rather irritating, especially when you need to sail past a difficult fort on your journey across the map.
It’s for the best if you enjoy the game’s myriad naval battles, as they serve as your primary source of income. Sure, you can go hunting, find treasure or complete assassination missions, but you’ll still make more cash by selling off sugar and rum – and you’ll need that money to upgrade everything. Depending on how you play the game, you may need to grind at times to upgrade your ship sufficiently in order to complete main missions. However, here again I encountered a lack of testing. A warning message would appear before a mission instructing me to upgrade my ship before attempting the mission. After several upgrades, the warning was still there. Taking a risk, I did the mission anyway and was easily successful. I think the warning is there regardless of ship level – no, this doesn’t break the game or ruin it, but it’s yet another irritation.
Despite the wonders of the sea, the map often feels too large to traverse. When I say the game is huge, I mean it. In fact, it’s a good thing that they have revamped the fast travel ability; now all view points serve as fast travel points. This means that you can quickly travel across cities, or even across the entire Caribbean. This increases the incentive to climb to the top of every viewpoint for a synchronization, plus it does away with those tunnel side missions from AC III.
Despite the prodigious map size, main missions often make use of the same areas. Unfortunately, this adds an element of repetition to the game that didn’t need to be there. There were plenty of locations to choose from, and yet I needed to keep going through the same maps, hiding in the same bushes and hay-filled carts as I killed guards. This seemed like an odd choice, particularly when so much time was spent crafting detailed environments all over the map.
Unfortunately, the story is less impressive than the scale of the map. Unlike previous Assassin’s Creed games, Black Flag does not follow a solid arc. You begin muddling your way through, interacting with Templars and Assassins as you acquire a ship and go a’pirating. Much of the middle section of the game seems confusing as you help one or another person with no real rhyme or reason. Most of the time, you are driven by protecting your pirate lifestyle. While the gameplay is interesting, the story simply isn’t compelling. In fact, the story outside of the animus is more interesting than the plot inside.
In another shift from AC III, AC IV has made the meta story more intriguing. No longer wandering around as an increasingly simian Desmond, your out-of-animus character is an anonymous, first-person experience. And it’s brilliant. This review is spoiler-free, but check out the toggle for those who don’t mind:
Your nameless character is a new employee at Abstergo Entertainment. Abstergo Entertainment is working together with Ubisoft to bring a new, immersive game (and upcoming movie) to the market. In order to find the raw data for this historical experience, you need to enter the animus using the DNA from “Subject 17”, aka Desmond.
There are hilarious references to making a trailer using your interactions with Blackbeard, as well as hacking side activities that reveal fun Easter Eggs – the company behind ctOS (the surveillance system in Watch Dogs) is hoping to land Abstergo Entertainment as a client while ‘market research’ presentations explain why Altair, Ezio and Connor are not suitable IP for use by Abstergo Entertainment.
Over the course of the game, your character becomes increasingly aware of the more nefarious side of Abstergo Entertainment, culminating in the set up for a sequel. However, it is handled beautifully – I really like the way Ubisoft took a self-aware approach to breaking the fourth wall.
For the most part, Assassin’s Creed IV is visually stunning. As we expect from Assassin’s Creed games, there are impressive panoramic views and detailed environments. In general, the water looks fantastic as you sail around (although sometimes it looked poorly rendered around the edges), and there is no loading time if you choose to jump off your ship and go for a swim. There are also some clear signs though that this game was not made for current generation. Some textures are very poor, and the shadowing is shockingly bad. Even some of the animations and cut-scenes are jagged and don’t even live up to the standards set by Assassin’s Creed III. Some of my assassination victims glitched in and out of walls or foliage.
Despite the irritations and minor problems, there is no denying that Assassin’s Creed IV is a fantastic game. It has a much more upbeat (if unfocused) storyline, combined with swashbuckling and treasure hunting. The new set-up is both hilarious and brilliant, hinting at an excellent future for the franchise.
Despite having huge shoes to fill and obstacles to overcome, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is definitely the best Assassin’s Creed game to date. However, if you’re debating if you should play it now or wait for next gen, definitely wait – it’s best to enjoy the full visual experience only possible with next gen consoles or PC.