“Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag” was released about 10 days ago for PC (it unlocked somewhere in the wee hours on the 20th in my time zone). This was about a month after its release for consoles, so the game has been out for well over a month. I’m doubtful that any review of mine would be particularly newsworthy, but I’m going to do it anyway.
From a story standpoint, Ubisoft must have been doing some major head-scratching after the conclusion of AC3 as they had killed off Desmond Miles, the meta-protagonist of the other AC games. Without giving away too much (like spoilers are really an issue at this late date), they found a work-around to the problem that also opened the door to doing games set in other time periods while still keeping Desmond in the picture, but in the background.
It will be interesting to see what Ubisoft does with this in the future, but their solution struck me as an ingenious approach to the problem, so mega-kudos to the writing team for figuring out how to get out of the corner they appeared to have painted themselves into. In-game hints abound with tantalizing ideas for a Wild West setting (think “Red Dead Redemption” with Assassins), but those are just in-game ideas that may or may not bear fruit in the future. Should it pan out, you heard it here first. Otherwise it’s just semi-coherent blather.
In many ways, Ubi seems to be trying to break out of the mold that they created for themselves with AC and AC2 (and its progeny). Yes, the game is set in an interesting historical period. Yes, there is still the Assassins vs. Templars thing going. Yes, you still get to mess around with wrist blades, smoke bombs, and other cool gear. Yes, you still do a lot of running around, jumping onto and off of stuff, climbing, and the rest. So to that extent, the game is still very much an Assassin’s Creed title. But on the other hand, that whole Assassins vs. Templars thing seems to be taking a back seat to being a pirate. And this really strikes me as being a third-person pirate-shooter in the AC universe.
The game is much more open-world than earlier games. I am not including AC3 in that assertion since I have yet to play much more than the first few missions (Connor isn’t even a twinkle in his daddy’s eye according to my last save). I’ll probably go back to that at some point now that I’ve played around with Black Flag, but there are still a few annoyances with Black Flag.
First, I really like exploration. This is probably one of the reasons why I have spent so much time with Bethesda games. They really turn you loose to go see what there is to see and do what there is to do and you aren’t tied to anything in particular. AC4 has a lot of those elements, but even being into Mission 7 of the main quest, there are still parts of the world that are closed off (as in “area unavailable” or “not available in the current memory”). It seems to me that many of those areas could have been open from the get-go with the mission triggers being absent until they were needed. I mean, really, what’s so hard about simple conditions check to see whether the actors and other mission accoutrements need to be placed and activated or not? Of course because I haven’t progressed far enough in the game to be able to see those areas, I can’t be sure that there aren’t some built-in problems with them, but considering that I was able to get to Kingston, Jamaica a long time before it was needed, it just strikes me as odd that some areas are off-limits so late in an open sandbox game.
Another annoyance, and a borderline game-killer, are the “raid the warehouse” missions. I stumbled onto those well outside of the main mission, only a short time after getting the Jackdaw. After sneaking and stabbing my way through, I cleared out the warehouse only to find myself stuck afterward; just standing there, unable to move or do anything with the picture slightly fuzzed out. There are a couple of work-arounds, but it’s a problem that crops up with each of these missions. This strikes me as shoddy coding and something that should have been caught in QA before the game was ever released for PC.
The third major annoyance are the optional requirements for 100% memory sync. Until you do something that meets or partially meets those requirements, you don’t really know about them. For example, you’re supposed to air-assassinate an ocelot in the first hunting mission in order to get 100% sync. But the mission only told you to get two ocelot pelts. When you get the first one, you get a message telling you that you still have one more to go and that’s the first time I recall seeing the air-assassination requirement. Since 100% memory sync is among the official achievements, this comes across as “let’s see how frustrating we can make the game” rather than good design.
A last annoyance, and I’m not sure whether this was intended or just bad luck on my part, is the weather. The game world has dynamic weather. Sometimes it’s sunny, sometimes it’s cloudy, sometimes it’s raining and sometimes you’re in the middle of a hurricane or something. The major storm conditions only appear while you’re at sea, though. The problem is that the storms appear to pop up out of nowhere. You might start naval combat in absolutely lovely weather conditions, but end up having to not only dodge enemy fire, but also have to dodge waterspouts and damaging waves within a couple of minutes. This is particularly the case when attacking forts. I’m honestly not sure whether this is something that is scripted into these missions or whether I just have the most horrible luck, but it’s one of the more frustrating things to happen on the open sea.
Like other games in the series, Black Flag requires a lot of grinding. For example, I can’t count the number of times that I got myself sunk or killed while trying to capture a Man o’ War. I didn’t need the Man o’ War for anything to progress the story or to upgrade anything. Instead, I needed it to open trade routes in the “Kenway’s Fleet” minigame (which is almost a game in itself). After finally getting a couple, I still find that I need better ones as some trade routes require having larger cargo capacity. Until I get one, I couldn’t say whether I’m missing out on something in-game.
That minigame, though, was a very interesting addition. Thanks to the companion app (available at no extra cost for iPad and Android tablets), gamers can take aspects of the game with them, and probably should. The minigame plays out in real time. Ships captured in the regular game become available for use in the minigame, which can be played during a lunch or coffee break. Some of the treasure maps (fortunately not ones leading to ship upgrades) are only available through this minigame.
Leaving annoyances aside, what did Ubisoft get right? The short answer is almost everything.
Graphics are excellent. I’ve had a few issues with how it renders distant actors, but I’ll chalk that up to my running beta rather than released drivers. Sound, too, is excellent. Being somewhat a product of the folk movement, the addition of shanties was a very pleasant surprise.
From a story standpoint, I did not find myself getting into Kenway’s character as much as I did Ezio’s. At my stage of the game he has no firm allegiance to either side of the Assassin-Templar conflict. He’s just in it for the loot; very mercenary. This likely changes toward the end of the game as I know a bit about what happens in AC3, so it stands to reason that it needs to happen at some point. Again, the over-arching story seems to be taking a back seat to the “Arrrr, matey!” pirate stuff.
Leaving aside the annoyance of finding parts of an open-sandbox world being closed off, the game delivered quite nicely on the promise of seamless transitions. Almost all of the game takes place outdoors. With a few exceptions, loading screens are completely absent from the game. Kenway moves from ship to shore and back again fluidly and with no noticeable lag. There are a few areas where rain continues to fall in areas where you might expect it not to, but you’d only notice because it doesn’t fall in most areas with overhead shelter.
Keeping my earlier comments about grinding for resources in mind, the naval combat end of the game is very well done. Ship-to-ship combat is very fluid and relatively simple to control. Ship-to-shore combat is somewhat more complicated, but still fluid. Some of the finer points, such as how to use Heavy Shot instead of Round Shot is not well-explained within the game and naval tactics is something that you have to learn by trial and error. This is another of those aggravating instances where the developers did not do a good job of documenting controls or much else. It took a bit of searching around on the Internet to find what I needed to know. Thanks and kudos to IGN and Wikia for picking up the developers’ slack in these areas.
Moving to land-based operations, the combat system works well. It retains much from earlier AC titles and adds a few new toys, like blow darts, to the mix. Countering and disarming strike me as a bit problematic in comparison to other titles, but combat proceeds fairly well. While I really enjoy the blow darts, they are a bit overpowered. I’m not urging a complete overhaul of their use, but keep in mind that they’re very effective and one can come to rely on them a bit too much. I think I’ve killed more people with blow darts than with anything else.
The stealth system got a major revamping from AC and the AC2 series. You really need to learn to use terrain and natural cover to your advantage to complete many missions. Used effectively, it’s now possible to complete the majority of missions without ever alerting your enemies to your presence. The fact that you can sneak and blow-dart your way through entire missions is very fun, although it shows that the enemy AI needs some major help. This is a complaint common to most stealth games, so I’m not doing a lot of finger-wagging on it.
All in all, Black Flag is extremely enjoyable and a fine addition to the series and give it an 8.5 out of 10.