Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag Review


Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag Review

How much rum can one possibly plunder?

If you’ll allow this prospective pirate to get personal for a moment, we really didn’t want to like Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. Having spent far, far too long killing this and that in the ol’ Animus throughout the five previous major titles in the six-year franchise, we’re starting to get the feeling that Assassin’s Creed is borrowing a page from the Call of Duty franchise—it refuses to just up and die.

It wouldn’t be an Assassin’s Creed game without the requisite “talk to the guy you’re about to kill” cutscenes.

It wouldn’t be an Assassin’s Creed game without the requisite “talk to the guy you’re about to kill” cutscenes.

Back out from the game’s minutia, and there’s nothing wrong with Black Flag’s overall concept. You’re an assassin sort of tasked with dispatching a number of antagonists, collecting a crap-ton of hidden items, and running the equivalent of eight ultra-marathons per gaming session as you traverse the various historical landscapes while donning the stereotypical assassin “hoodie outfit.”

Since it’s Assassin’s Creed—and since the developers, we suspect, always want to add some sort of additional gravitas beyond one’s pincushion-prone adventures—there’s a side component of Black Flag that functions as the game’s main quest. Yes, you read that right.

The entire plot is an Inception-like romp into one’s ancestral consciousness, and your “real-world” persona in Black Flag is a not-so-impressive, unnamed employee at the fictitious gaming firm Abstergo Entertainment. To us, the infrequent warping between the game’s two environments is the series’ seventh-inning stretch: You have to slowly stand and sing the familiar tune, even if you don’t want to do it. You have no way out.

Thankfully, Black Flag balances out its real-world boredom with the series’ most refined and engaging mix of quasi-open-world gameplay to date, set in a gorgeous environment that makes us yearn for a 15-minute trip on a watery Disney ride. If nothing else, we commend developer Ubisoft Montreal for finally understanding that pirates are way cooler than the American Revolution (Blackbeard: 1; Benjamin Franklin: 0). This simple hook alone should be enough to wet the whistles of many a gamer who has felt otherwise let down by any pirate-themed game that doesn’t start with the word Monkey.

Our problem? It takes too long to get there. Tutorials are tutorials, but Black Flag is one of the first games in the franchise—at least, that we can remember—that had us scratching our heads a bit as to how everything works. It’s partially the fault of the game’s early missions, which do a decent, but not-so-perfect job of detailing everything that your character (or ship) can do. Case in point: We had to look up how to fire our ship’s heavy shot. One of the most powerful weapons in one’s watery arsenal… and we had to Google it.

Wrapped within that is the odd combination of the game’s painfully slow progression and quasi-open-world motif. We dislike how Black Flag presents a giant, explorable world, but locks much of it behind strange, shimmering, digital curtains until you progress to certain points in the game’s main quest. The same holds true for all of your weapons and ship upgrades; you don’t even get the tried-and-true staple of the series, the trusty hidden blade, until after the game dumps you into the wide-open world for a bit of time.

We get it; Ubisoft really wants you to play the Animus-based plot. Here’s the problem with that: It’s not that interesting. The storyline, as we’ve noted, is a bit out there, and the primary missions don’t offer up many challenges or much diversity. You’re encouraged to be stealthy merely as a part of an overall achievement unlock. Otherwise, there’s no real penalty for crossing your Jack Sparrow with your Rambo within missions, which are, themselves, getting fairly standard within the overall Assassin’s Creed universe. We’d be perfectly OK to never have to spend minutes eavesdropping on someone ever again.

Half the fun of Black Flag comes from exploring your way to new (and super-pretty) locations.

Half the fun of Black Flag comes from exploring your way to new (and super-pretty) locations.

Curiously enough, there’s no actual progression for your character skills—you start off as a fairly formidable assassin with the ability to kill just about anyone quite quickly. We might have preferred an RPG-like upgrade system whereby one’s talents, purchasable or otherwise, were a bit more customizable or upgradable. It could also serve as an excellent tutorial for the myriad moves and techniques one’s assassin can do. Any of the recent Batman games gives a good example of what we’re referring to. Black Flag borrows a simplified crafting/upgrading system from Far Cry 3, but it’s not really enough.

Black Flag, like previous titles in the series, focuses much on your ability to free run, climb, dodge, and stab your way through levels. It’s still a bit clunky to do so—akin to driving a large truck in an obstacle course instead of a more dexterous motorcycle. We can forgive that, however, because Ubisoft has finally managed to create open-world aspects that are fun regardless of how repetitive they might feel.

Yes, the ship combat does become a bit rote after a while, but the game delivers a thrilling joy after you successfully survive a close battle against an enemy convoy by the skin of your teeth. We thought we’d get bored shooting and boarding ship after ship after ship; to our surprise, we didn’t. We almost wish the game went one step further and gave you some additional ships to play around with—a convoy of your own that you could command in some kind of quasi-real-time-strategy-like fashion. As it stands, there’s great fun in blasting and boarding. We smiled each and every time we rope-swung out to an enemy ship to deliver stabby surprises.

Sailing around the map bombarding ports, evading waterspouts (yes, waterspouts), and chasing down giant treasure fleets that your online friends can identify on your map for you—to name a few activities—is a thrill. You can even cycle through songs for your crew to sing while you’re sailing (and unlock others by finding them within the game) and, should you find yourself running low on patience, make use of the many fast travel locations that Ubisoft litters throughout the game’s landscape. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Walker, this is not.

We’re running low on space to cover all the side activities you can undertake in Black Flag, and it behooves us to touch on one of the game’s super-eye-opening features: companion apps for both Android and iOS, which deliver some of the best cross-platform interaction we’ve yet seen in a PC game. We absolutely love that we can fire up our tablets, load a free app, and have a real-time feed of our character’s progression on the world map, quick access to our mission statuses, and even a means for interacting with Black Flag’s game-within-a-game “Kenway’s Fleet” trading system.

Yes, the game sends watery tornados into your path. No, you do not want to be in their path.

Yes, the game sends watery tornados into your path. No, you do not want to be in their path.

That said, we sure wish we had some easy means of pulling our existing online friends into Uplay—either those from Steam, Facebook, or any of the other big social or gaming networks. It would certainly help the title’s multiplayer efforts, which feel pretty similar, if not identical to, that which we’ve already seen in the series. It could also boost the single-player game a bit, given the curious (but engaging) social tie-ins that Ubisoft has built right into the core campaign. We love this blend of online and “offline” gameplay; give us more!

What we don’t want more of, however, is bloat; Black Flag’s title screen feels a bit clunky with its many advertisements and links to external websites. Tone those parts down a bit, Ubisoft, please.

As for the game, definitely play Black Flag, but we’d argue that it’s more fun as a pirate romp than a full-fledged simulator of silent deaths. Far Cry 3 handled some of these stealthy, lone-gunman mechanics more interestingly; Assassin’s Creed borrows a little bit from the best, but none can currently rival the fun it brings to the high seas.

$60,, ESRB: M

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag

Yo Ho, Yo Ho

Lovely graphics; engaging naval exploration and combat; streamlined gameplay across a sprawling landscape; fun mobile tie-ins.

A Pirate’s Life For Yo

Boring “real-world” motif; slow unlocks; not all that challenging; Uplay is Upaltry.




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I enjoyed the game.