It is amazing to consider that the Assassin’s Creed series is now in its sixth year. The series that spawned in this latest console generation is now being funneled over to the current crop of consoles. In a sense, this solves some of my biggest issues with the series, namely ambition that could not materialize due to hardware constraints. Now that these new consoles are out, perhaps the series will once again capture that spark that made it one of the best new IPs to spawn out of this era. If Black Flag is any indication of the series’ direction, count me in.
My colleague Dave reviewed the 360/PS3 version when it came out, so please check out that review here. With this review I will still cover the bulk of what makes the game great, while also pointing out what changes have been made for the new consoles.
Black Flag follows the story of Edward Kenway. If the name sounds familiar, it is because his son, Haytham Kenway was featured in Assassin’s Creed III. Yes that also means he is Connor’s grandfather. Edward is a pirate, and his connection to the AC lineage is only a minor focal point in this entry. It almost feels like the developers were getting a little tired of the insanity that has become the Assassin’s Creed narrative as of late, and decided to simply make a pirate adventure; and it succeeds at that.
There are ties to previous game including pieces of Desmond Miles’ story, as well as plenty of plot points on the Templars and Assassin’s, but at its heart, this is a game about pirates, and its pans out nicely. I like Edward, and most of the cast surrounding him. Sure it is awkward that he is not an Assassin, yet can perform their moves, but I was able to look past that considering how much fun I was having in the world.
That is what stands out so much with Black Flag. This game is designed to be enjoyable from top to bottom. The world is interesting to explore, the naval combat is immensely entertaining and I constantly wanted to explore more and collect items. This is not something I am normally fond of. The design here just feels tight. Collectibles are smartly placed and side quests are actually more fun than a bulk of the story missions. I could spend a hundred hours in this world and likely never get bored.
The caveat to that is that there are still those Assassin’s Creed missions here that drag things down. The tailing and eavesdropping missions are downright sigh inducing when they crop up. There are also a host of ideas that feel half executed. For instance, sending out ships on missions, similar to the Assassin’s missions in earlier games. These really garner very little money or supplies that I needed. It almost felt like I was navigating some menus for minimal gain. Sometimes these missions would net less gold than opening a chest, which feels like a bad design decision.
What I did love though, I really loved. One of the standouts is the sailing. Piloting my Jackdaw around the world is ridiculously fun. Hearing my crew sing sea shanties and stopping for the occasional spearing of a humpback whale are a delight. Relax, it is a video game, PETA can lay down the pitchforks.
Most of the rest of what is here feels like an AC game. The combat has been overly simplified so that encounters are quick to handle. I also love that being spotted no longer constitutes an automatic fail. Instead I felt like I could take on an entire army if need be. There is just so much that is now streamlined and easier to access, that it makes the overall experience more entertaining. I love that they added in the crafting system from Far Cry 3. It now makes hunting actually mean something.
The current day stuff also returns, but in an entirely new fashion. Now players take on the role of an Abstergo employee, who is working on the latest entry in the series. It winds itself up into a much more intricate web of narrative, but it is also really just a simulator of working at Ubisoft. I love the developer notes on past games, and even the nods to other franchises. It all takes place in first-person and is usually in small chunks, which is good considering I enjoy being on the high seas much more, and am always ready for those sections to be over when they are.
For those curious Black Flag does not require a prerequisite of knowledge of the series, though it helps to understand some of the nuances. In fact if players did not complete the third game, be careful as it spoils major plot points to that early on. This entry feels like it put the overall narrative in the backseat, and instead focused on telling the story of pirates. Kenway is a great character, but he is never fleshed out like Ezio or even Connor.
PlayStation owners are also treated to an extra portion of game play featuring the star of the Vita and upcoming 360/PS3 title Liberation. This side mission features Aveline, and will run close to an hour to complete. It isn’t a massive extra, but if players have a choice, the PS4 version is the way to go. Not only does it look amazing, but it also boasts extra content.
I always forget that the AC series sports multiplayer, and a rather fun and unique offering at that. For Black Flag most of it remains untouched from previous efforts outside of some updates to the co-op mode. Still for those that enjoy the classic assassination-style of the series, the online mode is definitely good for wasting a weekend away killing your friends.
One of the standout things about Black Flag on PS4 is how good it looks. I was constantly stopping to gaze at the environments and sharing screens on Twitter. It is gorgeous, and a showcase piece for the console. It runs at a rock solid frame rate, and is displayed at native 1080p and looks amazing. So much of the fog and slowdown that plagues the 360/PS3 versions is gone. This is a perfect example of technology finally catching up to the ambition the team has had for years. This is one amazing looking game.
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is the entry that has drawn me back into the series. I had fallen off since Brotherhood, and with the latest offering I cannot recommend enough jumping back in. If the story beats concern you, I recommend heading to YouTube to see what you missed, but Black Flag really never relies on the narrative as heavily as previous games. This is the best entry since Brotherhood, and possibly my favorite AC game to date.
Review copy of game provided by publisher.