I first experienced the Assassin’s Creed series with Assassin’s Creed II, a game that I loved in a lot of different ways. Since it’s also the last AC game I played, I was really looking forward to Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag, to see where the series has gone during my time away. While it changes things up with a pirate-themed narrative, Black Flag is still unmistakably an Assassin’s Creed game. There are a few bumps in the road, but it still delivers on all of the elements I loved from before, along with some new systems added to the experience. It’s an excellent entry in the series, and one that I enjoyed almost without exception.
The main character in Black Flag is Edward Kenway, a man who turns to piracy in an attempt to fulfill his dreams of wealth and power. Early in the game Kenway kills an assassin, which draws him into the ongoing struggle between Templars and Assassins. He then begins to lead a sort of split life, part of him dedicated to the ideals of a pirate society, while at the same time pursuing goals of the Assassins.
As in previous games, the player controls Edward through the Animus, a technology that allows for a subject’s ancestor’s lives to be lived through their DNA. The player is actually an employee at Abstergo Entertainment, a company that mines these past lives for use in the entertainment industry. During the course of the game I occasionally backed out of the Animus into my role as Abstergo employee, where there is another level of intrigue to be found.
Black Flag is immediately recognizable as an Assassin’s Creed game. Edward will climb structures, sneak into areas undetected to assassinate targets and evade pursuers just as in the previous games. Finding synchronize points atop tall structures will reveal a portion of the map on an island, in turn revealing the location of collectables and activities in that area.
One of the most impressive aspects to the game is the sheer volume of things to do. In addition to the main story quests there are side activities like assassination contracts, numerous collectables to find and Templar hunts, a series of side missions pointing to a Templar leader carrying a key used to unlock the Templar armor. The world is simply full of activities, and even as I was trying to stay on the main path to complete my review, I was still constantly getting caught up in the fun of the side activities. The high seas add a whole additional set of activities, allowing me to loot ships, explore shipwrecks and even go harpooning.
The world in Assassin’s Creed IV is very big, consisting of many islands, each featuring plenty to do. While a good bit of sailing is required in getting from place to place, the game has fast travel systems in place to keep the pace moving. Once I had been to an island, I could fast travel back there. Unlocking synchronize points within an island opened those up for fast travel as well. These systems were much appreciated, and kept me from feeling like I was spending an excessive amount of time in transit.
When off the boat, Edward has tools at his disposal to aid in his pursuits. Eagle vision returns, allowing the played to easily spot targets of interest, with the added bonus that enemies can be tagged, allowing their movement to be followed, even through walls and floors. It’s a lot like the enemy tagging in Far Cry 3, and it works great, although the game is occasionally difficult about getting an enemy perfectly centered on the screen before they will be tagged.
The game also features a crafting system similar to the one found in Far Cry 3. Edward can kill animals like deer and lizards, and skin them to get crafting supplies used to make larger gun holsters, ammunition pouches and health upgrades. On the water, sharks and whales can be harpooned and skinned for supplies, and enemy ships can be plundered for their cargo, which can be used to upgrade Edward’s ship.
The latter system is one that I struggled with. While the ability to upgrade the ship is all well and good, there are certain missions during the game that advised me before starting them that I should upgrade my ship. In addition to being very vague (there are about ten different possible categories of upgrade), these situations left me no option but to sail the seas, hoping to find ships carrying the supplies I needed. Looking through the spyglass at a ship displays what it is carrying, but sometimes finding one that actually had what I was looking for required a lot of wandering around. In addition, upgrades cost money, so I needed to be sure to plunder ships carrying sugar or rum, which could be sold. It really disrupts the flow of the game, as everything would come to a screeching halt while I went around pirating until I had the supplies I needed to upgrade and continue.
In addition to the robust single player experience, Black Flag offers a wealth of multiplayer options. There are both co-op and adversarial modes, including classics like deathmatch and variants on oddball and territory capture. The multiplayer also comes with a training mode that walks through the basics of the play and scoring systems, which was a very nice touch. In addition to the available options, the Game Lab allows players to start with any of the available modes and change numerous options to make it into something unique. Multiplayer games earn XP, which unlocks perks and other rewards as players level up. My time with the multiplayer was smooth, as I had no trouble finding games, and everything ran without a hitch.
As a game that’s coming to both current and next gen consoles I was curious to see how Black Flag would perform technically, and I’m happy to say that AC IV looks great. The world is full and beautiful, whether on land or at sea, and ran smoothly with the exception of occasional stuttering in the framerate. The atmosphere is excellent, and enough time spent at sea with the rolling and pitching of the waves was enough to make me a little queasy. The characters and clothing in particular look nice and layered, although there are occasionally some flat textures to be found.
The game also sounds great, and the voice work really brings the characters to life. Music is good and suits the time, and combat sounds, whether the clashing of swords or the splintering of wood hit by cannon fire, all sound clear and realistic. In general it’s just a very well presented game.
The controls are excellent as well, and I had no problems running along rooftops or hiding in cover waiting for an unsuspecting enemy to walk by. Combat reminded me of the Batman Arkham series, as I was able to fluidly attack and counter multiple enemies at once, while mixing in pistols and smoke bombs as necessary. The only complaint I had with the controls is that occasionally piloting the ship and aiming at the same time was awkward, but it’s a minor issue.
I had a lot of fun with Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag, and I still have the itch to go back and complete side quests and activities. There’s a ton of content, and the game’s presentation is really impressive. While I was disappointed in the need to grind out ship upgrades, it wasn’t enough to dull my enthusiasm for the rest of the package. It’s a great entry in the series, and I highly recommend it, whether on this generation of consoles or the next.
Review copy of game provided by publisher. Primary play on Xbox 360.