Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag Review
Microsoft Xbox 360Also available on Nintendo Wii-U, PC, Sony PlayStation 3, Sony PlayStation 4 and Microsoft Xbox One
In retrospect, Assassin’s Creed III’s Ratonhnhaké:ton (Connor to his friends) was such a downer. Ezio Auditore da Firenze was a tough act to follow, a smooth-talking rogue whose story we saw from youth to old age and all the escapades in between. In comparison, Connor was a stoic character with one single thing in mind – tracking down his devilishly charming father Haytham Kenway. Well, at least we know that charm runs in the family as Edward Kenway, grandfather to Connor, headlines a return to the carefree boisterousness of Ezio and Assassin’s Creed IV is all the stronger for it.
First things first – let’s get the jokes out of the way. No, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag doesn’t star Henry Rollins, nor does it explore the finer aspects of early stage hardcore music. Set in 1715, this latest historical foray journeys to the so-called ‘Golden Age of Piracy’, rife with new settlements, exotic locales and ever-present danger on the waves. Celebrities appear, although they’re of the 18th Century vintage – Ed ‘Blackbeard’ Thatch, Anne Bonny, Captain Kidd and more add dubious historical flavour to a story that toes the line of cliché and spoof. Playing like a foul-mouthed Pirates of the Caribbean, Black Flag sees Kenway journey between Havana, Kingston and smaller islands on the Jackdaw, his nimble ship ready to be upgraded with nary a Captain Jack in sight.
Of all the Assassin’s Creed games, Black Flag likely has the most throwaway story, essentially acting as a through-line to encourage exploration and as an introduction to the many activities available on the high seas. While Assassin’s Creed III shoehorned Connor into pivotal moments in American history, Forrest Gump style, Edward Kenway’s tale befits his freewheeling nature, sending him from island to island with only the slightest nod towards actual events. If Connor was a charisma vacuum and Haytham was an old world James Bond, Edward feels like Chris Hemsworth playing pirate – infinitely charming, a lovable rogue and, well, a cocky cock. Conversely as antagonists go, Black Flag has some of the series’ blandest baddies – allegiances change and the eternal conflict between Templars and Assassins continues ad nauseum but without any memorable figurehead like the Borgias of Assassin’s Creed II. The story missions themselves alternate between naval combat and a whole heap of repetitive eavesdropping. If the eavesdropping in Assassin’s Creed III – staying within a radius while hopping between hiding spots – wasn’t your cup of tea then steel yourself for Black Flag and its endless cycle of tailing, stalking and hiding.
Assassin’s Creed as a series is built on the concept of shared DNA, to access memories extracted using the Animus technology. Appropriately, Black Flag shares a great deal of DNA with its predecessor – perhaps a sign that annualising the franchise will mean a significant amount of crossover in assets. Luckily, the holdovers from Assassin’s Creed III are the best bits, largest amongst them being the naval combat. There is nothing as exhilarating as piloting a fully-manned ship through storms and sunsets, your crew belting out a rousing set of shanties as the wind fills the sails. This is where Black Flag triumphs, by replacing Assassin’s Creed III’s dour, snow-covered wilderness hub with an ocean to explore. From atolls to tropical jungles, there’s a wealth of variation to discover and, rather than having to slog through snow drifts, cresting waves is a far more pleasant and immersive experience.
If Assassin’s Creed III was deferential, Black Flag cuts loose while keeping to the same basic template. What were collectable diary entries to be chased and caught in III become collectable sea shanties, giving your crew an expanded repertoire for those sea-borne journeys. While the rooftops of Boston were straight-edged and tricky to navigate, Kingston and Havana blend the tree-climbing athletics of III’s wilderness with the colonial architectural style, resulting in far smoother free-running for Edward. It’s closer to Liberation’s flow of movement through the Bayou and New Orleans than it is the boxy aesthetic of Boston. Every side mission and minor distraction feels worthwhile and, more importantly, fun. Even the new additions fit the piratical theme – treasure maps can be recovered, offering clues to buried treasure and there are Mayan ruins scattered across islands that involve quick shape-based puzzles to solve.
Each settlement and island has a checklist of things to see and collect, turning the verdant world of the Caribbean into an OCD dream. At a macro level, the world map features forts that must be conquered in battle, subsequently revealing points of interest in the same way as synchronising atop tall buildings in each town. There are legendary ships to track down, royal convoys to plunder, shipwrecks to dive and an assortment of whales (including a certain white variety) to harpoon. As a complete package, Black Flag does a lot of the same collect-this, explore-that tricks as its predecessor but just feels fresher.
This rejuvenation also applies to the modern-day sections that crop up every few chapters or so. Going into detail would spoil the surprise, but safe to say you are working for Abstergo as a newly hired employee. Taking place in first-person, you have the option to spend as much or as little of your time in the ‘present day’. The opportunity to hack computers and collect notes is there – it’s highly likely that casual players will ignore these sections, but a bit of exploration will give fans possibly the most intriguing hints to date. It’s hard to say whether these contemporary interludes are a genius addition or Ubisoft finally crawling up their own behinds – investigation will give players an insight into the franchise itself, as well as what can only be called shameless brand synergy. The hacking mini-games are probably the most inventive to date and really do feel rewarding, compelling players to delve deeper into the Abstergo mythology.
The problem with the single-player of Black Flag remains that, while it is a breezy and thrilling blast, the story seems to go nowhere. Even the present-day sections feel like they simultaneously move events on in leaps and bounds but also that they could be summed up in a sentence or two. Few questions are answered – in fact, more are probably raised despite little in the way of expedited narrative.
A similar feeling of refined familiarity can be found in the multiplayer side. The same cat-and-mouse gameplay of Assassin’s Creed III returns, with the staple Wanted and Manhunt game modes assigning players targets to kill while remaining as innocuous as possible. Compared to the popcorn multiplayer of most shooters, Black Flag’s tense paranoia is a welcome moment of levity and thought amidst brainless trigger-mashing. Gamers’ behaviour will decide the success of the main multiplayer modes – the true fun lies in the Spy Party-esque attempt to mirror crowds of AI in order to throw off assailants. When a match descends into chaos this atmosphere is lost – whether people are patient enough to remain stealthy all depends on the gamer, but Ubisoft has created the best environment to encourage fair play.
New modes and abilities have been added as well, increasing the options to escape and evade. Perhaps the most compelling aspect of the multiplayer sees the Wolfpack mode return from III. A co-operative mini-campaign set within a single level, Wolfpack sees up to four players cycle through a selection of objectives and modes. With a timer ticking down, players must score points to warrant completing each mini-sequence. Wolfpack pushes players towards synchronised kills and expert teamwork, making it one of the multiplayer modes more relatable to the ethos of Assassin’s Creed. It’s addictive, heart-pumping stuff that feels immensely rewarding when each sequence is completed. The Game Lab is another welcome mode where you can modify hundreds of variables to create your own game type with some strange combinations resulting in a totally different feel to each game.
Brian Tyler’s rousing score is icing on the skull-encrusted cake and the best Assassin’s Creed soundtrack since Jesper Kyd’s masterfully nuanced music for Ezio’s outings. Featuring everything you’d want in a pirate score – ships’ bells and furious fiddles – it even finds the time to fit motifs from Assassin’s Creed III in amongst the new melodies. It might not seem it, but you’ll be humming the theme long after turning off your console - well, that or some of the sea shanties… Graphically, Black Flag on the current generation maintains the high standards of the series. The Caribbean is as lush and beautiful as you’d expect but the highlight remains the naval battles. One such battle between six ships during a storm was a spectacular sight and far more thrilling than most of Assassin’s Creed III’s naval offerings. With the next-generation ports on the horizon the game can only look better – something worth a double-dip come the next consoles.
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag doesn’t reinvent the franchise, nor does it move the story on. Instead, it refines the best bits of III and wisely sacrifices some of the po-faced historical accuracy for an adventure with pirates. Yes, there are a few bugs in the system – wayward pedestrians and some questionable ship physics are unavoidable given a world of this scale – but it feels more polished than III and far easier to forgive thanks to a likable lead, interesting world and crowd-pleasing subject matter. Ubisoft loosens its grasp on the stringent trappings of the franchise and in doing so feels less constricted, more able to have fun. From the nudge-nudge-wink-wink self-parody of the modern day portions, to the pirate party that is Edward Kenway’s life, Black Flag benefits by leaving past games behind. In taking and refining the best bits of previous games, Ubisoft is admittedly treading water and, some would say, stagnating. The eavesdropping should really be, well, dropped but those moments of frustration and repetition are far outweighed by the lure of the sea. Not a flagship title for the series then, but one that will delight fans and newcomers alike.