Assassins Creed 4 Black Flag | Saving Privateer Kenway
When you’ve got something lying face down, apparently dead in the water then you’d be forgiven for abandoning whatever it is to it’s watery fate and focusing your time on more important things like what to have for dinner. This was the situation Assassin’s Creed 3 found itself after a rather brutal reception. In short, it was an abysmal addition to the franchise and a stellar example of innumerable missed opportunities. As such, faith in the franchise dwindled to an ember as Ezio fan-boys walked away from the drowning Connor Kenway, that was, until Black Flag sailed onto PS4 and went all CPR on Ubisoft’s annual series.
Black Flag drops you into the golden age of piracy, right at the heart of it all in The Caribbean where you fill the boots of Edward Kenway, a drunkard with a particular knack for free running and Templar hunting. The basis of the plot consists of Kenway traversing the massive map to discover a Templar location known as The Observatory, which is rumoured to enable the user to spy on anyone in the world, providing you have a drop of his or her blood, of course.
Along the way you’ll experience the rise and fall of the legendary Blackbeard, you’ll commandeer your own pirate paradise and muster your own personal fleet. What you’ll do very little of however, is anything particularly Assassin-like. Sure you’ll tailgate countless Templar bigwigs but the main story lacks the basic Assassins Creed foundation that was so prevalent in previous iterations of the franchise. Don’t get me wrong, the story is whole-heartedly enjoyable, but it just seems crass to strap a few hidden blades on something and declare it as an Assassin’s Creed game.
Alongside the in-Animus storyline there’s also a real world plot, much like the Desmond Miles story found in the older games. This time you’re not in the scrubby trainers of Mr Miles but an Abstergo Entertainment employee who get’s manipulated by an eccentric member of the IT department to help him uncover Abstergo’s apparently Templar tendencies. These real world sections come mainly after the completion of memory sequences and are a real drag on the game. They’re first person, long-winded and choc full of terrible jokes at Ubisoft’s expense. They are annoyingly useful for uncovering plot information and house several collectibles however, so enduring them is an uncomfortable necessity. They never last more than 10 minutes, which means you can get back to your privateering very quick.
The true enjoyment in Black Flag is found in the way it plays rather than it’s haphazard story. As mentioned before, the map is expansive and filled to the brim with trinkets and collectibles that, even when the main story is said and done, will have you sailing around the sandy beaches forever, mainly turning over rocks to discover poorly hidden treasure.
That being said, the sailing is the real centerpiece of Black Flag, everything that grabbed gamer’s attention in AC3 has been built on to deliver an intuitive sailing experience. So much so that you’ll lose hours cruising the waves, ransacking passing merchant ships and improving your trusty vessel (The Jackdaw) instead of actually pushing with the storyline. When on land, things seem ironically dry. Little has been done to differentiate the free-running mechanics in AC4 with past releases; it still takes a ludicrously long time for Edward to hoist himself up on a ledge, for example.
Combat is slick as can be, get a good kill streak going with free-flow sword fighting and you’ll feel elation comparable with finishing a COD level on veteran without dying, yeah serious stuff. The gun component of combat deserves a special mention, Edward can acquire up to four pistols and they add that little topping of panache to an already fluid experience. On top of the main game there’s also something of a mini-game unlocked for uPlay Passport holders (it’s free, just sign up) called Kenway’s Fleet. Not only is this a great source of income for Edward but it’s also a nifty little break from the game…without actually stopping. You’re able to charter captured ships on merchant voyages to trade collected goods for all-important cash.
Multiplayer still feels like the largest chink in the ever-improving armor of the Assassin’s Creed games. Although the experience is dramatically improved with better-organized maps and a more thrilling cat and mouse gameplay mode, it still just doesn’t seem to fall into place. Even with the help of all the tutorials you’ll still probably find yourself at a loss, hiding in a crowd hoping your disguise is actually working. With so many games delivering a shared open world (NFS: Rivals, The Division, ESO and so on) it’s hard to ignore how perfectly suited Assassin’s Creed is to that kind of world, imagine the ships you’re attacking are actually your two buddies from school and the guy you just pick-pocketed was your older brother. Maybe AC should head more towards a shared world form of multiplayer rather than pursuing their current model?
With great power comes great responsibility as a wise old man once said. The PS4 has tons of power and Ubisoft have thankfully been very responsible with how stunningly Black Flag looks on Sony’s new console. Sunsets on the horizon to rustling vegetation are realised in super slick and sometimes breath-taking visuals although they can get a little rough around the edges at times with things such as fabric and hair animation.
The void between the PS3 and PS4 version is surprisingly large for a port, the graphical difference are more than noticeable with the older generation looking terrible in comparison. Colours are vibrant and bring The Bahamas to life whilst Kenway’s untamed mane and rigid cloak remind you you’re still playing a port.
Like any Assassin’s Creed title, the music department at Ubisoft has done a spot on job collecting culturally relevant and modern tidbits, splicing them together to formulate at pleasant auditory journey.
If that wasn’t enough one of the many collectibles are Shanties, little sheets of music that your crew will sing whilst sailing. Some of these shanties are ridiculously catchy so thankfully you’re given the option to put the scurvy dogs on mute.
Alongside the iconic geometric and abstract exposé is a cluttered menu that, although rather aesthetically displeasing is actually quite functional. Everything you want to access regarding the different modes are all accessible from the title menu.
The pause menu in-game is reassuringly well-populated with the necessities such as the crafting menu (comfortably lifted from Far Cry 3) and upgrades for Edward and The Jackdaw. Even if you’re lost in uncharted waters, changing the brightness or equipping a new pistol will be a snap for even the most inexperienced explorer.
It’s safe to say that the Assassin’s Creed franchise is back on form. Whilst the mechanics and such are still riddled with age-old gripes, the progression in terms of actual gameplay experience is indicative of progression within the series. Not all mistakes have been learnt from, but the new additions like the sailing and hunting/crafting are examples of perfection in their own right. Graphically a pleasure, Black Flag has put the wind back in the sails of the Creed but it still has fair space left to grow and many kinks to iron out.
The graphical leap is noticeable on next-gen consoles, a serious relief when you consider it’s merely a port.
The map is colossal and a real treat, the storyline is quite literally the tip of the iceberg.
Mini games such as Kenway’s fleet and the endless side quests will keep you exploring The Bahamas for months to come.
Bugs are inconsistent but noticeable, they often ruin crucial cut scenes or break up key events.
The main storyline is average at best and feels far too removed from the ‘Assassin’ foundations the other games in the franchise possess.
The first person orientated “real life” sections are a massive pain in the ass and really drag everything down with its terrible humour.