Ubisoft are having another good year. Regularly turning out top quality feasts of entertainment and Assassin’s Creed 4 Black Flag confidently follows that tradition.
This years edition of the AC series once again provides gamers with the opportunity to freely roam an exciting point in our history. One that many of us would have fantasised about as children. Dozens of hours of gameplay amongst locations as beautiful as they are dangerous.
Before I begin dissecting the pros and cons of this nautical saga, I want to stamp the beginning of the review with my approval for this game. Black Flag is an excellent gamer experience, in an untapped evocative era that deserves to be captured as well as it has been here.
Black Flag is set around the island country of Cuba during the piratical Golden Age of the 18th Century. Unlike the slow build up of AC3, that had players swapping and changing characters over a 6 hour intro before they became a moccasin wearing assassin, Black Flag quickly puts you into the role of Edward Kenway, who steals his way into the clothes of the assassin and within an hour is at the helm of the Jack Daw.
During Assassin’s Creed 3 we experienced the series’ newest trick, the impressive naval missions. The theme of AC4 focuses on this area, splitting the land based aspect almost evenly with sailing around the beautiful Caribbean islands, in search of ships and towns to plunder. When not following the primary story arc this exploration can be done at the player’s leisure, with English, and Spanish ships frequently appearing on your horizon, tempting you with their booty. Pulling out your spyglass you can zoom in on the ships, towns, forts, and other points of interest to gather a bit of extra info, helping you better judge whether you want to go out of your way to interact with them. This little exercise is just the right measure of interesting and useful without being annoying and pointless. And that last sentence pretty much sums up the majority of Black Flag.
The protagonist is, to put it bluntly, a bit of a dick and Black Flag largely fails to make you like him. In his defence you don’t hate him either, but this indifference leads to a vague detachment from his interactions and therefore a disconnect from the main story. And that unfortunately means you don’t fully engage with the sheer badassery of being a specific assassin killing machine from history. And that is a shame.
The story on the whole is ok, but as I touched on before it’s not especially captivating, and this means it can feel like just a device to take you from place to place, to perform your missions and learn more about what you can get up to in the huge game world. But despite this the missions themselves are still pretty fun, because they are varied and nicely paced. Using the mechanics of eavesdropping, hopping from corner to corner, innocently walking amongst groups of islanders to avoid detection, and then drawing your cutlass and blunderbuss during your 50 foot drop to murderise your unsuspecting target below. Still awesome.
But I must draw attention to something that concerns me in the series. AC is constantly being refined to enable the player a streamlined experience and that now results in you pressing down a single button to run, that also allows you to “hopefully” scale anything you encounter and then a single attack/kill button when you want to hit someone, and a single defend button when the quick time event icon pops above an attacking enemy’s head. All of this means that you aren’t really doing much in the way of skilful interaction during this part of the game. In summary, the combat and freerunning is still an ok system, but Assassin’s Creed 5 is going to need to weave something new in to our experience if it is going to engage the player again, because it is starting to feel hollow. That said, Edward has a handful of other tricks up his sleeve, from blow gun to smoke bombs, to upgradeable swords and pistols.
But let’s get on to the real star of Black Flag, The Jack Daw. It’s great that you can clamber all over your vessel, pulling yourself high up the rigging to the top of the masts where you can look down on your busy crew, who I like to think are smoking Cuban cigars, while they swab my, errrr main-brace? And scrub the, um, let’s call them yardarms. This interaction gives a real sense of existence to your boat and when Old Jack is moored in the harbour of a settlement it’s cool to look down from the cliffs on the island and watch it bobbing there, knowing you can just dive a hundred foot into the sea, swim up to it anytime you want and sail off into the beautiful sunset.
Controlling the Jack Daw is almost therapeutic. Rewarding and yet simple to master, you will be navigating between tiny beaches and tussling with the weather and waves in no time. Never would the player’s control of Old Jack be described as annoying or unforgiving; the balance is consistently fun. One moment you might be cruising alongside coves of lush green islands and the next you might be travelling headlong towards a tropical storm or twister. You can literally see a storm rolling towards you and just like in real life you can take your eye off it for a moment and then be surrounded by deep mist and lashing rain. If this happens when you are bombarding a fort or surrounded by a fleet of enemy vessels, it will add to your challenge no end, as you struggle to work out which enemy is your biggest threat.
Where earlier I was describing the over simplification of the assassin’s hand-to-hand combat, the sea battles are done brilliantly, providing interesting and engaging encounters every time. Do you start by ramming an enemy vessel? Or pulling alongside, as you haven’t declared your intentions yet, and broadsiding them with your most powerful cannons? Or do you mortar them from a distance with your difficult to aim but devastating siege weapons? Is the enemy near other similarly aligned vessels who will join in a battle to help their countrymen? If so which ones should you try to tackle first? Should you destroy the enemy ships, losing the majority of their cargo, or attempt to disable and board them? Boarding enemy ships then seamlessly takes you to a set of well paced mini challenges, as your crew deal with their crew, you work on taking down the hardy enemy captain or cutting their colors from the masts. This is real pirate fun and the complexity of the sea battles subtly increases as you begin picking on tougher targets.
There are a couple of commodities in the game and some of these can be added to amounts of cash to upgrade the Jack Daw, while the others are sold straight up to get money in your coffers.
Now I think you might like to hear this: Last year I found myself in a little seaside bay, at the bottom of a valley, with only one way into it. I trekked down a meandering, narrow road that ended at an ancient, tiny pub. I was in the depths of Wales and the pub had the familiar aroma of seaweed. I ordered an old Welsh Dragon ale from a guy with a white beard, and as he passed me the brew he leant over the bar and said, “You’re going to want to stick around for some singing later”.
He was absolutely right. What followed that evening was an experience that will stay with me for the rest of my life. I was a little way in to my second ale when suddenly an old guy in the corner started to sing. On his own. Then another guy chimed in with the chorus perfectly. Every verse another person or two within the pub joined in. There were dozens of people crammed in on this cold wet night and within an hour everyone in the tap room was singing their hearts out (including me). These old sea shanties had obviously rang throughout Welsh coastal pubs for hundreds of years. They were beautiful, hypnotic and wonderfully inclusive, as any newcomer could just pick up the chorus when it next came round. And now for my outstanding tie in to the Black Flag experience. Your crew will sing sea shanties as you travel the seas and while I was enjoying the roll of the ship on the Caribbean waves I suddenly realised I was listening to a fabulous, authentic rendition of a sea shanty that I had first heard in that little pub, sung by real Welsh sailors.
This attention to detail helps remind us that games are more than just games, they are fully interactive experiences that will teach us as much as entertain, often without us even realising it’s happening. Ubisoft have taken on the underlying responsibility of our historic tutorage with as much passion and respect as they have for the other aspects of creating these huge titles and for that they deserve our grateful acknowledgement.
As I said last year with AC3 and Far Cry 3, Black Flag should be played on a machine that is capable of displaying the beautiful scenery that stretches, literally, across the seas. The current gen consoles just can’t turn out the draw distance that these magnificent open worlds have to offer. Sure, it is playable on the PS3 and Xbox360 but while Ubisoft haven’t got our PC review copy out to us yet, I feel a little short changed considering the experience I expect the PC or even the next gen consoles can provide. I have played Black Flag briefly on the PS4 and PC and it is beautiful and a huge graphical improvement. While on the PS3 I sometimes look through the spyglass to the horizon and see the ship I am looking for, floating in the air, because the sea at that distance has not been drawn in.
I am not going to go into detail about the modern day aspect of this title, as I don’t feel it adds much to the game. But I do want to point out that Ubisoft also seem to realise that and in Black Flag they use this aspect of the series as an amusing nod to gamers, as they parody Ubisoft’s game development business.
Black Flag has tonnes for you to do. You will lose yourself for hours at a time in a beautiful world from a time gone past. Our score out of ten reflects AC4’s place in the series as a whole as opposed to how well it stands up to other games because it’s easy for us to recommend this game to any gamer who shows even the slightest interest. However, Assassin’s Creed 5, whatever that will be about, will have its work cut out and it will be interesting to see if we get the annual news from Ubisoft, come March 2014, of an Assassins Creed 5. After AC4 the series needs aspects of its gameplay revamped, but I have no doubt that Ubisoft will deliver when the time comes, but we may be waiting until 2015 for the sort of improvements AC5 will need.
But for now, let me finish by saying AC4 is worth your money. It’s as beautiful and calming as it is challenging and rewarding. Ever since I was a child I have wanted to sail around the magnificent 18th century sun kissed Caribbean islands, with my own ship and crew, ready to plunder anything that sparkles. And now we all can in Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag.