Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag has finally sailed into stores. It promises an amazing adventure as the life of a Pirate plundering ships and conquering the seas, but is it a new enough experience to bring back players who were chased away from Assassin’s Creed 3’s arduous ten hour beginning?
I am grateful to say that Black Flag is my favorite game in the series thanks to its successfully ambitious sea combat and graceful transition to land activities. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag takes place in the year 1715 and you play as Edward Kenway, the Grandfather to AC 3’s Connor. The story is much more digestible this time around primarily focusing on Edward’s drive for financial gain. Your real goal is to increase your empire by claiming ships for your own naval fleet and finding hidden treasures to upgrade your weapons and ship. A majority of the things you do goes into improving your ship the Jackdaw which serves as your main and best defense in a fierce battle and as your best friend when the going gets slow. You truly feel the depth of Black Flags’ world once you open your ship up to full speed. The camera pans way back giving you a wide view of your ship and surroundings and slightly dims the audio allowing the peaceful sounds of waves to pass the time.
But these moments are far and few between. There is so much content in Black Flag that you will always be getting distracted. Several times while sailing to a mission start I would find myself boarding an enemy ship so I could gather its precious resources or I would anchor off the coast of a small island and swim to land to search for buried treasure. This game was tailored for completionists thanks to its seemingly never ending things to gather. The world is broken down into large cities, enemy forts, small villages and even just deserted islands. Each area has its own collectibles ranging from sea shanties which unlocks new songs for your crew to sing as you sail, all the way to corked bottles which tell interesting side stories, and everything benefits you in one way or the other so you have good reason to 100% an island and move on to the next.
One of the crowing features in Black Flag is the Naval combat which has returned from AC 3 and has been tidied up a bit. Whether you are using mortars to attack a ship from a distance or ramming them head on, the naval combat focuses on strategy and ship placement which gives a rewarding conclusion to a successful battle. As you progress you unlock hull upgrades or new cannons that help to give the edge in battle. While taking on higher level ship quickly becomes easy, you can find yourself in quite the pinch when you are circling a enemy fort whiling being chased by a enemy convoy all while trying to avoid a water spout. Upgrading is not only necessary but rather easy if you spend some time expanding your empire. Mini games become unlocked which allow you to send captured and salvaged ships into battle or to deliver supplies for you. If you remember the assassin mini game from previous entries it is very similar. While this is a background thing, it is a nice touch to keep revenue flowing while you continue your exploits.
Of course this would not be an Assassin’s Creed game if it didn’t have amazing land parkour. Cities are large and alive and full of buildings to climb and things to do. If you want to spend your time sitting at a bar listening to truly beautiful live music while playing checkers you can do it; if you want to take on an assassin contract it is also there for you. The freedom of land and sea traversal is so cohesive that you will feel comfortable no matter where you are. The fighting mechanics are fast and fluid and nailing a multi kill is very satisfying. There will be times where combat is challenging but it always feels fair, and never cheap. There are of course the same issues with the parkour where one button press can send you flying off a tall building rather than onto the ledge right in front of you, but it was never too annoying.
If you played any other AC game it is pretty much the same: leveling your armor and weapons is also present which helps keep you up to snuff for anything the world may through at you. With a hunting/crafting system very similar to Far Cry 3, enhancing your pouches and items feels earned and is a great way to engage the player in side activities. Animals can be found all over the sea and land are exciting to hunt. A large portion of time can be spent in dense jungles stalking prey or swinging from trees to hunt down a hidden chest. Stealth plays a larger role this time around allowing you to hide in dense brush or in closets, and even though the stealth works, there is a lot of trial and error. You wait in a bush for a enemy to get close, whistle and then stab them when they come by. Missed your target? Wait a minute for them to make their circle and come back.
Enemy AI is not the best unfortunately. If you pop out of cover, the enemy may see you, be alerted and then forget about you five seconds later just because he can’t see you. These consistent flaws take away some of the enamor of playing like an assassin and makes it feel like more of a waiting game. While I truly love this game it is not a perfect experience. One of the major detractors to me was the repeated scenes that play whenever you capture a ship or dig up a treasure – once you decide what to do with you newly acquired ship, the same cut scene plays with no variety; dig up a large chest with the only change in being your location on the map. While I can see it being time consuming to have created a new scene for every time you do plunder a ship, I can’t help but feel that even cycling a few different ones would be great. Considering how many times you perform these actions they always play out closely the same. Shoot a ship, Board a ship, decide what to do with it, sail on. Rinse and repeat. While it is still fun it can lose its luster rather quickly. I found it very comparable to killing dragons in Skyrim.
If you have never played Assassin’s Creeds’ multiplayer you are in for a welcome surprise, this is no average, run of the mill multiplayer. It pits players against the other where one group is hunting you and your goal is to blend in with the crowds using different tactics to your advantage. On the flip side if you are the hunter, you have to be tactful in finding the right target and being stealthy as to not give up your cover. It’s a fresh take PvP and is a joy to play. This iteration has improved slightly on the tried and true cat and mouse game play and is worth playing. With progression unlocks and customization, multiplayer is a great way to enjoy this game with friends, but will not be the main reason to return to this game. The true heart of Black Flag lies in its campaign where grand memories loom and new adventures await. Don’t expect this to be a quick game to beat, and allot yourself a large amount of time if you plan on one-hundred percenting this game.
If you were burnt out on the slow beginning of AC3 or quit playing like others did when Revelations burnt you out with the new (horrible) tower defense missions, then I can comfortably welcome you back to a franchise you may have pushed to the back burner. Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag takes everything I love from the past games, throws in a wonderfully realized naval experience and puts them together in a excellently cohesive world that is accessible for new comers and quite the challenge for long time veterans. Black Flag is also one of the best looking games of the year and on next gen truly shines with bright, sun lit jungles and some superb water effects. If you are looking for a lighter, exhilarating game that lets you live out your pirate fantasies to your heart’s content, then looks no further then Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag! Arrrgh! Sorry, couldn’t resist.