- Format: PS3 (version reviewed), 360, PC, Wii U, PS4, Xbox One
- Unleashed: Out Now (PS3/360), November 22nd (PC/Wii U/PS4/Xbox One)
- Publisher: Ubisoft
- Developer: Ubisoft (multiple studios)
- Players: 1 (offline), 2-8 (online)
- Site: assassinscreed.ubi.com
Black Flag addresses some important criticisms of its predecessor, the most pressing of which was of course the distinct lack of Welsh pirates. Here therefore you get not one but two, including new protaganist Edward “from Swansea but doesn’t sound like it” Kenway.
Kenway in fact represents one of the few areas in which the series takes a step back here, namely storytelling. Overall it’s an enjoyable romp, with many a buckle swashed (one presumes) and historical figures included in the believable pirate community which by turns attacks and defends itself from those dastardly British – when not turning on itself. Some of the dialogue in the early stages of the story is painfully awkward however, and on top of that it’s hard to staple Kenway the sensitive sailor pining after his estranged wife to Kenway the psychotic Welshman who murders, steals and destroys on a regular basis without a second thought.
In much (much) better news the near-future sections are, as promised, briefer and less regular than before; though no less intrusive or more welcome for that. It’s all in first-person, which makes it a little more interesting than the universally hated Desmond stages (don’t worry, he’s still dead). There are sadly a handful of incredibly tedious, and compulsory, hacking mini-games to wade through across these sections. It doesn’t really help that it all takes place in the building of ‘Abstergo Entertainment’, a cringe-inducing self-parody of Ubisoft and their work. Now, let us never talk of the future sections again.
As you’d expect, the mechanics of the game remain largely the same. Though the previous sentence is good to repeat aloud in an effort to improve your diction, it also does a good job of expressing the fact that assassinations and parkour work just as they did before. You also seem to be given a little more freedom in how to approach missions, in that – unlike previous games – much of the time it’s possible to sneak around and kill/knock out enemies undetected during the story, should you so wish. This is often reflected in the optional challenges which make a return.
When you are detected melee combat is a little clunky, particularly if you’re caught in the middle of a large number of enemies and allies and it’s not immediately obvious where you are. It does the job – just not with an enormous amount of grace. On a similar subject, escaping detection by running and hiding is blissfully easier than the last game. It seems that Ubisoft has slightly overcompensated here, though; running in plain sight before detection usually isn’t a problem if you can quickly dive into cover, and the goldfish memories of guards are sometimes bizarre. We once triggered an alarm, killed a small group of guards, and had another group completely ignore the pile of corpses right next to our hiding place before deciding everything was perfectly fine.
Ultimately none of this is too important, as the game is so damn fun. The pirate/assassin gameplay split is about 70/30. It’s a very big game world (the story alone can take anything from 15 to 22 hours) with a huge chunk of it being sea, meaning you’ll spend an awful lot of time on your ship. Sailing and naval battles are now even better than before. You’ll sometimes have to contend with poor visibility due to weather, and/or huge waves that threaten to damage the ship and kill crewmen. Your crew incidentally is now a quantifiable, upgradeable asset needed to board and capture ships.
The Jackdaw (your ship) is upgradeable all over the place, in what boils down to various offensive and defensive factors. Keep pumping money in and you’ll end up with a fearsome sea beast able to fight off multiple ships at a time. Upgrades require materials, which can only be acquired in decent numbers by looting ships. You can choose to launch an attack on any ship you come across, and your spyglass lets you first assess what it’s carrying. Once you’ve crippled the ship, you can sink it for a fraction of the materials; or take the riskier route of boarding it, taking out the captain and crew, for all the booty.
Unlike its predecessor and despite its size, Black Flag has a pleasing density of activities. On land you have the usual assassin contracts, chests to loot, collectables to grab etc; but at sea as well as terrorising random ships you can hunt whales and sharks, explore and loot shipwrecks underwater, explore smaller islands, attack then invade and take over forts (which in turn unlock further missions), and more. If you just want to get where you’re going you’ll be pleased to hear that as you progress, you come across easily unlocked fast travel locations – of which there are many. It’s not the bugfest ACIII was, either. We came across a total of three graphical glitches, each separated by several hours, but that was it. Even the traditional frame rate issues seem less severe than usual.
Multiplayer on the other hand is a disappointment. It’s as unique and enjoyable as ever, but that’s the problem – it’s largely identical to the last instalment. If you played the last game to death online and became tired of it, there’s nothing to renew your interest here. The Game Lab avoids this problem entirely on paper, as it allows you to take any game mode and fiddle around with a long list of parameters. Welcome as this is you can’t alter the basic structure of any of the games; and why no piratey inspiration for a new mode altogether?
It’s not without its problems but, in an industry saturated with open world games, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag easily stands head and shoulders above most. Just as people wanted to be a cowboy after playing Red Dead Redemption, Black Flag will make you realise you want to be a pirate. Failing to name it Aaarrrrssassin’s Creed is an epically wasted opportunity.