Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag Review

By Darryl Kaye on November 4, 2013

While other new franchises from this generation may be able to compete in the critical stakes, when it comes to sheer volume the Assassin's Creed franchise is in a league of its own. With Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag we're at the point where the franchise has seen six main-series entries and five spin-off titles on various other platforms since the original Assassin's Creed appeared in 2007. Some might see this as a concerning statistic, but with this latest instalment Ubisoft has yet again set down a marker in terms of quality.

Assassin's Creed III saw the end of the Desmond Saga, but with Assassin's Creed III: Liberation, which released on the PlayStation Vita at the same time, Ubisoft were already sowing the seeds of the continuing over-arching story.

In Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, you take up the role of an unnamed individual who has just started working for Abstergo Entertainment, a legitimate arm of Abstergo that looks to glean interesting stories for films by utilising the Animus. After being assigned to the Subject 17 (aka Desmond Miles) team, your job is to look deeper into the life of Edward Kenway, the father of Haytham Kenway and grandfather of Ratonhnhake:ton (aka Connor).

Before getting onto the story of Kenway, it's worth noting that the current day story has a very different vibe without Desmond. First off, it all takes place from a first-person perspective, but there's also a much bigger focus on filling out the back story. While you do work for Abstergo, the majority of this information will be acquired by hacking computer terminals and it's extensive to say the least. Not only will you find out the inner workings of Abstergo Entertainment, which seems to have strange parallels to what you'd imagine Ubisoft Montreal is like, but there is also a plethora of information relating to Desmond and the Animus project in general.

It's safe to say that if you're a fan of the current day story-arch, this is the kind of information that you will lap up and it makes the whole hacking mini-game very worthwhile, as you never know what nugget of information you're going to stumble upon next. It could be a trailer for Abstergo Entertainment's next move, an audio log from Warren Vidic talking to Subject 1, or even an internal video talking about Altair's merits as a movie star.

Anyway, onto Edward Kenway "“ the scourge of the seven seas. Like many men of this era, Kenway ends up leaving a nice life in Wales after being lured away by the promise of wealth and prosperity. However, when his pirate ship unwittingly attacks the vessel of one Duncan Walpole, his life takes a very different turn. You see, Duncan Walpole was an Assassin who was looking to defect to the Templar order, and after the two get stranded on an island together, Kenway takes Walpole's life and decides to assume his position.

Upon doing so, Kenway attends a meeting with the Templar order and learns of something called The Observatory, an ancient device that can be used to spy on people, assuming you have a sample of their blood. Being the scallywag he is, Kenway then decides that he wants to find The Observatory on his own and sell its location to the highest bidder, be that the Assassins or the Templars.

Due to his lack of interest in anything but himself, the story of Black Flag is quite different from anything that's come before. There are some continuity issues at the start relating to Kenway's impersonation of an Assassin, despite not even knowing they exist and never having used a hidden blade before, but after that, it's plain sailing until the end.Despite the story taking place in so many different locations around the map and with so many different characters, not once does it feel convoluted. The pacing is near perfect, the characters are all very much fleshed out and you get to see Kenway change as a person throughout the duration of the experience. Ubisoft deserves a lot of credit for this, because they continue to reinvent how the period-based story of the main Assassin's Creed games is delivered.

The same can be said about the over-arching story too, as it does gain some traction in a rather unexpected fashion. However, despite this and the extensive effort put into the back story, it doesn't seem to get driven forward as much. This aspect has been getting progressively worse since the end of Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood and it further cements the feeling that this side of the story has lost its way a bit. Granted, Ubisoft always has a difficult decision here in terms of balance between the two stories, but it does feel yet again feel as though the weight has been shifted further towards the period-based story.

Due to the era and the story, Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag has a strong emphasis on life at sea. Whereas previous games have either been about one huge static location, or a few large connected locations, Black Flag goes for a scatter-gun approach. There are a ton of locations you can visit, some of which are small islands, while others are akin to small cities. Each of these locations has things to find, viewpoints to sync and additional activities to undertake, so there's plenty to keep yourself occupied with.

It's impressive to see how Ubisoft has expanded its own mechanics to cater for this new approach. One such example relates to what was first introduced as Borgia Towers and then briefly expanded upon in the games that followed. This has now been completely re-purposed as Forts on the world map. These must be maimed by your ship's weaponry before being claimed as your own. Once done, a small section of the world map then gets unlocked, detailing all of the Uncharted collectables in that region, as well as whaling locations and legendary ship battles.

In terms of the core gameplay, the changes are quite subtle. Combat has been made even more fluid and you can now perform different actions upon countering, but aside from that, it's largely the same. Where the most noticeable changes have come into effect, are on the naval side.

Ship combat was a huge plus point in Assassin's Creed III, so it's understandable that Ubisoft would want to expand upon that. And expand upon it they did. Whereas Assassin's Creed III's ship experience was very self-contained, in Black Flag the shackles are well and truly off.

It's a bit of a cliché, but the world is your oyster. You can sail anywhere if you want to, but it's more prudent to make use of the fast travel options that become available as you visit different locations. Still, just sailing around feels liberating and even at sea, the whole experience has a ton of character. You might visit an island to see a small battle taking place between English and Spanish forces, or you might have your naval battle be disturbed by a rather abrupt squall.Combat has been made much more user friendly too. You now have access to numerous weapons, ranging from the classic side cannons, to heavy shot, mortars, flaming barrels and chain shots. However, plunder too much and you'll encounter another re-purposed game mechanic. You no longer have your notoriety increased on land, instead, it's based on your activities at sea. And unlike the land-based system, Hunter ships do not mess around. Taking on one or two is fine, but it does start to get unwieldy when they throw even more at you.

Presentation is another element that seems very familiar. This ranges from the different climbing animations to the graphical presentation in general. If one word were used to describe this, it would be refined. The musical score retains that understated feel and Brian Tyler deserves a lot of credit. Not only does it blend the classic Assassin's Creed style with a swashbuckling tone, it also serves to create some fantastic melodies. "The British Empire" is one such example, as it has a pulsing undertone of cynicism while also having a strong swelling positivity.

Multiplayer has become a huge part of the Assassin's Creed experience since it was introduced in Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood and with Black Flag it's no different. The core element is much the same, as are the game modes, but it's advised that anyone who's new to the experience undertake the tutorial video. Kills and deaths are almost redundant, it's all about how you kill or survive.

Unfortunately this is something that a lot of people don't understand and this itself can make the online component of Assassin's Creed frustrating. Often you'll see everyone running around like mad men trying to get 50 point kills, when if they showed a little bit of patience, they could get 5-6x that in a single kill.

Still, aside from a lack of education there are a few issues with the multiplayer at present. It's unclear it the problem is widespread, but there are some distinct problems with the UI. At times the UI would disappear entirely and it makes the game near impossible to play "“ you end up literally having to guess your targets as even that disappears. Other times score identifiers would disappear, as well as on-screen indicators relating to suspicious activity.

Performance issues also extend to the stability of the system and matchmaking. Sometimes changing between menu options is enough to make the game chug and even the ending game cutscenes freeze quite frequently. Matchmaking also has severe problems, dropping parties and taking an age to find games. You'll also find yourself constantly placed in games which people have quit "“ leaving you with scenarios where it's almost impossible to win because you're so far behind.

Let's not also forget about the lag, which does seem to be a widespread problem. This is causing a lot of abilities to not function properly and it's wreaking havoc with the stunning system.

On a positive note, the amount of customisation is very impressive. You can make a clear stamp on your character through visual unlocks, as well as titles and emblems. Once Ubisoft sort out the performance issues, the multiplayer will clearly be something worth investing a lot of time into.

Final Thoughts

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag is another strong step forward for the Assassin's Creed franchise in more ways than one. Not only is the story of Edward Kenway an intriguing one, but the sheer depth of content pertaining to the current day events should also be heavily commended. Gameplay elements have also been re-purposed superbly to take into consideration the vastly changed landscape and while it would have been nice to see some further advancements to the core gameplay, we can't have everything. There are some issues relating to the multiplayer experience at present, but once they're fixed Black Flag will be a very formidable instalment into the Assassin's Creed franchise.

The narrative is bold and full of intrigue.
The sheer level of detail in all of the additional present day content.
The game design far exceeds expectations.
Multiplayer clearly isn't ready yet.
Not enough changes to the core gameplay experience.
Presentation is pretty similar to the previous installment.
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