Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag - Review
What with the games' titles, it's sometimes easy to forget that this is the sixth Assassin's Creed instalment in almost as many years. After the somewhat grim and dour affair we had last year with Assassin's Creed III, Ubisoft's latest attempt seems to breathe a little more excitement into a series that has frequently been at a bit of a risk of becoming stale and a little bit too serious.
And what better way of making something exciting than basing it around pirates. A small group of side quests that were included in Assassin's Creed III have now taken front and centre stage as you explore the world at the helm of a pirate ship. Taking a leaf out of The Wind Waker, the game is a huge patch of Caribbean sea dotted with an abundance of islands, coves and pirate dens to explore. It's easily the biggest change in the series' core structure since Assassin's Creed II.
Even the lead character is a sharp contrast from the stern-faced Connor. Edward Kenway is a pirate first and an Assassin second. An early plot event has him impersonating an Assassin turncoat and temporarily working for the Templars. It's a great way to kick off the game but unfortunately, the whole tense triple-crossing affair is quickly scrapped for the typical (and far less interesting) tale of revenge as Edward sets out on the hunt for some elusive treasure and the chance to get the Templars back.
Still, Edward is still a breath of fresh air; Altair and Connor were dull guys right from the get go, and even Ezio got all serious whenever the Assassin's code got mentioned or some Templars showed up. Edward manages to seem a bit more human simply for the fact that he's largely interested in money before anything else and is happy to question both the Assassin's and Templar's motives, even if their group names might as well be called "Good Guys" and "Bad Guys".
If The Wind Waker influenced the world design, then Far Cry 3 influenced the game mechanics. Ubisoft seem determined to clean up a lot of the rather convoluted, plodding elements that slowed the last game down and so have turned to one of their other series for help. Crafting upgrades involves hunting animal skins from various creatures such as crocodiles and sharks, with each island housing different inhabitants. Meanwhile, side quests see you taking control of British and Spanish strongholds, which in turn reveals secrets in the nearby area.
Whilst Edward might not be much of an Assassin he's still happy to carry out their work for a reward. Assassination contracts are dotted around each town or settlement you visit, along with Naval Contracts so that you get take to the high seas and make money that way too.
Ship battles are easily one of the games highlights, and capture the tone and spirit of the game better than any other moment. Much like in Assassin's Creed III, ship battles largely consist of pounding the other ship with more broadside cannons than they can bring to bear against you. It's a rather simple mechanic overall, but remains oddly compelling for lot longer than it should. Once a ship as been sufficiently damaged it can be boarded, and, provided you take out enough of the crew, will eventually surrender.
This isn't just an idle past-time however, piracy rewards you with supplies, some, such as rum and sugar, can be sold for a high price, whilst others can be used to upgrade your ship. It's a moreish system that tempts you with looting one more brig so you can just get that next cannon upgrade that'll make gunning down enemy vessels that little bit easier.
With this abundance of side content, it's easy to forget that most of this messing around, stealing and fighting for money, is not connected at all to the game's main campaign, which is where the cracks begin to show. Here, the same problems that reared their head in previous installments return: the repetitive mission structures, dull tasks (almost every mission requires you to tail someone for several minutes), and a general lack of creativity towards what should be the game's most iconic set pieces.
Similarly, the story suffers from some rather awkward pacing. Rather than tell an epic tale of redemption, Assassin's Creed IV manages to feel fragmented and episodic. Each section of the story manages to introduce another bad guy or another problem, which is usually dealt with far too easily. The other issue with having such a wide array of characters, both good and bad, is that there's simply not enough time to establish them well enough so that we care about what's happening. In fact, one of the game's major antagonists manages to hardly be present in the story until the final few chapters.
While Kenway remains a likable enough lead throughout, his transformation from beginning to end also comes across as rushed and not all that convincing, despite a decent vocal performance by Matt Ryan. The mystery of what side he'll end up on, given who his son is, is never really played up enough. Edward Kenway might be a greedy pirate but it's still clear early on that he's one of the good guys.
And in case you were wondering, no, Ubisoft haven't forgotten about the present day segments either. Finally rid of Desmond Miles and that ridiculous end of the world plot that seemingly went nowhere, the developers were finally in a position to rebuild this section from scratch or jettison it entirely. In the end, it's a bizarre compromise, playing as a nameless, voiceless Abstergo employee working on the Edward Kenway memory file, you unwittingly find yourself aiding some undercover Assassins. The finale will have anybody who sat through Assassin's Creed III's present day sections rolling your eyes and wishing Ubisoft would be done with Abstergo and stick to historical settings.
It's something of a disappointment too because, much like the rest of the game, when the developers stop taking themselves so seriously there's moments that are actually rather fun. In this instalment, Edward Kenway's memory is being explored as part of Abstergo's entertainment division, which is developing a pirate-themed game for mass market. It's a funny meta-story on the Assassin's Creed series, and Ubisoft aren't above poking fun at themselves in some of the files you can uncover; one has several corporate executives arguing over whether pirates, zombies, or ninjas are more profitable.
With Assassin's Creed: Unity having been announced for this holiday season it seems the annual installments of Assassin's Creed aren't going anywhere. Black Flag is the first game that questions whether it should be an Assassin's title however; it manages to refresh the series but a lot of the old problems still remain. This almost feels like a pirate game that just so happens to be set in the same fictional universe. At times you wish the Assassin's, Templars, and all that silly Animus nonsense would buzz off and just let you enjoy being a pirate.
With Unity being set during the French Revolution, we'll be hoping that Ubisoft can pull off a little revolution of their own and update a bunch of game mechanics that have remained essentially the same since the second game in the series way back in 2009. Black Flag has its flaws but there's enough to enjoy here to hope that Unity is a success.
Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag was released in October for Xbox 360, PS3, PC and Wii U. A PS4 and Xbox One version were released in November.
This review is based on the PS4 version.
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