Review: Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag

As the now-closing seventh generation of consoles launched some eight years ago, Ubisoft’s Prince of Persia series had run out of ideas, and enthusiasm. It had been a superb run, with a trio of fantastic games (though the quality of Warrior Within is perhaps debatable) and fascinating new gameplay and tight design. Ubisoft made the decision, quietly, to let the series fade away, and instead introduced an IP which would prove to be a monster in the years to come. Though the first was little more than a tech demo, Assassin’s Creed ultimately proved to be one of the biggest franchises of the seventh generation. Now, with the eighth generation dawning, perhaps it’s time for AC to wind down, and be replaced by Watch Dogs… but if it does go out now, it’s going out on a hell of a high note with Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag.

It’s a complex story, though, because I’ve rarely seen a game that tries to do as much stuff as Black Flag. The Assassin’s Creed franchise has invented new systems with every outing, and slowly piled them on top of each other (occasionally weeding out the ones that just plain miss), and by this point it’s an incredibly daunting list. There are a half-dozen varieties of collectables, crafting, an upgradeable home base, an upgradeable ship, a mini economy of trade goods, story missions, Templar hunts, naval contracts, assassination missions… every time you step into a major city (or even a small island) the map floods with a million things to do. It’s a “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” approach, and while it’s handled more gracefully than the sloppy AC3, it’s still pretty overwhelming.

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At least the majority of this huge feature list is enjoyable to explore. Edward Kenway, pirate captain of the Jackdaw and our protagonist, is a pretty likeable fellow, charming and easygoing, and you feel very little pressure to press forward in the story. Indeed, many of the cutscene end with a character saying that they will see you “in a few months,” taking into account both the travel time in the Caribbean in that era, and also accounting for Edward’s (and the player’s) penchant for getting into mischief. The game makes it clear that it expects you to wander around, and thus you never feel guilty for doing so.

It’s good thing, too, because in the early going, the story is a bit of a grind. While Edward and his pirate friends are fun enough, before too long you get caught up in the grand Assassins-Templars conflict, and figure out that both sides are boring. Occasionally in past games this overarching storyline could be wearisome, but never before has it been so straight up dull. The Templars are a bunch of uninteresting, drab characters, to the point that you will realize as you stab someone that you were supposed to know who they were. The Assassins, on the other hand, are holier-than-thou and tedious. The late game does manage to turn this around, making the conflict interesting, but it’s a reversal that proves too little, too late.

The ground combat is, as ever, all flash and no substance. Edward’s animations as brutal and satisfying as any game in the series past, but the game’s passive “wait and counter” style of combat fluctuates from mindless to snorefest depending on if the AI is throwing itself at you or simply standing there and staring you down. There’s a little enjoyment to be had in having up to four pistols available at the touch of a button, allowing you to ignore some potentially time-consuming battles by dropping four enemies in the blink of an eye, but when the nicest thing you can say about the combat is that it’s easy to make it end, there’s a problem.

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The naval combat, on the other hand, is fantastic. Building on the foundation established in AC3, your ship the Jackdaw has a number of armaments- swivel guns, deck guns, broadsides, mortars, explosive barrels dropped like mines, and naval ram when all’s said and done. Some of these need to be unlocked, and all of them can be upgraded for better power and performance. The difference they make is significant, with a real feeling of progression and growth as your ship rises from a thorn in the side of merchants to a terror of the high seas. Boarding enemy ships (naturally) switches you back to the ground combat, and the juxtaposition makes it clear just how much better the naval combat is- the boarding is an incredibly dull slog.

The final piece of the puzzle with any Assassin’s Creed title is the modern era content. Since the core conceit of the games is that the historical stuff is all a simulation, every game has content focused around being the person that is playing that simulation. Personally, I feel like it’s been handled pretty poorly in the past- the first one was okay, and it’s been pretty dumb ever since. However, AC4 finally does it in a way I enjoy, by trying to do less instead of more. The segments out of your Animus memory simulator are few and far between, and use more restraint that I would ever expect out of an AC game. Frankly, they’re fantastic, adding that extra bit of depth to the story without making too big of a deal out of it. I won’t spoil the setup, but it’s quite clever, and never overstays its welcome.

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I played this game to completion- a solid twenty-six hours- on the PlayStation 3, and it’s a very pretty game. The waves and wilds of the Caribbean are beautifully rendered, and the framerate only had a few tiny dips in the whole of my playtime. I would, however, recommend getting this game on the PS4 for one thing- draw distance. Clearly, Ubisoft is pushing the PS3 as far as they can with this vast open world, and the seams are clearly visible- or more accurately, obscured by mist. The great blue yonder is pretty foggy, with ships fading into view as you sail. Spotting something off on the horizon is basically impossible, and while the effects don’t look bad, being able to see further on the sea would go a long way. We’ve finally used up what power these consoles have to offer, and it’s time to move on.

All in all, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is honestly a bit of a mess. The ground combat is boring, while the naval combat is fantastic. The map is cluttered with way too many collectables (what do Animus Fragments even do?), but the game is so fun to play that you’ll find yourself grabbing them just to have an excuse to keep sailing. And while the story takes a while to get interesting, by the end I was more interested in Assassins and Templars than this series has ever made me. Is it a great game, to be held up as an example of stellar design and vision? I’m not sure it is. But sixty bucks says you’ll have a damn good time playing it.

Four Stars Out of Five