When your flagship franchise is a series like Assassin’s Creed, you are going to have hordes of vocal and passionate fans. It’s a series that has marvelled, entertained and even to a degree educated fans for over 6 years now. When you decide to incorporate change and mix things up in a series like this, you need to be prepared for mixed reactions. Ubisoft in my opinion have done a superb job with Black Flag and I for one welcome these changes and here’s why.
So where are we? Black Flag is the first title in the series where Desmond Miles is no longer the present-day main character/protagonist. In fact, things have changed so much that at first I got completely confused as to what was happening. When the game flicks back to present day players now take on the role of an Abstergo Entertainment employee, this is played out in a first person perspective so we never see who this employee is. It’s the employees first day and he/she has been assigned to research Edward Kenway, an 18th century buccaneer who Abstergo Entertainment want to base a ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ style movie on. It very quickly becomes apparent that the players’ research isn’t just for a movie script, there is a lot more lurking beneath the surface.
The story of Black Flag and how it is told is a big change for the franchise and in the tale of Edward Kenway the war between the Assassins and Templars comes second place. This makes the game perfect for those that have never tried the franchise but are tempted, as it introduces elements of the Assassin-Templar war without burdening players with it too much. The lack of overall narrative progression might worry long-time fans, but the story also seems to be laying the foundation for future games by introducing a lot of new pieces. The pacing in which the story is told is a much quicker pace than Assassin’s Creed III and almost as soon as you start the game you’ll be thrown into a ragtag ship with a motley crew trying to steer through a raging storm. Very quickly Edward has ‘acquired’ an Assassin’s outfit, hidden blades, a ship and small crew. From that point out the high seas of the Caribbean are yours for plundering alongside famous figures like Black-beard, Calico Jack and Ben Hornigold. In fact there are very few famous pirates that know of Edward Kenway, virtually none!
Edward’s characteristics may infuriate you however as they certainly did me. Edward seems to go through a blend of personalities from dashing charismatic hero to an ignorant, stubborn lout. I have heard other’s compare Edward’s character to Altair from the first Assassins Creed. Edward is an established character who’s already well known throughout the Caribbean; he has deep rooted friendships and rivalries already in place and much of his back story is only told through short flashbacks as you progress through the game. His Assassin’s training also comes much, much later too. Black Flag actually takes place within a very short period of time in comparison to more recent titles in the series. For those who have read the book Forsaken, you’ll notice more so than everyone else that with each Animus sequence Edward slowly takes on a persona you’ll recognise more and more.
One of the best changes to the actual gameplay Ubisoft have made is the tweaks to the infamous tailing sequences—mostly in the form of an overhauled Eagle Vision system. Now, besides seeing the group affiliation of everyone in a crowd, you can also tag your targets. This allows you to see them through walls and buildings so you can follow them from a much farther distance than in previous entries. This can make sneaking around heavily populated enemy islands and forts a lot easier. That said, it can and does feel a little over powered at times. X-ray vision is something just shouldn’t exist in this game, in my opinion. Another change that players will no doubt be thankful for is the new gun mechanics. Much more similar to what we come to expect in traditional third-person-shooter’s, you’ll find it is much easier to use your pistols and pull off headshots.
Assassins Creed IV: Black Flag was released on October 29th for current generation consoles, 24 days before the highly anticipated arrival of the Next Generation of console gaming. This in itself is important as Ubisoft have had to ensure that both their current gen release stands out from the crowd as well as catering to the next generation market. The graphics are good though, not great which I hope changes when we finally get our hands on the Xbox One version. I did notice that although there is no hint of slowdown or texture blurring there is a lack of anti-aliasing that makes some details look more pixelated than they need be. This becomes apparent when sailing around on board your ship, the Jackdaw, as the rigging (ropes to you none pirate folk) and even detail around the Captain’s cabin can look far from perfect.
Talking of the ship, let’s talk about the best mechanic in the whole game; the freedom to explore 18th century Caribbean life, plunder and steal as you see fit. This is easily one of the most addictive and well-put-together game mechanics I’ve tried in a long while; it was an addictive and thrilling experience chasing down enemy ships, boarding them, and then having that ship’s crew at my mercy. There is an incredible amount to do when out at sea including but not limited to searching for buried treasure, exploring hidden wrecks, laying waste to smuggler cover and of course taking control and seizing military forts. If you play just the story line through from start to finish, Black Flag is a 15-20 hour game. If you take your time and explore and make the most of the open world element included you’ll be able to double if not almost triple those numbers.
Of course to survive all this plundering and attention it will bring you from Spanish and English enemy ships, you’ll need to upgrade the Jackdaw. This can feel like a bit of a grind at times as the materials needed are gathered from enemy ships. The grind is worth it when you pull up alongside a monstrous Man-o-War and unleash a hellish broadside attack. You can upgrade the hull, amount of cannons, storage for ammunition and crew as well as an assortment of other smaller upgrade which will change the appearance of your ship. Talking of upgrades, you can of course upgrade Edwards armour. For this you’ll need to go hunting on various different islands around the Caribbean. If hunting isn’t your thing then don’t worry as you can purchase all the animal skins needed from vendors whilst docked.
There is an addictive meta-game; Kenway’s Fleet, which allows you to take captured ships, slap a black flag on them, and send them on special missions around the Caribbean. It’s very similar to the way in Brother and past titles you would recruit Assassins to the guild and send them on missions. If ships from your fleet successfully complete a mission you get a cash reward but ships don’t unfortunately gain experience and upgrade like the Jackdaw does. One fun and unique aspect is the ships can get into a battle mini-game to help make trade routes safer—and increase the likelihood of a successful voyage. Kenway’s Fleet can also be accessed via an iOS companion app. Again it seems Game Developers forget that biggest mobile platform across the globe is actually Android…
All things considered, this is one of the most complete Assassin’s Creed releases I have played to date. Long-time players of the franchise will enjoy Edward’s story but will undoubtedly be shocked at how little the Assassin-Templar conflict actually moves forward. You can’t help but this is all laying groundwork for the next story arc. Let’s be honest, Assassins Creed II still remains as the kind of the franchise and Black Flag won’t bring it down from its perch, but if you love the idea of a pirates life, then this is the game for you.