Here be pirates – Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag Reviewed

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If I had to guess at Black Flag’s origins, it would be that the guys over at Ubisoft Montreal always wanted to make a pirate game but couldn’t convince the suits to bankroll it, so they decided instead to simply make the next Assassin’s Creed game with lots and lots of pirate-y elements. I say that because this new game lets you unleash your inner swashbuckler in the finest, most detailed pirate-y game world ever made that’s thinly-disguised as an Assassin’s Creed game. Fans of the AC franchise need not fear, though, because this is actually good: the only thing better than being a badass assassin, is being a badass pirate with assassin skills, and that’s exactly who you get to be in Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag.

As the game opens, we find the game’s new protagonist, pirate Edward Kenway, on the losing end of a spectacular naval battle set in the middle of a violent storm. Kenway survives, of course, only to become accidentally embroiled in a plot involving assassins, Templars, and a mystical Observatory that reportedly has magical powers. You know, typical Assassin’s Creed stuff.

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Because fighting in calm waters and good weather is for wusses.

Kenway, who had no ambitions to be an assassin before inadvertently becoming one through a chance meeting with – and subsequent execution of  – one, is really just a freedom-loving lad at heart who is prepared to do whatever it takes to make his fortune quickly so he can retire to an island somewhere to enjoy his ill-gotten gains. Because he isn’t actually an assassin, but he is a fairly clever chap, he adopts the advantages offered by the assassin’s tools and armour in his pirate-y dealings, which is why you’ll get to indulge in both approaches throughout the game.

And in fact, it’s the pirate-y things that AC4 lets you do that will keep you most engaged throughout the game’s 40+ hours. There are still plenty of Assassin’s Creed staples to keep you occupied like wrist-blades, assassination jobs, sword-and-gun fighting with guards on rooftops and in the streets of the Caribbean’s cities, but they play second fiddle to the awesomeness of the high-seas piracy, general swashbuckling and fortune-seeking offered by the game’s more pirate-y elements.

You’ll spend a lot of time at sea, for instance, sailing your ship, the Jackdaw, around the game’s gorgeous Caribbean setting. You’ll engage other ships in naval battles using your cannons to bring them to a standstill and then board them alongside your crew in exciting action sequences that just never get old. You’ll plunder captured ships for supplies that can be used to upgrade the Jackdaw, which in turn allows you to engage more powerful – and more valuable – ships as the game progresses. This is important, as many ships are well-equipped to sink the Jackdaw with just a few shots, making upgrading her a priority if you want to dominate on the high seas.

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All aboard!

When you have successfully boarded ships, you have the option to repair the Jackdaw using their spare parts, set the crew free to lower the infamy you accumulate through your piracy, or repair the ship and include it in your personal fleet. By building a personal fleet, you get access to a mini-game that has you trading goods and making cash without needing to do the sailing yourself. You’ll need to clear each route first, of course, but this too happens within the mini-game and is based on your ships’ stats.

Ubisoft has developed a companion app for certain Android and iOS devices that you can use to manage this mini-game even when you’re not playing. If you log in while you’re playing, you can see things like the mini-map and Edward’s statistics without needing to navigate the game’s menu system, which is pretty neat. It works well, too, although I had to borrow an iPad to get it to work as neither my Xperia Tablet Z nor Acer Iconia A1 were compatible. Yay for companion app, boo to minimal Android compatibility.

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Manage Kenway’s fleet even from anywhere you have internet access.

One of the best things the game offers is sailing the Jackdaw around and blowing other ships out the water: it’s simply spectacular. Ubisoft has nailed naval battles such that it’s complex but not complicated to control, and the wave physics are so well done that I really felt as if I were aboard a ship. Different weather patterns produce various types of waves, from flat, calm seas to rough breakers that toss the ship around in stormy conditions. Battles in such conditions are particularly spectacular given that I wasn’t just battling the enemy, but the elements as well.

In addition to the various ships Edward can engage, there are land-based forts to destroy which work sort of like mini-bosses: they are more challenging than ships to destroy, but fun and super-satisfying to take out once you master the process, which will probably take a few tries. Once they are down, the area they protected is revealed and unlocked, showing the location of all secrets and collectibles and giving Kenway access to a Harbour Master who can repair the Jackdaw and buy and sell goods.

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I spy with my little eye, something that’s about to go boom…

Relatively early in the game Edward unlocks a hideout, a safe place for him and his crew, and it’s here where you’ll spend most of the loot you accumulate through your piracy and assassinations. There are plenty of upgrades to pay for, from a tavern for your men to chill at to more places for them to bunk (needed as your crew grows).

It’s nice to have somewhere to spend your hard-stolen loot other than on weapon, armour and firearm upgrades for Edward, and lends an even greater sense of purpose to your pirating ways. Of course, it could also be argued it’s a justification for grinding through many of the game’s secondary activities, but honestly, these are so much fun that you won’t mind at all. I certainly didn’t.

The world is absolutely huge, too, with lots of islands to explore and side-quests to do that have nothing to do with the main quest, and you’re seldom without something going on to keep you hooked.

Each location in the game has a high-up vantage point where Edward’s memories are synchronised with the Animus, which, once done, reveals the surrounding area and shows where all the collectibles are. Collecting them all is a Herculean task, since there are hundreds of Animus shards to grab, sea shanties to discover (songs that your crew can sing while you sail) and chests to raid, and once you clear an area of collectibles, it turns gold on the map to indicate your success. It’s a subtle but clever encouragement to keep on keeping on.

It’s a rewarding and fun system that completionists will enjoy, but of course you have the option of simply ignoring it entirely. Me, I enjoyed the distraction these collectibles offered, but I am far from grabbing everything since the game world is so big. It’s a project I’ll probably tackle on a rainy day.

Later on in the game, you get access to a diving bell, a device that lets you explore the detailed underwater sections of the game that adds even more variety to the gameplay. It’s thrilling and a little nerve-wracking to manage your air supply, dodge sharks and search for treasure at the same time, but also rewarding: some areas are only accessible by using a diving bell, and they generally give Edward a few guards to deal with and some rewards to gather before heading back to the Jackdaw.

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I’ll just stay still, maybe he won’t see me…

As the game is set in a time that had never heard of PETA, players can engage in shark hunting and whaling for their bones and skins that are used in upgrading Edward’s abilities, or to sell as resources to gain cash money – white whale skins are super-rare and worth 20,000 Reals each. The mini-game involves throwing harpoons at them, and hanging on for dear life and trying to get more harpoons stuck in while you get dragged along by their desperately-fleeing soon-to-be carcasses. It’s a lot of fun.

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We’re gonna need a bigger boat…

On land, there are the usual Assassin’s Creed-y things to do. You’ll explore several Caribbean cities, each with their own look and feel, you’ll assassinate targets and collect the aforementioned collectibles and, of course, do a lot of running across rooftops in the series’ signature parkour style. You’ll also sneak a lot and take guards out from the shadows and various hiding spots like thick bushes and plants. Fighting guards in the open is a lot of fun as the game employs a very Batman-like counter system that makes taking on crowds of guards at once feasible, but of course you can always run away and hide if you start to feel overwhelmed.

The story itself is standard Assassin’s Creed fare involving a bit of mysticism, and while it’s not terrible the pirate-y bits of the game are a lot more engaging. The obligatory scenes set in Abstergo, the company behind the Animus technology that lets you explore Kenway’s memories from the confines of a 21st-century tech company office, are very cleverly done and offer fans of the series plenty of Easter eggs and tidbits about the series’ possible future directions if they go looking. In the end, the game’s single-player experience all comes together very nicely in a way that longtime fans of the series will surely appreciate.

Multiplayer is of course also part of this Assassin’s Creed, taking the form of a training programme run in the Animus. Unfortunately, there aren’t any naval battles due to technical challenges faced by the developers, which is quite a pity as it’s so much fun in the single-player. Players will mostly be trying to assassinate each other by blending into the scenery and striking at opportune moments, but there is also a capture the flag variant called Artefact that has two teams trying to steal an artefact from the other team’s base, and getting it back home to theirs without getting caught.

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Take that, random person on the internet!

Perhaps most important is the Game Lab, where gamers can set their own rules for multiplayer and effectively create their own game modes. They can choose the activities that score points, making it possible to play game modes where only stealth kills count toward the point tally, for example. Connectivity proved smooth during testing, and while multiplayer was a lot of fun, it’s the single-player that had me coming back for more.

Technically, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is a marvel to behold. I reviewed the Xbox 360 version, and frame rates were consistent and graphics delightfully sumptuous. I was particularly impressed by the detail in the game, and the sheer spectacle of ship vs. ship combat and the way it never felt contrived. The controls took some getting used to, though, as pressing the right trigger makes Edward run and climb any walls you happen to guide him toward, and that wasn’t always what I was trying to do, but I got the hang of it after a few hours. Overall I had no major complaints about the game’s technical soundness.

As a result of all so many good things to praise and only a few to whinge about, I can happily say Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is the best Assassin’s Creed game since II. It’s accessible, fascinating, and a lot of fun to play thanks to the gorgeous setting and pirate-y atmosphere, making it a must-play for fans of the series and new gamers alike.

It’s out now for PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, and will be available on both Sony’s and Microsoft’s next-generation consoles when they launch here.

Summary

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, by Ubisoft Montreal
Available on: Xbox 360, PS3, PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4
The good: Pirate-y setting, tons of things to do, ship-to-ship combat, amazing visuals
The bad: No ship-to-ship multiplayer combat, feels more like a pirate game with assassins rather than the other way around, companion app incompatible with some Android devices

Rating: 9/10

Deon du Plessis

Deon du Plessis

Deon got his first taste of PC gaming at the tender age of 11 when his father bought an 8088 XT, ostensibly to "help him with his homework". Instead, it introduced him to Leisure Suit Larry, King Graham, Sonny Bonds and many more, and Deon has been a PC gamer and hardware enthusiast ever since. He landed his first professional writing gig in 2006 at a prestigious local PC magazine, a very happy happenstance as he got to write for a living about things he loves - tech, PCs, gaming, and everything in between. He's been writing about it all ever since, and loves every minute of it.

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