Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag (Xbox 360 Version) Review
Posted by Stewart Lange on 11.12.2013
Another year, another Assassin's Creed game, but Black Flag features some swashbuckling new features from previous years. Are they to treasure or should this game walk the plank?
When a gaming franchise starts putting out release after release, just so they can become a yearly event, there's two ways that things can go. The first route is the easiest, the one taken by Call of Duty and 95% of sports games. Make minor tweaks, new rosters or maps and just hope that the advertising campaign does enough to convince people to shell out their hard earned cash, or there is the second choice. This is the path less travelled, that has seen big names such as Guitar Hero just quit before fans get disillusioned and give up anyway. Assassin's Creed was heading towards being just another annual money churner, with a couple of relatively meaningless sequels to the second instalment in Brotherhood and Revelations doing little to advance the story (despite Brotherhood being largely regarded as the best in the series) and starting to make the once exciting and innovative gameplay feel stale. When 3 was released, we were promised the end of the Desmond story, which we were, but it did little but disappoint and as a fan of the series, I thought it was the worst game in the series to date, with a poor ending and an unlikable main character.
So, despite the fact I've played every game in the series excluding handhelds, my current relationship with Assassin's Creed was definitely on the rocks. An unlikable multiplayer system, a decline in efforts to the story and no emotional tie to the last two games left me questioning how much I'd miss the franchise now it was gone. Alas, following the trend of Halo before it and Mass Effect to follow, the self contained trilogy was not to be the end and hot on the heels of Desmond saving the world Ubisoft announced Assassin's Creed 4. This game was set to feature the sailing and piracy that was introduced in 3, with less focus on the actual assassination side of things and they certainly didn't joke around. Very early in the story you have to sail a ship away from an island and from there on, the focus is as much on plundering and naval combat as it is running around and stabbing guards.
I'll take a look at the dry part of the gameplay first, for you land-lovers. It's what we've come to know as Assassin's Creed “by numbers.” The usual standard of takedowns, hiding places, looting chests and distracting side quests are all present, but the “Fantasy Assassin Manager” is gone. If you've played so much as one instalment in the franchise then you'll know what you're getting here, but with smaller cities than we are used to- made up for by the sheer scale of the entire environment of the game- and small visitable islands. These islands are reachable the first time via boat and them most of them you can reach with the games vast fast travel system. It's pretty handy for collecting, but to truly experience the game then going by sea is the only option- but I digress. The bigger cities are densely populated and feel very vibrant which is a good thing, although I did find that Edward would target innocents in combat from time to time. Nothing too challenging, a few missions that might take a few retries if you want to get 100% synchronised, but a few decent challenges to be found. New weapons make combat fun, with gun play taking up a bigger part of the combat here, but since there's no automatic weapons here it's not to be relied upon. This isn't a criticism, it actually helps you plan out your battles and keep the ammo for harder opponents.
Next up, we have the meat of Black Flag: the sailing sections. Before I say anything else, let me just say that these portions of the game look beautiful. The water effects are astonishing at points, the wind physics are excellent and enemy ships are rendered superbly. Ubisoft have undoubtedly put a massive amount of work into this and it shows. Unfortunately, it's not all plain sailing (pun fully intended). The control system takes a lot of getting used to. It remains largely unchanged from AC3, but is more developed due to the range of additional weapons and such. The first few battles I had at sea were decidedly ugly affairs, with me coming up short against tornadoes, military brigs and a huge number of rocks. Frustration was at an all time high, but the games forgiving checkpoint system helped by saving the loot I'd plundered despite desynchronisation. I soldiered on and after a few helpful upgrades, I was able to get away with a little more as I got used to things and the sailing became a lot more fun. Once you've defeated a ship, you get to board it and take down the remaining crew members until they surrender, which is as fun as it can be challenging. Quite often I ran across to the captured ship ahead of my crew only to be overcome by numbers and find myself fleeing, or being beaten to death. This was a frustrating part to die at, because the boat wasn't captured yet so no booty would be taken. I never enjoyed the sailing in 3 and I will admit, the first few sections of this had me despairing that it'd be the same. This one just came with the built in worry that I wouldn't be able to complete it without mastering the sailing part I didn't feel like I was getting to grips with at all. If you're at that stage, then persevere. It does get better.
So, another year, another Assassin's Creed game. But, unusually for a yearly franchise, this is almost an entire overhaul for the series and one that suits it. While I'm not sure what this means for a new trilogy, since the sailing gimmick probably wouldn't hold up well through several games and get old quicker than the main gameplay. Judging this game own it's own, though, it's a change of pace and something we've never seen done in this way before. This is undoubtedly the most detailed pirate-sim ever made, with treasure maps, eyepatches and even a couple of parrots along the way. While the Altair fan in me would have appreciated the privateering to have taken something of a side to the killing, it's easily the swashbuckling pirate side of things that make this more than the sum of it's parts. I would say to try before you buy- this will be an extremely annoying purchase if you can't get into the sailing- but if you're able to give it a decent shot and stick with it through the choppy waters of the first few memory sequences, then you're in for an absolute treat.
The game is beautiful, especially some of the tropical islands you visit
More challenging than previous years, different enough to keep you entertained
Sea shanties galore make this a fun soundtrack
Plenty of treasure to find and people to kill in this one
Verges on frustrating a little too often, but so good when it goes right