Sailing into the Horizon: Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag Review
A great swan song and fitting goodbye to a prominent console generation, and the start of something wonderful for the newest consoles.
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal Publisher: Ubisoft
Platform: Xbox 360 (Reviewed), Playstation 3, PC, Xbox One, Playstation 4, Wii U
Rated: M for Mature Release Date: Oct. 29 (PC, PS3, Xbox 360, Wii U), Nov. 15 (PS4), Nov. 22 (Xbox One)
MSRP: $59.99 Genre: Action/Adventure/Stealth
by Terry Randolph
Few games this year have left me affected by a character’s journey, let alone stay with me after the credits. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is a testament to how storytelling and writing have vastly improved in such a short amount of time for video games; the most remarkable thing about this title is that, while I fear the Assassin’s Creed franchise will hit fatigue due to yearly releases, this game shows the franchise still has life in it. When people talk about Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, chances are they’ll focus on how fun the various activities in the game are, or how the game has improved in its gameplay but still gets bogged down by problems long established since the first game. For me, the latest entry will be remembered as being an evocative, strong and powerful tale of character growth.
Taking place after the events in the modern day setting of Assassin’s Creed III, players take the role of an unnamed employee at Abstergo Entertainment working on a special game project. The project has you diving into the memories of an ancestor for codename ‘Subject 17’, diving into the memories of Edward Kenway. As the game progresses in the modern world, players slowly uncover secrets the company was trying to hide, realizing that there is more to the job than creating a game.
As Edward Kenway, players get to partake in his adventures across the Caribbean Sea during the early 18th century. Initially, his journey starts from his vow to his wife to make enough money in two years for his family to live in luxury. This vow is thrown by the wayside thanks to an Assassin both taking out his target (Edward’s captain) and sinking the ship. Finding himself stranded on an island, Edward chases the Assassin down only to find him dead. He takes the Assassin’s outfit, deciding to use them to accomplish his goal. From there, Edward sets a chain of events in motion that escalate the war between Templars and Assassins over the course of six years. None of that bears any significance to him; after all, Edward is willing to help anyone that asks of him to…for a price. As the story progresses, and things enter into increasingly dangerous conditions, Edward grasps the consequences of his actions in both the conflict and his personal life. Also, Edward starts to grasp the understanding of what it means to don the robe he wears and the Creed it signifies.
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is a testament to how significant execution is to telling a story and is bolstered by a fantastic supporting cast of characters. The entire cast was given enough time to be fleshed out and stand out as their own person. Conversations flow naturally and allow insight into their moral convictions, their motivations and ideals that define their actions. There’s more a focus of keeping the story more personable while allowing the continuing conflict between Templars and Assassins serve as a background. Previous entries made it a point to portray a distinct good versus evil story for players, this game instead shows a more nuanced approach. Instead, the conflict allows examination of the overarching plot of the franchise; between these two factions lay two extreme views on how humanity should live its life, stressing that neither side is right or wrong. Morally gray approach is nuanced, more subtle and mature in its handling of such a complex perspective and proves to be much more effective. This also serves as a powerful reminder that our actions are never purely black and white and perception is the only thing to makes it so.
The heart of the story is in the focus on a powerful character arc featuring Edward Kenway’s growth from being selfish to his seeking redemption punctuated by strong moments. Ubisoft makes it a point to stress that every event in the game significantly affects Edward and isn’t just a plot pusher. Over time, players are shown how deep Edward digs himself into a hole with his actions and, for the last third of the game, how hard he struggles to climb back out of it. The pacing and direction of events flow seamlessly together to show the damaging toll they place on Edward. This is especially in missions where he has to assassinate friends who end up having betrayed him; after Edward lays the killing blow, players witness a final conversation between him and his target. The dying person begins to explain their reasons in an attempt to either have him understand or appeal to him. Each encounter takes their toll on Edward, and it’s seen in his facial expressions and subsequent actions. When he finally hits the bottom players truly see him realize the significance of his actions. Edward then starts to actively seek climbing back to the top. As he races towards righting his wrongs, I found myself cheering him on. When the credits rolled, I could not help but feel content in the experience overall.
The other part I loved about this game? Unlike his predecessors, Edward doesn’t start out as an Assassin; there’s no family to initiate him in nor do we start with him already as one. In the first act of the game, Kenway is told about the significance of the outfit he wears and what it stands for. However, he quickly dismisses it because he’d prefer to focus on his own personal ambitions. When Edward truly starts working his way into becoming an Assassin towards the end of the game, it’s not out of personal desires but because he started to believe in the creed Assassins stand for. This is a refreshing approach to give variation in the formulaic approach other games have taken.
All of these elements put together make for a strong story that’s bolstered by the acting; the actors fit naturally into their respective roles they giving life to the smartly-written dialogue. Interactions feel natural in flow and reactionary; there’s no hint of someone anticipating the line or sounding like they’re reading a placard in front of them. Motion capture does a good job of capturing the facial features to provide an immersive experience. Overall, it’s a solid performance by the cast that compliments the stellar writing of the story.
However, much like its predecessors, the story set in the modern time feels weak and tacked on. I understand that it does serve to push the plot forward and propel the universe’s lore/mythos, but a lot of the actions your character is pushed to do feel weightless in their significance. It comes off as boring and rather uneventful; the conclusion to this particular story left me scratching my head at the point of it. There were some parts that were initially fun but came off as being boring or pointless.
Aside from that, Assassin’s Creed consistently delivers in the amount of detail they put into building the historical settings players spend most of their time in. Environments in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag are soaked to the brim in vibrant hues of warm colors. Abandoned ruins look amazing and give off an air of mystery garnering enough curiosity for exploration. Towns adopt a more natural, realistic, tropical imagery to them and carry a unique personality to them. This gives the game a more personable, communal-like personality that helps this game flourish. Plus it makes it all the more fun to explore compared to the more meticulous, articulate detailed architecture in previous titles.
Ubisoft also does a great, consistent job selecting its composers; Brian Tyler does a good job capturing the theme and motives behind the story. Each village and city have a certain flair to them, stealth-based missions feels tense and claustrophobic and battles feel tense and epic in scale thanks to the accentuating music. The ending song is such a perfect way to conclude the game and hit me hard in its poignancy.
Free running also works great in the new environments too. Whereas Assassin’s Creed III failed in its introduction of free running in forests, Black Flag excels at it; the buttons prompts feel a little sharper and more receptive. The new additions to your weaponry, berserk and sleeping darts, add an extra depth strategy to taking on large groups of enemies as you try to either sneak or fight your way out of restricted areas. The optional objectives have always been fun challenges to add difficulty to the main missions and it continues to do so with this iteration.
If players want to take a break from the main storyline, there are plenty of other activities to take on. While sailing the open sea, if you fancy yourself taking on a naval brigade for supplies, you can. Players can even take on naval and assassination contracts that vary in requirements like tailing them to a discreet location or to sink their ship. There’s also hunting, a mini game where you can send ships to various ports to maintain the Assassin’s influence over them and plenty of collectibles to find. All of this adds plenty of replayabiilty to the game after beating the story. However, while not necessarily a good or bad thing, having so much to do can be overwhelming; it is easy to get lost in doing sidequests because of how well done they are. Players might not get back to story until days later and lose details that might be key.
Sadly, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag still carries on the same problems its predecessors had, problems with the controls for free running. While Ubisoft has done a better job improving the responsiveness for this title, there were still plenty of times I found myself having issues with button commands. There were times where I lost my target or had been detected because the free running assumed I wanted to do something else. For example, I was tailing a character by stalking them on the rooftops. While trying to jump to the other building across the alleyway, the game took this as me going in for an assassination on one of the guards protecting my target. After the impending assassination I was detected, and had to restart the whole mission over. I was fortunate that this was not a constant problem, but the few times it did happen left me frustrated.
The other major problem, which I’ve noticed is becoming an alarming trend many game developers adhere too, is having a large amount collectibles placed all over the huge world that serve no purpose other than to lengthen playtime. Unless if the player is an achievement hunter, trying to find the collectibles can be an arduous, boring task that bears little to no fun at all. What purpose do the fragments have in the context in the game? Do they unlock something after finding them all? Expand on the mythology of the series? I’ve yet to collect them all in my playthrough, and even as someone who tries to get as many achievements as possible, I find no desire to do so either.
Overall, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag shows the series still has some fresh legs even after having seven titles under its belt. Is the game worth getting? Yes, I believe so; this has been the strongest story I’ve played through in the franchise. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag hits every expectation I’ve had since the beginning of the series and takes huge strides forward in executing powerful storytelling. Sure, there is a story involving Templars, Assassins, and the mysterious First Civilization, but at the heart of the story is a stronger, personal tale about a man named Edward Kenway. There is no ‘black and white’ view in this game, but a gray perspective showing the complexities of human nature and desire. It’s a tale that leads to a powerful, evocative resolution create a satisfying experience.