Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Assassin's Creed: Black Flag review

    I'm going to admit, I was actually prepared to hate this game. After being incredibly excited about Assassin's Creed 3, I was bitterly disappointed to discover the sequel would not star Conner Kenway but his grandfather. Worse, I was resistant to the idea of a sequel based around the Golden Age of Piracy. I felt this was a cash grab.

    Why use a time period which was far less interesting than numerous others forwarded by fans like the French Revolution or Tokugawa Japan? As a result, I only put it on my Christmas list to fill it out and got it early due to my illness.

    What's my opinion? I have never been more pleased to be so wrong about my misgivings. I think Black Flag may be my favorite of the series. Not only does it successfully continue the story after the original metaplot of the games was resolved but it does so in style. The character of Edward Kenway is perhaps my favorite one in the entire Assassin's Creed franchise, surpassing Connor and even Ezio.

The Caribbean vistas and use of sailing interacts well with traditional Assassin's Creed gameplay.
    So what is so enjoyable about Black Flag? At heart, I believe it's the fact the game isn't afraid to take a fresh look at some long-standing assumptions about the franchise and turn them on their head. The Assassins, Templars, conspiracies, and importance of the Pieces of Eden all get put under a microscope with a protagonist who can barely bring himself to care about any.

     As much as I love AC's peculiar mythology, I think the never-ending back-and-forth between the Templars and Assassins has gotten stale. Like hardtack meets cement stale. Part of this is the inevitable result of fleshing out the Templars so they're more than cartoon villains like Cobra or SPECTRE. Unfortunately, this means it's less enjoyable to murder them. Which is a bad thing when you're an assassin. I was over-and-done with the so-called First Civilization after Assassin's Creed 3 too. The opportunity to play a game where these elements are de-emphasized was probably necessary for me to enjoy it.

    The protagonist, Edward Kenway brings a roguish charm to the series without forgetting piracy is an activity built on robbery and murder. The darker side of the character comes out in discussions regarding everything from slavery (he's against it but it's not his problem until it impacts him personally) to motivation (profit, plain and simple). I found myself unable to predict what he was going to say or do next and these qualities made him a fascinating lead. It's all-too-easy to write an antihero when you're making a video game but it's rarely done well and Edward Kenway is one of the exceptions.

The piracy missions are, as expected, the most enjoyable part of the game.
    The environments are rich in Assassin's Creed 4, invoking the breathtaking sights of the Caribbean in a way far removed from the claustrophobic forests of AC3's early United States. Really, this game sold me on a Caribbean vacation more than the hundreds of commercials I've seen of the region.

    The opportunity to climb to the top of crow's nests and rigging, only to fall down and stab the people below never got old. Best of all, due to the boarding mechanic, I could repeat this action indefinitely.

    My only regret was that I couldn't land on targets from the highest points in the ship. I don't care if its realistic I couldn't drop down two-hundred feet onto a guy's head without breaking my legs. It'd be awesome.

    AC4's supporting cast is incredible, too. While I missed the constant presence of Desmond's support crew, Blackbeard and other pirates more than make up for the absence. The fact Ubisoft chooses to go with the reality of many historical figures versus their more theatrical reputations (such as Blackbeard actually hating bloodshed) makes the game surprising in numerous ways.

    My favorite characters are, unsurprisingly, Blackbeard and James Kidd. The two characters are nuanced and reflect different aspects of Edward's personality. The real-life relationship between pirates and anarchism is explored through the context of the Assassin's philosophy and it's an interesting comparison. It's certainly inspired me to investigate the real life history of piracy more thoroughly.

     Lesser characters like Charles Vane, Ben Horningold, and Stede Bonnet also add to the game's expansive cast. The fact all of these individuals were real-life larger-than-life characters means, as crazy as they sometimes act, it's usually true to life. I even liked the modern-day characters, enjoying how Ubisoft combined corporate feel-good culture with the Templar's established draconian policies.

Characters like Edward Thatch (Blackbeard) add an immeasurable amount of color to the game.
     Another welcome addition to the series were the changes in gameplay. This was necessary given running up and stabbing people in cities was starting to get old. Whereas the main campaign was the chief allure in previous games, the side-activities were a mixture of fun and chore. Edward Kenway's adventures are fun the entire way through. AC4's side-activities are every bit as entertaining as the main campaign. There's diving, treasure map reading, and deep sea fishing in addition to the previous games' assassination contracts and hunting.

     Indeed, I can't think of a single activity I didn't enjoy doing unlike previous installment's feathers. Well, in the Animus, at least. I absolutely loathed the hacking mini-games in the modern era and only completed them because of their frequently humorous in-game rewards. As to be expected, the chief new draw is the sailing mechanic. Ship-to-ship combat first showed up as a side-activity in AC3 but takes center stage here. The battles between ships are fun, fast, and tactical with lots of enjoyable twists.

    Upgrading your ship requires a truly massive amount of gold and resources, which encourages lots of piracy to do both. Taking forts, a major activity from AC3, is changed up to assaulting Spanish (and British) installations from the ocean. The latter can get a bit repetitive but, overall, was one of my favorite parts of the game.

    The opportunities for exploration are immense. There are dozens of islands spread through the Caribbean, containing everything from Mayan ruins to beached galleons, all waiting for Edward to give them a look over. The game adds a diving mechanic as well, allowing the protagonist to go hunting for treasure at the bottom of the ocean. I wasn't too fond of the constant threat of shark attacks, considering the beautiful creatures to be overly demonized in fiction, but they certainly livened things up. It truly is an open-world sandbox experience and I applaud Ubisoft for going this direction.

You even get the option of whaling in the game.
    Unlike previous games, there's no "gold fountain" option where you can turn on the game for a few hours then have coffers overflowing with wealth. If Assassin's Creed can continue to have enjoyable change-ups like the ones in this volume, its future is fine indeed.

    I will say, though, the game isn't entirely 100% enjoyable. That's a virtually impossible feat and there's a few places the game dragged a bit. Not so much I didn't get forty plus hours of enjoyment from it but a few places I wasn't completely satisfied.

    First of all, I can't say I appreciate the changes made to the modern storyline. Replacing Desmond Miles is a faceless voiceless protagonist. This protagonist seems a step backward from the fully-realized cast of the original five games. Worse, as mentioned, the modern era segments have annoying minigames as the only option for advancement.

    I particularly loathed one which involved moving a little ball across an elaborate board filled with 'electrified fences.'  Compared to Desmond learning how to navigate the Coliseum, it seems irritating to play the equivalent of Pong meets Frogger in order to hack computers.

    Still, Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag is an absolutely fantastic game. One I heartily recommend to not only long-time fans of the series but newcomers as well. Shiver me timbers and swash me buckles, it's a good buy. If Ubisoft can continue producing games like this for future installments, I'll continue to enjoy the series and it storytelling. Ironically, my only regret is future installments are unlikely to have pirates in them. They'll have to make a new series to satisfy my fill of those.



  1. Well, Blackbeard's time was at the end of the Golden Age of Piracy. With most of the other famous pirates: Henry Morgan, Black Bart Roberts, Henry Every, Montauband and L'Olloinais operating about 15-20 years earlier. Still, Stede Bonnet, Jack Rackham and of course Blackbeard are interesting characters themselves.

    1. Oh agreed. Much like the Wild West, the Golden Age of Piracy wasn't actually that long of a period. One of the coolest facts the game captures is the fact all of the major historical personages knew each other personally. I give kudos to Ubisoft for realizing this.