Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag Review
Games Xtreme boards the Jackdaw and finds out if Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag is destined to live a pirate's life, or sink to the bottom of the sea.
The Golden Age
Not since Assassin's Creed 2: Brotherhood with Ezio, have I enjoyed an Assassin's Creed game so much. It helps that one of my favourite eras of history is the Golden Age of Piracy in the mid 1600's to the late 1700's. So, as much as I love my Pirates of the Caribbean and the ghost stories that surround nautical history, it's interesting to see these larger than life historical figures given a realistic treatment, whilst still wrapped in the background story of the Animus and the ripples from Desmond's early adventures.
The Animus is used as a framing device a lot, but this time you're the hero of this particular real world excursion. A newly hired employee of Abstergo Entertainment that is a tongue-in-cheek (at times) poke at game development in general, and at Ubisoft themselves. Hired on to work the Kenway Line at your own Animus you delve into the history of a Welshman from Swansea, with dreams of fame and fortune.
As he meets a cast of colourful characters from the Golden Age, interacts with the war between the Assassins and Templars and ultimately... well... I'll leave you to find that out.
The storytelling is not as sharp as in the Ezio era of the game, and it leaves a few gaps that could have been smoothed out. Yet it's still good, don't get me wrong and provides a satisfying tale both in the real world and more importantly on the high seas of the massive gameworld.
Yet it's grand to meet up with Blackbeard, Ben Hornigold and Calico 'Jack' Rackham, not to mention the murderous Charles Vane and the likes of Anne Bonny and Mary Read.
No Edward, don't climb that wall into the compound!
Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag has a few issues, most of them stem from the inclusion of single player content locked behind Uplay Passport. Things such as Kenway's Fleet cannot be accessed unless you have one. Ubisoft recently made their current games (such as this) passport purchase free - promising that the passports will be phased out for upcoming titles. This is all well and good, but unless you're online you're going to miss out on a chunk of money/treasure earning potential from Kenway's Fleet, including certain items that can't be earned any other way.
If the servers go down mid-battle, you'll have to do the whole fleet battle again. (I'll talk more about Kenway's fleet later)
Then you have the at-times clumsy navigation system that we've come to know and love (or hate) from the series. It works beautifully when it works, but when it fails Edward looks a right fool as he attempts to climb a washing-line rather than elegantly ducking under it and continuing to run.
The odd misdirected Leap of Faith occurs and I am suddenly reminded of the glory days of Tomb Raider, with Lara plummeting to her doom in various hilarious ways. The Animus seems a little glitch these days too, with ships vanishing into thin air from time to time and the same with people. Abstergo really needs to fix their software - honestly you'd think Templars could have sorted that by now.
It'll be interesting to see, all joking aside, if that issue plagues the next-gen version of AC IV.
So, how does she handle lad?
Let's talk about the real world element of the game first, a first person area that you can freely explore when you're not piratin' about the seas and having a whale of a time with the new naval combat. You spend a lot your first person adventures at the beck and call of your superiors and hacking various Animus stations around the offices of other employees. There's a lot of hidden information scattered about, videos (including an interesting Desmond tie-in) and emails to read. Each one gives a deeper look into the current state of affairs in the real world since the end of AC 3.
The hacking is fairly fun with a series of mini-games and tasks, probably the most annoying part is the Frogger-a-like hack where you need to guide a data-dot through various barriers and just like Frogger - it's tedious and repetitive to the point of frustration.
There's only about 5 real world forays to sit through that are forced on you, they break up the narrative a little and it can be a little jarring to come back to the Abstergo building after experiencing a powerful bit of Edward's story, it almost takes the wind out of that moment's sails.
The rest of the time you're free to go do what you want in the Animus.
Freedom is the core concept of the AC IV experience when it comes down to the gameplay. A lot the previous ideas for mini-games have been thrown out and Ashraf Ismail and his team has managed to fill an open world fully detailed Caribbean open world with tons to do. You never feel constrained by the story or your surroundings, and if you're being blown to bits by stronger enemies in harder areas - an upgrade or two is always within your reach as long as you're willing to work for it.
See Ubisoft has been clever; they locked upgrades and various elements of the game behind the main story progression. So you need to play up to a certain point before you go off and try and make the Jackdaw into the ultimate killing machine prior to big battles. It makes sense too in the context of the narrative and keeps you on your toes. You can't just sail into the core story fights with your ship bristling with cannons and mortars, you have to think tactically and look at your upgrade options.
This is a game that makes you want to play Edward's story to find out what's going on, and more importantly to get that sweet upgrade you know is locked behind the gate.
Of course you can try your hand at beating the tougher ships with a mix of luck and bravado, Ubisoft isn't stopping you in that regard... just don't expect it to be really easy.
Then there's various memory-gates that pop up now and then, locking out areas that aren't available during the current memory to prevent you from reaching places you're woefully outnumbered and outgunned for. These are few and far between, but they do exist and they've been used in AC since day 1.
The open world is fully explorable and the transition from Jackdaw to islands is for the most part seamless, you just loose the wheel and go exploring. The game tracks lots of icons on the main game map, and your mini-map and synchronising with viewpoints reveals all the interesting icons and details (collectibles) not only on the map etc, but also in real time whilst you're looking from that vantage point. Some of the bigger locations (Havana, Kingston, Nassau) force an area to load and when you see the size of these places, you can understand why.
There's a lot to see and do in the game, from assassination missions, collecting song sheets (for sea shanties) and much more. Edward himself has a full upgrade system borrowing from Far Cry 3 and letting you craft various items to help you become stronger.
Money plays a huge role in AC IV and there's a lot to do with it. From weapons for Edward, outfits, hunting goods, if you can't be bothered hunting and a plethora of upgrades for the Jackdaw. Stronger cannons, bigger cannons, more cannons, better hulls and more can be found in the easy to use GUI.
There are taverns to unlock (through a fist fighting brawl mini-game) and these provide a place to hear rumours, find crew and play a checkers-style game.
On yer feet lubber!
On foot has been improved quite a lot, and Edward has navigational skills similar to Connor. He can climb trees, leap about the rooftops and fight as well as Ezio. His combat style is more brutal but he's an effective fellow with his swords and pistols.
The combat system shines in this iteration of the franchise, the enemies are harder and nastier and the counter system has been improved. It's a punishing system if you make some wrong moves and enemies won't hang about, they'll attack based on their type and AI. Sometimes you'll get a few foolish soldiers with no commander, and they'll come at you one by one. Others will work together and allow you to get some sweet brutal double-kills.
Others will use their various skills against you, forcing you to adjust your tactics on the fly or suffer a serious beating. A brute is a dangerous foe that can only be stopped by breaking their defence and then laying in with a pair of dual swords or hidden blades. The captains are even nastier, since they can only be defended against when you counter their swift attacks. Mix up the groups and each battle becomes like a carefully orchestrated game of cat and mouse, with you constantly evaluating each threat and taking down enemies with clever counters and fast guard breaks.
Of course if you're like me, you upgraded Edward's holsters and gave him 4 pistols. Pistols he can use to shoot 4 targets Gun-Kata style in the heat of combat.
Counters can be combined with tools, such as the smoke bomb, the pistols and other tricks that Edward picks up later on (like the rope dart).
The weapon selection and tool selection is no longer a clumsy menu, it works really well and it's tied to the d-pad. A quick tap in the right direction selects the tool or weapon and then you're away.
Guns and various tools also now have a free aim mode that means precision shooting is possible, even in the heat of combat. It's a great addition and I hope they add it into Liberation for the HD release next year.
Stealth has been revamped and along with this Eagle Vision now allows you to track targets and keep them in view, through walls and solid objects as long as you don't break into a run.
Its good stuff and I had no issues with it. I was able to hide in stalking zones and set up some great ambushes by whistling.
Overall the on foot systems work beautifully and don't feel clumsy or tacked on.
Randy Dandy, Oh!
Where the game truly shines is the revamped naval combat, it's easier than ever to control the ship and fire the weapons. So you can concentrate on the all important task of blowing the Devil out of your enemies and sending them to their just reward. Chain shot is now fired out of the front facing of the ship, port and starboard cannons are controlled with a flick of the camera and specialist shot like mortar is called up with the left bumper.
Pull out your spyglass with the right bumper and check out the vessels you're facing, you're given a quick rundown of their level, cargo and anything else of use.
The heavy shot is fired without using the aiming system via left trigger.
When the left trigger is held the aiming trajectory is engaged and the right stick can be used to adjust the elevation. This allows for trick shots and precision targeting of the enemies hull. Swivel guns (On Y) are used to lock onto and shoot weak points that might appear during a particularly vicious volley and finally the rear camera lets you drop fire barrels and turn them into traps against your enemies.
It works beautifully and the ship combat is thoroughly exhilarating!
Once a ship is incapacitated you can choose to seamlessly board her, or fire again and send her to the bottom of the ocean for half the cargo. Boarding ships is dynamic and moving into range will prompt you to hold down the B button. Once the boarding has been engaged you can use the deck (swivel) gun to rake your opponents on the opposite side, or deal with the situation as you see fit.
You're often given some objectives to achieve, such as kill x-crew, blow up the powder stores and so on. It's up to you how you do it, want to perch on your ship like a lethal crow... shooting at your enemies, reloading and shooting again? You can do that.
Or you can Douglas Fairbanks Jnr over by swinging on a rope, engaging everyone in hand to hand... the choice is yours.
Want to take a ship without losing crew, anchor the Jackdaw just out of range of the boarding area and go over to the enemy ship. Destroy all the powder barrels, take out their flag, murder their officers and captain and for good measure kill at least 20 or so of their crew on the bigger ships.
Swim back to the Jackdaw and then fire a broadside, congratulations the ship is taken!
What shall we do with a drunken sailor?
Once you have the ship, you can use it to repair the jackdaw, lower your wanted level, and later on - send it to be part of Kenway's Fleet. Regardless, you'll get crew, goods and ammo from a defeated vessel and some of those goods are upgrade goods. Such as metal, cloth and wood.
Metal is your most scarce commodity and the one you'll need a lot of if you want to turn the Jackdaw into a fortress of the sea.
Kenway's Fleet is a trading and battle game that builds on the idea of operating a successful fleet to gain money, riches, goods and so on. It's very simple to use and ties in to the social aspect of the game allowing your friends to help you on a mission, and you to help them by speeding up or healing their ships.
The battle part is played by selecting your ships based on the challenge, picking a good mix of vessels ensures victory. Once you have blown the enemy ships out of the water you can eventually use the trade route to accomplish missions.
You can assign ships into 3 slots, one with the speed bonus, one with firepower and one to take less damage in combat. Ideally you want your mid-range ship in the speed bonus and two strong ships in the other slots.
The game does a fairly good job of showing you how this all works and it's locked out if you don't have an online connection and/or a Uplay Passport.
Locked out as per the above, otherwise you can find community chests and auto-share their location with your friends, same as White Whale locations and Royal Convoys. These provide a layer of interconnected play that also rewards you...unless you're offline, in which case there are things in the game you'll never be able to unlock.
Not cool Ubisoft, this kind of thing is nigh on DRM.
Single player content shouldn't be locked behind any kind of online connectivity, since there are people who refuse to go online or who can't get a connection to play their game online in the world still.
Got the Black Flag App for your iPad or tablet? Well, you can search the game's interactive map, watch updates from the game in real time and manage Kenway's Fleet from it. Connection to the internet required and also to Ubi's servers... if they go down, you're unable to access Kenway's Fleet from the game or the device.
It works rather well and my wife made a capable Quartermaster.
There are several classifications of ship on the waters and they all behave differently, the lethal Man o'War is a terrifying battleship, it's slow and packs a heck of a wallop. The Brig loves to ram into you and the agile Frigates are particularly dangerous, pitched just between a Man o'War and the Brig.
Each ship will use its own tactics to try and sink the Jackdaw.
Calm seas captain...
When you're not in battle, upgrading the Jackdaw can be done from the captain's cabin and its here you can buy upgrades, sell goods and manage Kenway's Fleet from the tactical map. You can also change Edward's outfit and his weapons in here too.
The navigation system has been smoothed out and there's a joy to sailing the ship, even in the roughest water-spout, rogue wave infested waters. A storm is a truly terrifying thing to sail in and even better to have a battle with a Man o'War (or a fort).
The ship has travel speed to allow you to speed time a little, but it can still take quite a while to sail to a new location. Fast travel has been implemented for the ocean and on foot taking a lot of the grind out of moving from place to place.
Viewpoints now serve as fast travel locations and can be accessed off the main map with a press of the x button once highlighted.
Forts: Once you blow a fort's defences to bits you need to go ashore, kill the officers and find the war room. Once you get access to that you can murder the fort's commander and take the fort for yourself. This reveals interesting locations and collectibles out there. It also makes the waters safer for you, since the fort will now fire on your enemies.
Forts open up new fast travel areas, officials to bribe to lower your wanted level and naval missions.
There's always something to do out there and it's very easy to get lost for hours just combing the waters for cargo, shipwrecked sailors and enemy vessels to board and loot.
You ever get your own pirate island later on, and that can be upgraded with various services to make things easier in the core game areas.
Down among the dead men...
The underwater sections of the game are a bit frustrating when you need to sneak past sharks and other predators of the deep, but they're not too bad once you get used to them and they provide an interesting break to the on-sea action.
PETA can eat a cutlass regarding the hunting mini-game in AC IV. It's a viable way that these sailors used to make a living and fits in with the story. I don't condone the hunting of course, but in the context of this game it makes perfect sense and the whole damn thing is a fantasy anyways. The controls are fairly simple and like the underwater, it provides an interesting break to the on-sea action.
You can also ignore it totally and just buy what you need from the local shops. So if you are bothered by it, Ubi cares enough to give you that option.
The core story missions are given a mix of various elements, naval battles, on foot action, naval stealth and on foot sneaking/tailing. Many of these are good and come with optional objectives to hit that 100% synch. Most of them are designed to let you do what you want and approach the objective how you want, there are the odd few that revert back to the old days... and these are a bit jarring.
There's also an opportunity to rate the missions and this in-game feedback ties into the Animus project story, as well as gives Ubisoft a chance to find out what worked and what didn't.
Overall the story and the characters of the game are good, Edward is a likeable rogue out of the gate and his evolution from pirate to something else is chronicled through fairly solid dialogue and design. I would have preferred to spend a bit more time in the company of his fellows and legends, such as Anne and Blackbeard but it's already a huge game and you can see potential pitfalls in storytelling if you spend way too long on one character over another.
Ezio and Edward now stand shoulder to shoulder as my favourite AC protagonists and to match Ezio is a hard thing.
Mission accomplished Ubisoft, more Kenway thanks!
Adewale, Kenway's capable Quartermaster is a great character too and I am excited to see the Freedom Cry DLC with his later role.
She's a pretty thing, aye.
For a current gen title AC IV is no slouch, it's a beautiful looking game that doesn't seem to suffer much in the way of pop-in and pop-up. It's got nicely detailed textures, fidelity and models that look grand on the 360. The water effects and weather effects are some of the best I've seen and the roll of the surf is fantastic.
Of course it's not all just glitz and glamour, there's a solid physics engine under the hood as well, especially when it comes down to sailing and navigating. You can use the pitch and roll of the waves in combat too, get onto a high wave and use that to rain down fire onto your opponent's deck.
Combat physics isn't bad either, with the right feel and mass behind the meaty hand to hand system.
The animations are excellent in this iteration and the combat system looks amazing in action. Edward is a brutal fighter at times, and other times he's like an elegant hunting cat. He's the perfect mix of pirate and assassin, a man using the order's tools to do a pirate's job.
The rest of the animations are good too, especially when you look at the Jackdaw and how the crew interacts with the ship. Then you add in the seamless boarding and how they use the ropes to get across to the enemy ship. There's a lot to like and very few issues with the animations in general... perhaps the odd miss aligned takedown here and there.
Roof running, parkour, tree-running and the like has been improved since 3 and there's dual assassinations, running assassinations and more just poking around to be discovered.
Sing me a song... lads...
The game's sound design is superlative and extremely evocative, with the roar of cannons, the clash of blades and the boom of thunder. Throw into that the sounds of the ship creaking in the wind and the various ambient sounds elsewhere across the game.
Up and at em!
Then you have the rogues themselves, from the core cast performances of Edward, Ade, Anne and all the crew of the Jackdaw et-al (and other ships) - it's a truly epic task to make these voices work and they nail it. Particular favourites of mine are Charles Vane, Woods Rogers and Blackbeard. Blackbeard's voice actor hits that James Purefoy-esque tone that makes the character come alive in a fantastic way.
There's not a thing wrong with the voice acting from any of the cast members and it's a great story to listen to, packed with superb accents and solid dialogue.
The stars of the game's audio are the collectible sea shanties that you can order your crew to sing, from Drunken Sailor to Randy Dandy, Oh. They are superbly done and there's such a wealth of nautical history there to listen to.
Play me a tune, lad.
The work of Brian Tyler shines in this OST. This is one of his best soundtracks to date and it evokes the feeling of the time period perfectly. There are some truly rousing themes and some great musical cues here.
This is probably the best iteration of the AC multiplayer yet, with a host of new features and familiar gametypes... everything is back and nothing is left to chance this time. There's an expanded character progression system and a massive slew of features. There's a great selection of themed assassins to play as and Ubisoft has outdone themselves on the maps.
The game modes we'll leave you to discover, but there's a new option called gamelab that lets you set up all kinds of new ways to play. Want to play pistols only, sure, want to restrict everyone to hidden blades and so on? You can do that.
Gamelab is superb and more games need to take this approach for their multi.
Wolfpack is back and can now be played as an interactive story with up to 3 other players to teach you the basics of the game. Then you can play the expanded version and rack up those kills with your mates.
The whole thing is slick and runs very well, I didn't get much in the way of lag and have had a blast with the time I spent with MP. Mostly Wolfpack...
A rollicking tale to be sure...
So there you have it, there's a lot I didn't mention since I want to leave a lot of the game's nuances for you to discover. It's a superb game and one of the best iterations in the series yet, taking familiar ideas from previous games and building on what worked from them rather than trying to shoe-horn in every other idea under the sun.
It's an ambitious title and one that deserves credit for trying to broaden the horizon of the franchise. I love pirates as well, so that's the icing on the cake. It's a huge game too, with so much to see and do... the core story took me over 30 hours at least to complete and I could have taken longer. I really loved Edward as a character and he made up for Connor in so many ways.
The superb atmosphere, attention to detail and massive world all add up to one heck of an adventure that's worth every penny living the pirate's fictional life.
"A merry life, and a short one at that..." as Black Bart would say.