When a series reaches a certain age, there are really only two types of opinions regarding it. There are the people who say ‘enough already’ and who lose interest in it, and there are the people who continue to buy into the series no matter how much or how little has changed about it. When it comes to Assassin’s Creed, I will admit that I am the latter. I eagerly crave another new historical setpiece to run, jump, and stab people in. However, that also means that I tend to judge each new entry in the series not on its own merits, but on how good it is relative to the games that have come before it. It is, I will freely admit, impossible to be completely objective at this point. So really, this review is probably more for people like me: people who have not lost interest in the series, or people who want to be told whether or not there is a reason to come back to it.
So you’ve pretty much played every game in the series then?: Yep, and have had various degrees of enjoyment with each one. I even reviewed last year’s Assassin’s Creed III right here, and for a description of the basic premise of the series as well as what I’ve liked and not liked in the past, that would be a good article to read.
Okay, so if I remember right, ACIII had a definite ending point to it. How does the ‘modern’ side of the game continue plotwise?: By not continuing that particular plot thread at all. In fact, Black Flag actually picks up off of a plot thread that started in Liberation. You play as a nameless developer for Abstergo Entertainment, one of the companies owned by the Knights Templar. Your job is to dive into memories retrieved from the DNA of ‘test subjects’, and record those memories so that they can be later altered.
What about the historical side?: You play as the pirate Edward Kenway, who is the grandfather of ACIII‘s Connor. By taking a generational step backward, chronologically, the plot disconnects itself even further from the things that have happened in the main numbered entries in the series and attempts to be an entry point for new players and people who are returning to the series and who may not have played every single other game in it.
So does it succeed in that?: So far, yes. The game doesn’t assume very much knowledge from previous games in the series, and manages to return a bit of the mystery that existed in the very first game. It also helps that, without spoiling anything, Edward starts out as even more of an ‘outsider’ to the Assassins versus Templars conflict than probably any of the previous main characters have been.
…Pirates, huh?: Yarr. It’s actually a good fit. On one hand, it explains why Edward is really great at climbing things and doesn’t really care too much about the number of people he’s going to be killing. On the other hand, and this is a personal gripe of mine, I really have to wonder why pirates seem to be contractually obligated to wear eyeliner now.
So I’m assuming there’s a ship and everything, too.: Oh yes, and actually, it’s my favorite part of the game. I made the comment in my ACIII review that someone needed to take the ship combat and build a whole game around it. Well, Ubisoft has sort of done that. Very early in the game you get access to a ship, and are given the entire map of the Caribbean to play around in. You are, of course, highly encouraged to commit random acts of piracy, but you can also explore, hunt for treasure, hunt actual land and sea creatures, and just have a jolly old time in general. Honestly, it feels sort of like a combination of two other games in one. This segment of the game feels like a mix of Wind Waker and Sid Meier’s Pirates!, and is probably why I love it so much.
That’s a pretty strong claim to make. Does it live up to either of those games?: Sort of. The naval combat is everything I would expect from an updated version of Pirates!, but the ship and crew customization and cargo carrying options are not up to the comparison. The exploration is every bit as unique as Wind Waker‘s, but I think the feel would be more complete if there were actual Zelda-esque dungeons to explore. Of course, seeing as how this isn’t a full-on Zelda game or an actual pirate simulator, I don’t know that I would expect anything on the level of either of those. It’s just that I’ve found myself having a lot more fun being a pirate than I have had being an assassin.
So let’s get to that Assassin part now. How does that play?: Well, the series has always had various issues with its control schemes, and in that regard Black Flag is a couple generational steps backwards, both for better and for worse. On the good side, it’s as easy to chain your kills together now as it was playing as Ezio in the ACII games. On the bad side, the counter window is still pretty short, and there still isn’t as much of a reason to upgrade your weapons more than once or twice over the course of the game. Also, the movement controls are a massive step backward. I found myself coming to a full stop because I ran up against a wall that I should have been able to climb more than once. This is made a bit worse because there are several buttons and control stick movements that serve multiple functions. For example, pressing up against a wall, which has always been the way that one climbs up the wall, has the added function of making Edward press against the wall to peek around a corner or something. The button you press to loot a chest will also make you climb up onto it, if you’re not lined up exactly with the front of the chest. It’s just little things like this that make Edward’s movements not quite as fluid as they really should be.
Hmm, okay then. Are you playing one of the next-gen versions? How is it?: Yeah, I’m playing the Playstation 4 version. In terms of gameplay, the current-gen and next-gen versions are identical, so really, the comparison point here is the visuals. And while I don’t know that I could tell very much of a difference on the character and clothing models, I could absolutely tell a difference in the environment. The foliage and weather effects are very, very well-done, and so is the water. And given that most of the game takes place in the wilderness and on the ocean, this was a very important thing to get right.
Will the visuals alone sell you on getting a next-gen system just for this game? Well, no, probably not. But if you have one anyway, there is no reason to not get the PS4 or XB1 version. I would also add that the Playstation versions, both of them, have an additional gameplay segment featuring Aveline from Liberation, who is my favorite Assassin in the entire series. So there’s that.
Okay, so, just to wrap things up, what are the positives that really stood out to you?: The pirate aspect, as well as the ship exploration and combat. I still maintain that if the entire game were that, I would still be happy. Crafting and resource gathering has improved as well, in that it’s less complicated and there isn’t anything that I would consider ‘useless’ like there was in ACIII. In other words, the resources you gather from hunting are directly used to craft upgrades to your health and ammunition pouches. Even the trade convoy management that returns from Liberation is implemented better here. I think the change in perspective in the modern segments really does the game a favor, as we aren’t dragged down by all of Desmond’s previous plot threads. The multiplayer is still consistently interesting, though it hasn’t changed that much since its initial inclusion in Brotherhood (and didn’t really need to, either). Also, despite having played the previous games on a different system, the fact that I had completed those games was recognized and rewarded, and that was pretty nice.
How about the negatives?: Well, I mentioned the controls, so there’s that. Eagle Vision, which has remained pretty constant throughout ACII and ACIII, now shows your targets in plain sight even through walls. I know this was done to make it easier to keep one’s eye on their target, but it has the detrimental effect of making it hard to tell sometimes whether you have a clear shot at someone. It would have been better to have just their aura show up through walls instead of their actual physical body. Aside from that, I think my biggest complaint is that the game reminded me so much of Pirates! that it just made me want to play Pirates!.
Anything else?: Well, in terms of how like-able Edward is, I’d say he’s at least more personable than Ezio in the sense that with him being a pirate, you already expect him to be callous and kind of an asshole. Also, while I think the stealth mechanics are actually more well-done in this game than in any game previous, being stealthy isn’t as important in this game. Edward is a pirate, so that is actually a better cover for him assassinating people than any degree of stealth could be. If he kills someone, it can be passed off as an act of piracy instead of an actual assassination, because really, pirates are sort of expected to be murderous psychopaths.
So all in all, would you recommend it?: To fans of the series? Yes, absolutely. To people who lost interest in the series a long time ago? Maybe. It’s a good indicator for whether the series still has appeal to you. For new players? It actually isn’t a bad place to jump into the series, though I really do still suggest starting from the beginning, or at least ACII. Also, on a sidenote, I really do recommend everyone play Sid Meier’s Pirates!, because it’s a great pirate simulator and the influences on Black Flag are pretty obvious.