Assassin’s Creed Black Flag Review: Take what you can, give nothing back
Excellent Naval Experience, Stunning Visuals, Huge Open World Environment
Stale Character Development, Minor Lapses in "Intuitive Movement", Ignores too much previously established Assassin Culture.
Ubisoft have spent the last 5 years fashioning the Assassin’s Creed franchise into a true powerhouse of a series, maintaining an annual release, and selling millions of copies. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, is not only the latest adventure in the series, but also the most exciting yet. The game puts players in the role of a pirate captain, giving players the opportunity to roam the seven seas of the 18th Century, swashbuckling your way across exotic cities and islands, demanding to know why the rum is always gone. I tackled this highly anticipated game on the Xbox 360, and couldn’t have had a better time.
I feel that as a standalone title, this game has no equal. If anything can be said about the Black Flag, it is that. As a naval simulator it ranks pretty highly, and with its open world/adventure game-play it is incredibly enthralling, the game just begs you to pick apart every nook and cranny in the map. Those things are great. Take the game and place it within the Assassin’s Creed franchise and it tells a different story however. In many ways the new title improves on the problems presented in III, but in other ways it just misses the mark. For someone like myself, the American Revolution wasn’t nearly as interesting as the Crusades, Renaissance Italy and Byzantine Turkey. The Caribbean Golden Age of Piracy was far more fun to experience, and I’ll give the game credit just for its historical cameos alone, something all AC games do well. Blackbeard is one of the more endearing character you’ll want to look out for, but there are also many others. While the setting was great, the game only barely improves on a major flaw in the AC III, which is the way the player experiences what I call the “Assassin’s Creed Legacy”. Both the original game, AC II, Brotherhood and Revelations put a lot of importance on the Assassin Tradition, in the way players interact with the Creed as it exists in their current time, and what previous incarnations of the Creed have left behind. The third title sort of killed that legacy, in the sense that their isn’t any part of their legacy to rediscover or experience. Black Flag starts to rekindle that tradition, but not nearly to the point it should have. I felt that the Assassins, which are now mostly natives from local tribes, are brushed aside from too much of the game.
Our protagonist is Edward Kenway, a relative of both Haytham and Connor from Assassin’s Creed III. Edward is, unfortunately, about as interesting as a bag of flour for 90% of the game. A real effort has been made to make Edward’s character possess as much of the “Pirate Cliche” as possible. The easiest way to do that was to motivate him by money. To give him some credit he does have a rather redeeming ending, but up until that point, Kenway spends far too much of the game in a morally grey area. While this is certainly better than the train-wreck than was his grandson Connor, I still found it to be a bit of a let down. A lot of people talk about liking games with grey morals, and it can be a refreshing change from the cliché dichotomy of good vs evil. Black Flag makes the mistake of leaving Edward morally apathetic for far too much of the game, which in turn makes him a bit too hard to relate with. There are reasons why people like playing as the hero, and furthermore there are just as many reasons why people like the anti-hero/villain. Unfortunately for much of the game there was just no clear distinction between the two. Connor, bland as he was, at least had moral direction to propel both the story and his character development. Oh, and Edward was blonde, what was up with that? It really shouldn’t have anything to do with what I thought of him, but once I noticed it, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. . .oh well, could be worse, he could have had face tentacles.
Previous titles in the franchise have always centered around operating in an open world environment, with the game occasionally putting players into linear sections, such as buildings, catacombs and tombs. Those linear levels/areas have always for the most most part worked fine, but in Black Flag they often feel out of place. Much of these linear paths are through tropical island paths and at times I felt like I was trapped inside Crash Bandicoot. Even the urban areas of the game have problems, to be precise, the same problem as the previous title in the series. Previous titles in the franchise featured cities such as Constantinople and Venice, cities with monolithic structures and buildings packed together. This meant that there was a hell of a lot of surface area to be able to run and climb across. Urban areas of Black Flag end up feeling too restrictive because their scale is just so small. I can see why the game needed its urban areas downsized, its something that is both historically correct, and needed to justify the naval aspects of the game, giving you an incentive to get out and explore the ocean rather than the cities. When it came down to it, the urban areas start to steal the fun from performing assassinations and completing missions, by leaving such little space to operate in.
I played this game on my almost antique 1st gen Xbox 360, and I was pleasantly surprised to say that the game performed extremely well. In the 35ish hours I spent playing it froze up maybe once, which isn’t actually that bad for such an early 360. Anyone who read my GTA V review will remember the problem I had with texture popping, and surprisingly Black Flag doesn’t suffer from this at all. Actually, while I’m on the subject I can’t skim over the fact that the game is simply gorgeous. Visually the game is one of the best I have ever played on a console, whether it be on land or at sea. When you’re out on the ocean, the environment looks amazing. The water is as realistic as I have ever seen. I can’t think of any serious ways to criticize the game visually, and as soon as you get out on your ship you’ll agree with me.
Aurally, the game performs to just as high a standard. The score for Black Flag was composed by Brian Tyler, the genius behind Far Cry 3 and Modern Warfare 3. If you’ve even stepped into a cinema this year you might recognise him from his work in both Iron Man 3 (One of my personal favourite scores), Thor: The Dark World and Now You See Me. Tyler does an excellent job at immersing the players in the “Pirate World”, keen listeners will even recognize some obvious references to Hans Zimmer’s work on Pirates of the Caribbean. The score both highlights the action sequences of the game and the more stagnant periods, and it adds to the immersion of the game immensely. While we’re on the topic of music, players will not want to miss out on the new Sea Shanty feature when aboard their ship. With the ability to collect more songs as the game progresses, arduous journeys soon become lively jigs as the crew wail over the sound of the ocean. What I found horribly disturbing, was that Ubisoft give players the option to turn Sea Shanties off. Are they insane?
Control of the character is something I’m a little bit torn over in Black Flag. For 99% of the time, movement is as intuitive as ever. Whether it be navigating through jungle paths or buildings, or both, the game holds up pretty well. Unfortunately, that sneaky 1% of the time where intuitive movement becomes clunky and sluggish, was enough to keep me from completing some of the more inventive escapes and chases that I would have liked. Some of the boarding skirmishes out at sea ended in me diving off the ship by accident, or plummeting off the mast down to the deck.
Anyone who hated the ‘modern day” element to the franchise will have a field day with the modern counterpart for Black Flag. The player is an employer of Abstergo Entertainment, a game developer seeking to use the animus project for entertainment products. At first I thought it was simply supposed to be a joke, and make a mockery of the heavily criticized modern elements of the previous titles. While they later sneak some relevance into this part of the game, I simply didn’t know what to think. As per usual the only true function of these modern cut aways is to remind one to put down the controller for ten or so minutes and ask someone what year it is, but the day they take them out I’m sure I’ll complain about that as well.
While I’ve spoken at length on some of the title’s hit and misses, I really do need to give the game credit for some things. The game might very well be Pirate Simulator 2013 but at the end of the day no one really cares, because being a pirate is a lot of fun. Whether it be laying siege to forts, whaling, chasing treasure or just ruining some poor schooner’s day, piracy is definitely the crown jewel for this series. Upgrading the ship will give players a more rugged ship to take into battle, against larger fleets and tougher enemies, and I literally spent hours doing just that.
You would be doing yourself a great injustice to not pick up this game, but if you do, you’ll probably have to take a few days off work as it is impossible to put down. I feel that Ubisoft have dug themselves into a massive ditch with this franchise, as it is just so good. Every subsequent AC release gets scrutinized more and more harshly, purely because the previous titles are of such a high standard. I’ve mentioned a lot of negatives about the game, but that is only because with a game of such a high standard, you do really need to nitpick it. I guess that doesn’t matter for now, not when all I wanna do is get back on my Xbox and play it again. For Ubisoft, I think Black Flag is a step in the right direction for where the AC franchise needs to go, but I would have really loved for it to have been a huge leap in the right direction. For now, go buy the game. Enjoy it, get pulled into its rich setting, and experience it all for yourself. If your experience is anything like mine you’ll find it hard to enjoy any other game for quite a while.