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Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag Review

Written by  Sveinn Aðalsteinn
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Publisher: Ubisoft
Genre: Action adventure
Release Date: 29.10/22.11.2013 (old-gen/next-gen)
Official Site: http://assassinscreed.ubi.com/en-GB/home/index.aspx

Have you ever wanted to sail the seven seas and enjoy the freedom of the open waters as the captain of your own ship? If so, read on and find out if the fourth main instalment in the Assassin’s Creed franchise; Black Flag, will float your boat.

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is the fourth numbered game in the series, but is in fact the sixth major release - not counting the handheld version of the series. AC IV: Black Flag marks the series first appearance on next-gen consoles.

In AC4 players take on the role of the Welsh pirate Edward Kenway, the grandfather of Connor Kenway in Assassin’s Creed III. The game starts around 1715 and spans close to a decade in Edwards life and the turbulent times that were going on in the Caribbean at the time between the pirates and the old Empires of Europe.

As with other games in the series players spend most of their playing time in the Animus device that the Templars created for going through the memories of Desmond Miles, the main character of the last five main AC games. In Black Flag players are an unnamed person hired to Abstergo Entertainment to help with gathering information and images to be used in a Pirate video game by the company. In reality that is just a side business and the real reason is that the Templars are hunting a mysterious place called the observatory and need to access the genetic memories of Edward Kenway - one of Demond's ancestors.

Edward has left his wife back in England to search for fame and fortune in the Caribbean and plans to spend two years at the most doing that. Like with most stories, things don’t exactly pan out that way. After a nasty run-in with another ship Edward and an assassin are marooned together on a deserted island. After the death of the mysterious assassin Edward takes his identity and gets himself mixed up in the long struggle between the Templars and assassins.

AC4 is the first game in the series where the players stand outside of the main conflict for the most part and are mostly looking out for themselves. Edward at the start is an arrogant man that is only in it for the gold he can plunder. So the fate of the world’s future is of little consequences to him. Over the course of the story, and after meeting many of the most interesting characters of the pirate age, he slowly becomes a better man.

The fun part of the game is of course the lure of becoming a pirate in the Caribbean Sea and reigning terror on the unsuspecting English and Spanish fleets. The gameplay in the game should be quite familiar to anyone that has played the earlier AC games and is fairly close to AC III. The saying “if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it” clearly applies with Ubisoft here.

Players have quite a big sandbox to toy around with this time, from the coast of Florida, to ruins in Southern and Central America, to the islands of the Caribbean. There are three major cities that players visit during their time in the game. Havana in Cuba that is run by the Spanish, Kingston í Jamaica that the English rule, and then there is the city of Nassau in the Bahamas that is a pirate free haven at the start of the game. One of the complaints of AC III was the lack of certain verticality in gameplay that the earlier games had, it was understandable because the setting of the game had shifted to the “new world” and there weren’t that many high buildings at that time. The same applies to Black Flag. It’s not a deal breaker by any means, but many players will likely be happy when the series moves to older (or newer) locations with more variation in structures. The tallest things you’ll scale in AC IV are the masts of some of the bigger ships.

One thing that the game can’t be accused of is a lack of content. It took me around 30 hours to complete the main story of the game, and there was still plenty left to do. There were islands to be explored, treasure to be found, whales and sharks to be hunted, ships to be plundered, and fortresses to be raided.  Then on top of that you have the multiplayer component of the game that is very similar to AC III, and that’s not a bad thing.

The game looks great on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, and it was a pleasant surprise to see such a big open world running so well on the aging hardware. The next-gen version looks even better, especially on the PlayStation 4 after the day 1 patch that upped the resolution of the game to 1080P.

From the moment you sail your ship; the Jackdaw, out from port there is no loading when you sail across the map from top to the bottom. The game usually loads when you partake in one of the many activities in the game like diving for treasure, or hunting animals, or when you enter into the cities and main islands of the game, as well as the story missions.  

The Anvil graphics engine handles the open sea and lush jungles quite well, and delivers a good 30fps performance on the current gen and next-gen systems.

Character models on the main characters look really good, and seeing the flaming bushy beard on Blackbeard while he charges into combat is a sight to behold. There is a case to be made that AC IV isn’t a true next-gen game, and that is true, but what it delivers on the PS4 and Xbox One is the best possible version of the game for players.

The frame rate of the game handles the open world quite well, and I only noticed a few dips in the frame rate when the action on land or sea got quite heated on the last-gen systems, but the frame rate held up much better on both the next-gen consoles.

One of the biggest draws of the game, and my favourite part, was the naval combat. In AC III there were a handful of mission in the game that featured naval battles out on the open sea, and it left you wanting more. In Black Flag, players are rewarded with a plethora of ship combat to their hearts desire. From small gunboats, to medium sized brigs, to multi-tier gunned legendary ships; there is always another ship on the horizon to engage and plunder. The Jackdaw has plenty of weapons for dealing with enemy ships: You have cannons on either side for the main combat, a chain shot at the front to stun ships and destroy their sails, and a mortar to deal serious damage from afar. In addition you can drop explosive fire barrels behind you in the line of the enemy, and the swivel guns on the side to hit critical precision hits or to whittle down the enemy ranks before boarding ships.

If your notoriety is high enough, special pirate hunters are sent to collect the bounty on your head. You can either stand and fight, or try to run away and hide between the many islands, or even bribe an official to remove your bounty. When you board ships you also have the opportunity to lower your wanted level as well, or if you prefer, you can repair your ship with parts from the defeated vessel.

Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag is in my book the best playing game in the series. The story is quite good, on par with the story of AC II. What Ubisoft really gets right is the time period, theme, and setting of the pirate age. It recreates the short and glorious time they had before being crushed under the might of the old European colonial powers.

The gameplay is varied and plentiful, there is always something to do or discover, and you can have limitless fun sailing the Caribbean Sea and seeing what is coming up on the horizon. I really hope we will see another pirate themed game in the series, or simply another pirate game from Ubisoft. There aren’t that many games that deal with this time period, and none do it as well.

The PS4 and Xbox One versions of the game are the best way to play Black Flag, but the last gen versions are no slouches either. 

What's Good? Great naval combat, large open world to explore, fun multiplayer & great presentation

What's Bad? A few repetitive missions (eavesdropping and stalking), occasional glitches & issues connecting to uPlay servers

 

 

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