Every scrap of duck on the wind!
One of the first videogames I ever played was about pirates. It starred a (not at all) fearless, insult-sword-fighting, unlucky scoundrel named Guybrush Threepwood whose only dream was to become a notorious pirate. A lot of other sea-worthy titles have come and gone since the Monkey Island series, but I have had a soft spot for the roguish, grog-swilling brigands of yore since I first battled LeChuck all those years ago.
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag shares almost nothing but the setting with the great Monkey Island franchise, but it does allow the player to fulfill Guybrush’s dream of becoming a notorious pirate.
In Black Flag, you become an employee of Abstergo Entertainment, a fictional game developer that serves as a Templar cover for locating artifacts lost to their historical rivals, the Assassins.
Desmond Miles, the modern-day protagonist of previous Assassin’s Creed titles, is once again the genetic base for Abstergo’s Animus project – essentially a device that uses DNA to view the past through ancestry – and the player digs through his genes to access Desmond’s ancestor’s life with the aim of creating a game about pirates.
When inside the Animus, the player becomes Edward Kenway, a Welsh privateer-turned-pirate in the 1700′s. Kenway, grandfather of Assassin’s Creed III‘s Connor, becomes shipwrecked on an island and meets Duncan Walpole, a traitorous Assassin, who attempts to murder him. After defeating Walpole, Kenway finds a letter on Walpole’s corpse addressed to a group called the Templars promising a great amount of money.
Edward dons Walpole’s Assassin garb and makes his way to the Templars, acting as if he were Walpole in the hopes of receiving the promised riches. Unknowingly, Edward has furthered the struggle between the two secret societies and given the Templars more power in the coming battle.
By using a character clueless to the ancestral struggle as well as ending AC3 the way they did, Ubisoft allows for a (mostly) fresh start, and newcomers should be able to grasp the storyline relatively easily. Most background-related questions can be answered by browsing the extensive Animus Database or through dialogue in-game and so prior knowledge of the franchise is not a requirement for enjoyment – though there are several nods to the past (particularly in the modern sequences) that fresh Assassins might miss out on.
The plot of Black Flag, while mostly serviceable, often feels schizophrenic. Ellipses muddle the timeline, offering a chronological but disjointed experience. In one instance, Edward seems to suddenly become self-reflective and thoughtful, which feels at odds with the character he was only minutes before.
That being said, the story does have some excellent moments – some even touching and emotional – and manages to capture the essence of a pirate’s life both on land and at sea without falling into the cliché “Yarr matey!” business.
While I was originally skeptical of the game developer aspect of ACIV, the conspiratorial overtones and nefarious ulterior motives of the company makes for an interesting aside to the main game. Implicating the player in Abstergo’s plans creates a more personal experience and toys with the idea that the game is much more than simple entertainment.
Gameplay is largely the same as previous Assassin’s Creed entries, with an added refinement and focus on naval traversal and warfare. Kenway can climb, jump, run, and hide just as previous ancestors could, but the real fun comes from sailing your ship around the huge world Ubisoft has created.
Acquiring a ship follows Kenway’s accidental infiltration of the Templars and subsequent misadventures. The Jackdaw – as Kenway names it – starts as a fragile, low damage-dealing gunship but through upgrades (and skill) can more than take on any other ship in the sea. These upgrades require resources, however, and the best way to build up your metal, wood, and cloth cache is to board other ships.
Doing enough damage to an enemy vessel allows for Kenway’s crew to launch grapples and pull in for a closer assault. Different ships require various goals to result in a takeover, such as killing five to twenty crewmembers, destroying powder kegs, or cutting their flags down. By boarding, the player receives the full amount of resources the ship holds, whereas sinking them only gives up half of their total cargo.
The boarding process can become tedious while searching for the tons of precious metal required for elite weapons, but is largely an enjoyable experience. Swinging from a rope on your ship to assassinate an enemy captain looks as stylish and cinematic as it sounds, and in my forty hours of game time, I only began to find it a chore near the end.
To make traversal more streamlined, fast travel is accessible after visiting any location. A huge map with an enormous number of collectibles makes for a lot of sailing and fast travel saved me from slogging it out plenty of times.
Some of the frustrations of previous AC games emerge once again here. “Tailing” missions are made even more awkward by using ships to follow others, with areas of awareness coming off of forts and enemy vessels. Another old problem rears its head in movement on land. I often found myself jumping to my death rather than to the next branch, ledge, or roof – though admittedly, it was less frequent than in previous titles.
Combat can feel clumsy at times as well. Without a lock-on feature, Kenway attacks highlighted enemies, whether they are the closest to him or not. Counterattacking is generally responsive, but I occasionally found I was getting hit despite pressing the appropriate button. With a little refinement, the combat could be spot-on because when it works, it looks and feels great.
The game’s visuals are stunning – whether in a bustling city, on a deserted island, or sailing through the stormy seas, it is clear that Ubisoft put a lot of work into details. Foliage responds to wind and movement, water splashes and rushes over your ship, and a nice assortment of villagers keeps towns feeling fresh.
Due to a strong focus on sailing, players can expect to view the open sea frequently, and thanks to storms, wildlife, and a beautiful day/night cycle, I always had something interesting to look at.
I suffered no frame rate issues or missing textures in my forty hours with the game, but I did once fall through the environment after getting stuck between a tree and a ledge. The problem sorted itself out with a death and respawn at my last checkpoint, however, and didn’t overly affect my experience.
As they are apt to do, Ubisoft has crammed an enormous amount of content into this game. Side missions, colectibles, treasure maps, and animals to hunt and craft items from being just a few of the many activities present here.
One of my favorite optional undertakings was exploring underwater shipwrecks. Kenway’s ship receives a diving bell later on in the story, allowing for deep sea treasure hunting. The shark-infested waters offer a short, rewarding alternative activity to the usual pirating, and with elite upgrade plans found in the wrecks, this activity is made all the more worth it.
“Legendary” ships offer extreme challenges for those who seek more difficulty. One located in each corner of the map, these monstrous vessels boast incredible armor and firepower for the most dedicated pirates to attempt to battle. A huge monetary reward comes with destroying them, though, and it becomes worth it for both the coin and the glory.
The “hide and seek with assassins” brand of multiplayer returns in Black Flag. Different game modes offer varied objectives but the concept remains the same. Players must blend with groups of AI characters to sneak up on unsuspecting opposing targets and pull off assassinations for points. It is great fun when both teams are playing “properly” but when players decide to go Rambo-style, it devolves into a frustrating deathmatch. Either way, it’s a great time-waster and will keep the disc in players’ drives or the file on their consoles.
Ubisoft has released a companion app for iOS and Android users to engage in with Kenway’s Fleet, a ship-battling and cargo trading minigame. Also accessible in the Captain’s Quarters of the player’s ship, users can clear out trading paths and send ships acquired through boarding to gain collectibles, money, and treasure maps. The minigame encourages a social aspect in speeding up, healing, or escorting other players on your friend list’s ships. I found the companion app to be a great way to earn plenty of money while away from my console. The app is free and unintrusive, as well as very useful, and I highly recommend its use.
I loaded up ACIV not expecting to find such a polished, fun experience, particularly after the dull mess I found last year’s title to be. By the time I watched the credits roll, I was once again a believer in the franchise. As it stands, this is the highest quality retail game available on PS4 and well worth anyone’s time and money.
In playing Black Flag, I was finally able to realize the wish I shared with Guybrush Threepwood all those years ago – I finally became a notorious pirate (from the comfort and safety of my living room).
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some insult-sword-fighting practice to attend to.