Quick Look: Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag

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Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag Review

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  • PS4

Black Flag takes a sharp left turn from the series' traditional progression, but the ways in which it diverges are what make it one of the most purely entertaining games in the franchise.

Count me among Assassin's Creed III's passionate detractors. I realize the last entry in the Assassin's Creed franchise has its fans, but I personally found Ubisoft's wrap-up of its core Desmond-focused AC trilogy too languid in pace, and peculiarly dull for an entry in a series so thoroughly predicated upon swift and creative methods of murdering people. Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag would, at first glance, seem to be cut from similar cloth to III. Though it takes place several decades prior to the Revolutionary War events of the last release, many of the same systems from that game have found their way into this sequel. However, where Black Flag sets itself apart is where AC III fell apart for me. Taking its setting into the pirate-filled waters of the early 18th century Caribbean, Black Flag crafts a surprisingly and wonderfully vibrant world to explore, both at sea and by land. And while its story isn't all that much more interesting than anything in the last few entries in this series, Assassin's Creed IV has so much to do, and so much of it is genuinely entertaining, that you'll be far too busy to care about its periodic missteps.

Surprising as it may sound, Black Flag's high seas adventure is one of the most enjoyable entries in the franchise.

It helps that Assassin's Creed IV doesn't waste much time getting you into the thick of things--or, well, comparatively speaking, anyway. As this series is often wont to do, Black Flag takes a few hours to guide you through its many systems, side-ventures, and mechanics (sometimes tutoring you on things you've already done several times.) Much of this stuff you'll probably already recognize if you're a series regular, though the ways in which Black Flag molds its existing gameplay into a heretofore unfamiliar open world design is where it's at its best.

The biggest change by far is the new open-world sailing. The boating from AC III is back in roughly the form you may remember, but now sailing the open waters has been expanded to act as your primary method of getting from place to place. The major cities of Havana, Nassau, and Kingston are joined by a large smattering of smaller isles, ports, and deserted specks of land. Even in the open waters, numerous activities will present themselves, including simple ship-to-ship combat and plunder, underwater diving missions, and enemy fort capturing.

None of this stuff would work if the ship controls weren't up to snuff. Thankfully, sailing the open seas is largely a joy. Though the boat controls certainly take a bit of getting used to--especially early on, before you've been able to upgrade your ship sufficiently to survive anything but the most basic combat scenarios--but once you manage to grasp them, the sea becomes an inviting, and even thrilling place. Ship combat can, at times, certainly be a chore, especially in zones where enemies lay claim to the territory, in which case you will often have to avoid going anywhere near them to avoid a protracted combat scenario. The game also does maybe the dumbest thing imaginable in having you engage in ship-based stealth in a couple of story missions. This is not a small, easily maneuverable boat, mind you, and trying to move it stealthily between enemies while avoiding even the slightest collision or infraction is a deeply irritating process. Fortunately, these situations only arise a couple of times, and represent just a fraction of the far more interesting endeavors you'll embark upon while on the water.

Many of the Caribbean's most famous pirates make appearances in Black Flag, often as friends, betrayers, or both.

The rest of the time you'll be on land, engaging in the usual types of story-based assassination missions, while often veering off the main path to do assassination contracts, fight off random enemy encounters, chase down couriers, purchase various businesses, climb to synchronization points, hunt animals, and collect any number of different things, ranging from the usual Animus fragments to sea chanties, which your crew will immediately add to their repertoire once you climb back aboard your ship.

That last bit represents a welcome shift toward usefulness in Black Flag's side missions. Whereas AC III's side stuff often felt kind of pointless, many of Black Flag's other missions actually have a bit of impact on your main game. Apart from just those chanties, now rescuing pirates from attacks by soldiers awards you new men for your ship's crew. Synchronization points now allow you to fast travel to those locations when necessary. Hunting gives you the necessary skins required to craft upgraded pistol holsters, ammunition bags, and the like. The completionist player will opt to do as much of this stuff as they can anyway, but those less geared toward hitting 100% completion now at least have more intrinsic use for these activities.

Of course, you could skip a lot of these missions, just stick to the story stuff, and still wring quite a few good hours out of Black Flag. The historical character you play, a swashbuckling privateer named Edward Kenway (grandfather of AC III's bland protagonist Connor), is a dashing fellow more in the tradition of Ezio than any other Assassin's Creed hero. Interestingly, Edward's affiliation with the Assassins guild is far more tenuous than other characters in the series. He begins the game by assuming the identity of a traitor Assassin, whom Edward ran across during the course of a naval battle. This Assassin had been working with the Templars to try and locate the Observatory, a mysterious First Civilization structure that houses a technology both the Assassins and Templars have a particular interest in.

Unsurprisingly, Edward finds himself caught between both the Assassins and Templars as they track a sage--a reincarnated being who has specific knowledge of the Observatory and its location--and try to prevent the opposing side from getting their hands on the Observatory's revelatory technology. However, Edward's interests are far more base at the outset. Being a pirate of minimal renown early on, Edward sees this Observatory as an epic treasure to plunder. All he wants is money and status, which is certainly in keeping with the game's piratical themes. However, he seeks these riches primarily in the hopes of winning back his estranged wife, who he left back in England when he began his privateering career.

Each land area features the many different synch points, side missions, and other hidden treasure you'd expect, but they're spread out across a huge chunk of oceanic territory, and finding everything will take quite a lot of doing.

Over the course of Edward's adventure, you'll meet numerous rogues of pirate history, including the fearsome Blackbeard, the pirate-turned-pirate hunter Benjamin Hornigold, the "Gentleman Pirate" Stede Bonnet, and two of the most famous female pirates of the era in Mary Read and Anne Bonny. Each of these real historical figures brushes up against Edward's adventure in one chapter or another, and the story is filled with lots of great character moments from each. In that very Assassin's Creed way, Edward ends up acting more as a cipher to experience the camaraderies and cozenages that take place between these characters. And that ends up being just fine, honestly. Edward has enough of a character arc to keep him interesting on his own merits, and the interactions he has with those great names of the high seas--especially Blackbeard and Read--are nicely done. There are definitely moments where the script ends up leaping around in time more than you'd perhaps prefer, especially when it skips over what seems like key character moments for the sake of getting you to the next major moment in the Observatory hunt. But what is there works about as well as you could hope for.

You might be wondering at this point how Black Flag inserts itself into the modern-day element of the Assassin's Creed franchise. How it chooses to occupy the space left behind by previous present-day protagonist Desmond Miles is interesting, if a bit slight. Hilariously, you play as a sort of personality-less developer hired to work at Abstergo Entertainment, the video game development arm of the Templars' all-purpose evil corporation. Your job is to enter the Animus to plug away at Edward's memories in order to find the location of the Observatory. In between all the Animusing, you'll find yourself in the company of both an overly upbeat project manager whose niceness barely masks a total disinterest in your wellbeing, and a shady IT director who cajoles you into running illicit errands that often involve hacking various Abstergo computers. Essentially, this whole section of the game is a series of hacking minigames followed by storyline infodumps you get from the files you acquire via the aforementioned hacking. Some of the revelations that come from those files fill in a few of the blanks about what's been going on since the end of AC III, but the actual story beats of that section don't offer much beyond a moderately interesting "aha!" twist at the end. Fortunately, this stuff makes up only a small fraction of the actual time you spend playing Assassin's Creed IV, and even at their worst, these sections are just a bit dull.

Once you have finished Edward's quest, you can of course simply return to the high seas to take care of any lingering objectives, or you can delve into the multiplayer suite, which is largely what you've come to expect from an Assassin's Creed game. In fact, apart from a few variances, there isn't really too much new here beyond what was included in Assassin's Creed III. Fortunately, it all seemed to work pretty well in the matches I played. The PlayStation 4 also has an "exclusive" additional mission section (that will apparently also be released for PC) featuring Assassin's Creed III: Liberation heroine Aveline. Here, she's tasked with tracking down a captured slave in a short story that, sadly, doesn't do much of anything to further the character. I liked Aveline in Liberation, despite the fact that the game seemed to almost purposely skimp on fleshing out her backstory and motivations. Here you don't even get any significant character moments at all, and the content ends up just being a few more sneak-and-stab missions among the many you'll already play in the main game, albeit with a different character.

Assassin's Creed IV looks amazing on the PlayStation 4 hardware.

I played through Assassin's Creed IV entirely on the PlayStation 4, so while I can't directly compare it to the other versions out there, I can say that this version looks pretty spectacular. Both on land and at sea, the game's artists have crafted some pretty awesome looking scenery. Crashing your boat into a rogue wave and watching the water sweep over the deck of your boat, seeing ships in the distance explode after you deliver a well-placed cannon shot, and simply taking in the gorgeous vistas as you perch atop the many synch points spread throughout the game, are just a few of the many visual highlights I can recall. The animation quality is top-notch too. Occasionally you'll see the kinds of weird quirks inherent to this series, like downed enemies glitching out due to wonky ragdoll physics, or the occasional character lifting a weapon that appears not to have actually loaded in their hands. But where the most detail and work has clearly gone--namely into Edward, his cohorts, and their various combat animations--the game looks terrific. It all runs great too, with only minimal frame rate dips in rare instances.

In some respects, it's perhaps reasonable to say that Assassin's Creed IV is the game that Assassin's Creed III should have been. Which is not to say that a game set in the Revolutionary War should have featured pirates and extended sailing sequences, but rather to acknowledge that the many game systems featured in AC III feel more fleshed out here, and appear better-suited to Black Flag's campaign. Its larger open world setting certainly helps, but an open world is only as good as the stories, characters, and activities you populate it with, and Black Flag's world is one I found myself coming back to again and again not just out of editorial requirement. That Black Flag's association with the Assassin's Creed franchise at times feels kind of tangential should really only be distressing to hardcore franchise fans desperate to see where the ongoing strife between Assassins and Templars is headed. For those who just like the idea of a game in which sailing and stabbing exist in harmony across a vast ocean of entertaining objectives, Black Flag most definitely delivers the goods.

Alex Navarro on Google+
115 Comments
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Posted by jakeh

Playing it now and loving the game!

Edited by LandonRobinson

Thanks Alex! Can't wait to pick it up.

Posted by m2cks

Glad to see that the series was able to recover from the disappointment that was III.

Posted by UberExplodey

yay!

Edited by jimmyfenix

Loving the game so far. It will be interesting to see where Ubisoft takes this franchise next.

Posted by ejiehi

www.youtube.com/watch?v=ou4f8us7_GU

Posted by machinerebel

I was hoping "Assassin's Creed, but Sid Meier's Pirates! instead" would turn out to be good.

Edited by billyhoush

Good for Ubi and maybe it was smart pushing back Watch_Dogs so people would actually play Black Flag.

Edited by MrGtD

I kinda don't see the support in the text that this is "only" a 4 star game? It seems like a relatively glowing review deserving of the full 5. Not that a 4 is a bad score or anything. PS "shanties" not "chanties".

Posted by chose

Boarding got tedious and boring. After Assassin's Creed 2 and 3 those games could do without story to be honest, had way more fun beating the legendary ships than tailing and killing targets.

Posted by AyKay_47

Easily top 3 goty gets 4 stars. gtfo 2013.

Posted by MjHealy

This is what I'm looking for in Assassin's Creed. I've never been the biggest fan of the franchise, I've always felt some niggling issues, but I'm all for this "random period of time, fuck modern day stuff" thing they're going for.

Posted by Meteor_VII

I was one not totally disappointed with III but I would agree with everyone that it has some issues.

I have already finished Black Flag and it was pretty darn great. And even though Alex didn't like the present day stuff I found it quite enjoyable and kinda funny because of the way they are playing it straight but also in a way inviting you into the game development side of the industry even if it is warped by the Abstergo vision of the world. Also the extra info you gain from the mini-games (which are mostly simple compared to past games) is very cool and really continues to flesh out the world they have created.

Posted by Draxyle

@m2cks said:

Glad to see that the series was able to recover from the disappointment that was III.

For certain. I was completely ready to write off the entire franchise because of AC3, but this looks like a great return to form.

Abandoning most pretenses of the Desmond story seems like the smartest move to make, as they clearly had no idea where to take that after AC2.

Posted by AlexGBRO

AC 5 is coming ubi said in an interview that the have 3 ac games working (one black ,one the HD liberation and the last one is AC 5 or AC Next)

Ubisoft Toronto is the main studio for the next game and i think i will be a new time period and also the modern day stuff could be going in some interesting directions

Posted by Solh0und

I almost wanted to give up on the AC franchise after revelations and III but I decided to give this a shot and I'm glad I did. Definitely worth the $35 I spent on it last weekend.

Posted by Peanut

Been playing a ton of it and the only parts I don't like are the Assassin's Creed parts. It's a weird thing to say without context, but anyone who's playing/has played it should know what I'm talking about.

Posted by yevinorion

Loving this game so far. So much so that I'm genuinely afraid of where they'll go with it next. The mix of naval stuff and the Caribbean setting is just so perfect.

Posted by development

I didn't expect Alex to review this. Good review. I'm trying to figure out if I want to buy it for PS3 or wait 'til whenever it is next year that I get a PS4 (maybe a year from now?).

Edited by Sydlanel

Wow.. you use the word "spectacular" three times in one paragraph... it must be really spectacular.. or you might need a thesaurus.

Anyway, other than that, good review, game sounds better than other ACs.. so I might grab it when I get my ps4 .

Posted by PLWolf

Almost at 100% synch and still play to the wee hours. I love this game. At times I just set sail and listen to the crew sing. So awesome.

Edited by PoToSkull

For those who have a Vita the remote play feature works really great. Its mostly ideal for doing side stuff. The developers have reconfigured the controls for the Vita, so it doesn't rely too much on the back touchpad for L1 and R1.

Posted by project343

My favourite game in the series, and my favourite 'AAA' of Fall 2013. Honestly, it deserves a 5/5 for being the best game in the series since ACB, for being one of the finest pirate experiences in gaming, and for being the first game to really nail captaining a ship.

Edited by Tajasaurus

I still don't understand why III is panned so much. It's *fine*, and there were a lot of parts that I thought were genuinely pretty great.

ACIV is way more better, though. I like it a lot.

Edited by PimblyCharles

Great review @alex. I'm at 25% in the game so this really makes me look forward to the rest.

The collecting is real fun at first, but does get quite tedious after a while. The harpoon hunting is really fun, especially when you nab a whale or shark. Diving should have been allowed from the start. It sucks being forced to continue the story just to get that ability. Hopefully it comes soon, because I bet it's awesome.

I also agree with Alex that the parts when you're trying to avoid other ships in a restricted zone is real frustrating. The map could be much better too. It's real unclear where you can go and what's blocked off by non-invisible walls. The on land movement is also janky at times and frustrating to get places fast while falling off shit all the time cause of the movement controls.

Besides those complaints, there is so much fun stuff to do in this game and the open world makes it feel like a real place. There's tons of stuff to do and most of it is fun. Overall though, this is, imo, the best Assassin's Creed game since AC2. It's a breathe of fresh air for the series. Reminds me a lot of Sid Meier's Pirates. Now that was a great game; own it for Sega Genesis.

BTW Alex used my screenshot. Cooooool.

Online
Posted by Wraithken

I've been really enjoying it on the PS3. It just keeps pulling me back in...

Posted by TheHBK

Another game that is better than Brothers.

Posted by CornBREDX

I felt burned by Ryan's review of AC3. I usually agreed with him on a lot of games, but on that game we differed quite a bit. I think it might be one of his reviews where the words didn't seem to quite match the score, but I am not going to go back and check.

I felt, for me, AC3 was so bad they should give me AC4 for free. They wont, and logically I don't actually expect them too, so I'll buy it eventually. Probably when it's on sale.

Even though I swore off AC with 3 I really like pirates and Alex saying this one is worth it makes me ponder.

I generally agree with Alex on games (minus maybe Rayman which I think is only a so so platformer) so I don't know with this one. It's such a dill of a pickle for me.

Posted by jonboycloudsurfer

This is my favorite AC to date. Currently 8022 in the worlds most prosperous pirates.

Edited by beatnik11

Honestly this game for me is easily the best AC game in the franchise, Ubisoft managed to find the fun they sucked out of AC3 and put it into AC4. Edward is a fun likable rogue, the setting is colorful and unique, they eliminated most of the self-serious hogwash of the modern day side of the story which has always dragged down AC games, its completely self aware, and in general if just feels refreshing to play after so many AC games.

I cant blame anyone for being let down after 3 and reluctant to get this, but if anyone is still interested in the AC franchise this is the game to get

Posted by EatAllGames

Your summation is exactly why I loved this game so much. I approached this as the pirate game I always wanted rather than as another Assassin's Creed game whose main character I probably wouldn't like. Ezio Auditore Da Firenze FOREVER!

Edited by Colourful_Hippie

In between all the Animusing,

How would you pronounce that, "Ana-moo-sing" or "Ana-mus-sing"? I'm not sure if I like the sound of either one

EDIT: "Ana-mew-sing"?

Posted by Quantical

Really tempted to get this on the PS4, I did get a bit burnt out on previous Ass games though. I haven't even finished Brotherhood yet.

Posted by ICantBeStopped

4 is the new 5

Posted by WretchedEraser_

great new format putting quick look on top of the review.

Edited by Senate4242

I finished this game a few days ago, and while I liked Ezio better as a character, I think I like AC4 better as a game.

Great review Alex.

Edited by Chrystolis

After feeling the series was starting to lose its way again with Revelations, and not even finishing III due to boredom, I'm happy to say that I'm loving the shit out of this game. I'd say it ranks right up there with AC2.

Posted by Stimpack

So far every AC game I've played has been generic and barely worthy of 3/5 stars. For all the complaints people have, I have yet to see how this one truly changes upon that in any significant way.

Posted by flippyandnod

As an added thing, the second screen stuff (which unfortunately requires a UPlay account) actually works well. Despite some dumb stuff, like forcing you to leave the Fleet mode on the 2nd screen before you can collect your reward in the game, it's actually quite well done and easy to use.

It's very useful in the diving bell missions. You can look at the screen and plan out your route and while the animation of your guy gulping air from an air barrel plays on the main screen you can glance over at the map on your tablet and figure out which direction to go next.

And to add one more thing about the diving bell missions, it's amazing these are even in the game. By the time the Assassins' missions opened up, the Naval Missions opened up, the Templar Missions opened up and all the hunting and harpooning and stuff you think you've got more in this game than you possibly could expect. At that point you still have the diving bell mechanic left to be added!

And the shanties (oddly spelled chanties here) are great. They're like the radio in your car in GTA. It's too bad there is no track selection mechanic, but you can always make them shut up and then start again which will usually change the track.

There are lots of small improvements that make the game better too, that Alex didn't even mention (nor did he need to). For example, now you can spot targets in eagle eye mode and then switch back to regular mode and they will not only be highlighted, but will be visible through intervening buildings! As unrealistic as this may sound, it removes the frustrations when tailing baddies of there being an area of town where it is hard to keep an eye on a guy without being seen. Small things like this make a lot of the missions less hassle and more fun.

This game is so much better put together than ACIII, that even some of the same things that were dreadful in ACIII are fun in ACIV. Remember how running through trees sounded great but was a chore? In this game, due to only using it 10% as often in the game, it's actually fun to do when you have to do it. And if you don't mind not sneaking up on a guy but instead doing a frontal assault, you don't usually even have to do it at all.

And speaking of frontal assaults, let me speak of them and the story. Here's the big improvement in the story in this game: they spend less time forcing you go through the story. In this game I have only a tenuous hold on what is happening in the big picture. And you know what? That's great. If I want to pay attention, I can. But if I just want to enjoy that I can run around killing people and having fun, ignoring any massive build up of backstory I can do that too. There isn't 2 hours of buildup at the start of the game where you go through training (on two separate characters!) while you learn how downtrodden your people are.

And remember all that stuff in AC2.0-3 that meant after the tutorial period ended you really couldn't go around assassinating guards at random because people would get all upset you did it? That's been totally deemphasized. You want to kill a few guards right in front of civilians? They don't seen to mind much. And if you do pick up a wanted level, it only takes 1 minute to get rid of it. I remember running all over hell in AC3 trying to dump a wanted level. In this, it's not nearly as hard.

After AC3 was rated biggest disappointment of the year by GB and others (and for good reason), the only reason I bought AC4 was because it was next gen. But the turnaround has been incredible. I'm thinking of buying the Season Pass for this game it's so good. And I never buy season passes, I only ever bought the Uncharted 2 one.

Great work Ubi. And my fear that Watch_Dogs will just be AC on a black background is much allayed. Even if it is, it'll probably still be worth playing. I never would have said that when AC3 was the most recent AC game.

Posted by Video_Game_King

Assassin's Creed IV looks amazing on the PlayStation 4 hardware.

I guess the Xbox One version looks like a pixelated pile of piss :P.

Posted by Fattony12000

Incredible game. I'd be totally down for a current gen sequel/spin off in a year and a half or so.

Edited by Alex

@video_game_king: Dunno! I didn't get that copy to review, so I can't say one way or the other. Just saying the PS4 version looks great!

Posted by flippyandnod

@pimblycharles: Unfortunately, you're still a ways from the diving. More missions than you think. The diving is pretty good, although strictly a diversion. You can't really make it into the biggest part of the game if you prefer like you can with the sailing or the whaling.

I agree about the controls on land. As much as I like this game, I think this series is high up on the list for "could use a new control scheme". You're always jumping a way you didn't want or falling off something and getting hurt (despite not holding the R2 trigger which means make unsafe jumps). The worst was when I failed a mission because I pressed toward a guy and pressed the button to assassinate him and instead my guy jumped off the roof onto two guys below and double-assassinated them! It was a cool move, but it set off the guards and failed the mission for me.

The ship stealth is incredibly frustrating. It's especially frustrating when just minutes before you were a bad-ass of the sea that schooners and gunboats would avoid contact with! I could take down a brig and 3 schooners at once and would love to do so, but because I'm in this mission I have to tiptoe? It's annoying. It's as bad as the "don't gallop your horse" crap from AC1, but at least it is rare in this game.

Edited by mrfluke

Might very well be my Goty and my favorite in the series. its been fantastic so far, and im happy that i can love AC again after the abysmal AC3.

i love that its so peripherally attached to the assassins vs templars conflict and its more there for context than anything else, it loosened them up so that they can tell a great pirate story and create a great pirate world. i really hope they continue with that so that they can explore other settings and times more easily.

but i agree with what Alex's negative's are about the game even if it didn't bother me as much as it did for him. like i found the modern stuff interesting from a story perspective, but it is sort of dull.

excellent review Alex,

Edited by Silver-Streak

@flippyandnod: At least on the PS4 version, hitting right on the d-pad while at sea will cause your crew to switch to the next song they know.

Edited by BD_Mr_Bubbles

@m2cks said:

Glad to see that the series was able to recover from the disappointment that was III.

Edited by Dezztroy

The part on the Observatory is a bit spoilery. Other than that, good review that I agree with.

Edited by phantom_3d

I enjoyed this game and had real fun time with it sailing about but i got too the point where all goes down hill in the story and it bummed me out. think i would of liked to have seen more pirate games where you can control a ship and enjoy the pirating and naval combat. there are few games but there more focused on the strategic style game play.

hope Ubisoft will create another pirate game with it not having anything to do with assassins creed storyline. The Templar and Assassins story plot was the part of the game i could done with less.

i find ac story after ac 2 to be pretty bad at times to be-honestest.

The outside of animus part of story is neglected to only few scenes, they could expand world outside animus it would improve the story and add more weight to character actions. otherwise character making decisions that i don't give crap about due to the fact i don't feel connected to world outside of the animus.

though black flag had better ending then ac 3. hopefully might learned something from AC 3and never do that again.

Posted by csl316

An enjoyable read, as always.

I was gonna get this for $30 on Amazon today. Until I realized that didn't include the PS4 version. Curses.

Edited by RazeEverything

I'm pretty ok with these non-rushed reviews. Usually pick up games later when they are on sale anyways. The games i get right away i usually look at reviews to see what others thought of it after finishing it.

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