Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag reviewed (Xbox 360, PC): A refreshing change of tack

Assassins Creed 4 Black Flag

By on November 22, 2013 at 1:54 pm

Looking across the array of Assassin’s Creed titles on my games shelf is an exercise in confused nostalgia. Despite perfectly justified complaints about the repetitive nature of its side missions, the first Assassin’s Creed carried with it a heady sense of potential for a series yet unproven, or unsullied by cruft. Assassin’s Creed 2 introduced a brand new and ultimately beloved protagonist, and further increased that sense of potential, as players realised the scope of possibility that a series unfettered by the lifetime of a single character could offer.

Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood was forgiven for borrowing much from its predecessor thanks to its thorough refinement of the Assassin’s Creed experience, and its addition of a group of ever-present guardian angels of death, capable of raining brutal murder down upon those unfortunate enough to stand in the player’s way. Thanks to perhaps unfairly raised expectations, Assassin’s Creed: Revelations was met with an almost unanimous disdain for its lone mechanical addition of a wrist-hook, and its forgettable resolution of the Ezio storyline.

Assassin’s Creed 3 was an exemplar of insular game design, with a suffocating amount of contextually inappropriate side-missions, a plot so self-involved that it placed its protagonist at the centre of every significant event of the American Revolution, and with an atrocious PC port to boot.

When it was announced that Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag would be open-world, and focused on the antics of a pirate-slash-assassin, it was easy to assume that Ubisoft were panicked, scrambling to find something, anything that would serve to draw a disillusioned fanbase back into the fold, even if only for the sake of morbid curiosity. In reality, however, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is a strong and focused change in direction for the series. The key to this change is found in the protagonist, Edward Kenway, and one simple fact of his personality: Edward could not care less about the Assassins, the Templars, or their damnable causes. He is a man driven by ambition and greed, whose only connection to the Assassins is that he happened to take ownership of a set of their fancy garb and wristblades from a man that fatally stood in his way.

Kenway eventually becomes a key proponent of the self-proclaimed pirate republic of Nassau, a city seceded from the tyrannical rule of William III, and entirely focused on freedom and vice. It is from this base of operations that Black Flag gives the player leave to undertake the more piratical aspects of the game, namely ship-to-ship combat, boarding actions, and sea-to-ground fort attacks.

One of the most highly-praised aspects of AC3, its ship combat encounters, was unfortunately a mere side mission. Tense and moody, these prototypical missions were well-received, despite the fact that they felt disconnected from the rest of the game. In Black Flag though, they are at the core of the experience. Everything about piloting The Jackdaw, from the rolling waves, creaking timber, cracking sheets, and the cries of its crew members, sets an unerring tone of freedom and camaraderie. When moving at travel speed, the camera pulls back to a cinematic wide view, and the crew breaks into song. The familiar What Will We Do With a Drunken Sailor? becomes a beautifully haunting and disconcerting refrain when presented in its natural context.

Ship-to-ship combat is mostly unchanged from that of AC3, and is capped by the immensely satisfying ability to board sufficiently damaged vessels. After completing a series of tasks, these ships can either be used to repair The Jackdaw, to lower the current wanted level, or they can be sent to Kenway’s Fleet, the pirate-themed version of the assassin management sim mini-game found in Brotherhood and Revelations.

The PC port of Black Flag is unfortunately a hot mess. Visually, it stands far apart from the current gen console versions in terms of draw distance, texture resolution, and shadow quality, but it fails miserably when it comes to performance. In a similar fashion to AC3, Black Flag hitches and drops frames when moving at speed through urban environments, even halting altogether for seconds at a time while it streams in terrain. It’s inexcusable, and hopefully soon to be patched or addressed by updated drivers.

The rest of the mechanics one might expect from an Assassin’s Creed game are present and accounted for in Black Flag: oversimplified melee combat, frustrating insta-fail stealth missions, parkour, ferocious neck stabbing – it’s all there. In contrast to Assassin’s Creed 3, however, nearly every single action that can be taken by the player as Edward Kenway is congruous with his character and motivations. Treasure maps lead to treasure and upgrades for The Jackdaw, hunting and whaling provides Far Cry 3-like upgrades for Kenway’s personal gear, facing off against a monstrous Spanish man o’ war from the helm of a tiny brig yields big rewards, and feels consistent with the nature of Kenway and his quest.

In short, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is a return to form for a series that many had assumed to have jumped the shark.

Good:

  • Edward Kenway is refreshingly different to previous AC protagonists
  • Ship combat, boarding actions, and sailing are huge amounts of fun
  • Best use of sea shanties in a videogame
  • Side missions and activities are contextually appropriate and fun
  • Vastly improved freerunning – vastly reduced leaps into nothingness, and running into walls
  • Fits comfortably into gaps in real-world history

Bad:

  • Melee combat is incredibly easy with the removal of heavy enemies
  • Same-old Assassin mechanics when on foot
  • PC port seems unoptimised, performs poorly

Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag is now available on Steam and Uplay, starting at $69.99

Review code provided by the publisher on both Xbox 360 and then PC.

First and second screenshots in this review taken by the reviewer on PC.

22 comments (Leave your own)

If the pirates in this game are as hilarious as the pirate in Chivalry: Deadliest Warrior, I’ll buy it.

 

Question from one disenfranchised devotee to those who have played it: does the game still have that “complete xxx bonus objective in order to get 100% synch” stuff?

 

ralphwiggum,

Sure does, but it’s completely optional. To my knowledge it only really affects achievements.

 

Green Man Gaming have this for ~$60 for a “Capsule” copy (their own steam-like service) however you can just put the key provided into uPlay if you don’t want to use their service.

 

I’ve had sea shantys stuck in my head for the last 2 days now.

I think I’m one of the few people who enjoyed AC3 when it came out, not as much as the previous ones but I still had heaps of fun. But… Wow this game makes me look back to AC3 and think “hmm that game was pretty shit.”

 

Jason Imms,

Thanks. I know they were optional but they seemed like such a side distraction and the big fat ‘synch failed’ you got was just mean. Probably why I liked AC2 best, you focussed on the main objective and nothing else.

 

I have played maybe an hour or two into the game.

Massive AC fan, became uninterested after Revelations and 3, but the trailers turned me around and I ended up buying Black Flag.

Let me just say this, This is without a doubt the absolute best AC game so far [That may seem a tall ask with only 2 hours in], but those 2 hours are enough to show me that this is going to be my all time favourite AC

Edward is a much better main character, he is as interesting and charismatic [in a dirty greedy pirate way] as Ezio.

Any previous fans that fell away from the series after Rev and 3 should give this a shot, you will certainly enjoy it.

 

I actually fell off this series after AC2 failed, in my opinion, to capitalize on the potential of one.

I must say though, this looks interesting.

 

I’ve been playing it for a few hours and absolutely love it, the whole map you have available to you, is INSANELY huge. I’ve spent a good ~4hours in the first town just running around finding the chests and stuff (which I never bothered with before, but it’s much more fun in this one for some reason) I’ve only done about 2 of the main quests so far, I might have an issue.

If you’re on the fence about it and loved the old AC’s or are new, just grab it, it’s fantastic. Not to mention MP is supposed to be really good as well.

 

Just FYI Heavy melee enemies are still in the game, just on the larger ships/later areas, and they are still a pain to deal with in groups.

Finished it on the Xbox (don’t hate) and its great all the way through. Keeps the pace way better then AC3 and never gets that grindy feel to it.

Great game.

 

actually GMG have a 25% off for this now so its only $45

even cheaper than other key resellers like g2play which is still at 50$

 

I haven’t had a chance nor the internet for the past 3 games to play this series but this looks ok. Does it reference the previous ones much?

 

i want to buy it but i know that the melee being total dogshit will ruin it for me like it ruined every other AC game.

 

InAUGral,

Completely new story line. There are some small references to the others, but you don’t have to have played any of them to fully enjoy this.

nekosan,

yeah if you didn’t like the melee in AC3 you wont like it here either

 

The PC port of Black Flag is unfortunately a hot mess. Visually, it stands far apart from the current gen console versions in terms of draw distance, texture resolution, and shadow quality, but it fails miserably when it comes to performance. In a similar fashion to AC3, Black Flag hitches and drops frames when moving at speed through urban environments, even halting altogether for seconds at a time while it streams in terrain. It’s inexcusable, and hopefully soon to be patched or addressed by updated drivers.

I can honestly say that I’ve never experienced the frame rate drop / inconsistency they’re talking about… Except when I was recording using fraps at full hd res with surround sound… But then I kind of expected that…

I’m running a single GTX 680 with 8gb of RAM and an i5 2500K cpu, hardly top of the range stuff. Oh, and nothing is overclocked, except my RAM frequency – just to match its rating.

Having said that, I’m not trying to run the game at max. I’m using the settings recommended on the nvidia website for the game and my graphics card, and the game runs like a dream and looks beautiful.

 
 

Well having read people’s thoughts here, especially those who have gone through the same emotional rollercoaster I have, I’m pretty much convinced this is a game worth continuing with.

 

I totally hear you, Ralph. I hate sandbox games that shove all the busy work under your nose and distract from the genuinely fun parts of the game. I too am hoping they have scaled that stuff back in this one. I gave up after AC2 because of all that rubbish.

 

Great game. Having loads of fun with it. Just unfortunate about the console port. GTX 480′s in SLI only getting 42fps on max settings with 56%~ GPU usage on each. Hopefully this gets optimised but I doubt it.

 

ralphwiggum,

I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts after playing it. I’m still not convinced in continuing the series currently despite others liking the game.

 
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