Sea shanties have never been more important.
By Jason Imms 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.
- 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
- Melee combat is incredibly easy with the removal of heavy enemies
- Same-old Assassin mechanics when on foot
- PC port seems unoptimised, performs poorly
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.