Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag Review
Pirates are ruddy brilliant, aren’t they?
Why there aren’t more pirate games we’ll never know; something about riding the open sea, smashing boats to bits and claiming all that lovely booty just works. So yeah, more pirate games please.
The good news is that, as a pirate game, Assassin’s Creed 4 is a considerable improvement over Assassin’s Creed 3, the latter of which barely managed to stir the undergarments of even the most diehard Assassin’s Creed fans.
Well, Connor was a painful dullard…
The bad news, however, is that this is still an Assassin’s Creed game, and that spoils what could otherwise be the thrilling, rum-soaked, peg-legged, sea-shantied pirate game you’ve always wanted.
Needless to say, being a pirate is excellent and – for that alone – it’s worth picking up this latest adventure. Yes, even after Assassin’s Creed 3.
Assassin’s Creed 4’s Story & World
There’s an unexpected simplicity to Assassin’s Creed 4, not just in the world that has been created or the character you control but every finite element.
Combat isn’t as obtuse with only a selection of items to choose from, missions are more open to personal input and direction and the majority of Assassin’s Creed 4’s open world events are available from the start.
That’s right, no tedious introductory missions here.
But best of all is Edward Kenway: protagonist, pirate and plunderer.
Put bluntly, Edward is selfish. Motivated by little other than an illusive fortune, Edward kills not for Creed or for Order but, instead, to somehow further his gain.
It’s a ridiculously simple premise that, for the largest portion of the game, focuses entirely around Edward’s dream of gold, around the pirate haven of Nassau and the Templar (read: British) desire to stamp out piracy from the Caribbean.
There’s very little fannying around with Assassins or Templars (though they are, indirectly, the primary source of Edward’s scorn), and instead it’s all about Edward and his ship the Jackdaw.
Once you’ve acquired the ship you’re free to explore the world – whether on-foot in various plots of land or by sea, taking on all-comers as you seek to gather resources for improving the Jackdaw or Edward’s hidden cove.
Assassin’s Creed 4’s Naval Exploration
It’s on the open waves where Assassin’s Creed 4 really sells itself. The naval sections of Assassin’s Creed 3 have ported over well with a huge expanse of water to explore and conquer.
Whether it’s decimating unassuming schooners for easy loot, chasing down a convoy for a hefty gold reward or even the personal challenge of overcoming one of four legendary ships – there’s plenty to witness on the seas.
Even off-deck you’re able to anchor up at any point and explore, from tiny islands with nothing but a single palm tree and a treasure chest, one of myriad possible port locations or the gorgeous underwater diving sections.
Then there are forts to assault, Far Cry 3 style crafting parts to find and the usual bevy of collectables.
Frankly, there’s a lot to do. And when you’re free to explore as you wish, master of your own fate so to speak, Assassin’s Creed 4 feels considerably more rewarding than its predecessor.
The naval combat has been largely unchanged, but since they were pretty solid the first time around there isn’t much room for criticism here.
There’s a unique thrill to scuttling a ship several levels higher than your own, rope swinging in with your cutlasses at the ready to pierce the enemy crew, closely followed by your own deckhands.
That thrill quickly rescinds, but the process still manages to entertain every single time.
The Assassin’s Creed
Sadly, though, all this swashbuckling does have its limits.
The ship and port upgrading, however fulfilling, quickly run out of interest. Fleet improvements aren’t as exciting as they could be, too.
It feels like something of a missed opportunity; with all this drive to amass a fortune and craft your own pirate fleet, the options to do so are cursory at best, relegated to a menu option and little else.
Combat is great, yes, but with little in the way of empire building – or at least in a way that feels tangible – Assassin’s Creed 4 does lose some of its steam somewhat.
And a large part of that is courtesy of those bloody Assassins.
It’s a little contradictory to say, but the potential brilliance of Assassin’s Creed 4 is hamstrung by the fact that it is an Assassin’s Creed game.
There are the obligatory real-world segments, far too many tailing missions (they’re just not fun, Ubisoft) and that oh-so-nonsense First Civilization bollocks that comes with every Assassin’s Creed game.
Edward Kenway is refreshingly antagonistic towards both the Assassins and the Templars, practically separating a huge portion of the game from the silly little war the two factions have been fighting for centuries.
At points you’ll likely forget this is an Assassin’s Creed game at all, and somehow that’s a positive. Take away all the bullshit and, at its core, Assassin’s Creed 4 is a fantastic game.
But it ultimately diverges in a bid to get back on message. Even if Edward Kenway actively avoids interacting with the Assassins, he is invariably drawn back in.
Whether you’re a fan of the nonsensical lore of the First Civilization that Assassin’s Creed has weaved over the years or not, its inclusion in Assassin’s Creed 4 feels forced and, to be honest, spoils an otherwise simple – yet compelling – idea.
Assassin’s Creed 4 Review
There is a lot to like about Assassin’s Creed 4. This is a team with numerous entries into the series now under its belt and is clear about what an Assassin’s Creed game is.
There are a wide variety of things to do or see here, helped along by the change in locales. From wild jungles to desert islands, the debauched Nassau to the preened Kingston; there’s much more variety to Assassin’s Creed 4 than in the last game.
The characters you’ll meet, too, offer up a greater level of interest than any of the pantomime villains or uninspired heroes of Assassin’s Creed 3. There’s a wider range of characters and a much more subtle initial story being told.
Even the missions are a little more appealing, aside from the tedious tailing sections of course.
For the most part there’s less scripting involved; you’re tasked with a particular objective and given the freedom to achieve that however you like.
Whether you aim to never be seen, brutally murder from the shadows or just go in swords a-swinging, in most cases that’s your choice.
It’s liberating when compared to the last couple of Assassin’s Creed games that have had carefully scripted missions – and forced restarts when you don’t dance to its particular tune.
The ship-based missions are a little more controlled, admittedly, but for the most part these are all interesting variations on naval combat or exploration and are a fresh way to play Assassin’s Creed.
By now we all know what to expect from an Assassin’s Creed game, and in that sense there won’t be any surprises here.
Yet somehow – thanks to the focus on piracy – Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag manages to feel simultaneously new and old.
The core controls still feel like Assassin’s Creed, but dress up Edward in attire more suitable for a pirate and you’ll likely forget all about hidden blades and assassinations.
Until the final quarter of the game, at least, where it devolves into the usual sci-fi twaddle again.
Ubisoft has learnt the simplicity of presenting an open world from Far Cry 3, but Assassin’s Creed is a series that has become increasingly complex – both in terms of gameplay and storyline.
Assassin’s Creed 4 is a step towards regaining the series’ simplicity, but when even the otherwise mundane modern day content (which lasts no more than 30 minutes in total) resorts to unnecessary – and distracting – sci-fi twists, it becomes clear the series has lost its focus somewhere along the way.
Sometimes it’s enough for a videogame to just be about assassins, or pirates, or red indians, or whatever.
Ubisoft needs to dial it down. It has the gameplay, it just needs to present it in a fashion that doesn’t spoil an otherwise completely absorbing set of characters, locations and gameplay tools.
Version tested: Xbox 360