The lights are on
"A Step Down, but in the Right Direction..."
Last year, almost exactly a year ago in fact, I reviewed Assassin's Creed III- a game which I gave a pretty great score, unlike many people who condemned it for the glitches that every Assassin's Creed game has had to date. However, despite that fact, I was able to have an excellent experience with the core game- DLC non-withstanding, and enjoyed myself immensely across the snowy plains and open fields of Boston, New York, and the Frontier. Connor's quest, while lacking at times, was an interesting new evolution for the series in more ways than one. Therefore, although I was quite skeptically when I heard of Black Flag's aim not too long ago, and of yet another now-yearly released title in the series trying to unsuccessfully out-compete Call of Duty, I was interested to see how the character of Edward Kenway would be manifested. Whereas some though Connor was a bland character, even he had a much deeper background than Kenway- one of his ancestors. I'll admit, at first Kenway seems to be a very interesting character, however, I feel Ubisoft did a terrible wrong and did not flesh him, or many other characters in Assassin's Creed IV out as much as they certainly could have- and for that reason, even many hours into the game, all we really know about Kenway is that he wants gold, and lots of it. Kenway isn't nearly as ideological as Altair or as revenge-filled as the younger Ezio Auditore- he simply perfectly embodies what a pirate was during that time period: a murderer who plunders and kills for his own selfish gains. Now, that is interesting in terms of skillsets and gameplay and even a bit during the story, but it becomes really two-dimensional quite fast. Although it was a fun experience, and has been interesting so far, I feel more like I've played Pirate's Creed: No Rules IV than a new Assassin's Creed game. Sure, some of the similar elements are there, but hardly anything other than naval combat was fixed from AC3, and it feels like it is sailing into uncharted waters without first battening down the hatches.
Don't get me wrong though after reading that first lengthy shanty of mine- Black Flag is a great game, it merely has its own set of flaws, as well as some old ones that have never quite been remedied. I am let down slightly by this sequel, as it had so much potential and branched out so much, but it simply did not make as much progress as it could have in the long run. I am interested to see where the series goes next, and have heard some interesting thoughts, but I just don't know if- like Call of Duty, this downward spiral will persist, or if things will settle down for a while before getting better. I think what we really need with these annual series' is a short break of at least two years so that the developers can harness some new ideas before resuming their conquest of sales numbers with sub-quality games and adventures. What we really need are fresh new ideas and better quality games that people will actually appreciate, but then again, I am sliding slightly off topic, so allow me to resume my original intentions here. In terms of actual core gameplay and missions, Black Flag is significantly shorter than III, despite having roughly the same number of chapters- a fact I am sure many who became bored with AC3 will appreciate. There is more freedom and side content than ever before, which sometimes ends up being more fun than the main adventure itself, interestingly enough- similar to Far Cry 3's campaign.
It is increasingly apparent with each passing moment during the game that Black Flag is an entirely new chapter in the series, and not just some other subtitled adventure such as Brotherhood and Revelations were, despite them being okay in quality- well, except for Revelations maybe, which was shaky at best. Assassin's Creed IV trades the towering renaissance structures of Italy and the frontier wilderness of colonial America for an even more expansive and tropical oceanic and island setting- persuading players to openly embrace the naval functions that lacked real interest in the previous game due to some of their mishaps and handling issues. Unsurprisingly, as Kenway is a pirate first and assassin next, you'll often find yourself spending much more time on the high seas than setting foot on land- even going so far as to raid ships, sail out of storms, and hunt sea life down. The wealth of content to be found at sea alone easily dwarves that found on land in all the other games combined at this point, and offers some fine chances for upgraded items and loot as well. Add in some historical figures, events, and interesting Indies locales and further pirate-like interactions via Kenway's personal flagship, the Jackdaw, makes for one memorable and exciting adventure. Dozens of hours in, you'll still be finding new locations, hidden tombs and coves, and treasures to suit your piracy and self-serving attitude. Kenway is a character of ill-repute undoubtedly, but he isn't without his own sort of code- despite the fact being that his code seems to involve throwing all other codes out the window.
Some of the game's greatest moments come from some simple things sprinkled in the gameplay and combat activities, as well as throughout the sidequests and content. Leveling up your flagship by collecting various goods and plundering decimated ships is tedious at times, but well worth the efforts expended- especially if you do so earlier on in the game,as it pays off immensely much later in your adventures. The nearly endless supplies of money and more ways to obtain it than previous games makes for a great bargain-striker when deciding what new upgrades to pursue and what personal touches to collect, as you know you can always hunt down a few more ships if you ever run low. Obviously, being a pirate has its benefits so long as you can avoid the noose for long enough. I, as well as everyone else who plays the game most likely, would definitely recommend boarding ships mid-combat in order to plunder them instead of outright destroying them if you have the opening, seeing as it is much easier to collect more supplies in doing so, and you don't have to worry about your own ship being destroyed because combat sort of pauses when in the process of plundering ships via a boarding party. Plus, you can always recruit new crew members should you lose any, so it's okay to lead an all-out attack at times. The only annoyance here is that boarding gets old after awhile, but becomes a necessary evil if you want to increase the spending capacity of your coffers and upgrade your ship faster before more difficult battles.
Ship navigation has really come a long way since AC3's finicky controls and naval opportunities, and your offensive capabilities are much more advanced than before as well thanks to some minimal tweaking here and there to the controls. Naval combat still has its pitfalls, but it has been simplified enough that when you are only facing a few ships and not an entire armada, you can operate the controls well enough that you won't find yourself being overwhelmed or frustrated. Firing your weapons is as easy and as complicated as facing in the direction you wish to aim, which is confusing often during large encounters, because you cannot look at another ship to see what they're doing if you plan on attacking the one before you currently. Some fights can become quite a bit more annoying than they would otherwise be because of this, but thankfully the rest of naval combat and naval navigation as a whole is pretty well polished, or at least enough so that this is the only real standout problem I can see. Usually you're just sailing between pit stops and particular locations, or simply hunting for easy raids and treasure troves, so you won't have to deal with too much hardship until later on when you've amassed a much more sizable bounty upon your head, and must outrun the privateers and mercenaries after you.
Though you can undoubtedly spend much more time on water than on land, as is the name of the game, rest easy in knowing that Edward Kenway possesses most of the familiar traits of the trademark assassin, and can hold his own in personal combat as well as naval. Climbing, stabbing, and shooting your way through fights and chases works just as fine as usual, with the occasional bump and shuffle here and there simply because of a minimal glitch. Completing land-based side content often rewards you with special pouches, armors, and other upgrades- making the completionist in all of us simultaneously joyful and resentful of the sheer amount of choice in content before you. Although I have yet to complete everything to one hundred percent of course, in the days since the game's release, I have managed to rack up about a good 75% of game completion, and that's with over 800 gamerscore. So, trust me when I say there's a lot to do, collect, and explore. A lot of new stuff makes appearances, but there is also the tried and tested elements of every other game, or at least in the last few as well. In terms of main story mission abundance and variety however, you are bound to be disappointed- as few missions have the impact or excitement as the side content does. If this game were merely a sandbox exploration game, it would probably have just as good a score as it does with the throwaway main missions, despite the fact that they add some further details to the story. Assassinations and other chases and contracts are still interesting, which is a plus, but the majority of main missions feature mundane tasks and assignments which makes for a drab overall impression in my mind.
I have no wish to ruin what little story there is in Black Flag, so I'll be moderate with my musings on that portion of the review here, right now. As I mentioned earlier, I was somewhat disappointed that Kenway is never entirely fleshed out as much, scoundrel though it is clear he is, and that the only real supporting characters to be fleshed out at all are some of the famed pirate compatriots he consorts with such as Blackbeard and Charles Vane. Almost as bad as in the very short misadventures of Ezio in Revelations, the plot of Black Flag is all over the place- even for an Assassin's Creed game, and isn't nearly as memorable as one would have thought it could have been. There isn't ever really one true antagonist, and there isn't really one big catalyst for Edward's ascension to the rank of the Assassin brotherhood, mainly because he continues on just the same as he did before his joining, and it doesn't really change him much as a man or as a pirate at all. All of this lack of information and true fleshing out of many characters or events makes for an ultimately apathetic feeling towards the majority of the story, and a steering more towards other ports of calling side content, which is really a shame for the people who devoted their time to crafting said story. I was really hoping, despite my semi-interest in the present day affairs, that Ubisoft would just drop the present day story from the game and let us have fun in these time periods alone, but alas that did not happen. Now you play as a nameless and faceless Abstergo cipher, wandering about and hacking data clusters and entertainment systems. Literally, when I thought the present day scheme couldn't get worse than Revelations' it did. I mean, after concluding Desmond's story in AC3, I was kind of hoping they would bow out and just say "we're going through leftover DNA sampling of ancestors of Desmond's in the Animus", but no- they wanted so badly to screw up the present day story and make it as boring as ever I guess.
The plethora of side activities such as Far Cry 3-like activities of hunting down and collecting the skins of animals, unveiling secreted away relics of ancient times, and then even plundering ships for their riches really makes for a high replayability and also for a nearly everlasting first playthrough, as hard as it is to find one hundred percent of everything everywhere. The graphics of sailing and just the general world look beautiful on the current generation consoles, so I can only imagine what they look like on next-gen ones. I was constantly impressed at nearly every turn by something or another, trivial detail or not. The game fixes a few old complaints and bugs, makes some controls a little more convenient for on-the-fly choices to be made during combat and locomotion, and makes better use of fast travel options in the much broader world. However, the continual appearance of much more annoying glitches than in past games, as well as some previously seen ones, and a thoroughly disappointing and even boring story make the game go down in both score and opinion on my part. What was truly an ambitious enterprise and voyage ultimately loses much of its appeal and luster hours in due to repetitive gameplay and tedium, but still remains a largely interesting experience on the whole. I've deigned not to speak about multiplayer because, aside from some minor adjustments, it is largely the same as it has been in the previous titles offering it- with the exception being changes in characters and locales. There are a few differences, but nothing major.
Concept: Live a pirate's life one big raid at a time, and forget all about the main story- instead, opt for a plethora of side content and leisurely paced treasure hunts to engross players.
Graphics: Somewhat unstable framerate changes and drops occur from time to time, but the vistas and open seas look and react beautifully.
Sound: From the realistic ballistics and sheathing of swords to the sounds in the background and melodic sea shanties, all is fair on the high seas in terms of sound.
Playability: There are still a few issues with naval controls and encounters, but by the by everything has largely been improved or at least stayed relatively the same.
Entertainment: The side content is impressive in amount and fun to troll through, but having to go through the ropes with your core encounters is often boring and out of sync with the rest of your misadventures.
Replay Value: High.
Overall Score: 8.0