I am a long time Assassin’s Creed fan. I have adored the series since the first game released back in 2008. Then Assassin’s Creed 3 came along and, despite me intentionally giving it an inflated score (the power of hindsight), its shortcomings put me off get its sequel. That was until now. Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag was released back in November and now over 8 months after its release I have finally played it but I am in the same position I was in when I finished Assassin’s Creed 3.
Assassin’s Creed 4: Blag Flag takes place in early 18th century Caribbean and follows a Pirate named Edward Kenway who is the grandfather of Assassin's Creed III protagonist Ratonhnhaké:ton (Conner). Edward is a Swansea born Welsh man who has an uncanny likeness to the late Heath Ledger. This makes everything quite uncomfortable. Not because Heath Ledger is dead but because he is all you can think about when Edward is on screen. This may seem like a minor criticism but it doesn’t help sell the absurd plot. The plot has very little to do with an Assassin’s creed. It has very little to do with Assassin’s versus Templars either. It is essentially Edward being a selfish arsehole while the other characters (whose voice acting is marginally better than Edwards) around him tell him he is a selfish arsehole. This doesn’t mean Edward is an unlikable as Conner was in Assassin’s Creed 3; it just makes the plot as unbearable. Towards the end of the story the story goes from bad to worse. At one point you thing the game is about to end but it doesn’t and at another point it feels like the writers realised there isn’t enough Assassin’s Creed in this story so they completely change the personality of one of the main characters.
The level design doesn’t help either as the entire game feels extremely repetitive. They have taken a couple a mission types from pervious Assassin’s Creed games and just re-skinned them for this latest addition. The missions are some of the most unimaginative mission throughout the entire series (bar the first Assassin’s Creed). This isn’t the only thing that is uninspired. Traditional Assassin’s Creed mechanics (free running, combat, collectables…) haven’t changed one bit. However viewpoints have changed but illogically. Not so long ago viewpoints were about getting to the highest point in an area but this isn’t always the case in Assassin’s Creed 4. Too often did I climb a pole or mast only to find an inaccessibly mountain/rock towering over me. It might seem petty, and you are right, but this is going against the game’s logic and a game’s logic is really important.
There are also some performance issues that must be talked about. It is crazy a game of this budget suffers from pop-up. Ubisoft have tried to justify this, using the game’s logic, by putting the blame on the Animus. There is a glittery/glitch animation that hides the pop in (something I last saw in Assassin’s Creed: Liberation). This pop-up is still noticeable and most obvious when the other characters pop in. Other than that the look of the game is visually appealing. The game retains the traditional Assassin’s Creed artistic style of bright and colourful and the character/ environmental models look good.
From what I have said it is clear the Assassin’s Creed part of Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag is lacking but Ubisoft has tried to compensate this with by making Assassin’s Creed 4 the Pirates of the Caribbean we never got. Sadly, this addition is squandered by poorly though out game design. The most obvious culprit is the upgrade mechanic which never gives you a consequence for upgrading your ship (called the Jackdaw). I don’t lose speed by putting more cannons on my deck nor when choosing mortars made up of heavier metal. In fact there is no speed upgrade to speak off. This missing consequence takes away any personality or ownership over your ship. You are only upgrading so that you can progress but oddly enough there is only one way to really progress with your ship upgrades and that is the mortars.
The addition of the mortars makes all other upgrades irrelevant until said mortars are fully upgraded. The only real way to take down the bigger ships (Man of War ships) is to mortar them from a far. You can try battling it out in close quarters but your life will take a big hit that the action is almost idiotic (side note life doesn’t fully regenerate but does in sections). Mortaring the little ships is even more effective since they are weaker than the larger ships. This is just mad game design as it takes away from any real personality (also see previous paragraph) you want to give your ship. Assassin’s Creed 4 of course comes with cosmetic changes but these changes are relegated to the sails, the ship’s wheel and the figurehead at the end of the ship (the latter of which is extremely difficult to see).
What makes this shallow development tree more confusing is that they have done a pretty good job with Edward’s weapons. You can buy weapons each with advantages and disadvantages (though the selection is very small). The crafting mechanic is back following a similar upgrade to progress model but this model makes sense in this context. They label things as Weapon Holster III and Weapon Holster II but you can upgrade these in an order. Each “level” gets the same bonus (in this example one extra pistol slot)
To get the materials to craft (and also to get around) you need to do a lot of sailing. Sailing is great for about an hour or two but after that it is a grind as the map is huge. Luckily this boredom is alleviated with fast travel points which are acquired by visiting the location (so early in the game there is a lot of sailing but later on you can just skip it). There is also ship on ship combat to help ease the boredom. If you ignore the issue I previously mentioned about mortars, the combat mechanic is exciting to start with. Early in the game it is fun to take down ships and raid them for materials (to help upgrade your ship). Later on this becomes a bit repetitive. Once you realise mortars are the way forward you follow a set pattern of bombing from a far then boarding the ship when it is crippled. It becomes tedious and uninteresting. Environmental effects makes things a little bit more challenging but these seem less random and more situational.
Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag doesn’t try and keep away from the trope that has plagued open world games. The big map is filled with guff. This is a new low for the series as the amount of collectables is insane. The issue is, they are not really needed nor are they interesting. However, one of the best collectables to find is the sea shanties. Once you collect the music your men on the Jackdaw will sing along to that song. It is surprisingly enjoyable listening to your men singing about ‘Johnny Boker’ or about ‘The Worst Old Ship’. The atmosphere is not really there on the dry land and I partly put this down to the small land mass and population. It is clear as day that bigger effort was put into the open sea than the settlements (which are mostly made up of copy and paste inaccessible buildings).
Oddly enough, despite the shortcomings of the past, the modern element to the game works extremely well. After Assassin's Creed III I was unsure how they could really progress the series overall plot but Assassin's Creed 4 has given me hope. The modern element is not only well thought out but comes with a twist that was not only surprising but mysterious. I was really interested by all the hacking and information gathering. It broaden the Assassin's Creed universe more than any other previously game in the franchise. That entire experience, all be it short, was far more satisfying than the Kenway storyline.
Multiplayer is back and my god has it not changed since Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood. The cat and mouse style gameplay was an interesting take on multiplayer back in 2011 but now it feels tired and flawed. The pace feels slow and the game modes don’t help relieve this. An obvious omission is a ship battle multiplayer mode. It is a massive misstep for the franchise but reading up on why it wasn’t present seems to hint at the feature not being technically feasible.
Overall this game has no real direction. A lot of what is Assassin’s Creed is either poorly executed or ignored completely, the ship mechanics lack any real depth and are fundamentally flawed when it comes to upgrading the ship and the sound design isn’t something I would boast about. All in all Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag feels a bit like a cash grab but hiding that fact with a thin veil of ship battles. It is a shame because the game looks quite good and it is better than Assassin’s Creed 3 (if only slightly).