Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Platforms: PS4 (reviewed), PC, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PS3, Wii U
Release Date: Oct 29, 2013 (PS3/Xbox 360/ Wii U) | Nov 15, 2014 (PS4) | Nov 19, 2013 (PC) | Nov 22, 2014 (Xbox One)
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is the latest installment in Ubisoft’s annualized Assassin’s Creed franchise. Set in the 1715 Caribbean, Black Flag takes place during the Golden Age of piracy. You play as Edward Kenway, grandfather to Connor Kenway, the protagonist of Assassin’s Creed III. With history as its sandbox, Black Flag takes you on an epic journey in a vast open world, where your adventure is what you make of it.
You’ll meet real-life pirates such as Blackbeard, Captain Kidd, and Charles Vane as you sail, pillage, and fight your way across the Caribbean. It’s truly an epic tale, finally allowing you to take control of your adventure for the first time in the series. However, legacy tropes of the Assassin’s Creed franchise rear their ugly head from time to time, preventing Black Flag from becoming the masterpiece it could have been.
To call Black Flag “ugly” is unfair. The art direction is truly fantastic, providing a rich colorful world for the player. Fortunately, art direction has never been the weakness of the series, and that trend continues here. The audio is quite simply spectacular. The crew sings shanties while you sail, birds and other wildlife add life to the world, and the voice acting is top notch. And that soundtrack, oh that soundtrack…
Everything here is displayed for sake of historical accuracy. Assassin’s Creed is known to use history as its playground and nowhere does that ring more true than in Black Flag. All the cities are recreated with painstaking accuracy, convincing you of their authenticity. People bustle around you, going about their daily routines as you parkour around town. It’s all quite good.
This game runs on the Anvil Next engine, Ubisoft’s next-gen engine, designed to run on PCs and next-gen consoles. While the PC features many goodies unavailable on the next-gen machines, the PS4 version still includes HBAO (horizon based ambient occlusion), a dynamic sea engine, a fully dynamic weather system, GI (global illumination), volumetric fog (eg smoke from cannon fire), and fully dynamic 3d foliage.
The sea engine and weather system were among the features that impressed me most, with the sea behaving like actual water. Whenever a storm rolled in, it left quite the impression upon this author. Admittedly, while the antialiasing solution in place fails to completely eliminate jaggies, it is nevertheless impressive. The only times I noticed such artifacts were when observing the sheets on a distant ship. A slight shimmering would occur, but honestly, those were the only instances where such aliasing was noticeable. Commendable.
I’m afraid things go downhill from here. Even with this improvement in visuals, I came away disappointed overall. Character models still look stiff and strangely lifeless, creating a dissonance between the narrative taking place and reality of the world Ubisoft was trying to convince me existed. Textures still look and feel underwhelming, hovering somewhere between last-gen (360/PS3) and current-gen. The ambient occlusion, while acceptable, looks as though it either uses too few samples or a small sampling radius. Either way, it is almost insignificant, causing the lighting to look all too flat more often than not.
If anything, Anvil Next is too conservative. It does not feel like progress to me, rather, a prime example of the dangers of stagnation. It comes dangerously close to derailing innovation. With the likes of CryEngine and Frostbite 3 showing what is possible right now, Anvil Next plays it safe and fails to improve upon the cream of the crop – something I strongly believe major studios and triple-A titles must do to continue the march of progress and innovation.
While the art direction and audio design are great, they still fail to mask the visual and technical shortcomings of Black Flag, something that deeply disappoints me. The game could have and should have done more.
Black Flag truly embraces open world like no other game in the franchise. Not only is the entire world open to you following a brief introductory mission, but there are also no limitations on how you approach the game. Do you want to sail all the way to the south? Feel free. Feel like taking over forts? Go for it. No where are you punished for your gameplay choices. There are some instances where the game does restrict a certain area due to story, but in my experience (40+ hours), I only came across these areas twice.
Destroying forts and raising the pirate flag gives you visibility to a section of the map. It’s very similar to the Borgia Towers of games past. Once the fort is under your command, the “fog” is lifted from your map, allowing you to see treasure chests, animus artifacts, as well as other points of interest such as harpooning. Needless to say, there are few things more epic than assaulting a fort during a raging hurricane, forcing you to negotiate rogue waves and mortar fire.
This brings me neatly to ship combat. In short, it’s excellent. Your ship, the Jackdaw, is equipped with a myriad of weapons, all of which can be upgraded in an extensive upgrade system. You don’t need to select a weapon either. The game selects a weapon based on your point of view. For example, if I’m looking off the side, pulling R2 fires my broadsides or my heavy shot (depending if I depressed L2). Looking behind me, pulling R2 releases my fire barrels. No cycling through weapons. Simple, intuitive combat – a major improvement over AC3. Each ship you face has resources: wood, cloth, metal, rum, or sugar. Rum and sugar can be sold for Reals (money), but cloth, metal, and wood are required for upgrading. In my experience, the game is at its best when locked in combat against enemy vessels.
The missions themselves are pretty fun and vary in structure. You’ll find yourself taking over enemy ships, scaling Myan ruins, and diving for resources. Unfortunately, Black Flag falls back on old tropes of the franchise, such as eavesdropping, tailing, and “you fail if you get caught” missions. Given the open world and the freedom that the rest of the game offers, these legacy missions seem so very out of place. The game would do well to exclude such restraining mission structure altogether. Fortunately, Ubisoft allows you to rate each mission and provide feedback right in the game. An excellent implementation. I wonder why more games don’t do this?
While Black Flag does so many things right, legacy mission structure prevents the gameplay from being a masterpiece that it could be. All too often, you’ll find yourself frustrated by such missions, wondering why the game puts you on a leash.
The user interface, menus, and upgrade systems are superb. Given that this is indeed an Assassin’s Creed game, Black Flag provides a codex for literally everything you find in the game, whether it be an ancient ruin, or a letter from a historical figure. It’s quite extraordinary. You never feel lost nor feel frustrated by complex menus and control options. If you’re a franchise veteran, you’ll feel right at home. If you’re a newcomer, the game does a great job showing you the ropes.
The game controls magnificently on the Dualshock 4. The touchpad is used to bring up the map, allowing you to pinch and zoom as well as place waypoints. This is a subtle but incredibly intuitive use for the touchpad, one that I applaud. Edward responds to my every move, almost too well. I sometimes found him parkouring up buildings I never intended him to scale. Fortunately, these issues were quite infrequent. My only suggestion for Ubisoft – include a crouch button. For a game that emphasizes stealth far more than the preceding games, it seems rather odd not to include such a feature.
Black Flag features the most intuitive and easiest control scheme of the franchise. Simple menus deliver exactly the content you want, exactly the right time.
Should you buy this game? Absolutely. The gameplay is great as well as the way the game handles. The open world nature is something all future Assassin’s Creed titles absolutely must do. I have played over 40 hours of Black Flag. In every other AC game, I was done after 30. This just shows the breadth and depth that Black Flag lauds over its predecessors.
It’s a very tight, well crafted package that’s ultimately let down by its visuals and technical limitations. Had Ubisoft Montreal been more daring with Anvil Next, this author would be more impressed. The visual shortcomings don’t completely destroy the game, but nevertheless influence the experience – and not in a good way.
The Look: 1
The Feel: 2
The Design: 3
The Verdict: 7/10