Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag Review — Aboard A Tide of Change
Like a flag atop a proud mast, the Assassin’s Creed series has changed its colors for better or for worse over the course of its acclaim. Its latest entry then comes as a treat that should surprise as much as excite fans in search of new territory. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag heralds itself as a smart, expansive sequel emphasizing a thrilling sense of freedom in what can be described as a genuinely thrilling departure from its series roots. Through tighter gameplay and a bold world, Black Flag undoubtedly shows a potential unparalleled in the series thus far and worthy successor to its name. The year is 1715 and the backdrop of the pirate-infested waters of the Caribbean places you in buccaneering boots of aspiring privateer Edward Kenway, grandfather of Assassin’s Creed III’s hero, Connor Kenway. Bent on dreams of fortune and glory, the adventures of the hot-tempered and often reckless would-be Assassin takes you across the sprawling seas in search of both treasure and mystic secrets. As swords clash between Assassin and Templar on the open sea, Edward is met with opportunity and challenge as he and the player fully realize the greater forces at play behind the veil. It’s from this set-up that Black Flag derives a vision as ambitious as it is refreshingly distinct from its predecessors. Wisely learning from AC III‘s nearly ten hour prologue, the game doesn’t hesitate to throw you into the thick of the action free of a majority of its previous hand-holding. Following a short yet stylish opening, its world quickly opens up to players, promising fortune and glory amidst its uncharted waters. The game is simply staggering in its size, and every corner brims with a sense of discovery delightfully encouraging players to set their own pace and wander from objectives at their pleasure. Only a few hours of tutorials and exposition are required before the entire ocean is available to you and a wealth of activities abound. The game’s Old World sensibilities are smartly juxtaposed against its vibrant New World counterpart, shifting seamlessly between the looming cityscapes of Spanish Havana to the lush jungles and sparkling waterfalls surrounding it. Crafting items, hunting wildlife, unlocking ancient vaults, and diving for sunken treasure aren’t enough to describe the sheer amount of side activities that Edward Kenway’s pirate life offers. Black Flag is undoubtedly at its best when allowing its players to make their own fun apart from the main narrative, purely going wherever your whims may take you. Taking center stage in Black Flag’s arsenal is its fantastic improvements to its predecessors’ naval gameplay. Rather than being limited to specific set-piece moments, Edward can sail the sea as he pleases aboard his ship of the Jackdaw that serves as masterful source of transportation and customization all in one. Upgrading your ship’s weaponry is easy and immediately rewarding and the results can prove beautifully destructive in open battle with even the largest cruisers. Any ship in among the sea lanes is yours for the taking and each frigate and schooner breeds more lumber and trading goods for the plundering. Tense cannon battles require an appreciated air of strategy and cunning, but hijacking a ship is easily the most enjoyable aspect. Swinging aboard a rival deck to devastating its crew and capture its flag is a joy that never gets old and your victories further stack up against you in a wanted meter likening itself to Grand Theft Auto. Bounty hunting ships are always on the horizon against you, but the notoriety is welcoming in its opportune targets. Recruiting shipmates further builds your fleet in the game’s version of the Brotherhood recruitment system. Black Flag additionally boasts a Risk-style set of timed mini-games that sends your acquired vessels out to sea to trade or do battle on a virtual game-board, though the formula is often wearisome after enough rounds. The battles of Black Flag further take Edward by land as well as sea. Urban combat is still as present to the series legacy as its advancements towards naval warfare is and Edward follows up both armed to the teeth. Hidden blades and flintlock pistols both in hand, Edward is a one-man army, often wielding as many as four guns in one encounter and capable of dual-wielding swords and firearms alike. Proper to the time, the latter requires a sizable reloading time preventing a sense of cheat sheeting your way out of battle. Combat proceeds at a faster, more fluid pace from AC III with counters acting more akin to the Batman: Arkham games with more subtle heads-up displays. Large-scale battles of six to eight enemies at a time are a frequent event and retain a visceral edge, albeit with a perhaps lighter tone compared to its series counterparts. Blood is a less frequent sight among Black Flag’s assassinations and even fewer missions require stealth outright in favor of straight-up action. While the change in pace is livening, the few tailing and sneaking missions that remain only feel drug out and tedious because of it. Edward may set himself apart most from his peers the most in his decidedly unorthodox approach to the Assassin role. More akin to the “everything is permitted” aspect of his order’s creed, Edward is a more self-absorbed, charismatic foil to his more altruistic ancestors. More often concerned about money and fame over honor and justice, Edward’s unapologetic personality embodies a charmingly simpler mentality more entertaining than Connor Kenway’s own straightjacketed performance yet disappointing at the same time. While his grandson’s story provided depth without persona, Edward falls into a frustrating vice versa. His misadventures alongside such historical figures as Blackbeard, Calico Jack, and Anne Bonnie are all amusing to follow as they are shallow at heart and the story often lacks a clear direction in where it wants to take its otherwise cleverly made characters. That said, Edward’s narrative eventually has its handful of poignant moments by the game’s end, but it trots its way there rather than sprints. Perhaps the greatest strength Black Flag demonstrates is its immense attention to detail. The Caribbean build upon AC III in stunning display, showcasing well-lit, tropical locales and quite amazing water effects on the open seas to boot. Adjustable camera angles perfectly capture your ship’s figure in the blood-orange sunset as it reaches maximum speed and the sound of sea shanties further instill a surreal feeling of historic atmosphere as your sails billow against the wind. That said, minor annoyances still frequent your time out on the town. Edward would still disobey my commands by errantly leaping from rooftops and climbing walls I never intended to scale. The world’s vast scope invites its own handful of hiccups, from the occasionally disappearing guard with a vital key to a mysterious shipmate of yours walking on water. Edward’s adventures are lightly peppered with these kinds of nuisances, and though they never last for long, they can nonetheless break you out of your immersion. As a third-party Wii U title, the game supports a few nice aspects of the system that are generally inconsequential. Apart from offering the standard offscreen play, the gamepad acts as a map handy for eyeing a particularly hidden treasure chest or ship and you can play the game directly offscreen on your Wii U pro-controller. Utilizing a second screen is often helpful given the amount of information to absorb, but with such finer elements as the touchscreen and gyroscope ignored in favor of standard button prompts, the gamepad’s controls can’t otherwise be regarded as game-changing. Also returning to the series is its famed multiplayer mode that continues to refine its unique cat-and-mouse gameplay. Blending into your surroundings and trying to trick rival players into thinking you’re an A.I.- controlled NPC lend themselves to ample moments of mayhem, if not short-lived ones. The “gamelab” features the ability to customize your own match preferences according to the typical selection of death-matches, wolfpack, and manhunt modes along with the multiplayer’s own attempts to tell what amounts to a “storymode” composed of watered down target descriptions. Such additions are a welcome alternative to the standard deathmatch that’s become the staple of most multiplayer games, but it’s surely not enough alone to play Black Flag nor convert new players. On more of a peculiar note is the game’s experience out of Edward’s pirating time era. Once again, players are able to step out of the franchises’s Animus device and into the present day via the game’s new shadowy backdrop of Abstergo Entertainment. In what can only be described as a quirky commentary on the Black Flag itself, players slip into the role of a new game designer developing a game based on Edward’s life. Outside of a few noteworthy character cameos, the game’s modern trappings devolve into utter nonsense caught between mundane office work or bizarre throwbacks to series lore. Most of these segments are told within optional intermissions of sorts in between Edward’s story sequences and I was eager to jump back in the Animus the moment I was able to. In many ways, Black Flag sails the tides of its franchise with an unexpected swagger and scale that impresses as it does inspire a beleaguered formula. A testament to a series at a crossroads, Assassin’s Creed illustrates a changing of the guard that can generally forgive what flaws it retains in the face of what it envisions. It’s all too disheartening at times that story takes the backseat it does to the world it carries, but I can’t say I regretted what unfettered pleasures I took away from the finest pirate’s life in years. Assassin’s Creed has steered itself in a cautiously optimistic direction and it’s certainly something to be looked forward to.