Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag: As We Play

We’re all thinking it. After the relatively dismal efforts of Revelations and the disappointment of Assassin’s Creed 3, it appears the annual instalments for this franchise are starting to take their toll on, what was once, a lucrative, exciting affair.

The truth is, the anticipation for Black Flag has been dulled considerably compared to previous years, and many have already given up on Ubisoft’s poster franchise.

But what if I were to tell you that this is the Assassin’s Creed game you’ve been waiting years for. That this is, in fact, the best of them all and that missing out on Black Flag does a disservice to the build-up you’ve laboured your way through over the last few years….

Pirates

It helps that I’m a sucker for pirates, I admit it. I fucking love pirates. I grew up with Guybrush Threepwood, so of course I love pirates. And when Sid Meir’s Pirates came along, I spent obscene hours dancing with would-be brides at every corner of the land, becoming the most feared entity on the Seven Seas.

Just getting my first glimpse of Kenway, I knew that Ubisoft had finally tapped into something special.

It’s a very unexpected, unique take on an Assassin’s Creed game, but straight away, I felt that this was exactly the direction the franchise needed to head in. It’s fresh, relevant and already a deck-full of fun!

Ship Navigation

Oh my, this is so liberating compared to the dreadful navigation in AC3. The ship feels tight, but also less constrained and more responsive. I don’t need to do a gazillion wheel turns before my cruiser will even turn its nose in one direction or the other. Smooth sailing isn’t the word.

As for the weapon aiming? An absolute joy. You’ll actually want to be out on the open seas as opposed to dreading it. A’vast improvement…Teehee…

The Current Gen Conundrum

So this is the first cross-generation Assassin’s Creed game and the big news here is that AC4 still looks glorious on your eight year old Xbox 360. Having seen a preview build at Gamescom, however, I can confirm the Next-Gen upgrades are obviously cosmetic and mostly focused on the sea and weather effects. While Ubi have tried to squeeze out everything possible, looking at the 360, you can see the blurred, distorted palette, indicative of a game crying out for a more powerful base unit.

It’s no stretch to say that this is the most elegant looking Creed so far. The opening sequence on the beach; the sea waving in the background and the jungle to-ing and fro-ing gorgeous green in front of you, perfectly showcases the environments you’re about to become comfortable with over the next 20 or so hours. Think Far Cry visuals in an Assassin’s Creed game.

There’s an instant, refreshing feeling about this instalment. Less of the stagnant, recycled textures and more of a voluptuous glow. Still, as glorious as this looks, I can’t wait to see how the whole experience translates on a Playstation 4, Xbox One or High-End PC. Black Flag was clearly designed to stand-out on those platforms!

The cut-scenes also appear more natural, flowing into and out of the action better than previous Creed titles. This helps offer better story pacing and less of a break-up in action. Characters are also more open with their expressions. You’ll catch glimmers in the eye when talking about specific subject matters, but you’ll also be able to detect fear, animosity and affection in equal measure.

On Land and Sea

It’s a huge thing for Creed to finally open up its boundaries with the water. Creed is traditionally recognised for vast, sprawling cities, covering a large lay of land, but AC4 has broken up this rhythm quite dramatically. While cities still play a major role, the player will be travelling between islands for the bulk of their journey, stopping off in ports big and small. This breaks up the action so well and opens up new quest and mission opportunities the series has never been able to enjoy before.

Upgrade Me

You can keep track of all of Edward’s upgrades through the menu screen, working out what he can and can’t do at any point during the game. Edward can buy new swords and pistols, but can also purchase and even craft his own outfits. As before, some items can only be redeemed via UPlay.

Upgrades for the sword focus on speed, combo and damage, while pistols focus on damage, range and stun. As with previous titles, some weapons can only be purchased until you reach a specific point in the game.

Interestingly, considering the work done with Dead Space 3 and Tomb Raider earlier this year, Ubisoft have chosen not to include a micro-transaction model where players can purchase weapons ahead of the game, therefore making progress easier. Perhaps that’s for the best…

Outfits are purely cosmetic and add no noticeable traits to Kenway, other than serving as a disguise. Some are essential during particular missions.

Crafty..

The crafting menu is open to Edward anytime and lets him not only create outfits, but also increased ammo pouches and armour parts that boost his health. This is where AC4 links up nicely with its predecessor. Players will need to hunt and skin wildlife in order to create certain items. They’ll also have to collect items from treasure chests and dig for buried treasure in order to craft everything in the game. Hunting was one of the elements of AC3 I did like, and it’s nice to see that being maintained and expanded upon in Black Flag.

I’ve got the Kitchen Sink in my pants

Something slightly new for the series, Kenway now maintains an inventory, but this is mostly for key quest items. The Inventory is also used to show collected Templar Keys, Treasure Maps, Hunting Goods and Ammo.

So far, I have not come across a rubber chicken I can use to zipline across the map, but I’m only an hour in. I’m not giving up yet!

I need a challenge

There’s also a challenge list full of actions for Kenway to fulfil. These Abstergo Challenges unlock rewards and cheats that can be used in the game. The Challenges themselves focus on different aspects of gameplay, whether it’s your qualities as an Assassin, a Pirate, explorer, or hunter. There are also rewards based on how good you are achieving simulation synchronisation.

This game intends to keep you very busy! But you knew that already, didn’t you?

He’s Welsh!

Alright, so the game gets another bonus brownie point from me because Kenway is Welsh. And apart from Mr Drippy, no one else is Welsh.

Except he’s from Swansea, so I guess it’s more half a point. Then again, his mother was from Cardiff, so maybe 2/3 rds. Argh!

Anyway, Welsh lead. Rare. Big Deal. Thought it was quite funny to see the game mock the fact that this rarely happens as well.

Not entirely sure he sounds very Welsh, though… I was expecting a few ‘Tidys’ and an ‘Aite Butt’ but none of that. Very disappointing. I could have sworn that they said these things in the 16th century…

Tree-Topper

The other thing I loved about AC3 was moving between trees in free-run. The great news is, it’s back and it’s still awesome. Deep in the thickets of the jungle, you’ll be swinging from vines between branches, scaling huge trunks, swan-diving from tree tops into clear waters below, and cautiously moving above wildlife, catching them off-guard with an aerial assassination.

The environments in Black Flag are just superb and rich with nifty stealth opportunities. This benefits the hunting as much as the discovery of hidden treasures.

It wouldn’t be Creed without collectibles

It really wouldn’t. And don’t worry, Black Flag certainly isn’t without them. Players will be spending their time collecting moving notes from Sea Shanties, (yes! There are Sea Shanties!), treasure maps which lead to hidden chests (some of which have to be dug up), then there are Mayan Stones which are gathered when statues are aligned together in the sunlight. There’s also a bunch more but I’ll let you find out more about those yourself. Suffice it to say, a Pirates Life is for the Collector who likes to invest 50+ hours in a video game. Arrrr…

I’ll cut yer throat, you scabberous swab.

Is it me? It might be me, but I think the combat is so much better in Black Flag than before. Countering isn’t as challenging, and neither is inflicting damage. I mean, yes, you will get swarmed if you run into the face of trouble, but when it’s just you and a few others, there’s really nothing stopping you from bedazzling foes with finesse and skill.

Then there’s stealth assassinations, whether you’re hiding in a bush or lying in wait above.

And those pistols. It’s not possible to be a pirate without pistols and despite the hellish reload time, it’s a real thrill to ‘blow the man down’ with a blunderbuss.

Dat Main Character

AC3 had many faults, one of which was Connor being absent for the first half of the game. Then, when we finally got to sidle up to the moody Native American, it was all about the build-up. When he was built up, you kind of wished you were back playing as Hatham. AC3 took itself far too seriously, tried to develop too much in one title and ended up being a narrative mess as a result.

Within the first few minutes of Black Flag, you’ll find a reason to love Kenway. There are certainly Ezio traits in there, he’s smug, confident, cocky, and backs it up with flair, and it’s all done in a piratey way. But the story is well told and easy to follow, unlike the narrative bible that AC3 tried to be. You’re barely 15 minutes into this game and you’ve already established your relationship with this character and know which direction the story is headed in.

There’s a lot to be said for identifying with your protagonist early-on and understanding what type of story you’re supposed to be invested in. Unlike Connor, Kenway will grab your attention early. Also unlike Connor, Kenway knows how to keep it.

What shall we do with a Drunken Sailor?

Sea Shanties deserve a section on their own because they’re out-fucking-standing. The ultimate radio station for your ship, Kenway can tell the crew to break out into song while coasting the waters. And the sailors actually have decent voices. Certainly beats listening to the Simon Cowell’s manufactured crones on a Saturday night…

A cannon to the head….

Ship combat, much like ship movement, is a huge improvement over AC 3. There are cannons on either side of your ship, firing in a spread of 5. From the rear, the crew can drop explosive barrels which explode on impact. From the front, chain balls can rip a sail to shreds. A logical combination of the three is the best way to take down any vessel, while also slowing down and speeding up, using both to your advantage in any conflict.

It’s also entirely up to you whether you wish to entirely sink a ship, or if you’d like to board, slay the crew into submission and then plunder the broken down ship of its resources and patch up your own damaged ship.

Absterg-who?

The big question, just what the hell have Abstergo and the Animus got to do with this story and how does it work in? It is a big question and in fairness to Ubi, they’ve created a answer that’s both clever and weird. And certainly not one you’ll expect.

No spoilers here, but what I will say is that control here does feel as optional as it should be, it’s not detracting from what’s happening in Edward’s world and it goes back to basics. Just you, in first person view, observing Abstergo and entering/leaving the Animus under your own free-will. I appreciate the non-linearity in these sections, but I also like that you can leave them behind any time you please.

I’m very interested to see how this develops.

Summary

I could go on and on about how great AC4 is, but you’d get bored of me harping on about it. Genuinely, this is my favourite Assassin’s Creed title. It even surpasses the series heights set by 2 and Brotherhood.

With Kenway, Ubisoft have got their new desirable lead and reinvigorated a franchise many are ready to forget. Assassin’s Creed 4 feels like a dawn of a new day. Yes, you’re still synchronising viewpoints, collecting endless amounts of items, taking leaps of faith and stabbing people in crowds, but the nautical theme coupled with the stunning visuals and engaging story is not only hard to put down, but it’s difficult to forget about.

Black Flag is one of the finest sandbox experiences I’ve ever played. We’re drowning in overbearing, immersive titles in 2013 as almost every game feels it has to justify its existence by making the overall run time 25 hours and up. But you’ll want to spend the time playing Black Flag. You’ll even want to keep playing Black Flag after the credits roll. This is a rare game that keeps giving and rewarding and still feels as fresh and exciting as it did when you first booted it up.

This is the Assassin’s Creed game you’ve been waiting for. Don’t let the thought of peg-legs and eye-patches put you off, Ubisoft have turned the fortunes of a fledging franchise around, and in the same breath, created one of the best games of the year.

Arrrrr-scential.

About the author

Ray Willmott

Ray is the founder and editor of Expansive. He is also a former Community Manager for Steel Media, and has written for a variety of gaming websites over the years. His work can be seen on Pocket Gamer, PG.biz, Gfinity, and the Red Bull Gaming Column. He has also written for VG247, Videogamer, GamesTM, PLAY, and MyM Magazine,