Ubisoft strikes silently again with the next installment of their storied franchise with Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. This time around, players take on the role of Edward Kenway, grandfather of Assassin’s Creed III’s protagonist and continues fighting for freedom, not as an assassin, but as a pirate.
For those that played ACIII and remember the short sequences on the open waters, this swashbuckling installment takes these segments and develops the entire game around them. And what a change does it make. Players are able to take to the seas aboard Edward’s ship, The Jackdaw, as they pillage and plunder the Caribbean. Players are free to sail to their heart’s content, as the entire map is set on the open seas. Cities like Kingston and Havana are open for exploration, but so are lost ruins and random islands strewn about the map. The map is huge and the time it takes to get around is lengthy, but with the winds at your back it’s not quite as terrible (also fast travel is a time savior). Along the way, players can take it upon themselves to attack passing ships, forts, explore sunken wrecks, and even go harpooning.
Armadas float along the open waters and players are able to take them all on at once if they so choose, using their own upgradeable firepower to take the enemy ships down. Once they’re disabled, there is a seamless transition between battling on the high seas to boarding the enemy ship. In order to capture the vessel, you must accomplish the set objectives, sometimes it’s a simple matter of killing enough midshipmen, but other times there are additional objectives, like destroying powder barrels or assassinate officers. From there, there is a choice to either use parts of the ship to repair your own, release the prisoners for a reduction in wanted level, or even send the ship to be a part of your very own pirate fleet.
Previous games allowed players to send envoys of assassins off to corners of the world in the name of the Order. Now, players get to send their fleet off in the same manner, leaden with goods, and wait patiently for them to return with money. Sometimes this can take a complete 24 hours, but it’s a worthy investment. There is also a Facebook style mini-game where players can use their ships to take on other ship along the trade routes, but it’s a matter of “do you have more cannons than them” to determine the winner.
Players can hunt various animals on islands or harpoon them in the water, earning themselves pelts and bones that can be used to improve various pieces of Edward’s arsenal. Conversely, players can buy all of the materials needed to craft items. It’s odd, but there are many times where buying the materials is the much more desirable route. Some of these animals, like the white whales, are extremely hard to find and it is easier to just buy the damn pelt. There are also assassination and naval contracts to take, people to hunt down, and an engrossing story involving modern day Abstergo (now a gaming company) and a new faceless protagonist in the real world sifting through Edward’s hunt for The Observatory.
While Black Flag is a major improvement when compared to it’s predecessor, there were many times within the game when Edward would forget, well, simple stuff. Like walking. Yes, Edward forgets how to walk. There were times when I’d run up to a rock or a step, barely a few inches higher than where I stood, and Edward would completely stop and not proceed to step up. There are still some issues with climbing and running into objects as well; these assassin’s can never seem to understand how to properly run through a doorway without trying to climb the wall next to it – even if it has zero climbing spots.
Aside from the forgetful assassin, the game does suffer from some odd issues now and then. During some side missions, I experienced some odd losses of sound. The game’s majestic soundtrack would boom loudly and thunderstorms would be silent one moment and ear shatteringly loud only seconds later. I would not hear my ship’s cannons firing, or the orders bellowing from my first mate. While it didn’t make it unplayable in any way, the loss of the more minor sounds pulled me from the experience. Let’s not forget about odd ragdoll physics as well; I’ve seen enemies contort into forms and shapes that no human should be capable of.
There’s also the odd addition, nay, requirement of the Uplay Passport system. While Ubisoft has done away with requiring a code to access it (copies of the game still came with the code), the amount of pop-ups and onscreen clutter I receive from the service is annoying. Community challenges, Uplay challenges, Community Chests, etc. Frankly, it is annoying as hell.
Creating my custom assassin and taking him online, I couldn’t help but come across disappointed. Its not that what is provided is bad, but feels familiar to the previous games. The naval combat isn’t featured at all, leaving you to run around on-land once again playing a game of cat and mouse with other assassins.
The PlayStation 4 and Xbox One versions of Assassin’s Creed IV may not feature additional content not found on other platforms, but the visual improvement alone makes the game a must-have. Both Sony platforms (PS3 & PS4) feature the only platform exclusive content, involving the heroine of the Vita game; Aveline. Although Black Flag is a beautiful game with an incredible wave and weather system, the PS4 version in particular is awe inspiring. Shortly after the game released on the PlayStation 4, Ubisoft was true to their word, updating the game to include native support for 1080p. The visuals are simply matched with clouds of smoke impairing your vision during heated ship battles as cannons fire, shallow waters are crystal clear and thunderstorms at sea are amazingly treacherous.
It should also be mentioned that at this time, if you have more than 100 friends on either your PS4 or Xbox One friends list, you will not be able to access Ubisoft servers. I haven’t seen an official response on when we can expect a patch, but currently they are telling people on the forums to remove friends until you are under the original 100 friend limit of the past-gen consoles. Not an ideal solution at all or consumer friendly.
Many fans were disappointed with the last iteration, claiming Connor felt empty as a hero and the overall feel of the older games was gone. This time around though, I believe many will absolutely enjoy this game. It still does not focus on stealth, but overall Assassin’s Creed IV is a step up from its predecessor. It took the absolute best piece of the previous game, the naval warfare, and created a pirate adventure that has never been seen. Sure, the game does suffer some odd issues now and then, but when I can swashbuckle whenever I want, I can overlook it.Note: Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag was reviewed on PlayStation 4. A digital copy of the game was purchased by SelectButton.