written by Jay Hammon (@Gravity_Flux)
I still, to this day, look back on the original namesake of this series with that sort of golden days reverence and excitement that it instilled in me when I first played Assassin’s Creed. I didn’t have many friends who were anticipating its release but that quickly changed as I sang Assassin’s Creed’s praises from the highest church steeples and castle watch towers. What wasn’t to love about stealthily sticking a blade into a target, playing Spider Man up a building and tossing some intriguing sci-fi elements into the mix?
I’ve played every AC released since. Have I loved them all with that some passion? No, but that is sometimes the case with the franchises we love the most. Sometimes our excitement needs to be rejuvenated before we can really dive head first into that next mission. I’m happy to say that Black Flag is the most fun I’ve had playing an Assassin’s Creed since the original. Consider me rejuvenated!
Much like everyone else I was curious how the story for the series was going to continue after the events in the previous game and the things I’d read coming into this. I’d read a few things here and there on the interwebs giving hints and teases. I, for one, never try to find out too much information on the story of a game coming out because I don’t want to ruin it for myself. You play most of the game as Edward Kenway; a privateer, pirate and charismatic rogue looking to make the big take and become a gentleman of means and renown.
As you navigate the world of pirates, naval fleets and, of course, the Templars and Assassin’s your path will twist much like the story. The variation of characters and plot twists will keep you engaged as you move about the massive world completing missions, hunting for clues and trying to get that booty that every pirate is after.
You’ll also spend some time as an Abstergo employee working the memories of Kenway for a pirate game. The more interesting your adventures become as you play Edward the better the memories that are unlocked for Abstergo’s game. In both worlds you’ll encounter friends, foes and those lost souls who can’t quite make up their minds as the true relationship between your project in game and outside becomes more apparent.
For me this may be one of the better plots of an AC game which may be due to the fact that I wanted to grow up to be a pirate when I was a kid. Well, a pirate and a dinosaur. At numerous points throughout playing the game I found myself feeling like I was controlling the flow of an old pirate movie. All I needed was an eye patch and a hook for a hand to complete the illusion.
Ubisoft nailed the voice actors for this game. Matt Ryan as the voice of Edward Kenway is superb. Most of the supporting characters are spot on as well. One of the things I was dreading coming into this game was the overabundance of ‘pirate speak’. Happily Ubisoft took a metered approach to this. While you’ll still hear quite a few NPCs chortling their ‘yars’ and ‘evasts’ the major players in the game speak in a manner that is largely representative of the period without being grating. I also credit the creative team with using this as an opportunity to toss in some pokes at typical pirate lore and movies. As always, keep your eyes and ears open for Easter eggs.
One of my favorite parts of Black Flag is the shanties. Since you spend much of your time sailing the 7 seas your crew will serenade you with their favorite shanties. The more shanties you collect throughout the world the more variation you get when it comes to their song choices. Listening to them sing really did become my guilty pleasure in this game.
The overall appearance and graphics of Assassin’s Creed IV are what you’d expect for a game coming out at the end of a generation. Most of the game was well polished and looking good. The team did a great job of making the towns and island hideaways look and feel different. Whether you’re exploring Havana’s cityscape or cavorting around Nassau’s dirt roads each destination has a look and feel all its own which really adds to the desire to fully explore the major cities. One thing I noticed when I was looking down a long street was I could see all the way down to the end of the street. The buildings and NPCs didn’t begin to fade out towards the end of the road. It was all there. I felt like I could stand in the middle of the street, shoot my musket towards the far end and go find the hole my shot made. I really appreciated this use of the game engine and console’s power. It’s always the small or subtle things for me that helps keep me immersed in the game’s world. In the end isn’t that why we’re all playing the game in the first place; to be someone else and do to things we could never do otherwise?
Good news for series fans. If you’re familiar with the franchise you’ll be able to pick up the controller and start climbing buildings and throwing down counter-kills like a pro. It’s definitely a pro that a player new to the series can pick up a controller and easily learn to play well but if they really want to master combat and climbing they’ll need to log in some hours. You’ll use your directional pad to dictate which weapons and equipment you’ll use for your next mission. You’ll have choices once you’re in combat and you’ll have to make the best decision you can based on the terrain you’re fighting on and how many opponents you’re facing. Sometimes you may counter-kill an opponent while others you’ll counter-throw to give yourself some breathing room. Sometimes you just have to use an unsuspecting guard as a human-shield and other times you’ll need to kick that motherless son of a goat off of a tower. I found myself a huge fan of the blow darts. Hush little pirate it’s nap time.
The combat in ACIV is smooth and little tweaks were made to improve on their formula. Don’t expect a revolution here but I definitely felt like my input on the controller was being more accurately enacted on my screen than previous games. This isn’t to say that in the heat of chasing a target through a city when I wanted Edward to freerun up and over a small wall he decided to climb on top of a box and perch like a vulture doing his best Snoopy impression. It was a bit maddening at times but these instances occurred far less than I’ve encountered in other games in the franchise. All-in-all I felt like what I intended to happen did actually happen which is a great improvement.
I’m not a huge fan of riding horses in video games. Maybe it’s because I’m not good at riding horses in real life and there’s that one really traumatic experience when I was a kid… I was so happy to ditch the horse as my main mode of transportation for a pirate ship. Yo ho, yo ho! At first I thought to myself “Oh, great. I’m going to have to sail this dumb boat around a bunch”. But I really enjoyed sailing around, blasting cannonballs at unsuspecting schooners and diving for treasure. I was involved in some epic sea battles! Massive amounts of cannons blasting from the side of the Jackdaw, front ball n’ chain rounds, swivels on the corners and flame barrels out of the back. Your vessel, the Jackdaw, is armed and ready for you to upgrade and take into open sea combat against whomever you see fit. After you’ve incapacitated your enemy you’ll board them, kill off a few sailors and then the vessel is yours. You can use its resources to fix the Jackdaw, pay off your bounty or add it to your fleet. Who doesn’t want more pirates singing shanties in their honor?
Only twice during my play time did I glitch and get stuck. Once I was having a hay day kicking wood nails loose and flying up walls like a mad man on the end of a rope. I reached the top and ended up being one with the wall and the wood framework that the rope and gurney were attached to. The other time I magically fit between a wall and some boxes after a fall. I say magically because Kenway would have needed to lose about 200lbs to fit there. Everything else was so well designed that when these two instances happened I was a little shocked but they didn’t bother me because this was a trouble free gaming experience other than these two minor things.
I’m a fan of the series despite some small shortcomings in previous iterations of Assassin’s Creed. Black Flag was easily the most enjoyable entry in the series for me since the original. I love the sea battles and some of the new ways to summit a building quickly. The fit and finish was spot on and makes for a great example of what the current gen is capable of. If you want to play a game with an engaging and enjoyable story that you can just pick up and start playing without a huge learning curve than this is the game for you. Just don’t be shocked if you find yourself singing shanties to yourself in the shower for months to come. A pirate’s life for me!