Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag
November 2014 saw two Assassin’s Creed games simultaneously released for the ‘new’ and ‘older’ generation consoles: Assassin’s Creed Unity and Assassin’s Creed Rogue, respectively. I have always been a fan of the AssCred series, but, as previously stated in my Black Flag review, my faith wavered a little after Revelations – a disappointing end to the Ezio trilogy. Then came Assassin’s Creed III, kicking off what is now known as the Kenway saga. Whilst ACIII certainly had an interesting story with some wonderful twists and turns, the overall historical setting didn’t interest me, and the repetitive environment became very tedious. When Black Flag came out, I neglected to immediately purchase it, and instead waited until it was in the Steam summer sale 2014. Black Flag was both a brilliant Assassin’s Creed game and a brilliant pirate game. Because pirates are friggin’ awesome. Despite this, I was still hesitant when Unity and Rogue came out, though I will admit I was enticed by Unity’s pretty amazing trailer. I bided my time, and waited until these two games came on sale a few months later; I ended up picking up both for around £20 each on Steam. After consulting the wise mentors on /r/assassincreed, I started with Rogue.
Chronologically, Rogue takes place a few years after Black Flag and before (and partially during) Assassin’s Creed III and Unity, featuring some nice tie-ins with the aforementioned three, including certain characters and allusions to events. Rogue has you play as Shay “I make my own luck” Cormac. Shay begins the game as an Assassin, but becomes disillusioned with what they stand for and, in a somewhat roundabout way, ends up joining the Templars. With the exception of the beginning of ACIII and that pretty cool twist, this is the first time in the series that we actually get to play as a Templar, and moreover see their point of view, as usually they are depicted as the big, greedy baddies. In Rogue, it’s very easy to empathise with the Templar cause and actually find yourself disliking the Assassins. Part of this is due to Shay being pretty bad-ass; up at the top of the character scale just behind Edward Kenway and Ezio. Part of it is also because all of the Assassins in the games are dicks. Just utter dicks. Due to the change in perspective, the story in Rogue is overall pretty good, interesting and a new take…though I was a bit gutted that the misleading, ominous announcement trailer seemed to imply that you would be hunting Assassins, of which there is none of, apart from some repetitive side missions. Instead, the game plays out like every other Assassin’s Creed game, in which you go from mission to mission occasionally killing an ‘important’ character – nothing really new there. I didn’t find myself as interested in Rogue’s story as Black Flag’s, though this may largely be due to the fact that I know very little about the Seven Years War, in which Rogue is predominantly set, so a lot of the historical figures were lost on me (as opposed to Black Flag when I was sitting in my chair going OMFG BLACKBEARD!!).
The story itself is relatively short in comparison to other games, and ends rather abruptly. There is, of course, the chance to then continue obtaining the many, many collectibles, but, unless you’re a bit of a completionist, it seems almost pointless. Considering the story’s lack of longevity, Rogue offers an overwhelming number of collectibles…and I mean overwhelming in the bad sense. The map itself is huge, and has you travelling around the North Atlantic Ocean, the Hudson River Valley and New York. However, it’s so big that the story itself only takes you to a small fraction of the entire world; the only incentive to see the rest is to collect these darn treasure chests, shanties and Animus fragments. Originally, I was planning on collecting everything, but as soon as the story ending was sprung upon me, I kind of lost interest. There is just too much for its own good. The setting itself is relatively varied, with icy climates in the North Atlantic, the tundra that is the River Valley, and New York’s cityscape. Despite this, in the former two especially, you couldn’t really differentiate one area from another – once you have seen one snowy forest, you’ve seen ‘em all. For the most part, Shay sides with the British Empire (as opposed to the French). Whereas previous Assassin’s Creed games have had maybe one faction of guards patrolling the streets, Rogue has two or three. However, it wasn’t until I was about half way through the game that I realised that the chappies in orange were in fact not French soldiers with annoying British accents, but Assassin thugs. Occasionally, these thugs hide in bushes or other well-known Assassin hiding spots and ambush you, causing critical damage, which keeps you on your toes a bit. But, as I will address later, health was never an issue, so even after being ‘critically’ injured, you can still stab your attacker in the face and walk away unscathed.
Rogue plays largely like Black Flag DLC, in that the majority – if not all – of the game mechanics are the same. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but players should be aware before they play. The easiest mode of transport is by ship. Like the Jackdaw, players can upgrade Shay’s Morrigan with better hull armour, cannons, mortars etc. Use these to take down ships to acquire loot to…upgrade your ship even further! Naval combat remains the same as it did in Black Flag: strong, but not without its flaws. For example, if you happen to be engaged in a fight with, say, two enemy ships…when you destroy one and board it, time seems to stop for the other – it just circles around for a while, waiting. Aspects like this make it apparent that Rouge is a ‘last-gen’ game, and one would hope that if naval combat features in future instalments, it becomes a bit more dynamic. Regular combat is the same as it has always been: pretty dull. It’s just easy. You can buy new weapons and pistols, but even those are boring. Different weapons have different stats, but you can’t really tell the difference. In hand to hand combat, you can either fight with fists, hidden blades or a dagger and sword combo – but, again, this is essentially for aesthetics as the sword seems to do as much damage as the blades seems to do as much damage as fists. I miss back in the ACII era when the sword and dagger were separate. Combat has always been relatively easy in the AssCred series, requiring you to just wait and counter at the right moment, and Rogue is no different. Luckily, these seems to have been addressed if Ubisoft’s E3 preview of Assassin’s Creed Syndicate can be believed! Like Black Flag, you can upgrade Shay too with various crafting mechanisms, improving his health etc. But, if I’m honest, I completely forgot about these, and finished the game with the same amount of health as I started. It was never an issue.
Oh, like previous AssCred games, Rogue also features a ‘modern day’ section, in which, like Black Flag, you play as a faceless Abstergo employee who is playing through this memories for totally-not-evil-scientific reasons. Again, like Black Flag, something happens to the severs over the course of the game and you have to go down and hack into them and turn them on, slowly revealing more and more about the company. The lore that surrounds the series is very interesting, especially as it is influenced and intertwined with our IRL history, so learning about this from the Templar’s point of view as you fix the severs (I don’t know why they keep all of this information encrypted on various computers but hey ho) is a nice little treat. And you’re often accompanied by a women who endearingly, and not at all irritatingly, affectionately refers to you as ‘numb-skull’. Classy gal.
Visually, Rogue is pretty impressive. Surprise, surprise, the visuals are very similar to Black Flag’s, though, again, that is not a bad thing. There are your standard clipping errors, or certain objects not rendering quick enough, but overall I can’t really complain. The only feature that could really be improved is the water, which often looked like a big ol’ tub o’ jelly…all thick and gloopy. The music is wonderful and really aids in creating the darker atmosphere that comes with Rogue. Voice acting is on par, with a range of personalities across a large and colourful cast.
At a glance, you could be forgiven for thinking that Black Flag and Rogue were the same game: apart from the dramatic change in climate, many gameplay elements carry from the latter to the former. So, if you enjoyed Black Flag, or any previous Assassin’s Creed game for that matter, then I certainly recommend it. However, due to the short story and repetitiveness of obtaining the crazy amount of collectibles and exploration, I would suggest getting this game on sale. And, why, it’s on sale right now!
I’m so into pirates right now. Like, seriously. Also, I haven’t tried multiplayer yet, so this review is for the single player campaign only.
If we’re not going to get an Assassin’s Creed game set in Victorian England, then I guess playing as pirates is the next best thing. A prequel of sorts to Assassin’s Creed III, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag has you playing as AssCred III protagonist Conor’s grandfather, Edward Kenway – a Welsh eighteenth century sexy pirate who finds himself caught up in the ongoing Assassin/Templar War. The game opens with the ship that Kenway is on being attacked. After being marooned on an island, he ends up chasing down and killing an Assassin – thus, Kenway’s induction into the Assassin club is a lot less…traditional than previous protagonists, including Conor’s. Despite this chance encounter with an Assassin, Kenway is still an ancestor of dull Desmond, and is therefore related to Ezio and Altair too. So, even though he just happened to stumble on to becoming an Assassin, which I think is kind of cool, it was always in his blood. Perhaps that accounts for his unexplained super agility, skill with weapons, dashing good looks, parkour skills and Eagle Vision, like all the other members of the Desmond bloodline? Perhaps…
If you have played an Assassin’s Creed game before, which you should have, you’ll know what to expect from Black Flag. The game is actually a reconstruction of Kenward’s memories, thanks to the Animus. At any point in the game, you can get out of the Animus and explore the ‘real world’ (to an extent). In this scenario, you play first person as a faceless, nameless Abstergo employee, aiding the company in creating the ultimate entertainment experience after the success of Assassin’s Creed: Liberation (yeah, it gets pretty meta.) But this is Abstergo, so I don’t trust them for a second and assume they’re actually trying to take over the world.
Back playing Pirates of the Caribbean, you’ll spend most of your time climbing up buildings, towers, ships and trees with little-to-no difficulty. You’ll dive from ridiculous heights into conveniently placed hay bails without so much of a scratch. And you’ll kill so many guards in the name of JUSTICE that any morals you had before will be thrown out the window. You’ll also, obviously, see how many ‘innocents’ you can accidentally-on-purposley kill before you are desynchronised. Yes, Black Flag follows the same formula as previous AssCred games, but adds entirely new elements in its open world exploration. Previous Assassin’s Creed titles have had large open maps, but Black Flag’s world is set in the West Indies, and as such about 75% of the map is water, speckled with numerous little islands. This may sound like a boring waste of space, but Black Flag’s naval exploration is where the game really stands out. A couple of hours or so into the game, you gain command of your own ship, the Jackdaw, which can be upgraded with new weapons, armour, figureheads, steering wheels and sails throughout the game, enabling you to create the ship o’ your dreams! Controlling the Jackdaw is a welcome change from the clunky controls that burden Kenward on dry land – you can alter between different speeds, face wind residence, currents and must think quite tactically about how you steel, lest you end up ramming into a small island. There’s no real consequence for this (the ship only takes a small amount of damage from rock-ramming) it does add a few seconds onto your travel time. So if you’re busy and important like me, you’re going to want to steer quite clear. The naval combat is also superior to its land counterpart. Not much has changed in the latter since the last AssCred game – you still pretty much just have to stand there until someone attacks you, then counter it, then win. It gets very stale. But out on the deep blue sea, naval combat demands a whole different pace. The Jackdaw can be equipped with numerous weapons including cannons, fire barrels and giant bolas which must be used systematically to incapacity your watery foe. Weapons have a recharge time, so you can’t just fire them willy-nilly, and you and your enemy are pretty much constantly moving and circling around each other, so timing is very important. Not to mention that they are probably trying to ram and shoot you too. It’s just very satisfying, and weirdly doesn’t get that repetitive. The weather also poses another challenge, and changes dramatically: one minute you might be enjoying a tan on the deck, and the next you’re confronted with an angry maelstrom that’s throwing rouge waves and tornado at you. It’s very atmospheric! And you feel pretty epic navigating your ship through tidal waves and probable death.
Going back to the map, there is a large number of places to explore. From big towns like Havana, to tiny islands hiding a treasure chest, the world has an awful lot to offer. Too much…some might say. I mean, it’s great, but there are so many tiny islands scattered around with Animus Fragments or chests on that getting them is definitely going to take some time, if you’re a completionist. There are also dive spots that are unlocked further on in the game, allowing Kenward to dive into ruins of sunken ships and underwater caves huntin’ fer treasure. These side missions are an interesting change of pace and scenery, although I have to applaud Edward’s talent to be attacked by sharks, jellyfish, eels and sea urchins all whilst retaining his gigantic lung capacity. It gets a bit silly but I’m sure that can all just be put down to Animus trickery! Also, from the beginning of the game, you can find pretty much all of the collectibles, which is weird when they are then introduced in the story in sequence 3 or 4. It just seems a little bit like the story writers didn’t correspond much with the collectable planners. Additionally, (and this is just a little peeve) at the very beginning of the game you can go around freeing captured pirates, who ‘thank ya, Captain’…but you’re not a captain yet! You’re just a nobody with a hood! But, ah, details…
The story itself is quite compelling, and I am interested to see where it goes (at point of writing I haven’t actually completed the game yet…). I’m also curious to explore the ‘real world’ and see what the aforementioned Abstergo are actually planning. The characters throughout the story are quite fleshed out, with Edward being a lot more likeable than Conor, even if he is a morally gray scallywag. Like previous Assassin’s Creed titles, and one of the things that draws me to the series, Black Flag‘s alternate history features many real life historical figures, including infamous pirates such as Blackbeard and Charles Vane. But I tend to spend most of my time pursuing the side missions and the dynamic quest system. As well as the aforementioned collectables, there are also Assassin contracts, Templar hunts, whaling (which I always feel very bad about), naval contracts and a few mini games to privilege yourself with. The story and side missions themselves mostly follow the basic Assassin’s Creed principles: following someone, eavesdropping, chasing someone, assassinating someone, infiltrating a restricted area etc. Unfortunately these do become a tad tedious, and whilst many of the missions encourage a stealthy approach in their optional objectives, there is no real consequence if you’re seen; you don’t desynchronise, and as I said the combat itself is pretty easy so you can easily fight off a horde of enemies quite quickly. Also, there are some missions that require you to ‘stealthily’ follow another ship…which is stupid because on the open sea I’m pretty a fat off pirate ship isn’t the most inconspicuous.
One thing that the Assassin’s Creed games do well is create an atmospheric environment, and Black Flag is no different. The rain and water graphics look amazing, and it’s great to go from running around a tropical island to a busy port town. The weather is brilliant, and on numerous occasions I have found chills running down my spine as I’m chased through foggy waters by a ghostly looking ship. Black Flag is definitely a welcome addition to what is generally a great series. It corrects what Revelations and AC: III did wrong and is definitely up there with AC: II and Brotherhood in my humble opinion. There’s lots to do in a beautiful world, and it just highlights the fact that there really aren’t enough pirate games out there!
Oh, and as it’s Ubisoft, you’re forced to play via uPlay. “What’s your uPlay name?” said no one ever. Gah! Though, I must say, it’s nice that achievements and accomplishments can actually be used to enhance your experience of the game. You have that going for you, uPlay. Well done. But that’s it!