Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag (Wii U) Review
Assassin’s Creed III was a bit of a controversy throughout the community. Many declared the series as dead and many thought that Ubisoft had truly beaten their dead horse to the absolute extreme. I was not one of those people – I appreciated Assassin’s Creed III for what it tried to do. It failed in some aspects, but it was still an enjoyable experience once past the poorly paced tutorial. But Ubisoft had lost a lot of good will with their fans and as such there was a lot riding on the fourth iteration, Black Flag. Eschewing most of the traditional motifs seen throughout the series, Black Flag does a lot differently to the point where it has changed dramatically since Assassin’s Creed III. And it’s all for the better.
The game continues the tradition of having a modern day storyline along with a historical one. The modern day storyline takes much more of a back seat this time though (presumably from fan request). Players are working for Abstergo Entertainment, a video game development branch of the Templar dummy company Abstergo Industries. They’ve asked the player to play through the memories of Edward Kenway through the Animus – a device which can access memories from a genetic sample. The science is sketchy, but it makes for a cool way to revisit all these different time periods as a player and is a weirdly ironic way to experience the game.
Edward Kenway is the father of Haytham Kenway, who is the father of Connor (the protagonist from the third game). All three of these people are descendents of Altair and Ezio who were the protagonists of the first games. So with that brief history lesson gone by – it’s time to learn where Edward fits into all of this. The year is 1715, during the golden age of piracy. Pirates have ruled the Caribbean and established their own presence throughout the archipelago and greed is the common motivator. Edward himself isn’t actually an Assassin either – merely stealing the identity of one to make a quick buck. But little does Edward know that he’s soon embroiled in an ancient war spanning thousands of years between the Assassins and the Templars, and that he’s going to get more than he bargained for. The story is great, though nothing amazing but it is one of the most interesting since the series began.
The overarching gameplay remains similar to previous games. Edward can visit three major cities, all connected with a larger area housing heaps of both main story missions and side content. Throughout the game Edward will listen to conversations inconspicuously, trail enemies to locations and use stealth to take down assassination marks. It’s a tried and true formula that works exceptionally well – although there is a little bit too much of the trailing missions which, while a cool idea, affect the pacing of the game detrimentally. The main feature of Assassin’s Creed was the free running capability – and while that functionality has expanded throughout the games, it seems to have taken a bit of an odd turn here. There’s way too many moments where the system feels way too temperamental. Previous games had your character climb buildings effortlessly, with Black Flag there seems to be some kind of “art” to approaching a building at the right angle and this makes it frustrating when it doesn’t work the first time. This is especially problematic during segments that rely on precision of movement where it can destroy the way you approach a level.
Being a pirate, Edward is able to command a crew of sailors and his very own ship to pillage other ships and explore the open waters of the carribean. Using his Spyglass, Edward can survey ships that are randomly generated on the horizon to see what components they are carrying and difficulty they may pose if approached – players can then take down the ship and sink it to receive half of its spoils or physically assault the ship and the crew to take over the ship and use its resources to better himself. The ship combat from Assassin’s Creed III makes a return but a few tweaks have been made to make the combat more fluid. The greatest of these is that Edward can now easily switch between weapons available to him by simply moving the camera – each side of the ship is correspondent to a certain weapon, each of which has purpose. It was easily the best thing about Assassin’s Creed III and it’s been refined even further in Black Flag. It’s fun, in short.
The whole idea of having this wide open world to explore was always one of the selling points of Assassin’s Creed, but replacing this with a wide open body of water is one of the most interesting changes made to the series thus far. Every single small island can be docked upon and explored, each sporting its own unique ecosystem and secrets to uncover. Edward can even dive underwater to explore sunken ships for lost treasures – and the game incorporates stealth mechanics during these moments to help the player evade sharks and the like while diving. Doing too much of this in one session can get admittedly repetitive, but breaking this out and being offered the opportunity to explore whenever the player wants gives the game a very “free” feeling about it. I dare say it, but I haven’t felt this way about an over world and exploration since The Wind Waker.
The Wii U version doesn’t do too much with the platform’s functionality but it does offer improvements over what was offered in Assassin’s Creed III. The map and all associated collectibles all appear on the Gamepad during gameplay, but this time the map can be manipulated and zoomed in whenever the player wishes. It’s a small addition that improves the implementation of the concept quite well. As with most games, Black Flag is also playable off-screen on the Gamepad which does drown out the colours somewhat but still looks colourful – a testament to the game’s rich and vibrant colour palette. Besides this, there is little on offer here for unique Wii U functionality. But what is here makes the game a little bit easier to play. It’s by no means a deal breaker, however.
As with previous games, the surprisingly robust multiplayer mode is included too. In these modes, of which there are several, players must track down a target and take them down in a variety of ways. To make things more interesting, the map is flooded with characters played by other players as well as ones controlled by AI. The multiplayer modes have always been one of my favourite and most unexpected surprises in the series and they perfectly exemplify all the key facets of the franchise and put them into a multiplayer model. There’s only so much you can say about this mode – but it is enjoyable and the performance on Wii U is just as good as the previous game (although it can be hard to find a match at times, presumably due to the smaller player base).
Ubisoft always has an inordinate amount of people to work on the Assassin’s Creed games and Black Flag is no exception. There’s so much content packed into this game that it is hard to consider it to not be worth the asking price. There’s a lot to do here, a lot to uncover and the multiplayer only looks to extend the experience for the foreseeable future. Rather disappointingly, however, none of the expansion packs (both single and multiplayer) will be coming to Wii U so this product is already a step behind the rest in terms of long term potential. But regardless, most players will get around twenty hours out of Black Flag with many of them stretching it to anywhere between thirty and forty to collect and see everything the game has to offer.
Black Flag is kind of a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to presentation. The game itself doesn’t look particularly bad, per se, but there are a lot of rough textures present here that really bring the whole visual appeal of the game down. There are some parts that shine, however, and most of these are the jungle or ocean parts. The ocean is particular is breathtaking. Every wave, the way the sun reflects off it and even the way it interacts with the ship is just so authentic. There were times when I would just climb to the top of an area and watch the ocean and the ships pull in and out of port – the visual presentation of where you’ll be spending most of your time really pulls the player in to the game world and gives it that “adventurous” kind of feel.
To accompany this high seas adventure is an equally as appropriate soundtrack. Drawing obvious inspirations from the kind of music you’d find in Pirates of the Carribean and combining those with a Hans Zimmer-esque sense of grandiosity works surprisingly well for Black Flag. Some of the tracks found in the multiplayer modes and jungle areas are particularly well done – giving a real gritty feeling that you’re actually travelling through a jungle. They complement the action perfectly. Voice work is serviceable, but the only real stand out here is Edward who is charismatic as ever. The pirate characters are all good too, but we’re getting to the point where pirate saturation on the internet makes all these voices just sound like poor parody.
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is probably one of the greatest improvements to the series and drags itself back up from the depths that Assassin’s Creed III sunk the franchise to. That is – people who felt burned from the slower paced third game should enjoy this return to form with Black Flag. It’s an enjoyable game that admittedly blurs the line between Asssassin’s Creed and a new franchise or IP, but its damn good fun that can be played at whatever pace you choose. Some issues with the movement system (which makes up such a core amount of the gameplay) and repetitive nature of some of the side content keep Black Flag from reaching perfection. Regardless, games that feature pirates and implement their culture as well as Black Flag are few and far between – so Black Flag is sure to appeal to both fans and newcomers alike. Worth a look and an open mind, even if you didn’t enjoy Assassin’s Creed III.