A Pirate’s Life Indeed
As a true-blue fan of the fictional swashbuckling pirate, I was as skeptical as the next person when Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag was announced. After its previous two releases in the series got a lukewarm reception from fans, it seemed natural to question whether the company could do justice to an adventure set during the Golden Era of Piracy. All of us pirate fans here at Cheat Code are pleased to know that we needn’t have worried, as our PlayStation 3 review of the game reported. My job, then, is an easy one: to check out how Black Flag plays on next-generation devices by popping it into the PlayStation 4 and taking the captain’s wheel for a spin.
After stumbling with Connor, Ubisoft has found its footing with Edward Kenway as its pirate hero. Although it would have been a tempting prospect to repeat on success, Kenway isn’t a smooth lady-charmer like Ezio. In fact, he’s rather a lout at the start of the game, concerned with little more than making a fortune, so he can return home and get back into the graces of his estranged wife. Still, he has a rough charm about him that makes him worth rooting for. His slow transformation into a worthy Assassin is a nice piece of character development that does a lot to move the story forward.
The “modern era” portion of the game has been reset somewhat, starring a nameless and faceless Abstergo employee who is plundering Desmond Miles’ ancestral memory for video game footage. It’s all very meta—Ubisoft is an in-game entity that is co-developing these Templar propaganda games with Abstergo—but as usual, it takes a backseat to the real historical meat of the game.
Although it looks great on previous generation consoles, Black Flag is a game that deserves to be experienced on PC, PlayStation 4, or Xbox One. It is absolutely gorgeous in every way, from the colorful peeling paint on the walls of Havana to the way that water streams over the Jackdaw’s deck to the rustling of leaves when Edward is stalking through the bushes. The game fully captures the feel of the Caribbean seas, and care was obviously taken to marry the technical merits of the graphics with a unified style. The character animations can be a bit herky-jerky at times, but it hardly matters when it’s such a joy to explore the lush jungles and harsh seas of this world.
Black Flag shines in the sound arena as well. Ubisoft’s voice direction has matured, and the actors demonstrate a nice sense of subtlety in both their line delivery and their various accents. We’ve come a long way since good old Uncle Mario and the rest of the over-exaggerated Italian crew. Sound effects are excellent as well, especially at sea, where the audio really accentuates the difference between a smooth-sailing day and a roiling storm.
The centerpiece of Black Flag’s sound design, however, is Edward’s pirate crew. Not only do they cheer when he takes the wheel and yell out comments like, “The Captain’s saltin’ himself!” based on what’s going on around them, they sing sea shanties. Particularly for fans of historical music, the shanties are pure magic, sung by a talented group whom put a good measure of roughness in the tunes, yet avoid the kind of truly authentic performance that would grate on the ears. Edward can collect an impressive number of these shanties, and hearing the crew sing them as they sail the Caribbean seas adds immeasurably to the experience.
It’s unfortunate that the lush audiovisuals seem to come at a small hit to performance. Don’t get me wrong—the controls in general are the best they’ve ever been in the series, providing entertaining combat and largely smooth parkour gameplay. While playing, however, I noticed occasional reactivity issues and problems receiving on-screen button prompts in time to execute an action. While attempting stealth kills, I learned to mash the appropriate button before getting the “Assassinate” prompt, because if I waited for the prompt to appear on screen, half the time it would already be too late, and I’d be discovered by my prey.
I compared notes with our PlayStation 3 reviewer, and he said that these issues felt more pronounced in the PlayStation 4 copy of the game than the PS3 version. It’s not enough to seriously impede gameplay enjoyment, but it can make stealth missions and high-speed or precision platforming segments frustrating at times.
Speaking of stealth missions, if there’s one complaint that I can aim at the game’s overall play value, it’s that there’s a bit too much emphasis placed on stealth during the game’s main missions. For a game starring a rough and tumble pirate assassin, I felt like Edward had to spend a bit too much time skulking in bushes and eavesdropping on conversations. More missions including battles and involving the pirate crew would have been a nice change of pace, especially since Edward is quite handy with his dual swords and pistols, making out-and-out combat rather fun.
Outside the main missions, gameplay is refreshingly varied, and there are plenty of different things to see and do. Pillaging ships, taking forts, looting plantation warehouses, hunting wildlife for crafting purposes (mostly optional), taking assassin contracts, looting shipwrecks, getting into bar brawls, collecting any number of things–it’s all there, and mostly available fairly early on in the game. In fact, the open-world gameplay is often more compelling than the story missions this time around. There are even some side quests featuring their own stories and cutscenes. It’s an excellent start in terms of open-world development for the series, one I’d love to see taken even farther in future installments.
Maritime adventures deserve special attention in this game, as it’s always been a tough challenge for developers to include sailing in games without making it dull. Let’s face it, sailing long distances is quite dull in real life, so it’s difficult to translate into a game mechanic. The ship segments of this game work on several levels. Black Flag’s Caribbean is absolutely packed with points of interest, ports of call, and enemies to fight, so there are rarely long periods of sailing without anything to see or do. In addition, fast-travel points mean that there’s no need for tedious backtracking when something interesting pops up on the other side of the map. Finally, naval combat is swift and deadly, hardly ever dragging out too long. Rarely has being out at sea been so much fun.
Topping off the good times is the ability to hang out with famous fictional pirates like Blackbeard, Calico Jack, and Mary Read. Watching these colorful personalities interact, dubious historical authenticity of said interactions aside, is highly entertaining. Students of history know that things didn’t end well for most Caribbean pirates, but there’s plenty of spirited fun mixed in with the inevitable tragedy. The historical mix of heady freedom and tragic downfall melds perfectly with the fictional Assassins versus Templars struggle underlying the action, though it was nice to have several main characters who were aligned with neither faction, as well.
Since I was reviewing Black Flag on the PlayStation 4, I took some time to check out the extra Aveline missions that are currently available on Sony’s consoles. The three short missions detail Aveline’s adventures recruiting escaped slave Patience Gibbs for the Assassin Order. Though the missions show off a bit of both women’s personalities and provide an interesting change of scenery with their Rhode Island setting, they’re hampered by failing to utilize Aveline’s unique costume abilities and by a tedious escort mechanic in the third mission. Still, they succeeded in raising my interest in the upcoming remake of Assassin’s Creed: Liberation .
Not only is it an excellent addition to the Assassin’s Creed series, Black Flag sets the standard for pirate games, which have traditionally suffered from boring sailing mechanics and a lack of gameplay variety. For gamers who have so far avoided the series or have grown weary of it thanks to Revelations and Assassin’s Creed III , this game is not one to be missed. It’s a fresh new title, influenced rather than dominated by series formula, and it gives players unprecedented freedom in living the life of its Assassin. Despite the minor reactivity issues, I still recommend playing the next-gen version of the game if possible—the outstanding visuals are worth it. Between the incredible atmosphere, the expansive world to explore, and the myriad of entertaining activities in which to partake, video game piracy has never been more fun.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 5.0 Graphics
Both technically and stylistically impressive. 4.0 Control
Much improved over previous installments, but improvements to reactivity are still needed. 5.0 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Excellent voice acting and sound effects, plus the sea shanties are pure magic. 4.8 Play Value
There’s a ridiculous amount of content here, though the game’s stealth element is overplayed during missions. 4.8 Overall Rating – Must Buy
Not an average. See Rating legend below for a final score breakdown.
|Review Rating Legend
|0.1 – 1.9 = Avoid
|2.5 – 2.9 = Average
|3.5 – 3.9 = Good
|4.5 – 4.9 = Must Buy
|2.0 – 2.4 = Poor
|3.0 – 3.4 = Fair
|4.0 – 4.4 = Great
|5.0 = The Best