Rough waters ahead, but there’s gold out there somewhere.
*THIS REVIEW IS BASED ON A PRE-RELEASE VERSION OF THE PS3 EDITION, PROVIDED BY UBISOFT. ONLY SINGLE-PLAYER CONTENT IS COVERED, AS MULTIPLAYER WAS NOT AVAILABLE AT THE TIME OF REVIEW. MULTIPLAYER IMPRESSIONS WILL BE ADDED AT A LATER DATE, AND THE SCORE WILL BE ADJUSTED IF NEED BE.*
There’s an inherent trade off that gamers expect from a sequel. We know it won’t be as fresh or new as the original, but it will be bigger, better, and more polished. Everything is supposed to be a little more finely tuned, a little smoother. That’s the deal. For several years now, the Assassin’s Creed franchise has failed to live up to the expectations set by the landmark AC II. Each following sequel has felt a little less polished than the last. With this in mind, my first few hours with Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag were not favorable. Rather then delivering improvements to the classic Assassin’s Creed mechanics and formula, Black Flag feels like a step backwards in many regards. The controls are a little more sluggish, the visuals are not as striking, and the missions feel like the same tired old objectives we’ve been repeating over the past 6 installments in the franchise. It’s unfortunate that the game makes such a poor first impression, because the real meat of Black Flag is something else entirely.
In many ways, playing Black Flag feels like playing 2 separate games. Half of it follows the classic Assassin’s Creed formula of running and climbing through the environment, stalking targets, and sneaking through crowds undetected. The other half of the game is a swashbuckling pirate adventure on the open seas. Oddly enough, it is the “classic” portions of the game that fall apart. Poor mission design, clumsy controls, and technical issues make parts of Black Flag feel like a b-tier version of an Assassin’s Creed game. But the moment you take control of your ship and set sail in search of treasure, Black Flag finds its stride and delivers a fun and unique experience.
Setting the stage.
Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag puts the player in control of Edward Kenway; a young pirate in search of fortune. The characters and setting are a big improvement over the disappointingly bland AC III. There is an inherit charisma to the 18th century Caribbean that is very well captured. Most importantly, the story is filled with a fun sense of adventure that has been sorely missing from the series for several years now. Character performances are nicely done across the board, with the appropriate level of caricature and melodrama for the genre.
While the player is given a decent introduction to the plot and characters, the same cannot be said for the introduction to gameplay mechanics. The Assassin’s Creed franchise has developed a very complex net of systems and mechanics over the years. One of the highlights of AC II was the way Ubisoft slowly and carefully taught the player without making you feel like you were still in the “training” portion of the game. The entire process was seamless and felt natural within the flow of the story. In Black Flag however, the process of being eased into the experience feels far more disjointed. Some elements of the sandbox are given far more explanation than they require, while other elements are glazed over. This leads to several frustrating situations, where the player is handed a new weapon or item and given little or no chance to experiment with it before being thrown into heated battle. Instructional paragraphs are often placed on screen during moments of character interaction, forcing the player to choose between reading the tutorial or following the story.
Out with the old…
For an open-world game to succeed, the simple act of moving your character around needs to be fun. The entire experience is built upon the foundation of exploring and traversing these immense landscapes. This means that the game’s controls are exceptionally important. This is where Black Flag’s technical issues do the most damage. There is noticeable controller latency. Combined with an inconsistent frame rate, moving Edward around feels a little more sluggish and clumsy then previous games. It also makes subtle movements very difficult. Time after time I found myself trying to aim towards a railing, only to miss and hit a wall a couple feet to the side, or jumping off a ledge while trying to scale around it. These annoyances are not new to the Assassin’s Creed franchise, but they have gotten worse when they should be getting better. A tipping point has been crossed: what was once a highlight of the series (climbing and scaling every square inch of the environment) now feels like a chore. While playing Black Flag, I found myself avoiding climbing whenever possible. In an Assassin’s Creed game, this is a problem.
Swashbuckle with the best of ’em.
One classic gameplay element that has been improved in Black Flag is the combat. Sword fighting is a blast. Character animations are spectacular, and it all feels nicely responsive. Technical problems do rear their ugly head once again, as character models sometimes get jolted out of position in 3D space. This can lead to some visual oddities (such as thrusting my sword in an impaling motion while an enemy 3 feet to the left keels over as if struck), but I never noticed these glitches interfere with the action. While the enemy AI is almost non-existent, the sheer variety of combat maneuvers keeps the action exciting, if not particularly challenging. Swinging from ship deck to ship deck over the crashing waves to launch an areal attack on your target is particularly exhilarating.
A small blemish on Black Flag’s combat system is the gunplay. I hated guns in AC III, and I still hate them here. Given the thematic and historical settings, it makes sense to add pistols and other firearms into the mix. The problem is that the controls and targeting feel far too sloppy to make gunplay any fun. Working your pistols into your melee combos can lead to some cool moments, but the real drag comes from fighting against enemies wielding firearms of their own. With so many characters on screen, melee combat is often quite enjoyably chaotic. Add snipers on rooftops into the mix, and the fun crumbles into frustration quite quickly.
During one of the earlier Havana missions, my group was ambushed by a large mob of attackers, including snipers on the rooftops. One of the members of my group kept getting himself killed by the snipers, causing me to fail the mission (strike one: useless AI teammates that can’t defend themselves). The snipers were out of my pistol range, so I decided to climb up to the rooftops and deal with them up close. This also caused me to fail the mission for being too far away from the group I was supposed to defend (even though I was directly above them). This sort of mission design is not only frustrating, but it discourages experimentation and creativity: part of the major appeal of an open world game in the first place. Not all missions in the game suffer from these constraints, but even when the game afforded me more freedom, I was afraid of experimenting lest I trigger another arbitrary fail state. There is a lack of consistency when it comes to what the player is allowed/expected to do that is very problematic. Once again, this problem is not new to Black Flag, but it is worse here then it was in previous Assassin’s Creed games.
… In with the new.
Luckily, the majority of my complaints only apply to half of the game. As I mentioned earlier, a substantial part of Black Flag is spent out on the ocean at the helm of your ship, the Jackdaw. Naval combat is simply awesome. Maneuvering and lining up shots can be very challenging with the waves swelling and falling underneath your ship. You will often find yourself engaging several enemy ships at once; swirling around each other in a deadly exchange of broadside canon fire. Few moments in gaming have sent chills down my spine like the sight of a massive destroyer vessel bearing down on my ship in the middle of a thunder storm. Even your ship itself bustles with activity; your crew hustles around the deck, manning the cannons and the sails, shouting warnings when enemy fire is launched your way, or cheering with excitement when you land a hit on an attacking vessel. As great as all this is, the real payoff comes when you disable and board a enemy ship. Swinging over the gap between ships and landing amidst the enemy crew on the opposing deck is a true highlight moment, and it never gets old.
The more time I spent at sea, the more I began to wish Black Flag wasn’t an Assassin’s Creed game. The “modern day” portion of the story has been taken in an interesting direction, but for me it is too little, too late. The over-arching plot behind Assassin’s Creed has been drawn out too long, and stretched too thin. I no longer care about Abstergo and their schemes. Even Edward’s relationship to the Assassin’s is marginal for the majority of the game. There’s little reason for him to be an Assassin at all. It is a strange statement to make, but Black Flag is at it’s best when it ditches the systems and formulas that are definitively “Assassin’s Creed”, in favor of going in a new direction.
I would get lost for hours upgrading my ship, diving for treasure, assaulting enemy fortresses and raiding royal convoys. But every time a mission forced me back to shore, my heart would sink with the disappointment of being forced to do yet another “follow these targets without getting spotted” job. I lost track of how many of these missions exist in Black Flag, but it’s a safe to say I spent several hours following royal guards as they walk in circles through city streets (I’m not exaggerating: I noticed several instances of NPC targets leading me in a giant meaningless loop through town before arriving at their actual destination). Black Flag features a new feedback system that allows players to rate missions after completing them. Sadly, I must say that most of the ratings I submitted were either 1 or 2 stars out of 5. With few exceptions, my time on foot in Black Flag was a reminder of how tired the Assassin’s Creed franchise has become. If Ubisoft wants to continue making this kind of game, they must invest the time in more creative and polished mission design. As much as I loved my time at sea, the land missions in Black Flag were a real slog to get through.
Despite all its flaws, there is still magic in Black Flag. I would describe my overall experience as “enjoyable”, and I certainly look forward to going back and spending lots more time sailing the open seas. The game is severely dragged down by too many poor missions and a lack of overall polish in some key areas. If you are looking for more of what you loved about AC II, you will likely not find it here. But if you have the time and patience to make it through a few rough spots, you’ll find a lot to love. I’d almost say Black Flag is worth experiencing for the naval combat alone. This is the first bold change in direction we’ve seen from the Assassin’s Creed franchise, and it is an encouraging step. There is still life in this franchise, even if it doesn’t take the form we might have expected.
- Great setting, fun adventure.
- Exploring the open seas feels new and fresh.
- Naval combat is fantastic.
- On-foot missions are mostly poor.
- Running/climbing mechanics feel worse than in previous installments.
- Lacks polish and refinement.