— SPOILER WARNING! —
Every now and then, something you’ve been looking forward to comes along and takes you completely by surprise with just how disappointing it is, whether because it fails to live up to the hype it generated, or because it’s just plain bad. With regards to the Assassin’s Creed series, that bewilderingly disappointing something was — for me — Assassin’s Creed III.
I’m not going to dwell on this, because that’s not the game this review is about. Suffice it to say that, in places — and unfortunately more often than not — Assassin’s Creed III was an absolute train wreck. And it’s this that makes its successor all the more impressive. Amazing, even. Amazing because Black Flag is so technically similar to III — you’re running, climbing, jumping in and out of conveniently-placed haystacks, stabbing stuff, jumping some more, taking to the sea at the helm of a ship, and jumping — and yet it manages to achieve what that game, for all its ambition, couldn’t: it’s fun.
Put in appropriate terms, Black Flag blows III out of the water.
First up, the graphics. For all their obvious prettiness, the graphics are, unfortunately, not without their issues. Edward runs through some ropes as though they’re not there, and there are substantial clipping problems — most notably with sails and masts during both the boarding and sinking of ships, and with Edward’s swords when they’re hanging from his belt. NPCs no longer appear out of nowhere as though they’ve learned to Apparate, but come into existence via a sort of grainy fade, which is just as strange-looking, if not more so. Some of the character models are a little iffy, too, and their facial animations can leave a lot to be desired.
And then there’s the water. The water, the water, the water. Steps have definitely been taken to improve it, but I wish the developers would abandon the Microsoft Paint-esque splashes they’ve been so fond of in this series. I’m well aware that open world games can’t look quite as good as their linear counterparts, but there’s really no excuse for such unrealistic-looking H2O these days.
These are all very minor issues, however. In most cases, they’ll go unnoticed, and they can’t take away from the fact that the game is beautiful. From the dynamically moving foliage, to the fact that, when it rains, it very nearly looks real, to the rays of sunlight streaming through the canopy of the trees and the sails of the Jackdaw as you sail off into one of the stunning sunsets. All of it comes together to make Black Flag a feast for the eyes — and certainly the best-looking Assassin’s Creed entry yet.
Here’s the thing, though: as good as Black Flag looks, it’s a bad-looking next-gen game. It’s come right at the beginning of this new generation, and, what’s more, it’s a cross-generation title — visually throttled by the fact that it still has to run on last-gen hardware, albeit with some of the bells and whistles removed. Visually, things are only going to get better, and I truly can’t wait to see what’s to come.
Backing up this impressive presentation is Black Flag’s soundtrack — provided by Brian Tyler. It’s largely forgettable, but there are moments of brilliance in there. The main theme is one of them. It’s probably the best since Jesper Kyd’s phenomenal Ezio’s Family of Assassin’s Creed II. Other stand-out tracks include The Fortune of Edward Kenway, In This World or the One Below, The Ends of the Earth, and The Buccaneers. There’s also a small section close to the middle of Pyrates Beware that’s good and rousing when engaging in some piratical combat on the high seas.
As far as gameplay is concerned, if you’ve played Assassin’s Creed III, you already know how to play Black Flag, by and large. There have been small tweaks here and there, specifically in regards to the naval combat, but nothing drastic. I’ve never really understood some of the hate out there for Assassin’s Creed’s controls. People complain they’re too easy, but if they were as complicated some seem to want them to be, then you’d probably have a hard time feeling like the badass Assassin the games want you to become.
There are nowhere near as much issues with the gameplay as there were last time around, but there are still some. Enemies will occasionally spawn out of nowhere, right in front of you, obliterating any attempts at stealth and utterly ruining those missions where being stealthy is a requirement. And even when you choose to run in, guns ablaze, with the intention of ending anyone foolish enough to attack you, Edward will sometimes ignore your commands to attack, and just stand there while he’s shot and hacked to death.
Objective prompts can fail to appear, even when, according to the map, you’re standing right on top of them. Often the sound effects for combat are completely out of sync, which can be frustrating. The game freezes, too, and though this doesn’t happen very often, it does so enough to annoy. There also seem to be issues with Ubisoft’s servers — the connection will drop, and upon being reestablished, freeze the game, necessitating a complete restart.
I’m not sure if this next issue was just me being incredibly unobservant or not, but I’m a completionist. Games I enjoy, I like to complete to 100%. In recent Assassin’s Creed titles, this necessitates completing a number of optional objectives in the main story missions. The thing is, Black Flag isn’t very good at telling you what they are. Or, at least, it doesn’t display them prominently enough. They’re shown for a brief moment in the bottom left corner of the screen, and then they’re gone — consigned to the Options screen. There were a few times that I came to the end of a particularly challenging mission, only to be slapped in the face by the fact that I hadn’t achieved full sync. Cue mission replay.
Surprisingly enjoyable additions to the gameplay are the underwater sections, accessed via the Jackdaw’s diving bell. I loved everything about them, and they’re just one of the frankly ridiculous amount of things to do in Black Flag. From plumbing the depths of the ocean for sunken goodies, to treasure hunting via co-ordinate-based, X marks the spot maps, or just letting loose and engaging in speck of honest pirating. Despite the fact that he comes from an entirely separate franchise, Mr. Gibbs would be proud.
Also enjoyable — when you get the hang of it — is Kenway’s Fleet, an internet-requiring (shame on you, Ubisoft) minigame in which you free up trade routes and send off ships you’ve recruited to your fleet in the main game on various cargo transporting voyages in order to gain money and various other boons.
There is, however, an issue wth this: it should be totally optional, and yet there are three treasure maps required for getting 100%, various goodies to customise the Jackdaw and your hideout, and a number of Abstergo Challenges associated with it. This, coupled with the fact that a few of the voyages take an obscene amount of time — some of them requiring twenty-four real-world hours — give it the potential to be a truly tedious pain in the gluteus maximus.
As far as the modern-day stuff goes, it’s not bad. Certainly it’s a massive improvement on the head desk-inducing Subject 16 puzzles from Assassin’s Creed II and Brotherhood, and there are some interesting bits of information to be unearthed if you give the puzzles a go — one of the most disturbing revelations being what happened to Desmond’s body after the events of the end of Assassin’s Creed III. I’ve never really gotten the hate for Desmond out there. Yes, he never came across as badass as some of the other Assassins, but if you took the time to play through the Desmond’s Journey sections of Revelations, it was revealed that he actually did have some depth to him.
It’s ironic that the first game not to feature Desmond provides some of the most illuminating information about him. The fate of his remains isn’t the only thing to be discovered at Abstergo — there’s also various stuff they pulled from his phone, which only goes to strengthen his character further. I think, if it were closer to the surface, there’d be a lot more love for Mr. Miles out there.
As for Black Flag’s story, while it’s interesting enough, it’s only so in a rather vague way. A fair amount of it is forgettable — it never really draws you in until the final few sequences, and even then its grip isn’t particularly tight, which is a genuine shame, because Edward Kenway is a gigantic, enormous, titanic (and all other assorted collections of letters meaning ‘big’) improvement over his downright unlikeable grandson.
The main story can be summed up thusly: rogue desiring to set himself up as a ‘man of means and quality’ sets out to make his fortune, stumbles into a Templar scheme, tries to twist it to his advantage, stumbles into an Assassin scheme, tries to twist that to his advantage, too, but, finally, after a long time, realises what an idiot he’s being and sets out to redeem himself. The end. That’s about it. Whatever redemption Edward found takes places after the credits roll.
I can’t help but feel that this somewhat thin narrative is a direct response to complaints about the previous Assassin’s Creed games’ plots being too convoluted, which I don’t agree with. I think a lot of people — but by no means all, of course — complaining just want to play a game without having to think about it that much, which is fair enough. To each their own. But it’s a shame, because as I mentioned before, Edward is more than interesting enough to warrant a long, rich story. His various cohorts, too, are fun and interesting — people like Edward ‘We’re celebratin’ my retirement!’ Thatch, and Ma… er… sorry… James Kidd.
It’s unfortunate, therefore, that we really don’t get to spend all that much time with any of them. Still, we do get enough to engender a genuine feeling of melancholy as the freedom-loving pirates, despicable though some of them were, start to disappear as the story marches on, the close of the aforementioned Mary’s story being particularly depressing.
There’s a lovely, rose-tinted moment at the end when Edward sees them all again, while Anne Bonny sings a reflection-inducing song in the background. Unfortunately, any warm feelings this brings are immediately shot to pieces by the epilogue at the opera. If you know your Assassin’s Creed lore, then you cannot help but feel sad to see Edward there, older, happier — not knowing that his life has almost run its course, or that little Haytham Kenway will grow up to be a Templar.
All that said, however, there are — for me — two glaring negatives to Black Flag, the first of which is its multiplayer. I’ve just never been a fan of Assassin’s Creed’s multiplayer, and, if that was my sole issue with it, then I’d happily ignore it. But it’s not. My problem lies in the fact that, yet again, there are Trophies tied to it, and some of the requirements for attaining them are downright ridiculous.
As far as multiplayer Trophies are concerned, Naughty Dog hit the proverbial nail on the head with those for Uncharted 2 and Uncharted 3. Complete one competitive multiplayer game. Complete one cooperative multiplayer game. Sorted. Black Flag, however, takes a different approach. Admittedly, three of the five Trophies are fairly straightforward. The other two however…
Play on every game mode, and use every ability and ranged weapon once in multiplayer, and, to cap it all, Reach Level 55 in multiplayer.
Level. Fifty. Five.
There are players out there who will love Black Flag’s multiplayer, and they should be rewarded for their dedication to it, but I wish the developers would stop tying Trophies to it. I don’t see why the aforementioned players couldn’t just unlock some rare goodies for their efforts instead.
Still, this is something that’ll probably only annoy completionists like myself, and it has no bearing whatsoever on the main aspect of the game — the single-player campaign.
As for the second negative, and by far the worst of the two… the mini-games. I thought I’d seen the back of these nightmares from the pits of Hell, Tartarus and every other possibly fictional underworld after finally managing to get the Original Gamer Trophy from Assassin’s Creed III. But no. They’re back. Checkers, Nine Men’s Morris, and Fanorona.
I can’t tell you how much I hated them, but my real issue is basically the same as the one I have with the multiplayer. It would be fine if they were just there as something on the side, for those who enjoy them, but — yet again — they have rewards associated with them. It’s not a Trophy this time round, but various Abstergo Challenges, which, completion-wise, are just as important.
So, there it is. It’s unfortunate that, on paper — or screen — a game I genuinely enjoyed seems to have more negatives than it does positives, but the actual playing of Black Flag proves that this is not so. The difference between Assassin’s Creed IV and the game that came before is that, on those occasions when it does screw up, you want to forgive it — because, when it works, it’s excellent.
When Black Flag was announced so soon after III — box art and all — I immediately assumed that it was going to be just as disappointing. I’m happy to have been proven wrong. They say you can’t judge a book by its cover. Well, it turns out that you can’t judge a game by its box art either.