Saturday, 13 May 2017

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag

Post-Launch Review
Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag (PC)
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Released: October 2013
Played: 100% sync in 60h; 100% both DLC in 10h


Play as Edward Kenway, the grandfather of Assassin's Creed III hero. Edward travels to the Caribbean to seek glory and fortune as a pirate, building up his ship, his crew, and his legend. He stumbles into the struggle between the Assassins and Templars, in a race for the mysterious, powerful artifact called the Lighthouse - which Edward is sure he can sell for more wealth than he could ever want.

At Launch

ACIV was well received, earning average review scores of 88%. Critics praised the open-world Caribbean sea, load-screen-free transitions from open sea to island exploration or boarding ships, the visuals, the naval gameplay, and interesting side quests. The game was generally praised as superior to ACIII, addressing most of the issues with its predecessor, especially with well-written characters, better pacing and shorter tutorial, and lots of freedom in approaching objectives. The main story was the most criticized element with complaints of repetitive and annoying mission formats.

Post Launch

Several cosmetic packs were made available for both single player and multiplayer.
The Aveline mission pack adds a short sequence of standalone missions where AC:Liberation hero Aveline attempts to recruit a potential Assassin on Connor's request.
The Freedom Cry pack, set 15 years after the ending of the main game, is the story of (now former) Jackdaw quartermaster Adéwalé's time in Port-Au-Prince helping brutalized slaves fight back against the oppressive French governor. There's a small new open world and new side mission types.
The game of the year edition includes all DLC content. Notably, the GotY and digital deluxe editions are the only way to get the Aveline DLC on PC. Some DLC packs are not available on WiiU.


I'd been itching to play Black Flag for some time. The main thing I'd heard about it was that it's an excellent pirate game and a poor Assassin's Creed game, and should have been standalone outside of the AC series. I don't agree - but I'll come back to that later.

I really enjoyed ACIII, and Black Flag greatly expands on the naval content, which was one of the best parts of that game. The Caribbean open world is fantastic, with tons of islands to explore and plenty to discover. And it looks great: the open sea and water effects are amazing, especially the translucency of the waves and the effects of big storms on your ship. The expansion on naval combat - boarding ships and capturing forts - add a lot to the experience, and pirating for upgrade resources and fleet additions is satisfyingly rewarding.
Two things in particular stood out to me about sailing the seas. The unlockable sea shanties just drip with atmosphere and provide a great soundtrack for sailing. Great old-timey equivalent to the radio stations in other open-world games. I also loved the treasure maps, both from a thematic standpoint - it's a pirate game, of course you need treasure maps - but also puzzling out the location of the X and digging up neat rewards like upgrade or customization blueprints.

The side missions and exploration content are neat, offering a lot of interesting secondary stories and a lot of freedom in how to approach your objective. Some of the AC games try to force a particular method or route on you, either through the objective itself or the level design, but these are more of the classic "this guy is over there, kill him however you want". The completion rewards all feel useful and worthwhile. I didn't like the animus fragment collection, though - didn't fit into the world and they do literally nothing other than tick up your completion percentage.

The main criticism of Black Flag was crappy main story missions. I understand that complaint in one respect - there were a lot of the same mission types, especially what felt like way too many fiddly escort and eavesdrop objectives, and more predefined routes and less freedom than in the side missions. 

But I loved the story. I kind of expected a romanticized "piracy is awesome" adventure romp, full of over-the-top characters blustering and laughing about plunder and wenches - and I did get some of that, but also so much more. Edward spends so long driven only by his hunger for wealth and freedom, lacking any ideals or goals beyond those, that he watches his world and his friends fall apart and away over and over again. Sure, the story plays up the delights and debaucheries of freedom from imperial rule, but it also doesn't shy away from the consequences, losses, and betrayals of life among people driven only by their base desires.

A lot of people complained that Black Flag should've been a standalone pirate game with no ties to the Assassin's Creed series. I couldn't disagree more. Having completed every other AC game up to this point, the focus has always been on the moral and ideological war between the Assassins and Templars. It's very refreshing to shift the spotlight to an outsider drawn into the feud by the scent of profit - it's a very different perspective, and exploring it from different angles humanizes the characters outside and inside the struggle.

Oh, the modern day stuff. It's kind of crap. It mostly sows a lot of seeds for future games, and attempts to tie up loose ends and provide closure for the jarring end to Desmond's story in ACIII, but since it's all text and audio logs and vague references, it doesn't do much. I guess you get some mildly intriguing looks at the Templar's operations from a different angle than in previous games, but it's a little too meta - oh, look, Abstergo is developing video games from ancestral memories obtained in the Animus, isn't that cute. (not really)

The DLC missions are okay. Aveline is super short and linear, which feels weird for an AC game. They're not bad, but feel very tacked on and insignificant. Great, Aveline recruited a new Assassin, why is this worthy of a whole level pack other than profiting off a popular character?

Freedom Cry is better, but still feels kind of on-the-nose with its heavy-handed "slavery is bad" elements. To be fair, the story is more complex than that - there's some debate of the morality and consequences of small-scale rebellion in a world where slavery is so deeply and brutally ingrained. But really, there were so many other options for an Adéwalé story, particularly where Adé came from or happened in the long time gap where Edward was imprisoned and Adé joined the Assassins and captained the Jackdaw. The two new mission types are interesting, though - liberating plantations and slave ships - since they add consequences for failure or screwups that don't have a major effect on gameplay but do a good job of making me feel guilty. Get spotted killing overseers on the plantation? The others start killing slaves. 

Overall, Black Flag is excellent. I was very pleasantly surprised with the melancholic and brutally realistic looks at pirate life, and they were well balanced with the joys of freedom and exploring and plundering. Treasure maps and sea shanties were the standout features, but I also enjoyed the variety of side stories and the gorgeous open sea. This game is worth playing even if you're not into the Assassin's Creed series.

Recommendation: play it.

No comments:

Post a Comment