Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Release Date: October 29th, 2013 (most versions), November 15th, 2013 (Ps4), November 19th, 2013 (PC), November 22nd, 2013 (One)
Available on: Playstation 3, Playstation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Nintendo Wii U, PC
Reviewer’s note: I played the Playstation 4 version of this game. There may be differences between versions.
Assassin’s Creed is one of the biggest series in gaming right now. After Assassin’s Creed III was seen as a bit of a disappointment by fans, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag takes the best elements of the third entry and combines it with the best of the others. The result is probably the best game in the Assassin’s Creed series to date.
You’ll be spending the game as Edward Kenway, father to Assassin’s Creed III character Haythem. Set in the 18th century in the Caribbeans, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is all about pirates. Edward is out to do little more than make money for himself and harass the British and Spanish for more gold. Interestingly enough, Edward isn’t even an Assassin. At the beginning of the game he kills one and just takes his equipment because he finds it useful. He only gets mixed up in the conflict between Templars and Assassins by chance. Edward is probably the most interesting of the main characters present in the games so far, offering a view separated from the two factions. The story itself is interesting, as Edward attempts to both set up a place for pirates to be free from various nations while hunting down a place called the Observatory that is rumored to allow someone to view the location of anyone in the world. Unlike the past Assassin’s Creed games, Black Flag is a lot more willing to play up the light science fiction elements and it does help the game. Likewise the use of real pirates makes things interesting. It’s not super historically accurate, but it gives the basic ideas and can give you the desire to look further into the era.
The real problem with the plot is when the game jumps back to present day. The present day story has pretty much lost all coherence, with a lot of the plot points just kind of happening and not making much sense. The good news is that it’s not nearly as intrusive as the last few games, but it’s still there and every time I got pulled into the present day levels I found myself groaning. The basic premise is that you’re a worker for Abstergo Entertainment (The same company behind the Playstation Vita exclusive Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation) who’s trying to make a video game about pirates. So you go through the memories of Edward Kenway to learn more about them and use it for your game. If this sounds like it’s heavily leaning on the fourth wall, well… it is. It’s really awkward and feels like it the present day plot finally just took the step into crazy territory.
The gameplay is a whole different story. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is a meaty game. There’s tons of stuff you can do. The game is pretty much broken into two different segments: being on land and being out at sea. The land gameplay is pretty much the classic Assassin’s Creed formula. You have a large array of parkor moves to climb over every building and tree to reach high points so you can stalk enemies. Likewise, you can hide in tall grass, bushes, hay stacks, and inside certain objects to avoid enemies. Stealth plays a bigger role in this game than the past few Assassin’s Creed games, though it’s rarely outright required. Edward is more than capable when he gets into a fight though. Countering and attacking enemies is still an important ability to master in the combat. You can also chain kills together as long as you can avoid getting hit. Some enemies require a little planning to kill though. Brutes can’t be counter attacked or attacked head on, so you need to break their defenses first so you can get around to their back. Captains can’t be hurt at all unless you counter attack them first.
There have been some improvements made to some of the smaller aspects of the ground combat as well. Guns play a bigger role in this entry, so the aiming system has been greatly improved. You no longer have to put up with the awkward highlight aiming from Assassin’s Creed III, instead just getting an over the shoulder aiming view like you’d expect from a more modern game. Pistols feel a bit over powered thanks to their ability to kill any enemy (sometimes two!) with a single shot, but they have a long reload to balance this out. The blowgun returns from Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation, offering a stealthy way to either put enemies to sleep or infect them with poison often without leaving a hiding spot. Likewise, the game also features the return of the rope darts from Assassin’s Creed III though you only get them very late into the game so there’s not much use for them. If everything starts to go wrong and you need to make a quick escape, the smoke bomb returns as well. I’d say the biggest downside to all these returning weapons is that Edward doesn’t really get anything unique. Maybe with the exception of his excess of pistols, Edward feels like the most under equipped and unoriginal assassin to date.
The other big part of the game is the sea combat, and oh man is this really a departure from the rest of the series. While Assassin’s Creed III featured it as a side activity, Assassin’s Creed IV really fleshes out and expands the ship combat. Early on Edward obtains a ship and you have the ability to upgrade it with new guns and armor. You then use it to explore the open world and to battle other ships. Ship combat is extremely smooth, letting you fire your cannons simply by looking the right way and holding down a button. You can unlock long ranged and shot range specialty weapons that you can use to help deal with various situations. Once you’ve done enough damage to a ship you’re given the option to board it. Usually you’re giving a series of objectives on what to do from there, but after you board a ship you can either use it to repair your own ship, send it to Kenway’s fleet, or use it to lower your wanted level. Every ship you destroy or board gives you materials that you can use to purchase more upgrades for your ship.
The game’s main story mixes and matches the two segments with a good variety of missions. Beyond that each mission has two optional side objectives that you can try to earn. These objectives range from not using specific items, to not getting caught, to killing enemies in specific ways. They’re good for varying up how you play, but they’re not required to complete missions. The main story lasts a solid length. If I had to guess a number I’d say it probably took me about 15 hours just in story missions. Of course there’s far more than just the story missions to complete.
The two biggest side activities in Assassin’s Creed IV is Kenway’s Fleet and Templar Hunts. Kenway’s Fleet allows you to collect the ships you capture in the game and send them on trading missions to earn you more cash. It’s a bit like a light management sim requiring you to grab new ships and trade your five supplies for money. You also need to clear routes which requires you to send you ships out into combat. Combat plays out in turn-based fashion, though you don’t have any direct control over the action. It more lies in planning to make sure you have the right ships in the right spots to get away with as little damage as possible. It’s a fun distraction, but it’s something you’ll access once at best before having to wait for the 6+ hours for ships to return from their missions. It also feels like the money you gain is far too little which makes Kenway’s Fleet feel completely ignorable. Templar Hunts serve more as side stories. Each contains about 3-5 missions that make up a little story of Edward interacting with the Assassins. Upon completing one you get a key, and if you get all the keys you unlock a special costume for Edward. These are much better as they’re interactive and closer to the main story line in variety.
Of course, that’s not all the side stuff to do. There’s seven different kinds of collectables scattered around the Caribbeans for you to grab. You can go to ship wrecks and dive underwater to explore underwater segments. You can raid smuggler caves for extra supplies. You can destroy enemy forts to claim them as your own. You can complete assassination and navel contracts to earn extra cash. You can get treasure maps and follow them to find buried treasure. You can hunt land or sea animals to craft upgrades for Edward. You can fight the legendary ships and see if you can defeat the toughest enemies in the game. There’s so much to do in Assassin’s Creed IV that you can spend entire days not continuing the plot because between your current location and the plot location you found more things to do.
Every now and again you also get brought back to the present day for short segments there. These are played in first person and involve you hacking computers. Hacking computers has three types of mini games associated with them. The most common requires you to navigate around a sphere to find a specific never-ending line around it so you can break the sphere apart. The second mini game has you multiplying four different numbers to try and make a specific large one. And the last kind is pretty much a re-skin of Frogger. There’s no way to lose these minigames, so you don’t have to worry super hard about them. Just take your time and complete them at your own pace. Hacking computers gets you more information about the modern day plot, and ranges from everything from audio logs from the first Animus attempt, to the secretary’s dirty Edward Kenway fanfic (Yes I am serious about that.) There’s also collectable sticky notes if the collectables in the main games weren’t enough for you.
If all of that wasn’t enough the game also comes with a robust multiplayer offering. The multiplayer is broken into three modes: Adversarial, Game Labs, and Wolfpack. Adversarial serves as the competitive mode here. Up to 8 players have to try and outsmart each other by hiding in crowds and using traps to catch and assassinate other players. It’s clever and the lack of any kind of direct fighting means you have to actually think out and plan your movements. You can bring equipment like ranged weapons and special skills to help you with these tasks. It’s great fun and helps extend the life of the game past the already huge single player. Game Lab is similar, only it contains the ability to customize a bunch of aspects of the multiplayer. It’s not as robust as Killzone: Shadow Fall’s custom game modes, but it’s a nice little bonus.
The final mode, Wolfpack, is further broken into two smaller modes: Discovery and Unleashed. Discovery is more of a single player mode that is tied together by a “story” that simply teaches you how to play Unleashed. Unleashed has four players cooperate to try and take out different targets under a time limit. I quickly lost interest in this mode since not only is it on the really easy side, all four players pretty much just ran off to go do their own thing and we’d win with little to no effort. Sometimes the game throws special objectives like guarding treasure chests at you, but rarely does it require any kind of teamwork.
It should be noted that while there is one major difference between the versions. The Playstation versions have an extra mini-campaign tacked on to it. It continues the story of Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation and puts you back in the role of Aveline as she tries to recruit a woman named Patience. Unfortunately for fans of Aveline, nothing ever happens with this story. Aveline never develops, Patience is a pointless character, and when the main villain is named “Doctor Judge” I’m not sure if I should be taking this seriously or not. It also doesn’t do anything new. None of Aveline’s special weapons are present and none of the objectives are unique. The campaign is about an hour long and while it’s nice to have it’s ultimately pointless.
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag may just be the best Assassin’s Creed game to date. The game is heavy on content and contains a well done single player and multiplayer mode. If you’re a fan of the series you can’t miss this one, and if you’re not then this is the perfect jumping in point. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is not one to be missed.