A Mid-Playthrough Review of Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag
There seem to be two kinds of game reviews on the internet: the launch day “I threw a review together after spending 10 frantic hours in-game,” and the week-after-launch “I hustled my way through the game so that I could tell you all about it.” This is neither.
Maybe I’m just a crappy reviewer. I accept that. Maybe I just don’t tend to have the money on launch day, and my free time is limited. I’m less happy about that. I like to think that the real reason, however, is that I like to take my time with a game and enjoy what it has to offer before I solidify my opinion on it. I’ve done just that with Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag.
I’ll tell you right off that I’m not done the game. In fact, I’m only at 41%, if I remember correctly. That said, I’ve probably spent about 40 hours on the game already, and I would be surprised if that total doesn’t double by the time I’m finished and move on to the DLC.
The first and most important question for a perspective purchaser is: “did you enjoy the naval combat from Assassin’s Creed 3?”
If the answer is “no” then DO NOT BUY THIS GAME.
Yes, your character does spend a chunk of time in his traditional role as an assassin, as well as performing some of the hunting/gathering kind of quests introduced in ACIII. However, the majority of your time will likely be at the helm of your ship, the Jackdaw, exploring, plundering, and taking on His & Her Majesty’s (OK, multiple kingdoms, really) Fleet. Your upgrades will focus almost entirely on your ship: improving its armor, adding or improving cannons (and mortars, and swivels), buying better shot, and increasing its storage capacity. You will take on progressively tougher ships and naval watchtowers, making the seas safer for you and your fellow pirates, and opening up new areas to acquire swag.
Honestly, after a while I found that I was delaying the main missions more and more for “just one more” ship battle. While they are certainly repetitive by nature, there’s a thrill involved in pirating enough booty to upgrade to the next level of mortars or cannons. That and you get to use awesome phrases like “pirating enough booty.”
I’ll admit that, in many ways, Black Flag feels more like a re-skinning and re-purposing of ACIII. There is no clear engine change either on land or on ship. Combat is essentially unchanged, though there are some minor variances in gear—blowpipes with sleep or beserk darts make up the silent, ranged weapons, for example. I did appreciate the ability to upgrade holsters and carry four guns, which is rather handy when using single-shot weapons. Outfits and personal upgrades (such as additional holsters) can be crafted by the player using materials obtained through hunting, justifying the inclusion of ACIII’s hunting platform.
There is one new form of “hunting,” however, in the form of whaling. The player will find certain locations where marine animals, including a small variety of whales, killer whales, and sharks, can be hunted from a smaller boat. The action portion consists of throwing harpoons at the animal, the first of which will tether it with a rope. After a short interval, the animal will generally break the rope and charge the boat. This repeats until the boat runs out of “health” and a retreat is sounded, or until the animal dies.
I won’t lie, and my wording may have given it away already: I’m not a huge fan of the whaling component. It seems that while I thoroughly enjoy killing digital humans, and sinking digital ships, I have some form of moral issue with killing innocent digital fish (and marine mammals). Even the on-land hunting component of the game doesn’t feel as brutal—it’s generally quick and painless, or in response to an animal trying to eat you. I get why the mini-game is there, and it makes good sense for the time and situation; I just don’t like it.
I am a somewhat bigger fan of the undersea portion of the game that has been added. At a certain point in the story, Kenway can purchase a diving bell, which allows him to retrieve sunken treasure from undersea wreckage. Of course, nothing is quite as easy as it sounds; sharks, eels, and jellyfish abound, and Kenway is both unarmoured and weaponless. The entire effort tends to alternate between hiding in the seaweed and swimming like hell…but it’s still pretty entertaining.
The Black Flag storyline is reasonably enjoyable, focusing on the character of Edward Kenway, a privateer turned pirate that takes the Assassin’s garb from a man he murders. He briefly finds himself mixed up in a plot with the Templars, before being found and confronted by the Assassins, who try to convince him to join their side.
I can’t tell you how it ends (I’m not there yet), nor should I. There’s no point in me ruining the story. I will say, though, that the minor parts of the story that actually focus on Kenway and the love he left behind when he became a privateer are a little…lackluster. I rarely felt any real connection with Kenway as a character…but maybe pirates are just less lovable than your average Assassin.
Speaking of less lovable, I’m very ready for Ubisoft to do away with the whole frame narrative business. Any of you that played the previous ACs will remember the debacle that was Desmond Miles’ story. After the way that ended, I couldn’t be less interested in a frame narrative requiring me to pop out of the Animus and wander around the “real” world. Black Flag doesn’t do itself any favours in that department, anyway. The character you play in the real world is virtually featureless; I’ll give Ubisoft some credit and assume that the idea was that without a character, the player would feel that they were the character…but it doesn’t work. I don’t feel any connection to the faceless “programmer” that has joined the Abstergo Entertainment team, and every time the game forces me to come out of the Animus and wander around like an idiot, I take it a little more personally. Please, Ubisoft: just knock it off, and let the frame narrative die. You could introduce each installment as a new product from Abstergo, and just let us play around in the new surroundings. Boom. Done.
For all its flaws, Black Flag is still damned enjoyable, and I’m willing to live with some annoyances, and even a frame narrative, if I get to sail the high-seas and take on the British and Spanish naval armadas. In the couple of weeks since I began putting this article together, I’ve gone from 41% to 62% completion, and I’ve got only a handful of upgrades left on my boat, or for Kenway himself. In fact, I think the main reason that I kept going with the missions was to gain access to the final Mayan Steele, which unlocks a new set of Mayan armour for the character…What can I say? I’m a fashionable man.
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is available from Amazon
Please check out my Amazon store, as well: My Store . Full Disclosure: anything you order from either the link or the store will give me a very small kickback, which may help me buy my own copies of games to review in the future.
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