For all it's solid writing, beautiful locations and love of history, the Assassin's Creed series has always been mired by bad controls. Ostensibly, these are games about discretion and sneak-thievery, where you're supposed to complete objectives with as little bloodshed as possible. The clue is in the title. You're an assassin. You play a character who's been trained to kill quietly and escape without being noticed.
But when you actually pick the thing up - when you start playing with the free-running and the melee combat - you find yourself climbing up walls you didn't mean to and throwing punches that weren't intended. The level design is hardly conducive to stealth either. Particularly in Assassin's Creed 3, you'll be presented with huge, empty areas, packed with guards who follow irregular patrol routes. Since movement is so awkward, and since there's no button that lets you snap into cover, like in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, it's almost impossible to not get seen.
If you do want to pass unnoticed, it means a lot of trial and error - a lot of cheating to find exploits in the guard AI. It's easier, and much more stylish, to just barrel in and kill everyone. You know, like a real assassin wouldn't.
Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag addresses a lot of these problems.
Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag Review
It's not the best thing about the game - the story and naval combat are the real stars here - but one of the first things I noticed was how, for the first time in Creed, sneaking felt like a viable option. The stealth sections are dotted with more hidey-holes than ever and the guards have undergone a wee lobotomy, reducing how far they can see and slowing down the time between when they spot you and when they sound the alarm. Fans of realism might bemoan this kind of artifice; they might prefer the so-called "challenge" of stop/start, frustrating stealth.
But for me, Black Flag plays better than any Creed game to date. And that's just on land.
The main draw here is of course the naval gameplay, which has been significantly improved and expanded on since AC 3.
In Black Flag you play Edward Kenway, an 18th-century pirate operating on the seas of South America. Using your ship the Jackdaw, you're free to roam the game's open-world, sailing between main ports like Havana and Nassau, and charting small, undiscovered islands. You can also use the 'Daw to sink merchant vessels and steal their wares. Items like metal and wood can be re-appropriated into better cannons for your ship while rum and sugar can be traded in exchange for gold.
And Black Flag always makes sure you're just slightly under-supplied. Whatever it is you want to buy, you never quite have enough coin, or wood, or metal to put it together, so you have to hit the seas and be all pirately in order to save up.
Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag Review
It's neatly put together. Where the optional distractions in Assassin's Creed 3 were mostly pointless, with every ounce of plunder claimed in Black Flag, you feel like you're working towards something. Kenway wants to be the best pirate there is - he wants to cobble together enough money to set him and his wife up for retirement. Whenever you go out a-pillagin' the seas, you feel like you're doing it for a reason. It's a solid mix of writing and gameplay.
Where I could never understand why Connor would be interested in hunting or courier work or whatever, in Black Flag, all the free-roam prattling about I do still feels true to Kenway's character. ]
In a world this big, that kind of cohesion is one hell of an achievement.
Not slick but razor sharp
One complaint about the naval combat. It's a bit slick. In Assassin's 3 the ship handled like, well, like a big ship, and when you wanted to fire a broadside you had to wait for the cannons to be loaded up. In Black Flag, it all feels a bit more nimble and quicker. Your ship has a smaller turn circle and weapons are much easier to use. There's none of the sound design either. In 3, I remember the terrifying sounds of splintering wood and clanking metal, my crew shouting "down, down! Chain shot!" That doesn't seem to happen in Black Flag. It's much cleaner.
I guess, like the stealth gameplay I mentioned earlier, boating in Black Flag has been tuned and tweaked to make it more approachable. But I miss feeling out of breath whenever a naval battle ended. It felt appropriate.
Regardless, the writing in Black Flag is razor sharp, not just in terms of big picture stuff, but individual scenes. The dialogue really pops. There's all this lovely maritime idiolect, like when you overhear the captain of a guard outpost warning his men to "keep their eyes wide." And when the pirates speak to each other, it's not in "g'arghs" or swearwords. It's very terse and business-like - their story beats are subtle.
Like with The Last of Us, you can extract a whole lot about Black Flag's characters from just a few lines of dialogue. It's very smart and clearly written by people who understand that less is more.
And it dispenses with a lot of the tired Assassin's Creed cliches. The centuries-long war between the Assassins and the Templars, which has always been the narrative backbone of Creed games, takes a back seat here, and the game is more interesting for it. Kenway is more interested in treasure and pirating than secret societies, and you're drawn to him as a result. He's not an impervious hero out to save the world - he's a guy trying to make a living. That's a more fascinating character.
Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag Review
The dual narrative future thing is still present, sadly, but handled much better than before. This time, you play an employee of Abstergo Entertainment, a Templar front company which is trawling Desmond Miles's genetic memories and using them as the basis for films and videogames. It's an original premise, wacky and meta enough to hold your attention while you wait to get back to pirating. I still think Creed could do without this split narrative thing, but at least here it's shorter and sweeter.
Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag is a superb game.
It manages to be bigger than any of its predecessors without feeling bloated or overproduced. Each staple Assassin's Creed mechanic has been developed and refined, and the narrative - slow, melancholic and comparatively low-concept when paired with other Creed games - is excellently done. 900 people worked on Black Flag, but it's so tight and consistent that you'd never know it. In a series that's become synonymous with feature creep and unnecessary additions, that's very, very impressive.
Gameplay: 9/10 - Given the enormous amount of things to do in Black Flag, it's remarkable how neatly they all click together. Stealth and combat is better. It's a just a shame the naval fights got subsidised in the process.
Sound: 8/10 - Great voice acting across the board. I miss the scary sounds in boat combat, though, and the music is standard orchestral fare.
Graphics: 8/10 - A beautiful game, let down by a few bugs here and there. The ships and the oceans look fantastic.
Writing: 8/10 - Really smart, understated and different. So glad they sidelined the whole Assassins v. Templars conflict. Even the Abstergo split narrative thing is done well this time around. It's just a shame it wasn't axed entirely.
Replay value: 10/10 - Bore straight through the main story or spend months finding the collectibles and finishing the side missions. Up to you.
Overall: 8/10 - A polished, different take on the Assassin's Creed series that makes a lot of smart decisions.
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