on 10 May 2014
The latest instalment in the Assassins Creed franchise appears to be splitting opinion. Some people love the pirating direction the series appears to have taken, others appear to rue the gradual watering down of the primary role of the Assassin.
In a game titled Assassin's Creed, they have a point. But there's no denying that on the evidence of AC3, the game and its themes were growing stale.
Connor was a dreadful character; in my opinion largely down to appalling voice acting, and the game as a whole was frankly not a lot of fun to play. Far too many annoying optional objectives in every single mission made progression a chore - sure, you can argue that as these were optional, there was no requirement to fulfill them. But nobody wants to feel punished with a big red cross on their screen just because they didn't play the memory in the ridiculous linear fashion some dim developer devised.
Don't get me wrong - optional objectives are still around in Black Flag - but nowhere near as many as there were in AC3, where you would have a minimum of 3 per mission, all of which had to be completed in one exceedingly dull playthrough. The ones in Black Flag are much more in line with a gamer's approach to the mission; they're not outlandish and petty, and if you choose not to complete them, or fail them, you are not told off for doing so by having a big red cross flashed in your face. The objective simply disappears from the menu and you can forget about it if you so wish.
With that as a prime example, in Black Flag, Ubisoft have corrected the fundamental flaws of AC3 and built on one of the few redeeming aspects of its predecessor: the naval battles.
Now I'll be honest. I didn't particularly enjoy the naval battles in AC3. Again, optional objectives. My memories of playing those missions aboard the Aquila are tainted by recollections of repeatedly playing a certain privateer mission in a pathetic attempt to meet the absurd requirements to reach 100% sync.
The thing with Black Flag's naval combat is, it is quite simply just fun. I have spent many hours simply roaming around on the open seas engaging ships in battle, all ultimately with an aim to stock up on valuable materials to improve my ship, but never feeling I was grinding whilst doing so. The Jackdaw's controls are vastly improved over AC3's comparatively clunky and unresponsive Aquila, making the whole experience far less frustrating and allowing greater freedom of choice as to how you engage your opponents at sea.
For all that battling ships is a major part of the game, there are still considerable hours devoted to land-based play. Your classic AC missions are all here - albeit with a few too many "follow him", "eavesdrop on them" missions for this reviewer's patience - and there are a small number of pure platforming/free running sections for the traditionalists. Whilst the latter is lacking, and the absence of any puzzles is sure to disappoint fans of the wonderful tomb sections of previous instalments, it didn't detract too much from my enjoyment of the game.
There are still faults, of course. The stealth mechanics are so simplistic and the AI equally so, that it does become a source of amusement as you progress. It's far too easy to sit in thin shrubbery, in plain sight of anyone within half a mile, and get away with murder (literally), whilst a guard stares directly at you and his swiftly falling comrade without batting an eyelid. Guards respond to whistles with an almost adorable childish inquisition; and once you realise how incredibly gullible they are, you will rarely use any other means of distraction to lure guards to their inevitable death.
With the Desmond storyline dead and buried (at long last), the "present day" sequences of the game see you play the role of a faceless employee at the Abstergo Entertainments offices, in a permanent state of first-person view. Now, emulating an office job in a video game probably doesn't fill you with excitement, and I sometimes felt the game could have existed quite happily without any present day activities at all, but there's lots of self-referencing humour and easter eggs lying around in these sequences to keep you engaged
One of the main plus points about Black Flag is the sheer size of it. There is around 80 hours of gameplay available here if you so wish to take advantage of it. Scores of islands, harbours, jungles, underwater shipwrecks, whaling opportunities, and of course a handful of towns and cities, complete with tall buildings to scale and rooftops to hop across. This has never really got old for me and in a way, I wish there were more of these bustling hives of activity, instead of the dozens of islands and coves that start to look the same after a while. That said, the pleasure of reaching a synchronisation point and seeing the view from above is enough to warrant their inclusion.
The graphics are stunning, by the way. The open seas have never looked better in any game, ever, and the lighting effects of a setting sun over Havana are simply beautiful. Even the pouring rain looks gorgeous as the individual splashes of rain pound against the wooden floor of your ship. Now, I haven't played the PS3 version, but the last 3 Assassins Creeds on that console suffered from a very poor framerate, so I'd be surprised if there was any significant improvement in the PS3 version of Black Flag. On the PS4, it's as fluid and smooth as you could hope for.
To wrap up, having suffered from tepid, stale, run-of-the-mill annual releases for two or three years now, Black Flag is the injection of life and freshness that the series desperately needed. This is undoubtedly the best Assassins Creed since AC2. If that doesn't convince you to buy it, nothing will.