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Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag review

AT A GLANCE
  • Beautiful, vast open world
  • Edward Kenway is an excellent rogue
  • Top-notch side-missions
  • Main missions suffer from repetition
  • Assassin's Creed lore has devolved to nonsense
  • Very few actual assassinations

Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag is an incredible pirate adventure. No other game in memory--the mighty Sid Meier’s Pirates included--slides you so snugly into the boots of a brash buccaneer and demands that you collect booty with as much stylish aggression. As I steer salty protagonist Edward Kenway through rum-soaked debauchery, hunting for treasure, and brawling with drunken sailors at bars, I gently hum “What will we do with the drunken sailor” to myself, and feel a keen urge to refer to my colleagues as ‘wench’ or ‘matey’. That’s the strength of Black Flag’s incredible world. Ironically, it’s the actual ‘Assassin’s Creed’ elements--series legacy moments--that prove rough sailing in an otherwise enjoyable voyage.

First off, allow me to introduce Edward Kenway. He’s the father of Haytham Kenway (badass), and grandfather of Connor (dullard)--both stars of Assassin’s Creed 3. There’s a whiff of Han Solo to Edward, which makes him both more interesting and likeable than the rest of his family. His self-serving pirate persona is like a breath of fresh air, cutting through the furrowed-brow of previous games. To avoid spoilers, all I’ll say is that Edward’s naïve avarice gets him involved with the series-long Assassin’s vs Templar conflict, which revolves around the search for a mysterious place called The Observatory.

However, with Black Flag the joy is in the journey, not the destination; The Observatory that your virtual contemporaries bang-on about feels little more than a Macguffin. The game’s virtual Caribbean is enormous, yet very detailed. It dwarfs GTA 5’s play area and offers vibrant, colourful views from every synchronisation point. And while it isn’t a next-gen game that offers a huge visual upgrade from PS3 and 360, it’s a beautiful place to explore. The sea in particular, looks spectacular; especially when fierce storms send huge swells to buffet your ship, the Jackdaw, and the spray lashes your men who busy themselves on deck. (At this point, please note how difficult it was for me to write a ‘salty seamen’ joke right here. Ahem). On land, lush foliage shuffles as you wade through, and trees sway naturally in high-winds. The next-gen devil is in the superb detail, rather than visual wow moments.

The vibrancy of the world is key to Black Flag’s appeal. There’s so much to do here--the main story lasts around 20 hours, and side-quests easily occupy another 20--so it’s essential that you enjoy hopping between the game’s islands and exploring its cities. Each city area has a distinct feel--Havana is a maze of very Spanish, terracotta-roof houses, while Nassau is a more randomly-planned, ramshackle pirate town. Kingston is typical colonial era British. They’re all a welcome change from the dour streets of AC3’s Boston and New York. Don’t enjoy being a pirate? GTFO, land-lubber.

When you’re not exploring cities, searching for Sea Shanties (hard fact, you haven’t experienced the full majesty of Black Flag until you’ve heard every shanty) and looting chests, you spend around 40 percent of the game at sea, in the Jackdaw. The balance feels spot-on. There’s a wide variety of interesting naval activities to complete too, the highlight of which are the naval fortresses. These are like boss battles--you pound them from sea with your cannons and mortars before swimming ashore to kill the fort captain and claim the place as your own. This then unfogs areas of the map for you to explore. Each fort has a unique ‘defence mechanism’ (one is constantly buffeted by rogue waves, that damage your ship), so working out how to smash them is a welcome test of skill.

Next-gen assassins

I played through AC4 on PS4, but had a chance to try the final PS3/360 versions. On current-gen the game looks beautiful, and even the amazing wave effects are comparable across formats. There’s a loss of vibrancy in the textures, so PS3’s lush jungles and azure seas aren’t quite as deep and colourful, and the environments don’t feel as alive because the detailed foliage effects are exclusive to next-gen. So, the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions are technically fantastic--they push the respective hardware to their limits. But they do lack detail and polish.

Most of the other collectables just appear on your map, which means that finding them requires time, rather than actual skill or smarts. Love a good grind? You’ll find it here. Again, though, because the world is such a pleasant, yet unpredictable place to be thanks to random weather changes, getting to these collectables is half the fun. I feel a definite sense of serenity as I chop across the ocean with my crew singing sea shanties, and pointing out areas of interest. Oh, have you stopped singing? I didn’t tell you to stop did I? No. THEN START SINGING AGAIN.

Side missions themselves are a mixed bags of quality. While grabbing all the Animus shards is a teeth-grinding exercise in compulsive ‘stuff collection’, the Assassin contracts and Templar hunts offer refreshingly creative breaks from the core story. Even the shark / whale hunting is feels different and satisfying every time you climb into the Jackdaw’s fishing boat.

Sadly, the game does fall apart during some of the main missions, which rely too heavily on repetition of systems that have barely evolved since the original game. Tailing targets, eavesdropping on conversations, even following ships in the Jackdaw--they’re great the first few times you do them, but Black Flag just repeats the same mission types over and over. It’s a stark contrast to GTA 5’s smart, original mission design, and something that needs examining before the next game. Tellingly, I only recall one assassination mission, near the end, which captures the creative magic that made AC2 such a runaway success. Made me feel warm and cosy, a dark glimpse into my own psyche that I’ll ignore for now. So, yeah, for a game called ‘Assassin’s Creed’ there’s very little actual assassination.

Aaaand… it’s here where Assassin’s Creed 4 is going to split opinion. As I said at the start: Black Flag is a fantastic piracy sim with some well rounded, well voiced supporting characters, but the latter parts of the story are still in thrall to mystical, beard-stroking cod-philosophy that muddied AC3. It’s at these moments when Black Flag is weakest. Characters are killed off too quickly, plot threads are too hastily tied off, and the final confrontation is one of the least satisfying in any Assassin’s Creed game to date: all concessions to the game’s labyrinthine lore.

Following Desmond’s death, Black Flag was a perfect chance to break away from all the mystical guff that has held back the series, but the appearance of ‘returning characters’ feels like a lead weight dragging Edward Kenway to the depths of ridiculousness. Shame, because the original way this game handles the relationship between the historical segments and the modern day story is superb.

You play as a random Abstergo employee, who dips into the Animus as part of research for a pirate game. Essentially, the game is about Abstergo making the latest Assassin’s Creed game, yeah? It’s very, very self-referential, but handled superbly well. This alone ensures that there’s enough in-jokes and fan pleasing stuff in the out-of-Animus world to satisfy long term fans. Ubisoft even trolls players at one point, letting players access a leaked document that discusses possible future locations for the AC series. Few games treat fans with such playful respect. I certainly felt special.

Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag is an imperfect game, for sure, but I found the overall experience immensely enjoyable. Accept that it’s really a game about pirates, not assassins, and you’ll love filling the boots of Edward Kenway for 30-40 hours. The fact that it regularly departs so markedly from the core series is--bizarrely--Black Flag’s greatest strength, and it’s only when concessions are made to the origins of Assassin’s Creed that the quality drops. A brilliant pirate game, then, but not a vintage Assassin’s Creed.

More Info

Release date: Nov 19 2013 - PC
Nov 15 2013 - PS4
Nov 22 2013 - Xbox One
Q4 2013 - PS3, Xbox 360, Wii U (US)
Available Platforms: PC, PS4, Xbox One, PS3, Xbox 360, Wii U
Genre: Adventure
Published by: Ubisoft
Developed by: Ubisoft Montreal
Franchise: Assassin's Creed
ESRB Rating:
Mature: Blood, Sexual Themes, Strong Language, Use of Alcohol, Violence

An ambitious start for Assassin's Creed on next-gen. The vibrant Caribbean world and bloody piracy shine brightest, while the only sour notes come from contrived series story beats and repetitive missions--both need rethinking for AC5.

This game was reviewed primarily on PS4 and was conducted at a review event. We will add multiplayer impressions after playing the online component thoroughly, post-release.

78 comments

  • Livalosa1 - January 29, 2014 3:49 a.m.

    How about Japan with Samuriis or China with Assassin Ninjas that will be cool
  • agrizzl - December 30, 2013 1:34 a.m.

    I got this game for Xmas, boy after how much I hated AC3 I was really worried about this one too. Was I an idiot! This is by far the most fun and best AC game!! I even think this could be my favourite game this year! I'm a real stickler for open world games and this one is so damn fun, being a pirate sailing the seas, exploring lush islands crafting and upgrading the ship.. Love it!! Get into it!
  • agrizzl - December 30, 2013 1:36 a.m.

    Also, Great review!!
  • NotarizedHype - December 17, 2013 5:02 a.m.

    This game is the $hit can be frustrating at time but id worth it
  • asmin-cool - December 5, 2013 1:52 a.m.

    I played a few hours of Black Flag and when I exited the game and then opened it up a few hours later, it said 0% progression. My Uplay achievements had been locked (I unlocked a bunch), but my uplay progression were still at 13% and my uplay "actions" were still unlocked (example: complete sequence 1). So the uplay progression said 13%, but when I opened the game, my game profile/save file said 0%. I then went into C:\Program Files (x86)\Ubisoft\Ubisoft Game Launcher\savegames\MY CODE\437, and here my save file was 38kB, which is about what 13% into the game would be. So my save file has my progress saved, and uplay does recognize that I have played 13%. But when trying to load the save file in-game. It just starts from the beginning (AKA 0%). so wht can i do???
  • MazovoiD - November 30, 2013 1:51 a.m.

    Pretty sad, I think, that the general fanbase does not seem to value the story that much. I haven't played the game, but based on the reviews I have read, Ubisoft completely ditched the story and focused only on gameplay that revolves around pirate ships, looting and pillaging. I've never been into pirates, and I valued the assassin's creed story much more than gameplay. So I guess this game won't be a good one for me. Sigh.
  • lisa-jeffries - November 27, 2013 10:55 a.m.

    Ok, seriously? The A. I in this game is a joke. There's no improvement since III, and no challenge still, to the story line. How can a town see you do a double assassination, of the guards at that, and just walk by. The detail in this game needs much improvement and challenge would be great. The nicest thing I can say of it, is my 4 year old had a little trouble when multiple attackers are on him. I'd love my money back. LoL I really wanted this game to be awesome!! Bethesda games are so superior in challenge, details and all around programming. Sorry to those assassin fans, I guess I just need more thought put into the story line.
  • steph123 - November 26, 2013 5:25 p.m.

    This game has blown me away! even the glitches are amazing! http://youtu.be/yLieXvzuIwQ
  • saucymonk - November 21, 2013 6:41 a.m.

    I love ASS CREED and I can't wait to see how much better this looks on XBONE!
  • asFan12 - November 16, 2013 11:48 a.m.

    Looking really good. Im a big fan of the assassins creed series. So this can only be a good game. :) www.pixelplay.dk
  • ianbrettcooper - November 8, 2013 1:02 p.m.

    "Characters are killed off too quickly, plot threads are too hastily tied off..." Well, like it or not, the Assassin's Creed series is based on history, and the fact is, in this period, the characters who die did so in a very short space of time. I'm not sure how AC4 could have pulled off drawing out the game between each major character's demise when often these folks died within a couple of weeks of each other. So I think your point is a stretch. Besides, it's certainly a lot better than the appalling and offensive AC3.
  • zelta38 - October 30, 2013 9:54 a.m.

    This pretty much confirms what I was thinking from the promo: it's a great pirate game shoehorned into an AC game for no reason other than to boost sales as a sequel to an established franchise. Just let AC requiescat in pace please, it's high time.
  • GR HollanderCooper - October 30, 2013 2:29 p.m.

    But don't undersell how good of a pirate game it is--it's SUCH a good pirate game.
  • zelta38 - October 31, 2013 9:01 a.m.

    It definitely looks like one :)
  • hester2 - November 21, 2013 9:11 a.m.

    Super late response, but I can't agree more. I enjoyed ACII and Brotherhood, but I didn't love them. I felt they got repetitive toward the end. With Black Flag, though, I can see myself playing until I've taken all the forts and wiped out the legendary ships. Hell, I even like the fleet feature.
  • Swedish_Chef - October 30, 2013 7:42 a.m.

    Is the combat still ridiculously easy as balls? Seriously that's something they haven't fixed since the first game, seriously I think they somehow managed to make it even easier post 2, which is something I thought wouldn't even be possible since the first game's combat basically devolved into mash the counter button to win!
  • hester2 - November 21, 2013 9:13 a.m.

    They finally made it so that you actually have to juggle multiple enemies at once. The main mission combat is still pretty easy, but some of the ship raids can be pretty challenging. There's one enemy type with an ax that can easily shave off half your health.
  • Swedish_Chef - November 21, 2013 5:25 p.m.

    Ah okay that's actually a good sign, thanks man.
  • hester2 - November 22, 2013 6:46 a.m.

    Fair warning, though. The first couple of hours are pretty much same ol' Assassin's Creed. It doesn't show its potential until you get the boat, but once you do, it's amazing. Since then, I've spent maybe two hours on the story missions, and probably 8-10 just sailing around, raiding ships, robbing warehouses, and taking down forts.

Showing 1-20 of 78 comments

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