After the dust settled on last year's Assassin's Creed III
, many were left wondering if the yearly release schedule that we have become accustomed to was starting to fatigue the franchise. As a stand-alone title, AC III
was far from bad, but in comparison to its predecessors it often felt overly bloated and confusing. In Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag
, Ubisoft take the story to uncharted waters, as we set sail to the Golden Age of Piracy in a new 18th Century Caribbean setting, and introduce a new Assassin protagonist. One has to wonder though, does the game steer the Assassin's Creed
ship back in the right direction or is it left floundering in the docks as we travel into the next console generation?
From Assassin's Creed IV
's opening moments, it is obvious that the Ubisoft development team have listened to the comments and complaints from AC III
. Gone is the overly long, 10 hour hand-holding intro. Instead, after the first quick paced mission, the new world is yours to explore. The game still tries to act as an instruction manual at times, with missions in place purely acting as a thinly disguised tutorial, but what you do in-between mission start points is up to you.
The story this time follows Edward Kenway, grandfather to AC III
's Connor, a privateer who leaves his home in Bristol, England in the search of riches. It is through this relentless thirst for fortune that he becomes entangled in the long running battle between the Assassins and the Templars.
Unlike any of the previous Assassins we have taken control of, it’s not until the final sections of the game that Edward becomes affiliated with one side or the other, instead Edward’s own greed and selfishness take us on an island-hopping adventure where both of the warring factions are obstacles standing in the way of his ultimate goal. Missions are taken begrudgingly and only if it helps improve his chances of finding the treasure he seeks or adding to his fortune. This leads to a different way of storytelling for the franchise, as the battle between the Assassins and the Templars takes a back seat to the plundering, pillaging, rum drinking and looting that Edward undertakes. It’s a good move as the game feels a lot more lighthearted than AC III
, with a much greater emphasis on exploration and fun.
There’s also the introduction of a second main character, Edward's ship, the Jackdaw, which (just like Edward) needs to be upgraded and improved as you progress through the story. Taken from the naval side missions in AC III
, but refined and improved upon, in these sea voyages you’ll spend a large amount of your time with Black Flag
on her decks moving between the many available islands that litter the map. It’s here the Black Flag
is at its best, unburdened from mission restraints and objectives, you’re free to sail the seas, discovering new locations, plundering Spanish and British ships, hunting, and diving among shipwrecks for hidden treasure, and it’s all done without any loading times.
You’ll find yourself losing hours between mission objectives as you scan the ocean with your spyglass in search of ships to fight. Once defeated you can choose to sink the ship for 50% of its cargo, or you can pull alongside and fight to secure all of the bounty. How you board is totally up to you; swing on from one of the conveniently placed ropes, or swim around the back undetected. Once you have full control of the defeated ship, you can choose to reduce your notoriety, repair your own ship, or add it to your fleet, and the goods you capture can be sold for a quick injection of cash, or you can use it to upgrade the Jackdaw so you can go after bigger ships, and ultimately a larger reward.
On land Black Flag
offers a wide variety of environments for you to free-run through, from sprawling jungles to small, remote desert islands, and in some of the game’s larger inhabited areas such as Havana and Kingston, the verticality that was missing from AC III
makes a welcome return.
Story missions vary between land and sea based objectives and sometimes incorporate both, which helps keep the game fresh as you no longer feel like you’re repeating the same steps over and over again, but essentially the process of tailing and eavesdropping in search of information on your next target remains the same as previous games.
Optional side objectives are available for each mission and add some replay value as they make you approach objectives in different ways, explore different areas, or make you change your normal choice of weapon.
The game’s combat system has also been tweaked slightly, with weapon selection now purely available through the D-pad, and the addition of dual wielding swords. Long range weapons such as pistols can still be fired using "Y", but you can also use the triggers to free aim.
Hunting returns and like AC III
, skinned animal pelts can be sold to earn additional money, but there’s also the addition of crafting which is taken straight out of Far Cry 3
, where different skins can be combined to make additional armor or ammo pouches.
Present day sequences are now first-person based, and it was surprising how interesting they are. As an unnamed employee of Abstergo Entertainment, you’ll embark on some corporate espionage that adds some further insight into Desmond Miles and tantalizingly teases at where the franchise might be heading in the future.
Whether you’re on land or sea, in the present or the past, the world looks stunning, and the additional year Ubisoft have had with last year's new engine allows Black Flag
to show its full potential, in particular the water and lighting effects are some of the best we've seen not only in the franchise, but in this generation.
For the first time in the franchise, Black Flag
offers second screen support via the free companion app for iPad and Android tablets. Here you can control Kenway's fleet: a meta-game similar to the the recruited Assassin's first introduced in Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood (Xbox 360)
, view stats and view a map of the world. It's a nice addition and works well for those who are able to download, but is by no means essential to the overall experience.
The game's multiplayer is unchanged for the most part from AC III
, with the same cat and mouse style gameplay on offer while also adding new locations and characters skins. There is, however, the introduction of Game Lab which allows users to create their own custom game modes by taking each of the standard modes available and changing the parameters to suit. Points per kill, available abilities and score limit can all be adjusted to create something which feels completely different from the standard modes.
The Wolfpack co-op game mode that was first introduced in AC III
returns, but has seen some changes to the format. Instead of killing your way through waves of AI controlled targets, every few sequences will introduce a new game mode where you’ll be tasked with defending chests or picking up health packs to kill infected AI opponents.
The game’s achievements are standard for the franchise, with the majority available for playing through the story, completing side missions, exploration and upgrading both Edward and the Jackdaw. Some will require you to deviate from your normal play style, but with practice and patience shouldn't pose a problem. Five achievements are tied to multiplayer and co-op, three of which can be unlocked quickly, however the final two will take some time as you need to work your way through the ranks to unlock all the various abilities and ultimately hit level 55.
The game is much more forgiving than previous games in that you won’t need to find every collectible and complete every side mission for 100% sync, instead you only need to 100% sync all of the main mission constraints including optional challenges.Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag
is a triumphant return to form for a franchise that appeared to be losing its way slightly in AC III
. In the same way that Assassin's Creed II (Xbox 360)
took the ideas from Assassin's Creed
and refined them to make an overall better experience, Black Flag
takes all the best from AC III
and puts them together in a coherent, interesting and enjoyable way. The story might not be the strongest we've seen from the series, but with the unique multiplayer and co-op experience and a single player campaign with over 40 hours of varied and fun gameplay, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag
is the perfect game to close this console generation and begin the next.
The reviewer has spent 27 hours sailing through the game's story and multi-player game modes, swashbuckling his way to 32 of the game’s 50 achievements. This review copy was provided by the publisher