The name Assassin’s Creed brings about some specific expectations. Ubisoft’s newest stabbyman simulator, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, brings us a new protagonist, new location, and a fully fleshed out sailing mechanic. Is there enough new to warrant a purchase?
If you have played previous Assassin’s Creed games, you largely know what you’re getting into. The story is broken into twelve chapters, called “sequences,” with the game opening up between each sequence to allow the player to explore and play in the sandbox Ubisoft has created. In this new adventure, you play Edward Kenway after he stumbles into an Assassin, kills him, and assumes his identity to claim the reward the now dead Assassin was on the way to collect. Edward is a man who is neither Templar nor Assassin, simply out to make his fortune and retire and provide his wife a comfortable living. Throughout the story he constantly finds himself thrust into the war between Templar and Assassin, even as he tries to avoid taking sides. Along the way, Edward encounters many famous pirates from history including Captains Hornigold, Read, Vane, and even Blackbeard himself.
This mixture of fantasy story with real life locations, characters and events is a staple of the series. However, there is very little linking Black Flag to the rest of the Assassin’s Creed series. That might be a negative to some, but it marks this title as the first time in the series since Assassin’s Creed II that a new player may be able to play with no previous knowledge. The long Renaissance trilogy featuring Ezio has already been wrapped up, and the modern day storyline featuring Desmond has also ended leaving little in the way of previous lore that a player should know going into Black Flag. A base knowledge of “the Templars are bad, the Assassins are good, and they are killing each other for the control or freedom of the world” is good enough to jump right in, making Black Flag very friendly for newcomers.
Immediately striking when first playing Black Flag are the visuals. The Caribbean is a beautiful place in real life, and the transition to in-game is stunning. Sandy beaches, blue-green seas, and awesome weather effects complement excellent character designs and locations. The draw distance is huge, which is great when you are sailing. Sound design is a bit of a stumbling block, however. In particular, the mixing seems to be a bit buggy. There are times when, for instance, the voices may be too loud, or the music may be so faint that it can hardly be heard. This is a real shame since the audio elements are excellent. Every character is believably voiced and memorable for their performances. Sailing on the open seas and all forms of combat remind me of Pirates of the Caribbean with their bombast, while stealthier missions take a very Bourne Identity tone that perfectly augments the stealthy gameplay.
The on-foot gameplay on display is excellent. Running, jumping, and climbing are smoother than ever, and figuring out new paths through dangerous environments feels tremendously rewarding. Combat is always a highlight in Assassin’s Creed IV, with the possibility of a cake walk being just as likely as barely squeaking out a victory. Unlike the last few titles, it actually feels challenging. Brute enemies do tremendous amounts of damage to Edward, the ones wielding daggers are fast and can slip into range quickly, and dealing with all of these enemies at the same time is actually much like solving a puzzle. When things go well, Edward performs satisfying dance of death that impresses anyone watching.
The stealth exploration is a further extension of this puzzle-combat gameplay. Areas under heavy guard, marksmen on rooftops and towers, and bells that summon more troops all conspire to make your job of staying out of sight harder. Thick vegetation and perhaps too conveniently placed hay bales create opportunities to hide and stash bodies, but the true help is Black Flag‘s streamlined inventory. Edward has fewer tools than previous assassins, but each one is useful and while I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss the savagery of the short sword or tomahawk, smaller is definitely better. The layout is even improved; the newest title has ditched the weapon wheel that started with Assassin’s Creed II in favor of a cross bar. It looks similar to the XMB on Sony’s consoles and, thanks to the layout, makes switching to different weapons and gadgets incredibly fast. Even changing from the blowgun to pistols while in combat is instant, making this a very welcome change indeed.
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