Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag Review (PS3 and Xbox 360)
I’m not quite sure if any of you have picked up on this yet, but I dig the Assassin’s Creed series. I dig it so much that I don’t even consider it part of the video game world (Don’t worry, I consciously recognize that it is. This isn’t a mental disorder on my part, unless you consider learning the main theme from Black Flag on the guitar before I even jumped into the game a disorder. If so, then I readily admit to having a problem and now give you the metaphorical “bird” whilst screaming at you to stay out of my life.) I see it as more of a fictional simulation, despite the inherent semantical issues with such phrasing, and tend to approach it in the same way that I approach a book. When I jump into an AC game, I am going to the Ubisoft-built realm in the hopes that I will be taken firmly out of this reality and placed into another. For the most part (with certain Connor-based exceptions), I have yet to be left wanting. This is why I don’t even bother to apply numerical scores to my AC reviews…I’m a huge fanboy.
Now that all the teenie-boppers have evacuated due to righteous indignation and general stupidity, let’s talk about Black Flag like adults who repress all our emotions and play assassination based video games as a vicarious release for said emotional repression.
Even on their worst day (ACIII) Ubisoft Montreal spins a damn fine yarn. The pure complexity of such historical events, characters, and locations places such stories in a “better” category. Add to that the ability to research “real world” events, locations, and characters whilst playing in the living, breathing world, and the immersion level is rather high. Edward Kenway’s story sits up “there” with Ezio’s.
Most reviewers have called attention to the lighter tone of this story from a semi-negative perspective, but I thought the addition of a brutal code held by carefree Pirates was both intriguing and well executed. With the addition of the Pirate’s Code (which is quite noble in its pursuit of wealth) to the Templar and Assassin philosophies, Edward faces three very distinct paths to the same ideal: peace. Watching him come to terms with the reckless nature of being a Pirate was akin to watching a young adult realize how much their party-fueled collegiate education actually cost. Similarly, how he deals with such a realization is both refreshing and a reaffirmation of how important the ideals of the Assassins order are, both then and now.
In terms of personality, the characters that comprise Black Flag are as charismatic as Ezio and his contemporaries. I can’t tell you how happy this made me after playing the ever-morose Connor, awesome though he may have been. Having characters with seriously “heavy” backgrounds still sport an excellent sense of humor is vital when dealing with such critical phases of our civilization’s history.
Black Flag is visually stunning, but obviously built for next-gen platforms. With the exception of Bioshock: Infinite, it stands as the prettiest game I have seen come through my consoles.
I say that it is built for next-gen both because Ubi has stated as much and because there are times, whilst taking in complete landscapes, that there are details obviously missing. For instance: The foliage, while gorgeous and vivid, remains placid even in the face of a stiff breeze. Alas, in this time of generational crossover, I find it hard to fault a developer for such technological foibles, as they must be difficult to avoid.
Despite the subtle details missing from the world, the Caribbean remains bold and bright throughout the entirety of your exploration. True to form, the architecture and land masses are from historical record, giving “real” life to what could be considered a “virtual” world. Also stunning in accuracy are the ever-changing weather patterns of this portion of our world. Don’t be surprised to find yourself trembling a bit when a squall appears off your bow and the Jackdaw (your ship) is right in its path.
As per usual, the auditory delight factory that is the Ubi sound team strikes gold again. The voice acting is spot on and appropriately brash across all characters.
While I continue to bemoan the departure of Jesper Kyd and his amazing work across the first four titles, Brian Tyler composed a cinematically sound musical score. The game is intelligent in both its use of said score and the periods of musical silence when the world is allowed to hum its beautiful melodies.
The pirate shanteys (songs…usually bawdy) that you pick up along the way, and are consequently sung by your crew whilst upon the high seas, add an exquisite flavor of authenticity to the delicious cultural stew that is Black Flag.
Finally, the attention to “sound effect” detail that Ubi takes is present all over this game. From dual blades sliding out of a scabbard to the rustle of leaves when bounding out of the underbrush, no auditory stone is left unturned.
I absolutely adore playing as an Assassin Pirate. Despite Abstergo attempting to coerce me into playing stealthy (the “outside” storyline is actually pretty cool and totally justifies all that time we spent in first-person during Revelations). Maybe it’s Edward’s swagger, the overall silliness of the guard uniforms, or my oft repressed rage at the Templars, but I tend to walk into each engagement swords drawn.
There is a brutality to Edward’s fighting style that I dig. He can push the attack with his dual blades and move seamlessly into a pistol finish without breaking a sweat. He can handle a large group of enemies without having to “counter” his way out of it. His taunts are most excellent. Primarily though, just being a Pirate motivates me to violate the physical and mental composition of mine enemies. Plus, who doesn’t enjoy laying waste to a fort full of enemies and then spending half an hour looting their corpses?
And now, wenches and scallywags, the Jackdaw! I must admit, I did not expect to have as much fun on the open sea as I have throughout my time with Black Flag. My time on-deck with ACIII was fun, but felt clunky at times. Ubi addressed this and crafted an incredibly intuitive sailing scheme that will have you falling head-over-boot heels in love with being a Pirate and the captain of your beloved Jackdaw.
I’d like to wrap this up by offering a firm congrats to Ubi for crafting yet another excellent AC experience AND for building a beautiful user-interface.
Also, I’d like to address those who may be claiming the Assassin vs. Templar theme is being “played out.” The beauty of this conflict lies within the scope and complexity of it all. When Ubi chose to delve into history and “see” this web of conspiracy, they also made an unwritten promise to flesh it out across the ages. I was extremely excited to see both Orders play a larger role in this game, as they were both rather absent in ACIII.
If you’re getting bored, I encourage you to read the novels and the comic books associated with the series. I guarantee you will see just how “alive” the conflict is. In the meantime, enjoy Black Flag and all its Piratey goodness.
Thanks for reading, and keep a weather eye out for the Black Flag PS4 review next month.