Available on XBO, PS4, WU, PC, 360 and PS3 l Published by Ubisoft l Developed by Ubisoft Montreal l Classified MA15+ l Supports 1-8 players
REVIEW IN BRIEF > With its swashbuckling cast, sprawling open world and tremendous gameplay variety, Black Flag is the perfect game to lure lapsed assassins back into the fold. The ship-to-ship combat trialled in last year’s Assassin’s Creed III is now a central component of the game and Black Flag is all the better for it. Prepare to set sail!
REVIEW IN FULL > I had high hopes for the original Assassin’s Creed. Released in 2007, it was one of the standard bearers of the (then relatively new) generation. It was a sprawling and ambitious blend of action and stealth, platforming and exploration, sci-fi conspiracy and historical intrigue. It was also, much to my surprise at the time, hopelessly bland and repetitive, with the seemingly endless combat sequences being enough to drive me away from the game after ten hours or so.
While I was tempted to return to the series once or twice over the years, Ubisoft’s insistence on running its cash cow on an annual development cycle didn’t exactly inspire confidence. The middling reviews afforded last year’s Assassin’s Creed III left me with the distinct impression that the French publisher’s flagship saga would never reach its considerable potential. This year, despite my better judgement, I decided to give the series one more chance. After 20+ hours with Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, my only regret was that I had neglected the series for so long.
Ubisoft’s vibrant and diverse vision of the Caribbean was packed with gameplay possibilities.
As 18th century pirate Edward Kenway, I was a rogue, a scoundrel and a cold-blooded killer. However, thanks to some lively dialogue and voice acting, I was also remarkably charismatic. I left behind my kind-hearted (and long suffering) bride and took to the high seas. I knew nothing of the ongoing clash between the Assassins and the Templars and I cared even less. This was my chance to secure fame and fortune. After a long absence from the increasingly convoluted plot underpinning the Assassin’s Creed saga, it was a relief to find that Blag Flag stood more or less on its own two feet.
The original Assassin’s Creed was all about tailing people through crowded streets, eavesdropping on conversations and plunging sharp implements into soft flesh. There was plenty of this on offer in Black Flag too, but there was also a huge network of Caribbean islands to explore, each with its own distinct flavour. On some of the more ‘civilised’ islands I hired crewmen, purchased supplies and bribed local officials. At other (less populated) locations, I scaled ancient ruins and hunted wild boar. I waded through swamps and fended off crocodiles. I even had the chance to explore a shipwreck or two. Ubisoft’s vibrant and diverse vision of the Caribbean was packed with gameplay possibilities.
Seafaring in general, and ship-to-ship combat in particular, absorbed plenty of my time and it was easy to pick up the ropes. This was primarily a fast paced arcade experience, with just enough scope for tactics to keep me engaged. In order to secure victory over enemy ships, I had to manage my sales, measure my angles, select a suitable canon, and pick the right moment to move in for the kill. These clashes were full of magic moments. I never grew tired of leaping onto a rope and swinging over to the burning deck of a prone galleon. Once I had subdued its crew with sword and pistol, I could loot its cargo and upgrade my ship to enable me to tackle larger, more dangerous, prey, including heavily fortified islands. Not all of the combat was hands-on. Black Flag’s (rather straightforward) fleet management mini-game allowed me to expand my roster of ships and dispatch my subordinates on lucrative side missions.
Between battles, I could listen as my rough and tumble crew belted out a variety of amusing sea shanties. On one memorable occasion, they began singing in the middle of a life and death struggle. Their dreadful rendition of ‘Johnny Boker’ rang out even as enemy cannonballs crashed into our sales and a rogue wave threatened to upend the ship. Though it was probably a glitch, it was also a highlight of my time with the game.
A handful of relatively minor issues prevented Black Flag from achieving the level of immersion that Ubisoft was aiming for. On one occasion, for example, I approached an NPC under the cover of darkness, but as I triggered the encounter, I found myself standing in broad daylight. On another, I was badly wounded and surrounded by half a dozen soldiers. However, as soon as I dispatched my intended target, the henchmen simply vanished. The story also lurched around a little, with my transition from heartless cutthroat to… something else… feeling much too abrupt. While moderately enjoyable, the multiplayer again felt superfluous.
…the modern day sequences were again, for me, the least interesting aspect of the game.
Despite being a core component of the Assassin’s Creed fiction, the modern day sequences were again, for me, the least interesting aspect of the game. I would have been happy to absorb these scenes in the form of cinematics. Instead, I was forced to wander around an office building, solve uninspired puzzles and endure endless elevator rides.
These niggles were easy enough to overlook, especially in light of the dramatic gameplay improvements implemented since my last interaction with the series. Nowhere was this more evident than in the escape sequences. Shaking off pursuers after assassinating a target once felt like an endless ordeal. Guards chased me relentlessly across the rooftops and every potential hiding space appeared to be under close observation. In Black Flag, I simply fled to a safe distance and blended in with the crowd. The combat was also much more forgiving, which allowed me to fully appreciate the game’s impressive range of finishing moves.
While I spent the vast majority of my time with the Xbox 360 version of the game, I also dipped my toes into the more recent PS4 release. With its superior frame rate and resolution, this edition of Black Flag restored some lustre to a series that, visually speaking at least, was beginning to look a little rough around the edges.
With its swashbuckling cast, dazzling open world and dramatically improved gameplay, Black Flag delivered almost everything I could ask for in an Assassin’s Creed title. As I watched the game’s surprisingly sentimental epilogue, it occurred to me that I was well and truly back aboard the Assassin’s Creed bandwagon. Bring on the further adventures of Kenway and co.