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Assassins Creed IV: Black Flag Review – Welcome Back!

Posted March 13, 2014 by Ivan "Tech Curse" Mashkov in Reviews
Assassins Creed IV: Black Flag

Fans of the Assassins Creed series, myself included, have suffered a lot. The series was becoming stale with the annual release of the series until AC III, which changed up the series, however it ended up being the worst game in the series. Assassins Creed IV: Black Flag redeems the franchise in the eyes of ardent fans. The title introduces radical changes to the game, while keeping the best elements of the series.

Developed: Ubisoft Montreal

Published: Ubisoft

Platforms: PS3 [reviewed], PS4, Xbox One, Xbox 360, Wii U, PC

Released: October 29, 2013

The basic premise of the game is that you are Edward Kenway, the father and grandfather of the villain and protagonist in AC III. However the game takes place earlier in his life, when he left England for the Caribbean in order to make his fortune as a pirate. The game follows his life over the decades as he get’s involved in the eternal war between the Assassins and the Templars.

The story in Assassins Creed is inconsistent, character development is almost nonexistent and outcomes can be predicted far too easily. Edward wants to make it big. He can’t stand the idea of living out his life as a normal person. Kenway abandons everything he holds dear in jolly old England and set’s out for the Caribbean.

This idea is the only thing that stays constant through the game. Edward will always be trying to get gold and it doesn’t matter to him what it takes or what he has to do in order to accomplish his goal. The story is disjointed and, frequently, doesn’t make sense. It tries out some great ideas, however the execution suffers.

Why would a deckhand be friends with the captain of a pirate ship? These logical gaps are the biggest issue I had with the story. Why does a deckhand know famous captains and they him? Why do other characters come to rely upon Kenway without much of an explanation as to why they believe he’s trustworthy? The backstory is frequently omitted and thus creates more logic gaps.

Characters stay the same. They don’t change at all, which makes them seem little more than a NPCs, certainly not a living breathing people. At one point in the game, a character dies in front of Edward and he is affected by this in a big way. I wasn’t. This character, like many others seemed to be just another run of the mill NPC to me. However there is an exception to this rule. Adewale, the second mate on Kenway’s ship, feels like a real person, not only because I saw how he met Edward. It’s also because he changes over the course of the game. He is willing to challenge Edward and make him see reason.

Kenway himself is a very believable character. He is greedy, vain and has his heart set on finding a secret treasure, that both the Assassins and Templars are searching for, in order to sell it for a “king’s ransom.” He does change and develops as a character, but sometimes it feels too forced. It seems like he changes his mind instantly without any fanfare or explanation.

The story in Assassins Creed IV isn’t up to par, however it doesn’t distract too much from the overall experience too much. Just remember, when you’re starting a story mission you should turn your brain off.

Presentation-wise, this game looks amazing. It’s hard to believe that this is a game made for last generation consoles (PS3 and Xbox 360). Overall, the world is vibrant and colorful. From the waves hitting your ship, the Jackdaw, to the sandy beaches to the cities, everything looks believable. You can forget that you’re in a game and just enjoy the scenery at times. Everything is bright and vibrant, nothing seems to be left untouched by the sun’s rays.

The sounds are incredible and immerse the player into the world. More than once, I was amazed by the incredible sound of Edward running across rooftops. The sound is crisp, clear and, to a certain extent, addictive. The sound design in the game is the best ever seen in a game. The world is full of characters with things to say, ambient noises that bring any city or island to life. From the daily conversation you’d expect to some juicy bit it is always enjoyable to mingle with the crowd.

The open world is always the best element of an Assassins Creed game and Black Flag is no exception. The Caribbean is massive and full of activities, missions, contracts, collectibles and shipwrecks. However the biggest improvement over past games in the series is that all of these secondary activities are not packed together into a small map. The activities are spread out, but players won’t get bored, when going across the map. Compared to Assassins Creed III, which had some areas that were just empty, the AC IV has something for players to do everywhere.

The biggest change from past games is the ship-based combat and travel. The map is always full of ships of various levels and classes that can be attacked and boarded in any weather. From the gunboats to the man-o-wars players will be able to find an opponent on the open seas that can match them and challenge them. Speaking of the Jackdaw, the trusty ship that you command, it is beautifully designed and rendered in the game. It is a joyous occasion, when you climb to the top of your main mast and look at the scenery below and around you. However if you want to get somewhere fast, then Ubisoft has you covered. Players will be able to fast travel to an island, a city or any other area, where the player has already been.

The three big cities in the game Kingston, Havana and Nassau are detailed masterpieces that are a wonder to explore. The only sad part is that these cities, like some other areas, are hidden behind load screens, which means that players will be unable to experience the joy of bringing in the Jackdaw to port with razor-like precision. However that is made up by the attention to detail that the team paid to these cities. Everything in this world feels organic and natural. It seems like these cities existed long before you arrived and will be there long after you’re gone.

The game’s developers wisely chose to move away from the structure and systems of past games in favor of prioritizing the naval elements of the game and giving players several great locations to try out the parkour and other mechanics, that were present in past games. While playing this game for hours on end, I rarely got bored and only by the very end, when I was gathering the final few collectibles in the game did the mechanics become a bit mundane.

Assassins Creed IV: Black Flag plays like any other Assassins Creed game. The parkour element that we’ve come to know and love the franchise by are back and better then ever. If you’re new to the series, you’ll learn that you are able to control your character’s parkour with only a single button (in my case the R1 button on my PS3 controller). Holding it makes Edward sprint in the direction the player defines. The traversal mechanic in Assassins Creed is based on the idea of chaining. For example Edward can jump on a crate, outdoor lamp, window flowerbed in that order to get to the roof. All of this is seamless, intuitive and very easy to pick up.

The biggest addition to these mechanics is something that was introduced in a way in Assassins Creed III. Now Edward won’t jump to his death if you make a mistake, something that Ezio, the protagonist from Assassins Creed II, Brotherhood and Revelations was prone to do. This mechanic works every time, aside from a few glitches, and makes the parkour experience in the game so much more enjoyable.

However the truly big changes is the addition of the naval combat and travel, though these were present in the last game. Players are able to accurately and quickly control the Jackdaw even when trying to navigate the most challenging locations. What’s more is the inclusion of some new hindrances that prevent the player from just pointing their ship at a destination and moving at maximum speed. The wind is a major factor that can reduce or increase the speed of a ship. This means that sometimes it’ll be faster to reach your destination by not heading straight for it.

The weather can also affect how you need to travel. Sometimes your ship will encounter storms that will have whirlwinds and big waves, which will force you to adjust your heading. The whirlwinds can damage your ship if your not careful and knock some of your crew overboard, however avoiding them is hard due to their unpredictable nature and fast speeds. The big waves are very easy to handle by comparison – all you need to do is direct your ship at it and ride over it.

Nature isn’t your only enemy on the open seas. You will encounter ships of various nations that will be minding their own business unless provoked and some will even be hunting you for your actions. The naval combat is satisfying and gives players a variety of weapons to use – from side and front cannons, to fire barrels and the mortar. Once you bring a ship to the verge of destruction you can board it in order to gain the valuable cargo it is holding, to repair your Jackdaw on the open seas or to add it to Kenway’s fleet.

The boarding mechanic isn’t as satisfying as the rest of the combat in the game. When you start to board a ship, your crew will secure the enemy ship with ropes and will being pulling it in. When both ships are alongside one another, your crew will rush to the other ship to attack their crew. You successfully board a ship by killing enough enemy crew members until their crew surrenders, though higher level ships may have side objectives that need to be accomplished, like tearing down their flag. The problem with this mechanic is that the player is forced to do everything on their own.

This is the most annoying aspect of the naval mechanics. The player is frequently forced to do everything themselves, even though they’re the captain of a ship with dozens of pirates. You’d think that Edward could just wait on the ship for his crew to take over the ship, but your crew can’t accomplish secondary objectives on bigger enemies, while it will take them a lot of time to take over even the weaker enemies in the game. The boarding mechanic can easily get boring fast and can make attacking enemies feel little more than grinding.

Kenway’s fleet is one of the most noticable additions to Assassins Creed IV. Past games have had such minigames that allowed players to send out recruited assassins on missions around the world or send out trade convoys in order to sell crafted goods. In Ubisoft’s latest title players are able to access in the captain’s quarters or on your second screen gives players the chance to use captured ships in order to perform missions around the Caribbean, Europe and Africa.

The online part of this minigame shines through in the social aspect of the game. You can speed up your friends’ missions and they yours, which speeds up a process that can, in some instances, take days. Ultimately this minigame can net players a lot of coin in order to upgrade the Jackdaw, however it isn’t mandatory. Players can ignore Kenway’s fleet and will be able to get an enjoyable experience of the game regardless.

The multiplayer portion of the latest game in the Assassins Creed franchise doesn’t introduce any radical changes. No, you can’t do multiplayer naval combat. If you’ve ever played the multiplayer of an Assassins Creed game, then you will know what to expect from the multiplayer in this game. Players will try to assassinate each other, protect and attack objectives. Overall, the multiplayer is just an add-on to the singleplayer campaign and even though it is well done, don’t expect to see something truly different.

Assassins Creed IV: Black Flag is without a doubt the best game in the Assassins Creed franchise and a title that gamers will enjoy for countless hours. The wealth of content and the massive open world rain supreme, whereas the story drags the game down. If you don’t own this game already you should check it out.

Final Score:

4 out of 5


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About the Author

Ivan "Tech Curse" Mashkov

This is the Japanese Tech Curse, who enjoys GTA way too much and need to lose quite a few pounds. I love open world and I love simulators, so laugh all you want. I am RRR112 on the PSN and Ouya and JTC2008 on Steam, so check me out and let's play!

  • The Laymen’s Gamer

    When you start complaining about the characters “not changing” and that you consider ACIII the worst in the series it leads me to respectfully disagree with you on a good number of fronts that you bring up.
    If you feel anything for a character – be it annoyance, hatred, enjoyment, empathy, whatever – that means the character was written well. You also have to consider that Edward was a character heavily in denial and trying to push away the real reasons for going down that path in life in the first place – his estranged wife and child. Why would someone like that breed such massive change in such a relatively short time? A lot of changes among thieves, assassins, and liars aren’t exactly common because they’re always wearing masks and playing parts… I think your expectation, there, is a bit high and unrealistic.
    As far as the story not being consistent, do you mean that the timeline jumps as you’re playing? Would you rather play out the years that it would logically take in order to sail from one country across the ocean to the other? I don’t know what, exactly, that you’re expecting from this game that would make it so much better, in your mind.

    All I’m saying, for a game you ranked 4/5, you sure have a lot of points of contention with it, which, I suppose, would explain why you classified ACIII as your least favorite in the series.

    • Ivan “Tech Curse” Mashkov

      My biggest problem with the characters is that they are irrelevant. All of them are friends with Edward from before the game starts, however we never see a moment in the game that will make those characters more relevant to us, the players. AC II, Brotherhood and Revelations used the “new location” idea in order to fix this disconnect – you meet new allies in every new game with some recurring characters.

      For example, you meet Da Vinci among many other allies in AC2 and come to know him better. Over the course of the story the player understands just how much he means to Ezio as a friend. If we didn’t have all of that buildup, all of that backstory he would seem little more than an NPC that gives you upgrades. What’s more he didn’t remain unchanged over the course of these adventures. Any person changed as a result of experiences and it isn’t unrealistic to expect the same approach to an in-game characters’ growth.

      In AC IV Blackbeard and several other pirate captains are prominently featured in the story as friends of Edward, however we know little about them and how they met Edward. I’m not saying that we should have started the game from the point that Edward arrived in the Caribbean, however we could have gotten more flashbacks, especially to Kenway’s early days in Nassau. What makes Edward seems so human is the flashbacks in the game from his time in England. Those flashbacks endear him to us, because we either know personally or know of someone like him in real life.

      The story in this game is just confusing, it isn’t as bad as AC III, and we have come to expect a highly complex plot from this franchise. This doesn’t excuse it. The biggest issue the franchise as a whole and this game in particular has is that it doesn’t take the time to build up to major plot points. SPOILER!!! When Blackbeard is killed I didn’t care about it. He could have been just another random member of the crew for all I cared. There was no buildup, there was no special moment and even though he does appear frequently in the game, I didn’t feel any emotional connection. When Ezio’s uncle dies in AC: Brotherhood you did care, because you spent a lot of time with him in AC II and saw him as Ezio’s mentor.

      The best example I have to illustrate this issue is Metal Gear Solid 4. It was the first Metal Gear game I played. Even though the cast of characters was diverse and fully developed, I didn’t have the same emotional connection to many of them, because I hadn’t known them from past games. I’ll say that I can only gripe this much about the story because I played every AC game except the PSP and PS Vita ones. I know the story, I experienced it from start to finish, so I feel that the story in AC 4 isn’t something that fans will enjoy. It’s a break from the past. The gameplay and world are better for it, however the story suffers as a result.

    • The Laymen’s Gamer

      I don’t know… each story that takes place in the Animus is supposed to be unique from one another, in the context of the game’s present story, that of the present-day battle between the Assassins and the Templars… I just felt that the stories of Altair and Ezio had run their course and to find individual stories that ran their intended course without expounding too much on the characters and the setting… it felt refreshing. It took less away from what was happening in the present day and gave you two individual experiences that could be explored within each other’s contexts and that could be enjoyed without one taking away from the others. Having played almost every AC title I can say I felt that I was forgetting about Desmond and the crew at times because I was focusing more on the story that took place within the Animus. Finding that wretched Apple of Eden shouldn’t have taken as long as it did or, at least, through not as many independent games.
      I feel that the stories that take place within the Animus are good period pieces and do well to immerse us within what life was like in each of the time periods that this took place in, showing us the people, places, and events that seasoned these eras. I guess I just took a lot more from the subtleties that the game had to offer, the attention to detail.

      Oh, one more last thing: I would have to say that if your crew in ACIV did a lot of the work for you, people would complain that the game was way too automatic or took control away from you. It’s happened, can’t remember what would be a specific example, but I’ve seen it happen and it’s a tough thing to implement without getting hell for it.

    • Ivan “Tech Curse” Mashkov

      I’ll agree that the present day events in AC were always secondary. It felt like an add-on that we didn’t need, however over time Desmond became such a believable character, that we couldn’t stay away. I ended up buying AC III when I did, because I couldn’t take the wait and wanted to see how his story ends.

      However I don’t think that all of the AC 2 games (AC II, Brotherhood and Revelations) were games that had clean breaks from past games. For starters, you met a few of the characters from past games, which is especially true for Brotherhood. I just think that Ezio remained the protagonist for three games, because of all of the buildup, because (SPOILERS!) we saw his father and brother hang in AC II, because we saw him lose his uncle in Brotherhood, because we knew what he went through until his story ended in Revelations.

      I feel that over time storytelling became less of a priority for the developers. Over time, as the mechanics of the game got a lot better and the player was given a more open world than ever before, it became harder to tell a story. Rockstar Games is able to deliver a great story, because it is linear, because they start from scratch and introduce your friends and enemies. You meet your worst enemy early on in GTA IV and the game’s creators build up the conflict between him and the protagonist over the whole game.

      I think that AC IV breaks away from the past games to try something new. It worked and that’s great, however the story is a mess. I think that Ubisoft should consider just having a simpler, more focused story with a smaller cast of characters.

      P.S. They could have added another option. After starting to board an enemy ship you could approach the wheel (which currently offers you the choice to cancel the attack on the ship) and select an option to have your crew take over the ship. A lot of crewmembers would die, however you’d only see a short generic animation of your crew defeating the enemy ship’s crew and taking over it. It would fit in the game, because Ubisoft reuses a lot of animations during boarding sequences.

    • The Laymen’s Gamer

      I think that people became too invested in the Animus stories – including Ubisoft – in the first bit of the franchise; the Altair and Ezio games, as they were. This was a story about a present-day conflict between the Assassins and the Templars and Desmond’s role in the conflict and how he was used, via the Animus, to provide information and, through the Animus, become an asset to the side he eventually chose. In order to truly understand what Desmond took from the Animus with him you had to experience what Desmond experienced… I always kind of took the Animus sequences with a grain of salt and always felt that the games were always about Desmond and not the characters in the Animus. They were just a means to an end and I think, NOW, Ubisoft is realizing the same and moving on from concentrating so much on the development of characters within the Animus; the twist outside of the Animus in ACIV was kind of mind-blowing for me, meaning there’s a lot more to be explained outside of the Animus, leaving me to hope that the next one will actually either be closer to modern-day or will actually take place in the modern-day and do more to wrap up the consequences of Desmond’s actions. THAT is what I want to see and that’s what I’ve been invested in. I’ve always taken it that way… that ACIV, for example, is a video game, not just to us, but also to those experiencing it in the game’s context.

    • Ivan “Tech Curse” Mashkov

      I get what you mean, but I don’t see it. The animus has been a plot device that explained away how we could play AC in various historical settings. However we didn’t experience a great story outside of the animus in AC IV.

      You are a silent protagonist that experiences life in the office, however we never see anything truly interesting. Yes, Abstergo Entertainment expands the lore of the AC universe in a big way, however the sequences outside of the animus were just used to introduce new players to the lore of the world and giving fans of the franchise some fun tidbits.

      They could make the story a lot better in future game, especially considering that you become (SPOILERS!) a double agent in Abstergo for the Assassins by the end of the game. It could really be a lot of fun to play as a spy in an enemy organization that is trying to gather intel without being discovered.

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