Platform: 360, XBOX ONE, PS3, PS4, PC
Developers: Ubisoft Montreal
Genre: Action Adventure
Its become all too easy to hate the Assassins Creed juggernaut as it churns out replica after replica on its relentless assembly line. Each sequel brings the same old missions, cut scenes, and bland assortment of characters to be played out in pretty much the same order as the previous installment.
More importantly than over-familiarity with the content is the by now staggeringly inept storytelling and the mind blowingly nonsensical plot which the developers inexplicably seem to be proud of. Perhaps somewhere near the beginning there were easily impressed 13 year olds engaged with the scifi – historical fusion but if there were they must have long since had their interest pummelled into cynical indifference with game after game of the same lifeless, convoluted gibberish.
Anyone struggling to turn themselves back on to the franchise should not let all of this stewing negativity blind them to the fact that Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag is something of a masterpiece, let down only by the baggage of the franchise.
What Black Flag does most impressively is to build a sense of atmosphere; the Caribbean sunset; fleets of ships fighting on the horizon; the delayed thunder of gunpowder shots. Though helped in no small measure by the stunning visuals, the real trick is the clever game design. Instead of the usual linear structure where the core game mechanics of free running and fighting were occasionally interspersed with pretty shallow mini-game elements, here Ubisoft have integrated everything into a holistic design, allowing the player to soak everything up at even the most mundane of moments.
The open game world is traversed via your own ship giving freedom to pick and choose which challenge to tackle next: crack on with the main story if you have the willpower or try to conquer a sea fort. Hunt treasure or hunt a fleet of powerful warships and their precious cargo. Battle with a shark or sneak into a pirate lair. Theoretically two players could have entirely different experiences: one fast travelling to each settlement and thrashing the story, while another could get lost in a one man war on the high seas, only briefly dipping into some land based missions. In such a world of possibilities it is effortless for a player to become lost in the immersion and quite often the simplest of journeys can result in a several hour long diversion to the other side of the map.
Bringing this epic world to life are the truly staggering graphics, a masterpiece of lighting, sharp HD detail and an ambitious grand scale. The series has always been famed for its intricate detail lavished on even the most trivial of buildings but now this is complimented by a new sense of scale. It is possible to go, in a matter of minutes, from running through washing lines in back yards to crashing your ship into the towering side of a British Man-of-War as a fleet of five other ships circle behind.
Incredibly, despite this vast increase in demands on the current consoles, all of the graphical glitches which frustrated in previous entries have been completely ironed out. Visually at least, Black Flag is a polished and flawless gem.
Unfortunately all this glorious hard work is needlessly undermined by the usual suspects. That unique level of immersion, so hard for other games to capture, is shattered every time you are reminded it is all a virtual reality (of sorts). Every time the graphics flicker with the Animus/Matrix style code it pulls you out of the Caribbean. Every time the “action” switches to some guy in an office in the future (where the game expects you to be impressed by being able to open doors with a tablet) the electric pace grinds to a miserable halt and the sense of adventure is cruelly pulled away. Assassins Creed has always been the master of needlessly making you aware you are playing a computer game: assassinate your target with 30 soldiers chasing you and suddenly everything comes to a stop as the Matrix descends and the lead character has a good 5 minute chat with his target who has just had his throat slit. This terrible childish writing with no concern for logic or consistency pervades every aspect of this series: the dialogue, mission set ups, characterisation. Everything is pitifully 2 dimensional, instantly forgettable, absent of any reasoning.
The failure with the writing is made all the more painful given that the pirate setting proves to be a stroke of genius, especially given how well it fits with the Assassin’s Creed mechanics, so finely polished over the years. The flamboyant and swashbuckling sword fighting makes so much more sense when storming the deck of a Galley, than it ever did when dueling medieval Knights. Previously boring tasks like collecting loot and hunting treasure finally make some sense beyond simple platform game collectable logic. The ship mechanics, first introduced in Creed 3 as a mini game, now play so well they feel more satisfying than the core free running gameplay and the setting allows it to take a greater place.
Conversely the series tenets of stealth and assassination (which have never really worked anyway) feel contradictory to the marauding life of a pirate. Besides, a story focused entirely on becoming the biggest, baddest pirate on the seas is far more engaging than the same old Templar guff.
Black Flag should have been a new and original series, an entire new brand under the Ubisoft banner – devoted entirely to piracy. It may have seemed a no-brainer for the boardroom committee to plaster the successful brand name all over its new product and ensure sales but Rockstar have shown many times how successful an original title can be even though they use the same template of GTA. Forcing Grand Theft Auto into the Wild West through some terrible plot contrivances would have crippled Red Dead, just as the Assassin’s Creed brand has held back Black Flag from true definitive greatness.
Unfortunately – barring the Liberation DLC – it seems unlikely the magic of the Pirate setting will be given much time to flourish and we will soon return to the chore of running around huge cities to find daft mini games separated from the main game. Hopefully the hugely successful ship mechanics can somehow be maintained in the next setting but even-so that will not stop Ubisoft for giving us another dose of the Templar-Animus bullshit.
For the time being at least there are plenty more warships out there to be sunk.