Sunday, November 24, 2013

REVIEW - Assassin's Creed IV : Black Flag.

Terribly difficult to pin down to a single genre, Assassin's Creed IV : Black Flag can be summed up as an open-world action game.  It's a pretty-decent platformer, a stealth game and the best damned pirate simulator since Sid Meier.  There's little difference in mechanics between the PS3 and PS4 versions, but a notable gap in presentation and performance (which affects play) - so go with the next-gen option if you have the choice.

The Assassin's Creed franchise has had a tumultuous relationship with quality.  The two hadn't yet been introduced when Assassin's Creed first appeared in 2007, but they finally met up in time for its sequel, and Assassin's Creed II ('09) and Brotherhood ('10) were both excellent. Those were heady days, with sharp mechanics and smart design, directly recalling the developer's history with Prince of Persia on the previous generation of consoles.

Since then, quality's taken a bit of a break from Assassin's Creed, having gone on holiday with Crystal Dynamics, Naughty Dog and Rockstar, and the AC franchise was much poorer for it.  Revelations ('11) didn't approach the heights of Brotherhood, and III ('12), for all its posturing and prettiness, was the least-fun the series had been since its inception.

I'm pleased to report that, with Black FlagAssassin's Creed and quality have, finally, been reunited.  A current and next-gen game, Black Flag makes a strong argument that other games native to the PS3 and 360 could see new life and appreciation on the new generation of consoles - I'd love to see high-res versions of the Dead Space trilogy, Uncharted or FarCry 3 on the PS4.


A huge improvement over III, Black Flag's platforming now works.  Constantly.  Consistently and reliably.  Never in the game did a chase come to an unceremonious halt because of buggy mechanics, and new lead Edward Kenway (grandfather of ACIII's Connor) sweeps through the game's gauntlets of platforms with the sexy animations his grandson enjoyed and the trustworthiness of their Florentine ancestor.  All of III's platforming additions are here - you still zip through treetops and vault fences - but it's worth noting that none of the cities you dash across approach the beauty and grandeur of Rome in Brotherhood.

Sure, there are still viewpoints to climb - church towers, fort lookouts and lonely tree limbs - there are still targets to assassinate and cities to clamber though, but the (three or so) small towns you weigh anchor at cannot compare to the stately, breathtaking elegance of Italy in II and its sequel.

The Jackdaw at port in Havana

A large part of the franchise has always been its gorgeous realization of historical settings, and - while Black Flag again does an admirable job of recreating a time and place - the time and place chosen, here, simply don't offer architecture and cities as striking as those in the series' past.

It's fortunate, then, that Black Flag's most pronounced pleasures do not lie in its acceptable improvements to the franchise's mechanics (which really amounts to smoothing to acceptable what was left unacceptable in ACIII), but by the bold new course it charts.  In Black Flag, you're not merely running around cities, shankin' dudes.  For over half your time with the game, you'll be at the wheel of a beautiful two-masted ship, cruising throughout the Caribbean.

Yes.  You are literally a pirate of the Caribbean, and if playing this game doesn't make you want to go dust off some Johnny Depp movies, I'll eat my hat.  My jaunty, jaunty hat.


Black Flag's greatest joys are found, here, at the wheel of the Jackdaw, calling out orders to your crew and almost feeling the thrust of speed as the canvas unfurls and catches the wind.  As you cruise the seas, you may spy a mast on the horizon.  Holding R1 brings up your spyglass, via which you can discern if the ship is merely carrying some rum or sugar (good for sellin') or if its hold is heavily laden with precious timber and metal, crucial for upgrading your ship in order to stand a chance against greater prey.

You may spy a royal caravan - a great three-master, flanked by quick little sloops for intercepting attacks - weighed down by ten thousand royals.  If you do, the ship's existence and location will appear in the games of anyone on your friends list playing Black Flag, and they'll be able to take down the ship as well.  Same goes for white whales.

Yes, you can hunt humpacks and sharks, and the elusive white whales in a minigame that sees you throwing harpoons from a skiff into the beasts as they sweep back and forth, visible just beneath the waves.  It's both exhilarating and rather sad.


Once you've spied a ship you feel is ripe for the plunderin', you'll tap X thrice to get the Jackdaw up to travel speed - the camera pans out to show the entire ship, dashing across the waves as your crew bursts in to a lusty sea shanty (my favorite's Roll Boys, Roll).  New shanties for your crew to sing are found in the various towns and islands of the Caribbean, unlocked in little races with glowing musical notes.



You can begin your attack from afar, spending one or two shots from the mighty mortars, "stun" the ship with chain shot from your bowchasers or just sweep up casually alongside your prey before turning the camera to gaze off the ship's starboard side and calling "fiyaaa!" to unleash a shattering broadside.  Then, it's an elegant, dynamic dance as both ships cut through the rolling waves, obscured this moment (you can arc your cannon fire over a wave and into an enemy ship), revealed the next, jostling for position to lay down as much punishment as possible while taking little in return.

There are some lovely touches, here.  If you fire a broadside (or your bowchasers) while stationary, the smoke will linger in the air, blinding you.


After crippling a ship to the point that it lays adrift in the water, you pull the Jackdaw up alongside, raise your fist and call "drag them to the depths!" as your crew fires grappling hooks across the gap to reel your prize in as you may choose to man a pivot cannon, picking off officers and detonating powder supplies before leaping between the ships to eliminate its crew and lay claim to the booty.  The ship itself can then be used to repair the jackdaw, lower your ship's wanted level (gone, thank God, is the personal wanted level when in towns) or sent to Kenway's fleet.

Kenway's fleet is a lot like the hands-off assassination contracts and caravans of Brotherhood and III, and thankfully, here as there, you never really have to bother with the tedious affair, allowing it to go untouched with no ill effects.

Rather like the opening scene of Curse of the Black Pearl - and here, replacing the Templar forts of the Ezio trilogy - Kenway makes a habit of laying siege to any military fort he comes across, bombarding its defenses with mortar fire and cannon salvos before clambering ashore and assassinating the commander, to claim it under the black patch of the pirates.


Defeating a fort unlocks a large swath of the sea map - rather like the revelation of points of interest when one completes a viewpoint synchronization - and is often worth doing just for how much safer it makes the seas when embarking on a bit of honest piracy.

Like the towns, the fort segments feel almost - though not quite - like the unfortunately retained remnants of what Assassin's Creed once was.  Like the towns, they're not much to look at and not particularly thrilling to clamber through - and it is, again, where Black Flag separates itself from its predecessors that it makes the greatest impact.

Among the islands that dot the Caribbean sea, there are secrets to find and ancient ruins to discover and clamber across.

Gorgeous.


Dashing through jungles and up forgotten tombs, one forgets to miss the gorgeous Italian architecture of Ezio's saga and finds themselves instead involved in the mystery they're exploring and the comfortable, easy-going play that Assassin's Creed offers when it's at its best.

While the game takes no real bold new direction on PS4 as opposed to PS3 - mechanics are identical - the PS4 version is downright striking in its beauty (1080p, locked at a constant 30fps, while the PS3/360 versions suffer from very variable framerates).

The turquoise waters of the Caribbean sea, a gorgeous emerald green in the shallows, has a sense of presence and physicality on the high seas that I've never seen in a video game before.  The water, here, is transparent - but like real water, not infinitely so.  You can read objects just below its surface - whales as you hunt them, for example - and sometimes see the hull of a ship through the wave at it crests it - but go any deeper than nine or ten meters, and the object will be lost in the murk.  It's gorgeous.


The game's hero is a likeable rogue - a shipwrecked sailor, Edward Kenway is a brash, violent, arrogant child who has a chance encounter with a wounded Assassin and promptly murders the man and assumes his identity as he spies a bit of profit in it.  The game covers several years of Kenway's exploits in the Caribbean, and - rather like Ezio before him - we see him evolve from a foolhardy jerk into a man grown, the cares of the world heavy on his shoulders.

Not quite the franchise's storytelling at its best, Edward is certainly more endearing than III's Connor, and while the game's end lacks the grandeur and awe we often get from Assassin's Creed, it does a wonderful job of maintaining the emotional through-line of Edward's journey, and giving us the ending it deserves.

You find messages in bottles!   They're collectibles!

Assassin's Creed IV : Black Flag does not quite achieve the near-perfection of design that Ezio enjoyed in his first two outings, but it approaches mercifully close.  More valuable, Black Flag far and away outpaces any of its predecessors by finding its own very unique identity, and while - like any AC - it boasts an absolute wealth of content to explore and unlockables to find, it is at its best when it concerns itself first and foremost with being a pirate simulator.  When you find you've forgotten you're playing an Assassin's Creed game.

After all, pulling up a spyglass to examine a small spit of sand with a few palm trees sprouting from it and calling to my crew to loose sail doesn't remind me in any way, shape or form of Assassin's Creed.  Pulling up to the island and plunging into the sea (your crew calls "cap'n o'erboard!"), pacing across its white shores and pondering over an old treasure map, digging in the sand... that doesn't feel like Assassin's Creed. 

It feels only like Black Flag - a joy and discovery that the game and its hero may never have stumbled across, were both unprepared to wander so far from home.

Yarrr.

5 comments:

  1. Sweet review. The more I hear about the game, the more I'd like to play it - especially since I've never played any game from the series before.

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  2. I feel it makes an excellent introduction to the series, but fear for where the series may go afterward - if the next AC is (a'la I-to-III) bound by land, it'll feel like a major step backwards after this. Matey.

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  3. You had me at "Sid Meier." Another great review, Chance.

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  4. Can we agree "the shanty flew away" is the single greatest fail state of all time?

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  5. >.< when it's right at the end of a run and all you had to do to catch it was have your thumb on X or O.. that burns.

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