Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag Review: A Seaworthy Slog

The pirate life certainly seems to suit the Assassin’s Creed formula.

In many ways, Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag is a huge step forward over Assassin’s Creed 3, a game that stumbled with what felt like rushed, unpolished gameplay and a logically disjointed narrative. AC4 fixes what was broken, revitalizing stealth gameplay in a series that seemed to have lost it, streamlining players’ weapons sets and abilities, and bringing new mechanics that further flesh out the world in a gorgeous setting. The West Indies’ series of small islands and mix of towns and jungles are perfectly suited to the tree-hopping, building-climbing gameplay Assassin’s Creed has been working on all this time. Throw in some meaningful, often enjoyable naval battles and the recipe is damn near perfect.

It’s not in mechanics but other areas, some small and some not so small, where AC4 struggles. This might be the series’ weakest story. It seems challenging notions of history are all but excised from this entry. The revival of stealth gameplay has led to weak mission design that exploits working mechanics with uninspired objectives. The game places a massive premium on grinding at the expense of forward momentum. And of course, we’re still talking about a game that has not changed its core mechanics in any meaningful way since its first iteration.

And yet, this is an Assassin’s Creed that will please fans and new players alike simply because it hits those mechanical marks so well. It may include its areas of slogging, but in terms of getting the formula right, Black Flag sets a standard for the franchise.

Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag
Platform: PC (reviewed), Playstation 3 (reviewed), Playstation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One
Developer: Ubisoft
Publisher: Ubisoft
Release Date: Nov. 19, 2013
MSRP: $59.99
Available: Steam, Uplay

There are a few new pirating-related bells and whistles attached to AC4, but the core gameplay, of course, is the same as every game in the series: Players run around a given setting, climbing up buildings to reach high points, hiding in hay stacks and bushes, and waiting to pounce on unsuspecting enemies to assassinate them. Blending into crowds, fighting multiple enemies at once, fleeing into anonymity and managing notoriety are all standard mechanics making a return in AC4.

It’s worth mentioning that many of those mechanics have been polished better than they were in the series’ last outing. It’s hard to discuss AC4 without at least a passing reference to the previous game, as the latest entry is a big improvement over that game’s issues. Stealth is greatly improved in AC4, where it was a big point of frustration last year. Enemies’ detection abilities have also been dialed back, and in general the game feels better balanced — although there are few meaningful differences in the usual “fight six guys, each of whom comes at you one at a time” counter-heavy combat.

A big chunk of Assassin’s Creed 4 is spent cruising around the West Indies in the Jackdaw, protagonist Edward Kenway’s pirate ship. Much like The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, AC4 is mostly ocean, with islands scattered across it where major gameplay takes place. You can visit most islands whenever you want, but you’re risking getting steamrolled by military ships patrolling tougher waters.

The Jackdaw is far and away the biggest new addition to the Assassin’s Creed formula, and you’ll spend a huge amount of time aboard it. It’s your major means of conveyance across the game’s sea (although a widely implemented fast travel system helps mitigate lengthy, boring passages, especially late in the game), as well as your base of operations for a fleet of ships you can build, your means of piracy to earn money by boarding other ships, your access point to the game’s underwater areas and many small islands that house collectibles, and your gateway to some optional hunting missions.

Fighting other ships is the primary usefulness of the Jackdaw, though, and you’ll do an absolutely obscene amount of piracy during the course of the game. In order to earn ship upgrades necessary to survive various story missions, you’ll need to engage in battles with other ships in order to incapacitate and board them — robbing them of useful goodies like metal and wood, sugar and rum. The former two are materials for upgrading the ship so that it can withstand tougher fights; the latter earn you money when sold.

This is one of AC4′s grindiest portions: short of tough stealth missions in order to raid land-bound warehouses, there’s no other way to gather upgrade material for the Jackdaw; you can’t even purchase it. So you’ll find yourself attacking and boarding ships a lot — easily to the point of the system growing stale. Ship battles are fairly dynamic, especially when you throw in tougher opponents and things like storms, or the lengthier, tougher battles in which players attack and capture forts. The freedom offered by the Jackdaw can also be very refreshing, and makes for some engaging exploration.

But you’ll board, rob and sink what feels like something on the order of thousands of ships, to the point of drowning the fun of shipboard combat beneath the waves.

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5 Comments on Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag Review: A Seaworthy Slog

R.J.

On December 17, 2013 at 3:13 pm

I’d say this is pretty accurate with my experience so far. The mechanical problems that made AC3 such a disappointment for me seem to have been dealt with, but now the narrative is an issue. Given the basic premise of the game (not focusing on Desmond and 2012), I expected some disconnect from the storyline established in the previous games, but I’m finding it quite annoying that things like assassin missions are available to a non-assassin or that Edward somehow knows the supposedly special techniques of the Assassins right off the bat.

Jason

On December 17, 2013 at 3:40 pm

I think my only real gripe with this game was how often, when running in a straight line, Edward would randomly decide to hop onto a random nearby object.

A. Lot.

Phil Hornshaw

On December 17, 2013 at 3:42 pm

@Jason

Connor loved to do that too. So irritating.

But at least Ubisoft has worked to keep Edward and Connor from flinging themselves off rooftops accidentally, the way Altair and Ezio used to.

Ron Whitaker

On December 18, 2013 at 5:20 am

@Jason – So true. I think I jumped on the railing going up to take the wheel of the Jackdaw about 15,000 times.

Dan Miller

On December 18, 2013 at 4:44 pm

I hope you don’t think you are getting off the hook this easily, Phil!

I just reread your “existential crisis of reviewing Assassin’s Creed” piece and this review doesn’t respond to any of those fantastic points.

How do we deal with the contradiction that, on one hand, this is the best technical effort in the entire series, yet on the other hand, it’s soulless, monotonous, and uninspiring? This, Ghosts, and Arkham Origins all hit me with that same feeling. And I found myself asking “do I even like games?” when playing all of them, like you did.

Separately, I think the multiplayer in Ghosts and AC4 are both pinnacles for the respective series. Multiplayer is a whole different animal from campaign, as technical refinements make a greater relative impact on a competitive experience than they do on a personal one, but the games deserve praise there. I played AC4′s multiplayer obsessively over Thanksgiving weekend and made it to top 1%, so I’ll also throw in that, at that level, nobody is doing anything like the chaotic running around you describe. If you are running in the line of sight of another player, something is going wrong.