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

The Jackdaw isn’t the only place in which Assassin’s Creed 4 is willing to repeatedly crush a concept under its boot heel. There’s almost a ridiculous number of “follow and eavesdrop” and tailing missions in the game, which are already some of the more irritating design conceits of the series. All of them play out the same: one or a pair of enemies walk through an area and the players must move from position to position, remaining hidden but staying within a certain distance of the target. Occasionally the enemies check behind them in very deliberate fashion. After a set amount of distance is covered, the mission ends. There’s no variation in these missions except for their setting; that AC4′s stealth has been so well-tuned makes these moments bearable, but they’ll grate on players long before the end of the game.

There’s a ton of good stealth in AC4, though, much to Ubisoft’s credit. A new system that highlights enemy targets with the use of Eagle Vision makes navigating any given stealth section much easier than in the past, and improved mechanics for things like stalking zones (those low bushes you can hide in) and more hiding places make sneaking a much more viable option than in Assassin’s Creed III. It’s easier to feel like an unseen bad-ass, and the game includes plenty more opportunities to infiltrate fortresses, towns, villages, enemy encampments and ships.

Story and characterization are areas in which AC3 struggled, and it’s a mixed bag in those departments in Assassin’s Creed 4. On the one hand, pirate protagonist Edward Kenway has a lot more personality than his grandson Connor; on the other, AC4′s story seems like it’s taking shortcuts or is outright nonsensical, and it loses the historical importance that previous games carried.

The weirdness of the storytelling is that Kenway is primarily a pirate, who is primarily concerned with earning money. He never fully joins the Assassin Order, and yet the conceits of this being an Assassin’s Creed game dictate that he must be able to: freerun, fight like a demon, climb everything, and utilize assassin weapons with full proficiency. Kenway begins the game able to do all these things, long before even encountering the Assassin Order as we know it. He can even engage in those carrier pigeon assassination side missions within the first sequence of the game; narratively, that makes no sense. In general, it feels as though Ubisoft can’t be bothered with its own narrative through-line.

And any thoughts about addressing potentially tough historical fodder are basically abandoned within the first few hours of the game. Kenway spends much of his time in the company of other pirates, who continually go on about freedom from kings and clergy, starting a pirate republic, democracy and freedom again. The game does this completely unironically, and Kenway and his pals are never impeded by the fact that they take their freedom at the point of a sword from literally everyone they meet.

“Freedom” in the pirate republic is freedom to murder and pillage, and after pirating so many ships (only military ships, though, as the game whitewashes the reality), the “noble pirate” plot thread just winds up being ridiculous.

Not that the plot really much matters when you come right down to it. Kenway’s story is one of being a pirate and the assassins and templars are peripheral for much of the action. So too are those considerations somewhat minor in the slightly futuristic framing story of the series, in which you play an employee of Abstergo Entertainment, a video game company plumbing ancestral memories for cool things to make games out of.

This side plot explains a bit of what happened to the world after it nearly ended in AC3, but mostly it just seems to be a tongue-in-cheek gag about working at Ubisoft in Montreal, with a little bit of assassin/templar plot mixed in for good measure. It seems the takeaway is that Ubisoft doesn’t much consider story to be all that important to AC anymore.

Other little elements upgrade the experience, and there’s one big element that does as well. The big one is the routinely stellar (if largely unchanged) multiplayer mode for Assassin’s Creed, which continues to offer one of the most engaging and unique multi experiences in the triple-A market. As always, players take on the role of a single character model amid a sea of lookalikes, and set about hunting one another down by watching for clues that set human players apart from computer-controlled counterparts. It’s still as clever and tense as ever, with cooperative Wolfpack mode making a return from AC3 and game modes like Manhunt and Capture the Artifact that mix up traditional team-based gameplay modes with the franchise’s stealth mechanics.

A new “game lab” feature also gives players new freedom in cooking up ways to play multiplayer by recombining different elements to make new game modes. Since this is the fourth AC game to feature this brand of multiplayer, it’s nice to see Ubisoft ceding some control over how it’s played to its community, with lots of new game modes coming out of the game lab.

That can help mitigate multiplayer’s general trouble, which is that the careful, considered approach often falls away to just charging around, murdering everyone as fast as possible. When things get chaotic, multiplayer starts to bore — it’s at its best when it’s all about playing smart, and Ubisoft hasn’t quite tweaked the formula enough to sustain that kind of play throughout the multiplayer offering.

There are other social interaction tidbits that make the game a little more open to friends lists, but they’re not exactly game-changers. You can share the locations of certain discovered events or treasures with your friends automatically, and they with you, which is kind of cool; you can also capture ships to create a fleet that can be dispatched to other colonies to earn you money, much like Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood’s recruit missions. These additions don’t send the experience in amazing new directions, but they do add a few more dimensions to cruising around the world.

I played Assassin’s Creed 4 on both Playstation 3 and PC, and the PC version is notable for being a great deal more beautiful than its console counterpart — and this is a game whose tropical setting and art direction make it beautiful regardless of platform. However, the PC version also seemed a bit less stable than that of the PS3; I encountered a few minor bugs in boarding ships and engaging in combat on PC that didn’t seem to pop up in my PS3 playthrough, although in my experience there was nothing game-breaking. Overall, the graphical boost in the title made up for any minor wonkiness.

It’s tough to assign a sort of overreaching score to Assassin’s Creed 4, since every part of the experience is predicated on the point that this is basically Yet Another Assassin’s Creed Game. The core gameplay has gone unchanged for the entire seventh console generation, and AC4 will feel in many ways like the same game as every iteration before it.

That said, fans of the series will probably find AC4 to be the best so far, or at least ranking high among its brethren. Players new to the series will find what seems to be, so far, the best iteration of those core mechanics yet released, along with a solid ship combat system to tie it all together. There’s no shortage of things to do, from hunting animals to hunting collectibles, completing optional side missions with the Assassins, taking forts, and generally exploring. All that gameplay fits beautifully into the setting, and this is the first game of the series in a while to make me want to double back and take it to 100 percent completion.

If Assassin’s Creed grates on you and you’re tired of dumping money into games that are functionally identical in many ways, look elsewhere. But Assassin’s Creed 4 will please AC fans, and from a purely mechanical, gameplay standpoint, it’s probably the best game in the franchise to date. From that perspective, it’s a worthy investment. From others, like narrative, it leaves much to be desired.

Pros:

  • Finely polished version of core Assassin’s Creed mechanics
  • Graphically beautiful on all platforms; gorgeous on higher settings on PC
  • Setting fits Assassin’s Creed’s core mechanics extremely well
  • Improved ship combat is often pretty engaging
  • Diversity of settings and town sizes offer a lot of different experiences
  • Multiplayer adds a few new features and remains interesting and novel

Cons:

  • Feature creep makes this feel like yet another game which a check list of “Ubisoft open world game features,” such as Far Cry 3-style hunting and crafting
  • Amount of necessary ship piracy gets ridiculous; not enough variety in ship combat to sustain the insane amount of it you end up doing
  • Story might be the weakest of an AC game, despite Kenway being a fairly interesting character; takes none of the risks or deeper looks into (fictional) history that have marked the series
  • Core gameplay remains largely unchanged, only tweaked and polished, and the formula is starting to wear thin; if you’re tired of the standard AC experience, look elsewhere

Final Score: 78/100


Game Front employs a 100-point scale when reviewing games to be as accurate about the experience as possible. Read the full rundown of what our review scores mean.


Read more of Phil Hornshaw’s work here, and follow him and Game Front on Twitter: @philhornshaw and @gamefrontcom.

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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.