Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag Review (Xbox One)

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Another year, another Assassin’s Creed game. Like clockwork, Ubisoft has released a new Assassin’s Creed title (in one format or another) every year since the original Assassin’s Creed dropped in 2007. With the Desmond Miles story finished off in Assassin’s Creed III, is Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag seaworthy enough to sail on its own, or has Ubisoft finally gone to the well once too often?

After vicariously living through a protagonist for years and finally seeing their story come to a close, it has to be hard for a game developer to start over again. Since 2007, we’ve been with Desmond Miles and experienced the life of his ancestors Altaïr ibn-La’Ahad, Ezio Auditore da Firenze and Connor Kenway, and with so much build up, Ubisoft had to dig deep and create not only a new Assassin and protagonist, but do so in a fashion that wouldn’t disappoint their loyal following and cater to the newcomers as well; remembering that the Nintendo faithful have just started receiving Assassin’s Creed on the Wii U.

Whether or not they’ve succeeded is going to vary from player to player, but while playing through the latest installment in the Assassin’s Creed series myself, it sometimes felt as if I were actually playing two different games – Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag & Pirates: The Game.

When it’s masked in its Black Flag persona, it’s definitely familiar territory, but not always in a good way. You’ll spend a lot of time doing tedious tail and chase missions that never, ever become fun, and this aspect has always been rather boring to me. It’s typical Assassin’s Creed fare, but I’ve never found tailing a target and listening to them ramble on for 10 minutes before killing them enjoyable.

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However, when Black Flag sheds its skin and morphs in to Pirates: The Game, I don’t think I’ve honestly had as much fun with an open world experience since 2011’s The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Putting the tedium of the story missions aside, Black Flag allowed me to not only get lost in the landscapes of different islands, take on assassination contracts, Templar Hunt missions, and hunt both animals and collectables alike, but also gave me free reign of the open sea via Captain Kenway’s ship, the Jackdaw.

Setting sail in the West Indies (accompanied by the immense upgrade to both textures and draw distance, thanks to the Xbox One) is awesome. I didn’t say “was awesome“, because even after putting over 40 hours in to Black Flag, I’m still playing it. Combat at sea is fairly similar to Assassin’s Creed III, but thankfully a lot more refined and enjoyable.

Being a pirate first and Assassin second, you have the freedom to take on and plunder any ship you see fit for personal gain. Opting to board a damaged enemy ship rather than sinking it gives you the option of using its resources to repair the Jackdaw, lowering your wanted level to deter hunter ships from stalking you, or recruiting it in to Kenway’s Fleet; a money making mini-game that works similar to the trade routes in Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation on the PS Vita.

You’ll find yourself plundering quite often, as the resources gained are required to upgrade the Jackdaw‘s hull, cannons, storage and living quarters, so you should expect to be out at see for a large portion of the game. After taking down numerous enemy ships in the middle of tropical storms, landing double assassinations while swinging from my ship like Captain Chunk, and listening to my crew sing their hearts out as we made our way from Kingston to Tulum, I was more than okay spending most of my time at sea. Hell, I loved it and it made me want to be a pirate, sans the scurvy and being drunk all the time.

While you’re out at sea, there are a few optional activities you can engage in, such as harpooning and diving. I have a legit fear of the open water, so drifting out in my little rowboat with nothing between me and a great white shark but lumber and harpoons was far more terrifying than any survival horror game I’ve played to date. Imagine re-living Jaws, except you don’t get to explode a canister in its mouth by firing off a rifle, but instead you have to poke him with a bunch of pointy sticks.

Harpooning is just one of the many ways to pass time in Black Flag when I grew tired of the story missions, but I don’t say that to discredit the actual story at all. The overall story in Black Flag is definitely a lighter affair than the previous games, which is good news if you found the earlier entries harder to digest than your mother’s cooking. Just don’t expect an Assassin’s Creed II level of depth — It’s an already told pirate tale of loss, friendship and treachery mixed in with a scoop of Templar versus Assassin shenanigans, poured on to a great cast of characters and promptly chased with a few bottles of rum.

Back on land, Edward can sneak and assassinate with the best of them. Armed with the iconic wristblades and a set of dual rapiers, combat is a little faster than most of the previous entries, but still relies heavily on counterattacks to disarm or insta-kill the opposition. Edward can also carry up to four single-shot pistols to mix things up from a distance, a blow dart for crowd control, a rope dart to aid in air assassinations, and a bag of smoke bombs for when things get a little too hairy.

I found myself using every trick of the trade pretty often, but had the most fun popping the larger brutes with berserk darts, watching as they went in to a Hulk rage on their friends while I’d sneak in to disable an alarm ball or steal treasure. Free running has always been a fun part of Assassin’s Creed as well, but I found myself running up every wall and corner in tight spaces, which became rather frustrating during chase scenes. There were also random points in the terrain where Edward should have been able to leap or stride, but would get stuck and stand there staring as his target took off in the distance.

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Captain Edward Kenway is a very unique protagonist in the realm of Assassin’s Creed as he isn’t actually an Assassin. Edward is always a pirate first, and in the opening act he stumbles to shore after his ship is attacked by an Assassin on their way to Havana. Killing the Assassin in self defense, Edward discovers a note on the corpse about meeting up in Havana to collect a reward of sorts. Never one to turn down a reward, Edward straps on the fallen Assassin’s robes and heads to Havana to collect it; not knowing that he’s about to become involved in the ongoing conflict between the Assassins and the Templar.

I immediately took a liking to Edward, mostly because I like pirates, but he always seemed to see the good in people even if trickery was part of his genetic makeup. He was sick of earning a pitiful wage slaving away at a normal job, and wanted so desperately to provide for his future wife and their expected child. Rather than sit and watch life pass him by — as life tends to do to people, or the other way around –, Edward adopted the life of a pirate, promising to his wife he would return in two years time. Wanting every man to be rich and happy to do as they please away from the King, the Welsh pirate’s perspective sometimes clashed with the others and delivered a nice layer of depth to his character.

Graphically, Black Flag already looked pretty stellar on last generation consoles, but the Xbox One version obviously features higher resolution textures and a gorgeous draw distance. It’s not just a lazy port. There isn’t much in the way of voice commands, but using your smart phone or tablet via SmartGlass allows access to the Companion app; a live world map, constantly updated with events going on in your own game. The seas are always changing, so using SmartGlass to keep your map going on a separate touch-screen, having the ability to easily create way-points and have access to Kenway’s Fleet without having to enter your ship manually is a nice touch.

Overall, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag was always a bit more fun when it was Pirates: The Game, but having a lighter plot made it easier to avoid it and set sail on my own. There are countless ways to pass time in the West Indies, and this is where Black Flag really shined for me. It still features the same tedious tail-and-chase story missions, touchy free-run controls, the usual glitches and a simplified combat system that has become expected, but even after finishing the campaign and dipping my toes into the multi-player, I still keep coming back for more. It’s a massive, unforgiving world that I enjoy getting lost in every time I sit down and say “Xbox, on.

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11 comments

  1. I will forever be one of the few who actually enjoys the conspiracy aspect and looks forward to the modern day plot development. So be it. They did a great job in this rendition of separating the conspiracy hacking from the main gameplay so I didn’t slow the momentum!

    1. I rather enjoy the conspiracy angles of the AC games. Sometimes their plots can be a bit hefty to swallow or seem convoluted at times, but I’m okay with that. I’m usually just annoying by the constant tail-and-chase scenes, if only because they get in the way of the fun parts.

      1. I know they visited Tulum in the West Indies with AC4, but I’d really like to see a full blown Mayan or Incan assassin. They could really go nuts with landscapes and the assassin outfit, but it may end up feeling a bit too much like Black Flag. Egypt would be another cool place to drop an assassin.

  2. “Pirates: the Game”, yep that’s about right. I only started Assassins Creed IV: Black flag on Saturday night and played it till Sunday morning, but in that time I think i’ve had m,ore fun than I’ve had in any other AC game. It’s amazing how you just spend time sailing aimlessly sometimes and find random stuff like ships caught in storms free for the pillaging. Your review captured my thoughts on AC4 perfectly and more. Even though I’m playing on my PC and you Xbox one I think our experience are the same. Ok that’s enough commenting for me, back to the sea I go 😉

    1. It really does feel like playing two different games to me. I could sail around, discovering new things for hours and never get bored. But as soon as I pick up the next story mission and I’m told I have to tail someone around (yet again), I groan, finish it as quick as possible and immediately go back out to do my own thing.

      I’m glad you’re enjoying it, Q, and thanks for checking out the review!

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