There is a lot of debate as to whether the one game per year mentality harms or benefits a games franchise. It seems to work for Call of Duty and FIFA but there seems to be grounds for discussion about whether Ubisoft should – or even are able to – bring out a new Assassin’s Creed game every twelve months with the same degree of impact as the previous entry in the series. Certainly when I reviewed Assassin’s Creed III last year I felt that the game was a serious low point in the franchise, at a time when the series really needed a shot in the arm.
Not to tread over old ground, but practically everything in Assassin’s Creed III was awful. As I mentioned in my review at the time the timing was shot to pieces, the gameplay was hopelessly convoluted and the story was a washout; rather than being a clever weaving of history and fiction the narrative was instead a lot of vapid hat-tipping and inside jokes. Connor was a character who actively alienated himself from everyone around him and was seemingly written to be purposefully unlikeable. On top of it all the gameplay was a spaghetti junction of one-time game dynamics, a hopeless navigation system and layer-upon-layer of complex side-quests.
Black Flag certainly had a big hit to recover from but from my time with this game I can say that Ubisoft Montréal must have had this game waiting in the wings as the recovery is so immense it borders on the unbelievable. We’ve swung from the lowest point imaginable to a game which is almost the best Assassin’s Creed game yet. It may sound cheesy, but it strikes me that every game in the Assassin’s Creed series has been building up to Black Flag.
The use of pirates is the best thing to happen to Assassin’s Creed bar none. The theme, the setting, the action – everything we’ve come to expect from an Assassin’s Creed game absolutely shines in a pirate setting. Every stalwart feature in the series makes the most amount of sense in this world, which reinforces my belief that we’ve spent years building to this moment. Scaling buildings in the Holy Land was cool, but it’s much more relevant to be using that HumanIK technology by clambering up the rigging of a schooner. The swordfighting dynamic makes worlds of sense when utilised as a swashbuckling simulation – even the use of guns makes more sense here than in any previous game. Smaller details like fistfighting, looting bodies and searching the map for treasures – I am convinced that every feature in the Assassin’s Creed games was invented so that one day we could have a brilliant pirate game. Pickpocketing? Piratey. Bar brawls? Piratey! The team at Ubisoft Montréal must have been laughing themselves to sleep on this one – it all makes sense; it all slots neatly into place.
The story – whilst leaning firmly on its predecessors – is clean, simple and takes a very original direction following from last year’s installment. As is usual with the Assassin’s Creed games the story mode is twofold; the first part of the story always concerns that of one of Desmond Miles’s ancestors and herein that part is the story of Desmond’s pirate ancestor Edward Kenway. Kenway is an unwilling (and mostly unwitting) assassin, joining the order accidentally after stealing a dying assassin’s robes. After coming into the possession of a Templar artifact, Kenway is drawn into a plot much larger than his own earthly problems and quite soon the player is whisked away into an epic tale stretching from one side of the Caribbean to the other. Templars who have infiltrated the ranks of the British and Spanish empires are using the ruse of cleaning up piracy as a means to locate a mystical artifact known only as the Observatory. The artifact allows its user to monitor any person on Earth – a tool which would serve the Templars very well on their course for world domination. Attempting to use his pirate allies to form a united front, Kenway will discover that all is not as it seems and by the end of this tale brother will have turned against brother and Kenway’s trust will be sorely tested. As usual the story weaves its own unique narrative around existing historical characters and locations so pirate buffs out there will recognise Edward Thatch, Jack Rackham, Charles Vane and plenty of other famous 18th Century figures. I’m always impressed with the skill which the writing staff employ to take real events and twist them together with this elaborate and bold narrative without the end product feeling forced or contrived. This is certainly the case here – enjoyable from beginning to end, Kenway’s story is strong enough a vehicle to carry the game in its entirety.
Outside of the Animus lies a clever and chillingly funny story which runs alongside the events played out in Kenway’s genetic memory. In one of the most audacious moves ever seen in a video game Ubisoft Montreal have entirely embraced a self-deprecating tone that again manages to escape being asinine or indulgent. At the very beginning of the game we’re shown that following the events of last year, Abstergo Industries have started an entertainment division utilising the technology inside the Animus as a means to create interactive entertainment mediums. Taking genetic samples of Desmond Miles amongst others, Abstergo Entertainment is founded on the idea of “recording” the genetic memories locked up in this DNA and exploiting the adventures to be found there as entertainment products. The very opening explains that last year’s PS Vita title Assassin’s Creed: Liberation was exactly the product of this process and that Black Flag is a proposed follow-up product to the success of that title. Abstergo Entertainment’s flagship office is in the centre of Montréal and every fibre in the fictional company seems to be cut from the same cloth as real-life developer Ubisoft Montréal. To be steeped so heavily in self-referential material could very easily come across as arrogant or just plain empty-headed but the tongue-in-cheek tone in which this is accomplished makes the game that much more enjoyable. Internal company memos ask whether releasing one title per year is either financially viable or creatively principled; other messages berate history buffs claiming that sometimes the truth must be bent to tell a better story; I laughed out loud when seeing an email that openly referenced the games industry’s fervour for violence – a bloodlust that has made these very games as popular as they are. Obviously without digging in too deep, Abstergo are still up to their old tricks and are rolling out Animus technology on a massive scale as a means of increasing their accumulation of historical data exponentially in the hope of acquiring further First Civilisation technology – specifically in this case, the Observatory. The story has usually been fairly strong but these additional details iced the cake with a very clever twist which not only openly embraces the criticism heaped onto the franchise but rolls with the punches and proves Ubisoft have a sense of humour. Crucially though, this proves that the biggest developer in the world are actually enjoying the process of developing video games.
Despite the fact that Black Flag is built in the same engine at ACIII, the game feels closer to its roots in terms of the playability and the control of our on-screen avatar. Freerunning, climbing, swimming and leaping all have that solid, predictable feel that the Assassin’s Creed series has given us for the past five games. It’s funny, where once I lamented the fact that Ezio or Altair would get stuck in an eternal loop of trying to climb the same three feet of wall, I now see a sort of AC charm in these actions. That said I have noticed a vast drop in the number of times these events occur. Has this eventuality been patched, or have I just gotten better at pre-empting the game? Despite the fact that there are no appreciable changes to the core gameplay Black Flag is a joy to play. Aerial assassinations are super-awesome-fun when they’re performed from the mainbrace of a Man-O-War despite the fact they’re no different than when performed from the architraves of the Haggia Sophia. The same can be said for bush assassinations, double takedowns and the entire host of attacks in the player’s arsenal; they may have (nearly) all appeared in previous games and are in fact technically identical but the setting somehow seems to elevate these actions to new realms of fun. When you’re releasing games every twelve months and only changing the setting this is the best you can hope for and somehow I’ve been duped. Minor differences include the return of the throwing knife(!) and Edward’s ability to holster multiple pistols – flintlocks take forever to reload so pirates often carried a bandolier of pistols and this is a feature which looks fantastic when Kenway fires off five pistols in quick succession, taking out five different men in a cloud of gunsmoke and blood spray. Connor’s bow is replaced with a blowpipe for the much-needed long-range silent attacks. The blowpipe is pretty silly, with the usual sleep and berserk toxins seen in Ezio’s games returning but no ability simply to kill from afar. Despite this the purist sneaker will use the pipe time and again to gain their “no alarms” bonuses. Besides incremental additions there isn’t really anything new on the ground in Black Flag worth speaking of and yet I’m over the moon with how this game turned out. I’ve clocked up nearly 100 hours of gameplay already which is over double the amount of time I put into Brotherhood and Brotherhood was until now my favourite game in the series.
The larger part of that is the sailing. Remember in my ACIII review where I said the sailing seemed like an afterthought, and yet it was the most compelling part of the whole game? Remember when I said I’d love to play a whole game where sailing was the larger part of the gameplay? Well it happened! I have to say that it’s the sailing and the naval aspects of Black Flag which really make it stand out as a next-gen offering in the Assassin’s Creed franchise. Ship-to-ship combat is robust, challenging and wholly satisfying. Cannon fire, mortar shelling and ramming all have a part to play with every aspect upgradeable with the use of hard currency and gear which can either be unlocked or unearthed in hidden treasure chests. Taking the sailing deeper than ACIII, Black Flag offers something uniquely fun not only to the Assassin’s Creed franchise but to video games at large. I can’t name another compelling sailing simulator on the market and I don’t think I’ve had as much fun giving my enemies the broad side or boarding an enemy vessel since Sid Meier was making games about pirates over twenty years ago. Outside of combat the ships handle with a satisfying weight; navigating the Caribbean seas feels hefty but every motion of Kenway’s vessel is deliberate and real. Negotiating storms, finding desert islands and even the sheer joy of the motions will be sure to keep gamers sailing for hours upon hours.
Where once we had several larger cities to explore (and in successive games, larger and more numerous cities), Black Flag offers dozens of smaller islands scattered about in a massive caribbean archipelago. The total map size is enormous – navigation is certainly sped up by the speed of Kenway’s ship The Jackdaw but even so there are solid kilometres between areas of interest on the map. Each island has a host of activities from the collection of animus fragments and treasure chests to side quests, buried treasures and other secrets. The majority of these islands aren’t anything to do with the main story (which itself in fact is fairly short – Raff managed to clock the main game in a little over 10 hours) but offer up hours and hours of extra time, mopping up those achievements and letting the inner completionist run riot. In addition to the exhaustive list of things to do, hunting and crafting have made a return. Whilst hunting and crafting felt like a solid and integral part of Far Cry 3 (I maxed this out before anything else) I’ve never felt it was something which gelled with Assassin’s Creed. Buying new armours and upgrades with currency feels like a better system but regardless, if you want a bigger health bar, you’ve got to kill a few monkeys.
As I mentioned before the treasure hunting in previous games was always a bit of a tagged-on affair. In Black Flag you’re a pirate, treasure hunting is what you do best. Treasure chests as seen in ACII and beyond are now far more numerous but they’re only the tip of the iceberg – Kenway will see himself buying information from barkeeps who may divulge the locations of various other secrets from messages in bottles to the cadavers of lost seamen – seamen who hold more treasure maps. It’s a peter-to-paul chase system which sees the player running from pillar to post, piecing together scraps of treasure maps before travelling to the locations on the main map. The locations of buried treasures remain unmarked, leaving the player to piece together the often cryptic maps to discover booty and ship upgrades buried beneath the sand. Aside from the main story, chipping around finding all the Mayan Stelae and the treasures is a joy, one which kept this reviewer playing hour after hour, often doing nothing other than treasure hunting.
One final point is that of the visuals. Graphics isn’t ever a sticking point at The Game Show and usually is something of an afterthought when I play games. In addition to this mentality though is the fact that after playing so many AC games it might be easy to forget just how wonderful these games look. Black Flag is no different and in fact is by far the best-looking game in the series. Having seen that spinning camera trick after synchronising hundreds of viewpoints over seven games it would be easy to overlook just how special those moments are – giving an insight into just how big, how detailed and how well-presented these locations are. Furthermore, the water in this game is something else. The motion, the colours, the subtle effects on the surface; this has to be some of (if not the) best water I’ve seen in realtime. Swimming in this virtual water almost makes one feel warm or cold depending on the on-screen colour and crashing Kenway’s ship into cliffs is made all-too-easy by gazing longingly into miles and miles of beautiful Briny. In summary Black Flag is probably the most fun I’ve had playing a video game all year and is certainly an unexpected return to form for the AC franchise. With enough fun activities packed in to keep the die-hard fan busy for 80 or so hours, but with a conveniently clear story this is both a welcome sequel but an equally welcome jumping-on point for a series newbie. With steps like this, the future looks bright not only for Assassin’s Creed but also for Ubisoft Montreal who look to be concreting themselves as one of the brightest major developers the world.