I hate doing reviews for Assassin's Creed games. Ever since Brotherhood, they've been trying to do so many things it's like reviewing four games at once. It's like trying to review GTA4 or some such, or Eve Online or something, only worse. I said the same about Assassin's Creed 3, but at least that was just one core game with a whole bunch of fairly involved side activities. Black Flag literally is two entirely separate, disparate games stapled together in about three places. To the game's credit - and that's a HUGE credit - the whole package doesn't feel disjointed at all and actually ends up playing like a unified experience, but... God is there a lot to talk about. So please, bear with me. I'll try to summarise as best I can. This is a game that I really, REALLY can't do a tl;dr review for because I have no means of boiling it down to a few sentences. To wit:
Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag is a combination of a single-character on-foot action and an open-seas tall ship sailing game with very minor RPG elements. It tells two simultaneous stories - one in the 18th Century Caribbean region, one in the 21st century modern world, using the "Animus" as a framing device for the former inserted into the latter. The modern-day story takes place some time after the events of Assassin's Creed 3. Series protagonist Desmond Miles is dead, Abstergo Industries (the secret conspiracy Templar corporation which rules the world) have secured his DNA and are now using it in their new Animus to doctor history via the creation of supposedly historically accurate video games. In the mean time, "in the past," the game follows the story of one Edward Kenway, notorious Welsh pirate and very handsome man, as he pillages and plunders his way into wisdom. As with previous games, the exploration of history is a means of tracking our ancestors' quest of locating a mcguffin so that we can locate it in the present.
That's as summarised as I can make it.
Graphics and design:
Superficially, Black Flag looks absolutely gorgeous. As a mostly-sailing game, you'll spend a lot of time out on the open sea, and MY GOD are water effects simply breathtaking in this game! Even out in the middle of nowhere, sailing the open ocean, there's still a lot to see, from the breaking of storm waves to water's slight translucency to sunlight and occasional greenish tinge, to the absolute beauty of clear coastal waters and the way the show you the almost picture postcard sandy bottom as you approach shore. The physics of your tall ship only add to the experience - it moves like a ship should, turning slowly, being thrown around by the wind and waves, rolling and pitching in high seas all the while your deck hands walk crooked to one side on the tilting deck. I have rarely been as excited as I was surviving a rogue wave in Assassin's Creed, frantically scrambling to turn my ship into the swell, being presented with a literal wall of water as high as I could look, climbing it and then feeling as though on the top of a tall building as my ship literally fell over the edge on the other side. I have never seen a "tall ship simulator" but my god! If one existed, Assassin's Creed: Black Flag should be the benchmark of how it looks, sounds and feels.
Unfortunately, the open seas is where the game's impressive visuals begin and end. As soon as you set foot on land, you will realise very quickly just how many concessions the game has had to make in order to fit into its last-generation console release. Texture quality, while not specifically bad, is decidedly unimpressive, with many being muddy, flat and lifeless. Environment models are also largely simplistic and not that pretty, though the game attempts to compensate by having many many of them. The various Caribbean islands are teaming with vegetation of all kinds, with wild animals roaming about, old wooden structures and cave formations littered everywhere and so on. Unfortunately, while those look pretty, they will also tank your framerate as Black Flag seems very poorly optimised for the fidelity it wants to have. You will slow down on islands with a lot of vegetation, islands with a lot of people on them, during harsher storms, while fighting many ships and really any time something even remotely interesting is happening. Granted, I'm not running the screaming latest of graphics hardware, but I would bet my GeForce GTX580 is still a pretty damn good card for currently-affordable system and THAT is struggling mightily.
I would say that what saves the game, ultimately, is its art direction and overall design quality. Yes, the graphics are a bit unimpressive. Obviously, it reuses MANY assets over and over again - what open-world exploration game doesn't? But in the end, Black Flag manages to pull off a unique look of its own that I really haven't seen much of anywhere. Yes, you have games like Uncharted and The Lara Croft Torture Experience which explore a few tropical islands, but Black Flag puts you in control of your own destiny and THAT makes all the difference. See that little sand bar over there with a tree and a chest on it? You can anchor your ship 50 feet from it, dive over the side and go kick the chest open. See that fishing village on that island over there? You can dock your ship at the one pier, jump over the side and go visit the local tavern. For the most part, if you can see it you can sail to it (unless it's comprised of sheer cliffs like 90% of all shorelines...), and this kind of freedom has a kind of beauty all its own that linear experience really can't replicate.
Where do I begin... Well, let's break this down into:
On Foot: Black Flag plays almost exactly like Assassin's Creed 3, with the same horrible idea of putting "run" and "climb" on the same button, but more on that later. Basically, this is a combination of "free running," i.e. climbing bildings and jumping around, and fairly basic swordfighting. Both of these aspects of the game seem to become less and less interesting as the series goes on, sadly enough. Swordplay has been reduced down to a bare essentials "attack/counter" system almost reminiscent of the Arkham series of Batman games, but nowhere near as good. Just wail on a guy until something happens and wait for a very obvious prompt to tell you an enemy is attacking so you can counter for an insta-kill. Climbing is also at its worst here, because the controls are terrible and terrain detection is worse than it's ever been. You will climb things you meant to, unable to climb things you want to, constantly jump in the wrong direction or overshoot things you wanted to land on, or drop down when you meant to jump and so on. This is made far worse because the game's story tends to require tremendous precision in controls that the game just... Doesn't really have. Put it this way: If there were no sailing in this game, it would be the dullest, least interesting Assassin's Creed game of them all.
I'm on a boat!: This, really, is where Black Flag really shines. Pretty early on (for a game which took me a week, so not that early at all) you are given control over your own ship, the Jackdaw. Once this happens, the game opens up in a big way. You can sail pretty much anywhere in the pretty large open world, even if some parts are too dangerous and some activities locked behind storyline events. Most of what you'll do with the Jackdaw, though, is piracy. You can engage any ship you fancy in combat with the weapons of your ship. If you can get the enemy ship's health down into the red, you can board it. This takes the form of a small event with objectives, usually slaughtering a number of the enemy crew, but sometimes having sub-objectives as well, such as taking down the enemy ship's flag off its tallest mast. Succeeding in a boarding gives you resources which can either be sold for money or used to upgrade your ship. Cause too much mischief, however, and "pirate hunter" ships will go after you, and these are NASTY at higher "notoriety" levels until very late in the game where your ship is upgraded to the gills. Beyond this, you'll use the Jackdaw as a means of reaching all the little uncharted sand bars and isolated beaches so you can collect some booty just lying about. The real beauty to the Jackdaw is that it is that you can release the wheel at almost any time, at which point it becomes a "building" you can climb all over, or jump off the side and go swimming. At nearly any time, you can run up to the wheel take off again. This "seamlessness" was a big selling point of the game. More on that in a bit.
All that's left is "side activities," of which there are many. There's the Assassin's Creed mainstay of collectables, and GOOD LORD are there collectables in this one. You have several types of chests, letters in bottles, "Animus Fragments" (i.e. we couldn't think of a collectable so we made up some bullshit), treasure maps which you have to find and can then follow for even more collectables, sea shanties for your crew to sing on long voyages and probably a few I'm forgetting. Around the overworld, there are sea forts you can attack and take over, as well as "legendary ships" which take the form of boss battles with rich rewards. There are convoys you can attack for money and even a few "secret" islands which come as DLC. There's "fishing," as well, which takes the form of spearing sharks whales, AKA that thing which got PETA's panties in a twist. Hunting from Assassin's Creed 3, AKA the most boring part of that game, is back as well. This time, you use the various pelts for upgrades, so at least there a finite amount of animals you need to kill. There's diving under the sea by means of a large diving bell. This lets you collect even more chests and animus fragments, as well as dodge every fucking thing on the seabed trying to kill you, from sharks to eels to jellyfish to just spiky sea plants, potentially looking for "eliete" plans for your ship. There are smuggler coves to plunder for booty and so on. In a sense, NOT playing the game was the most fun I had with it. The collectables are many, clearly labelled on the map and a lot of fun, while the story is kind of shit and very restrictive. Speaking of...
Story and Characters:
The 21st Century "storyline" of Assassin's Creed is pretty much a load of nonsense by this point, I think everyone is aware of this by now - even UbiSoft. It started off as your garden variety Templar conspiracy theory back in the original Assassin's Creed, but has now become this utter mess of crackpot theories about hidden conspiracies, ancient aliens, the creation of mankind, vivid memories written in our gene code, and now an ancient alien written in the human DNA such as every so often, a person will be born like him. Half the time I was waiting for the "Ancient Aliens Hair Guy" to pop up and say something along the lines of "I'm not saying it's aliens, I'm just saying it's aliens." I mean they pull ancient astronaut theories completely out of their asses on several occasions, like the Easter Island statues. "Nobody knows how they were put up." Really? Because as far as I'm aware, that's a myth which was debunked quite a while ago and the methodology of their creation and erection (pardon my word choice) well understood. The fucking things weren't upright when European settlers found them to begin with! Gah!
OK, let me focus for a bit. The 21st Century story takes place some time after Ass Creed 3. Desmond has died to save the world from an ambiguous disaster and you now play as some unnamed employee at Abstergo Entertainment, a French-Canadian game developer under the thumb of a demanding, abusive publisher in the face of Abstergo Industries. Write what you know, eh UbiSoft Montreal? Abstergo have figured out a way to tap into the genetic memories of OTHER people, so you are tasked with roaming through the life of Eward Kenway, 18th Century pirate and blond Welsh man, as he searches for the Observatory - an ancient alien structure which can read the minds of every person on earth through just a drop of their blood. Because the ancient aliens had magical technology which allowed them to predict the future, leave their minds inside human DNA and be reborn 80 000 years later... But not protect themselves from a solar flare which seems to have only mildly irritated humans. It's all bunk by this point anyway, but you'll be spending a lot of time roaming around the AE (see - it's a play on words on EA, too!) building hacking people's computers on behest of "John (from I.T.)" and delivering incredibly secret data to Sean Hastings and Rebecca Black from the previous games, who make no effort at all to be covert about it. As a framing device it's definitely more interesting than the previous Ass Creed games, but it's still just a waste of your time which ends without any kind of satisfying ending, but rather just stops, waiting for more sequels. Because we ain't had enough, between Assassin's Creed, Assassin's Creed 2, Assassin's Creed 2: Brotherhood, Assassin's Creed 2: Revelations, Assassin's Creed 3 and now Assassin's Creed 4, to say nothing of the 3DS and mobile titles. Ugh...
The 18th century storyline doesn't fare much better, largely for reasons of the ever-popular "ludonarrative dissonance." That's a fancy way of saying that gameplay and story contradict each other. As I said in gameplay, sailing the open seas being a pirate is BY FAR the most entertaining aspect of Assassin's Creed, far and above more so than the story or any other kind of gameplay. And yet the story proper seems to frame this kind of existence as sad, pathetic and hollow, constantly depicting pirates humiliated and dying undignified deaths in old age, or else losing their minds, constantly talking about how such a life of debauchery and FUCKING FUN is an empty existence and Edward Kenway needs "become wiser" and see the error of his ways. In fact, the story has you lose, be betrayed, get people killed and so on on a number of occasions by force of contrivance, even though both my Jackdaw and my Edward were upgraded to hell and I could take out entire armies and/or navies by myself. I mean, OK, Assassin's Creed has always tried to be the ultimate killjoy story, presenting even the most romanticised historical events and figures as empty shells made famous by exaggerated history, but that undermines the whole premise of what makes your game GOOD, guys. Because once you leave out the sailing and plundering, all you're left with is a bunch of people you don't know if you haven't watched many pirate documentaries (Edward Teach, Anne Bonne, Bartholomew Roberts, etc.) sitting about, drinking themselves sick and talking about great stuff like a bunch of codgers talking about their youth.
What I'm saying is that in both aspects of its story, Assassin's Creed seems determined to tell the most boring, uninspiring, depressing kind of story through gameplay tailored to wacky hijings, impossible stunts and outright FUN! That's what I mean when I say the game's the most fun when you're "not playing." i.e. when you're not following the story. Because the story is dull and it keeps asking you to do stupid things with unnecessary restrictions.
I know this isn't a usual category of mine, but there are a few issues I NEED to bring up if this review is to be fair.
Technical issues: The game is buggy as all hell. I've seen ships do somersaults in the water, I've had the game crash on me multiple times, I've become stuck on a number of occasions, either unable to move or unable to accomplish an objective because a script trigger didn't fire. I've had enemies see and shoot me through walls while I've been unable to see them at all, I've had button prompts either not show up or not work when they do. It's not frequent - I spent probably 30-40 hours on that fucking thing - but it was just frequent enough to be a detriment to the experience.
Controls issues: MY GOD are the controls horrid in this game. Assassin's Creed has never had good controls, but this is just dreadful. Ever since they "simplified" the controls in Assassin's Creed 3, it has been hell on Earth. Whoever though it was a good idea to put my "run" and "jump" actions on the same button needs to be purple-nurpled to death. No matter what you do, no matter how you play, Edward will climb things you don't want to. You'll want to chase a guy, but he'll climb a tree. You'll want to get him down, he'll jump to a fence. You'll want to get him down, he'll jump back to the tree. You'll be hammering your "drop" button for all it's worth, but because it's the same as the "tackle" button, you'll instead jump on a random guard and initiate combat. And then you'll fail because your quarry ran away. This is made worse by awful terrain direction which will keep causing you to leap off to your doom, ignoring ledges, ropes, perches and stuff to stand on in favour of certain death. And THAT is all compounded by the fact that Edward has a turning circle like he's six feet wide. I just about flipped my shit when I realised that I cannot go through a door. I'll climb on one side, drop, try to windmill around and hit the door, overshoot because of his turn radius, climb the other side. I would have to stop, turn slowly, walk slowly, turn slowly AND THEN go through it... By which point guards have seen me and I've failed my mission. ARGH!
Combat issues: Combat in Assassin's Creed has always been panned for being simplistic and relying on just countering everyone, but I thought Assassin's Creed 2 did it pretty well. Yes, you could just counter-kill your way through the whole game, but it gave you a bunch of tools you COULD use if you wanted to fight prettier. You had grabs, you had block kills, you had disarms, you had throws, you had a whole bunch of interesting moves. This game doesn't give you any of that. It gives you attack and a counter and that's about it. Enemies don't even have health bars any more, you instead have to kill them via "combo kills." They're obviously shooting for an Arkham Asylum combat style, but the difference is that here... It just doesn't work. You can only parry when a prompt appears, which won't always appear when an enemy is attacking. And when the prompt appears, the game won't always let you activate it. On top of this, Edward has this nasty tendency to drop out of combat mode IN COMBAT, making you unable to block, parry or even attack. Sorry, parry or attack, this game HAS NO BLOCK. This is compounded when boarding enemy ships, because that turns into a giant clusterhug, with your crew fighting the enemy crew. But of course, your crew can't kill shit, so YOU have to do all the work. Oh, but they'll hit you in the back of the head, breaking your counters and combos, your own crew will. Or they'll stand in front of you and block your sword thrusts, breaking your combos. Or they'll draw aggro so you drop out of combat mode. For the most part, though, your crew serve to die off one at a time, adding a ticking clock mechanic to the boarding minigame. It's a very, very sad state of affairs when I'd rather clear the decks of enemy ships BY MYSELF than have my crew "help" me because they don't help in any way whatsoever.
"Seamlessness" issues: If you watch any of the trailers or developer walkthroughs, you'll see that "seamless gameplay" is a huge selling point of the game. You can sail your ship anywhere, let go for the wheel and take off running, do stuff overboard, climb back aboard, take the wheel and sail away. And that's AMAZING, that kind of interactivity and seamlessness of action... It's just not really like that for the most part in the game. For instance, the whole world is not rendered seamlessly. Any larger location is gated behind a loading screen. You sail to a location and you get a prompt if you want to sail in. Once the game loads, your ship is locked at anchor in a spot and you can only run around. Returning to the ship and taking the wheel produces a prompt asking you if you want to sail to see, whereupon you're dropped back some ways off-shore, at the ship's helm. When you initiate an enemy ship boarding, the world pauses around you as enemy ships will politely wait for you to finish boarding the ship they were escorting, slaughtering its crew, pillaging its supplies then breaking it down for parts, fixing your own ship... AND THEN the fighting resumes. And when you take over a ship, you're presented with something like a 10-second cutscene before you're given a pop-up prompt to decide the ship's fate, then another 10-second cutscene depicting that ship's fate, whereupon you're wrenched back to your ship and either the enemy ship has VANISHED if you let it go, or else it's sinking next to you (not always on the same side as the cutscene showed you firing your cannons). "Some" seamlessness is worse than no seamlessness at all, because all it does is taunt you with thoughts like "God! I could be playing this instead of watching it happen!" I can get loading screens - it's a console game first and foremost. I don't get cutscenes inserted into random content, and I don't get being allowed to board ships with enemies around wanting to sink me.
"Online" issues: In this day and age of social media, games are trying to be more and more like Facebook all the time. So Assassin's Creed 4 comes with a host of "social" features, with constant pop-ups about your friends' activities, with "social events" that only happen on specific days in real time and so on. You can turn all of that stuff off at the options menu, but it's still annoying that it's in the game at all because quite a bit of stuff is locked up behind it. A number of Kenway's weapons - some of them actually very good weapons - are locked behind running a number of "social events." White Whales don't show up in the game AT ALL unless on a social event, either. This sort of "MMO creep" really bothers me, personally. I'm fine with multiplayer, and the game HAS multiplayer as an option. But I'm not interested in social crap in my SINGLE PLAYER game. I would be fine if it were an option, or else if the rewards it gave were just an easier way into stuff already available in the game. But locking actual stuff behind a "social" gate like that smacks of the MMO mainstay of forced teaming. Remember when people told me "if you don't want to team then go play a single-player game?" That don't work so good no more.
Kenway's Fleet issues: Like every Assassin's Creed game since Brotherhood, Black Flag as a "micromanagement minigame," only this time you're not training assassins to send on missions, you're stealing ships to send on missions. In concept, that's fine - I have a pirate fleet. There are two huge issues with it, however. First of all, the missions run in real-real time, meaning you need a constant connection to the uPlay, and meaning some of them take on the order of 24 hours. Right there that's irritating as all hell, but worse is the fact that this comes INSTEAD of any kind of crew customisation. Previous Assassin's Creed games actually let you use your master assassins to help you in combat in the actual game, but here you just can't call ships in to assist you (even if that would basically break the game's balance). In essence, this is yet a third game tacked on to the previous two, except this one really is completely separate - something you play on your phone while you're on the can, and the results of which you never see in-game other than a few more resource points here and there. Kenway's Fleet was the wrong kind of "micromanagement minigame" to have in Black Flag. It should, instead, have taken the form of an XCOM-like crewmate customization system, or at the very least such a progression system... Like in Brotherhood. But no - we had to go for iPhone tie-in crap.
Despite all the gripes I have about it, I'd still say that Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag is a good game. Just about, pretty much. It sails by (pardon the pun) on being "good enough" in a sufficient number of areas to overlook the sizeable number of other areas where it's just dreadful. The game's story is a complete abortion, at best uninteresting and at worse actively sapping the fun out of the experience and the games technical implementation leaves A LOT to be desired, spawning many a screams at my screen. The sailing part is decidedly amazing, especially with the wide range of sea shanties available for your crew to sing (seriously, play those as often as you can), sea battles are fun enough if a bit cheap at times, and island exploration is quite cool. The tired old Assassin's Creed on-land gameplay is growing stale, but it's still serviceable enough to count and all three major locations have been designed in such a way as to make both parkour and playing tag with guards entertaining in a big way. Really, the game's flaws don't show up until you start being led by the nose by the storyline.
I don't know if I can recommend Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag at full price... Probably not, no. I CAN, however, recommend the game itself. It's definitely something worth playing, it's incredibly long if you're a completionist (and have a network connection, because three of the treasure maps only exist through Kenway's Fleet), it looks quite good if you squint a little and it does a serviceable job of integrating a number of disparate game systems. It's just not something to rush out and buy IMMEDIATELY. Oh, and don't worry if you haven't played the previous Assassin's Creed games. You won't need to know anything from them other than to "get" some of the unnecessary fluff.
So... Yeah. Let this one sit and get it on a discount. I'd value it at about $30, personally. $40 if you're really keen.