I have not touched the Assassin’s Creed series in nearly four years. It began with the prior two numbered titles, and I certainly enjoyed them at the time, but past-me is an idiot, as he didn’t like 999 and was adamant about defending Final Fantasy XIII, as that is why he bought an Xbox 360. So, skipping three iterations, my thoughts on this installment could have been summarized by how I ended my first day of 11 hours of play with, “Well, today was devoted to Assassin’s Creed IV. The game is fun, but it probably won’t be 40 hours in.” Which it sure as sugar wasn’t.
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag Review
Platforms: Xbox 360, Xbox ONe, PS3, PS4, Wii U, PC(Reviewed)
Developers: Ubisoft Montreal, Annecy, Bucharest, Kiev, Montpellier, Quebec, Singapore, and Sofia
There is something I find very unenjoyable about stories told to me in a series of disjointed segments that very much require the player’s concentration in order to understand who character are, as events jump around under the guise of history. Though, I often found the facts I got from something as simple as the dates of deaths I managed to get from Wikipedia to diminish some of the characterization thrown around. Yet, considering the facts that characters can go radio silent for hours and time is skewered by large leaps, I suppose I should not be surprised to not know what was going on in the plot after chapter four of thirteen. With my understanding of the plot ending at Edward Kenway is a pirate whose life has been a mixed bag, where he accomplished next to nothing of worth, especially when you consider the ending is summed up by the game as, “Saw That One Coming”.
Oh, but that’s only about half, well, about ninety percent of the story in question, with the remaining ten being greatly unexpected, even after hearing that things got a bit wonky when outside of the virtual reality simulation of the early 1700s. No longer following the shoes of Desmond Miles, who I thought became Jesus or something in the prior game, but I suppose that he just died to prevent the apocalypse, Assassin’s Creed IV puts you in the eyes of an unnamed employee for Abstergo Entertainment. A truly featureless chap who needs to plug himself into cyberspace to filter the extracted DNA memories for an unquestionably evil organization, which uses Ubisoft’s popular Assassin’s Creed franchise as a means to make money ever since their hit revolutionary title Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation… Yeah.
I actually found the bookending plot to be approximately ten thousand percent more interesting than the malarkey with the pirates, as it is one of the few times in games where I genuinely felt as if I was an unwanted figure in the world. As the lack of clear identity or even independent thought mixed with the choiceless structure made the experience drone-like and, well, alienating. When you consider the massive time crunch that must be done to get a game of such a massive scale out annually, with seven studios being pulled in to helm this project alone, it can actually be viewed as a call for help, as the main character is never permitted to leave the facility and only seems to exist through the game within a game or through breaks in reality to talk about the inner workings of the game. The guy or gal doesn’t even take a cookie when they are accessing the bypass for some terrorists to stop the other terrorists.
Unfortunately, my fascination with the bridging narrative is only applicable to about two of seventy hours of game, and the gameplay that ensued in them can be best summarized as walking around and doing some minigames that probably took more time to visually design than to program. As for the rest, I’ll just cover the majority of this game’s many, many mechanics. The first thing I noticed when playing the game was how the movement felt almost exactly like Assassin’s Creed II, if maybe a touch bit more refined. However, as I muddled my way through the first major town in the game, I quickly remembered what I dislike about the first two entries, that the very lenient and free roaming focused movement controls are over complicated by their environment, and difficult to use in situations that require quick precise actions. This results in many a misplaced jump, running into danger, being forced between either a frantic climb up half a house or a walk that seems to only be useful when going incognito in the environment, which is useful during only a handful of missions.
However, the missions themselves are among the least enjoyable sections of the game in my mind. In part due to the very repetitious nature of them when placed side by side. Eavesdrop on these folks, trail another group without being detected, flat out kill this fellow and enter an implausibly interjected death scene that takes place in the land of loading screens, the works. Yet what really drives me up a wall is not how they seem to be inefficient ways to move the plot along as I am too busy playing to listen to the target’s dialog and don’t have the volume high enough to hear it all that well twenty meters away, are the side objectives. I cannot think of a single instance that was benefitted from having optional goals to missions, but Assassin’s Creed IV is among the worst in term of their enjoyability. In short, they slow down the missions and left me reloading many a checkpoint in order to fulfill their objective that, about ten percent of the time, are actually rewarding in their completion and go along with the game. While the rest are just another thing for me to get annoyed at, as I was unaware that you could tackle people from the top of a building, or that the game had killstreaks.
Then there is the stealth, which I believe suffer immensely from the environment in this game being somewhere on the massive side. Meaning there are many guards along most paths, vision is malleable, and making sure that you are not seen by a single soul would either take some special darts I didn’t get until the thirty hour mark, or far more patience than I found expect most players to have. So they may just decide to enter combat, which is far more aggressive and Arkham Asylum-esc than I recalled the combat in two being. A shift I could respect if not for how it eventually became a session of me wanting to be a monster with two blades in hand and on a battlefield, to me sitting back and pressing B whenever a red dot appeared over a foe’s head. Which is about as fun as you can get with four enemy variations and a left hand under one’s chin.
“What of the sailing?” one may ask as the game is about pirates. Well, the world is a bit on the large side, 100 square kilometers I believe, and you do not travel super fast, even slower when the wind is out of your way, and need to regularly park the boat, swim or a tiny island, pick up a little collectible, swim back to the boat, and get back to sail around some more. Granted, that is only the primary action I did with sailing, leaving number two being the naval combat, a system I very much enjoy in theory, but almost reeks of being a simplification of something far deeper and less based in the strategy of circle strafing nearly every single ship. With the exceptions coming with four legendary vessels, where the strategy was to, of all things, ram into them and hope they fall before you do, despite how they are bigger than you.
Yes, legendary ships, as the game is undoubtedly plentiful of one thing, and that is collectibles, as in the game feels like playing a slower paced version of Donkey Kong 64 at times. 200 shiny things that exist to be collected, god knows how many treasure chests, about six different gun models, twenty swords, fifteen outfits, twenty-some-odd upgrades for your ship, most of which have their own tiers, and about twenty more things to craft, 16 puzzles, and about 90 viewpoints to find. It is almost absurd how much busywork the game more or less threw at me in my time playing it, with a small reward to effort ratio that deems it fit to present a challenge completed notice for getting 200 things, or offers an outfit for doing sixteen side missions.
On the other hand, some of the side activities are on the fun side, by which I mean that I really like harpooning sharks and whales. An extension of the game’s simple hunting system that involves Edward Kenway stripping to his trousers and throwing large sticks into the bodies of strong creatures that deserved their fate of dying a terrible death and being hoisted up, still breathing, onto a ship. Yet, the reward for killing a white whale is obtaining one bone and one third of the skin needed for an outfit, as if a freaking whale isn’t big enough to build a house from its bones alone. Though I do enjoy the prospect of needing to time and carefully aim my throws and having the seas turn red as a result.
Yet on the completely opposite axis, there is are a variety of trade routes to complete in order to get more money through the use of ships who you not only raid for resources, namely the elusive and overly useful metal, but capture and more or less enslave the crew. A prospect that sounds interesting in theory, but is really just the most mundane, slow, and uninvolving thing I have seen in quite some time. For the most part, all you do is find a trade route that is in some breed of danger, select up to three boats to fight them in an auto-battle you can only interrupt by throwing in flaming barrels. Do that about ten times every play session, select some trade routes in accordance to what fifteen ships can carry, and then ignore the side activity for another couple hours. It feels like a poorly made companion app that nobody actually optimized or tested, and was shoved in before anybody realized how it is time consuming more than it is easy.
However, this game had a budget bigger than I’d like to know, so it naturally comes away with some level of graphical fidelity, especially when it is out to partially showcase the Generation 8 machines. As such, the facial textures are very quality, environments are large and only suffer from noticeable environments fizzing into reality, and hair for the main character especially looks like somebody glued straw to his head. True, the rain effects, outfits, and environments looked rather keen, but there is a certain ceiling of how appealing one can make a world that not only has been using the same basic engine for seven years, and while aiming for realism above all else. Leaving the oddly less realistic real world looking better in my opinion, if only for how the internal architecture isn’t dull.
I actually had a bit of a hard time deciding whether or not I should bite my tongue and purchase Assassin’s Creed IV for as much as I did, $30, and if you skimmed at next to any line of this review, you’d probably realize that I found it to be a very dense and large unrefined mesh that is the result of constantly tweaking a foundation that was far from ideal when it was properly conceived a generation ago. I suppose that improvements have been made, but when your multi studio production shines the brightest when it displays what I’d guess to be a section nearly entirely outsourced to a side studio, I believe your fat time sink could use some your work.
There are points of noteworthiness, but as the titles goes on they become far less common when compared to all too common mundanities. Would likely not recommend.