Review: Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag (PS4)

Note: Portions of this review appeared in our PlayStation 3 review of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag.

Someone put pirates in my Assassin’s Creed… or Assassin’s Creed in my pirate? The latter sounds pretty painful, so I’ll go with the first one. There’s a lot of things that could have gone wrong with a game about pirates. Annoying parrots constantly chiming in with ridiculous catch-phrases, wooden peg-legs driving amputee fetishists wild, various offbeat Titanic reenactments and most importantly, another samey Assassin’s Creed release. Thankfully, none of those issues find themselves in this piratical journey through the Caribbean, enhanced for the PlayStation 4.

Naturally, it all begins with a shipwreck. I survive, and there’s a beached stranger in need of my help. The offer of gold grabs my attention, but hardly enough to sacrifice my freebooter beliefs. I decide it best to kill him, don his familiar attire and collect the reward for the urgent delivery to Havana he spoke of mere minutes before tasting my sword. I’m supposed to be a pirate after all, and isn’t that what a pirate would do? In the opening sequence of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, the pirate concept is immediately apparent. You’re not seeking revenge on those who have wronged your family. You’re not one with an ancient code or order, either. You’re a pirate in search of some quick riches, and in just under twenty minutes this is made quite clear — all fueled with the fun of open-sea battle, island exploration and cold-blooded murder — a drastic change from the campaign-length introductory missions of Assassin’s Creed III.

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From the moment I was handed the reigns, I was greeted with a sense of freedom I’d never experienced with any previous Assassin’s Creed title. Yes, there have been expansive cities to explore, vast countrysides to excavate, and side-missions aplenty to conquer as desired in each iteration, but never has entering the Animus offered me such a feeling of child-like wonderment. I found myself developing an obsession with delving deeper into its interesting and beguiling world as my map became a peg-board of engaging sights, activities and variable distractions — with surprising opportunity hiding around every virtual corner. At its best, Black Flag can feel much less like another episode in an annual series, and more like a spinoff that utilizes every lesson learned in constructing a gratifying experience. Even at its worst, you’ll still be free-running across rooftops, performing an assortment of assassinations, and collecting a good deal of upgrades throughout the story. But there’s an unshakable feeling of newness accompanying every familiar act, helping to make Black Flag feel like a standalone entry rather than a sequel.

At the helm of the adventure is Edward Kenway, the great, great grandfather of Connor Kenway (the leading man in Assassin’s Creed III). Thankfully, that’s where the similarities between the two fellows end. Edward is a true pirate at heart, with riches in his eye and congeniality buried some-twelve hours deep into his long-winded storyline. The greatest praise that can be assigned to Edward is that he is nothing like Connor. Instead, he offers an identity that is as greedy as it can be charming. Yes, Edward is likely to make the list of finest Assassin’s Creed protagonists, but this acclaim is awarded rather unfairly. In terms of likability, Edward will forever be compared to his stodgy grandson, and as if by default achieves the rank of superiority. There’s a lot to love about his barbarous, swindling nature — or so it seems in contrast to the walking tree-stump that was Connor. It isn’t for many hours into the storyline that his motives become predictable, and when allowed to escape the confines of the main quest, he makes for a grand tour-guide of the pirate life.

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Assassin’s Creed IV succeeds in capturing our attention from the very start, but that’s not to say that it doesn’t suffer from its own indiscretions. There’s a clumsy, disjointed story beneath the fresh coat of pirate paint, and it’s as coarse and corrupt as one would expect an adventure about pirates in the Caribbean to be — Captain Jack Sparrow withstanding. However, despite its intermittent extravagance and occasional set-piece heights, it so often fails to find itself within its tortuous legend, regularly proposing a wavering cast of forgettable personalities tasked with pushing the tale towards its increasingly discounted plot. While the entire first act of the narrative binds us to a life of pernicious plunder, prevarication and occasional poignancy, the latter half spirals into typical Assassin’s Creed territory, awkwardly shifting from one dreary, lackluster assassination to the next. The dialog throughout is mostly witty and setting-appropriate, with plenty of laughs and the occasional cringe-worthy moment. It never quite captures the heart of its premise, but it does present a charismatic few that band coherence and entertainment seamlessly.

There are far fewer dull moments in Assassin’s Creed IV than in previous installments, although many trappings of the series have made an unfortunate return. Frustrating chase sequences? Check. Annoyingly long eavesdropping sequences? Check. Ultimately, it’s when it chooses not to remind you of its roots in the series holding it hostage that Black Flag truly flies its flag most wonderfully, and succeeds as a pirate simulation that is as fun as it is cagey. While the story is not an entirely bad one, and is leagues better than Connor’s, it’s simply messy in its execution. However, despite its deficiencies it delivers a fine backdrop for an otherwise perfect pirate adventure. And that’s truly where Assassin’s Creed IV shines, as an adventure that isn’t held back by it’s historically jaded story of Templar’s versus Assassins.

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The modern tidbits of story fumblingly glue together the many chapters required to achieve synchronization, your time at Abstergo Entertainment – a subsidiary of Abstergo Industries, the evil corporation founded by the new-age Templar’s — will be spent exploring office-like environments, hacking into coworkers computers through mindless mini-games and pushing the oddly structured story forward. As you’re now a faceless first-person employee, these sections are less of a confusing drawback and play their part as the bridge to pirate fun quite affably — thankfully, without a Desmond in sight. Gone are the boring, dreary speeches, and in their place a humorous presentation of the modern Abstergo — while slightly campy, it serves as a delightful change of pace nonetheless.

While there’s certainly interesting characters to be found throughout Black Flag, it’s Jackdaw in all her glory that steals the show. The Jackdaw will play hostess to your pirating shenanigans, and will be your exploratory tool in populating the map with various icons. You’ll dive for treasure, discover islands, and rob your sailing rivals of resources required for various upgrades in refined and ever-so exciting naval combat. After a few hours of exploring the seas, I fell in love with the wooden lass, and found myself thinking about her during more mundane moments of my day. Building an emotional attachment to an inanimate object is only unsafe when it’s an inflatable person — or at least that’s what I tell myself as I step before her lovely wheel.

It’s true that the story is much of the focus, but what truly captures the eye in Black Flag is the world it takes place in — the entirety of which is artfully crafted, offering vast environments decorated with gorgeously lush foliage and bright, vibrant colors. Whales will visit the surface long-enough to steal your attention, and fire-heavy battles will become a distraction you seek to discover. Ocean water will bounce about the docks as crustaceans crawl across the sandy beaches, random rainstorms will paint the world with homespun greys, and sharp lighting compliments the splashy architecture and gorgeously vivid landscape. The world is littered with detail, both large and nearly unnoticeable — making gathering the countless collectables or encountering endless enemy ships a real treat.

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While Black Flag on the PlayStation 4 offers virtually the same gameplay experience as the PlayStation 3 version, there are a couple of noteworthy differences. On the surface, the entire world is far prettier; shadows are more vivid, foliage less pasted and cut-scenes quite clearer. There’s a certain smoothness to the visuals that is immediately apparent upon upgrade, making everything far more pleasing to the eyes. The upgrade is especially evident in the realistic weather effects, with rain and lightning adding a visual flare to exciting naval encounters. It’s a port after all, but one that does justice to the series.

In addition to the natural visual-boost accompanying the more powerful hardware, the Day-One patch from Ubisoft brings native 1080p to Assassin’s Creed on the PS4. The difference between the updated version and the original 900p version is nearly indistinguishable, though the entire game will appear smoother to keen observers. Though much of the sharpness has been lost, it’s a fair trade for neater shading and an overall superior experience. There are several other noteworthy upgrades that aren’t as immediately noticeable as the graphical differences. Upon beginning a mission, players will find loading times to be shorter, animations to appear timelier, far less slow-down during hectic battles — which oddly enough is only prominent when returning to the PS3 version — and more responsive, well, everything.

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Each new game in the series introduces its own spin on the treasure hunt, leading players across large expanses of cityscape in search of chests, documents and various upgrades, and Black Flag is only different in that it improves the system by adding more of a purpose and value to the search. Treasure maps can now be found on corpses across the land, leading curious players to buried rewards, often containing a necessary upgrade or valuable treasure. The incentive of improved gear is enough to justify the repetitive fetch-quests, and helps to offset the mundane as you invest your time into taking on more powerful fleets in the open sea. If there’s any fault to the amount of collectibles scattered about the map, is that there are more items than reasons to continue collecting them. I must have spent the better part of an hour simply collecting music-sheets without realizing how much time had passed — something I couldn’t do for more than a few minutes in previous entries before becoming disinterested.

Side-quests make a triumphant return, with assassination missions to tackle (delivered by those lovable carrier pigeons), couriers to capture and treasures to uncover — including underwater excavations, with long-lost shipwrecks to seek and loot. The gameplay largely remains unchanged, but has been refined quite noticeably. Everything from free-running to stealth has been streamlined, allowing for more freedom in execution.

Combat returns with its prompt heavy swordplay and reliance on timing rather than skill, but despite a smaller arsenal of weapons to exploit, the improved mechanics allow for nearly effortless interactions with enemies, swiftly switching blades for bombs and pistols for swords as you dance around increasingly difficult encounters. These improved controls perform gracefully (both in single player and multiplayer) across the brilliantly designed towns and landscapes, taking full advantage of every branch or windowsill. Sure, you’re still likely to stumble over passing townsfolk, and more often than desired begin climbing something you had no intention of interacting with, but at its core Black Flag is a huge improvement in both controls and their functionality.

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Closing Comments:

Have you heard the one about the pirate and the Templar? It’s not very funny, although it certainly has its moments. It’s pretty exciting, through, and chock-full of sea shanty’s, treasure hunts, good old fashioned assassinations and an overwhelming checklist of activities. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is the very definition of escapism, offering a mindbogglingly large amount of content. One could spend upwards of fifty hours exploring the world without completing more than a few introductory missions in the main story — which itself can offer over twenty hours of gameplay. It has its fair share of off-putting moments, a few gameplay issues that make an unfortunate comeback from previous entries and some stories that fail to fully-capture the pirate life potential, but Black Flag is by far the greatest title in the Assassin’s Creed series, and likely the best game to feature pirates yet. While it was great on last-gen consoles, it’s even better on the PlayStation 4, offering the same exciting experience in a more beautiful, smoother package. It’s a piratical adventure unlike any before it, and one that even series naysayers will likely enjoy.
score4.5

 Version Reviewed: PlayStation 4