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Game Review: Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag

Game Review: Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag

Ubisoft just released the trailer for the next game in the franchise, Assassin’s Creed: Unity, which will be set during the French Revolution. My first thought was, of course, what better time to review last year’s instalment? So far this blog has primarily been dedicated to reviewing a sci-fi series that began in 1987, so this should fit right in to the ‘belated reviews’ niche I’m carving out for myself.

Bringing back the most popular gameplay mechanic of Assassin’s Creed III– or the only popular one, if you’re gonna mean about it – was probably a good move by Ubisoft, and the Caribbean setting is unique in the AC universe so far. However, I didn’t find the naval gameplay to be quite as engaging as most others seem to. Not as a core feature, at least. The occasional naval battle certainly helped to spice things up a bit in AC3, and boarding an incapacitated ship did always retain a satisfying sense of victory about it in Black Flag. But the naval battles still felt repetitive.

AC4 substitutes melodrama for a rollicking pirate-adventure feel, which was a good idea but one in which I think Ubisoft could have found a happier medium. The main missions could have done with a few more big cinematic / dramatic moments. There’s an unfortunate absence of memorable antagonists but colourful companions such as Blackbeard go a very long way to injecting interest in the main story.

The meagre choice of weaponry was enough to make me yearn for the diversity of even Assassin’s Creed III in this regard. I’m aware that the crossbow hadn’t ‘made it’ at this time in this part of the world and that a pirate would never be caught dead with a bow and arrow. But you’re also a semi-assassin and if there’s any aspect of an Assassin’s Creed game where you should take liberty with historical accuracy it’s the actual gameplay.

Of the weapons you do possess; the swords are fine and the blowpipe is useful (if unsatisfying). Chain shotting your enemies using four different pistols was always a pleasure though, I’m not gonna lie. But you don’t unlock the rope dart until one of the last few main story missions – so late into the game I’d already completed all of the assassination AND naval contracts. I could have used the variation the rope dart offered much earlier on. With no real goals to accomplish I ended up stalking the streets of Havana, hanging random guards throughout the town like the Assassin version of Lady Stoneheart (if you’re a Game of Thrones fan and don’t recognise that name don’t Google it – it’s a pretty massive spoiler).

Would it be unbearably negative to say my favourite thing about this game was simply that it avoided the biggest mistake of the previous ones? I expect the answer is yes, and I suppose to call it my favourite thing would be exaggerating. But I was nonetheless thrilled with how little time I was required to spend in the present-day Abstergo storyline. There was nothing more frustrating in the last games to be abruptly taken out of the experience and forced to play through whatever fresh melodrama Desmond faced that day.

This is the first AC game where the money you acquire is actually put to good use. Since AC2 the series has been notorious for including a relatively useless upgrade system, forcing to spend most of your money renovating a town (or something similar) which has no effect on the actual story. Yahtzee summed it up perfectly: “At least in this game the purchases you make go went to upgrading your ship rather than to cornering the imaginary sofa market.”

Though Black Flag is a breath of fresh air in a franchise that many people thought was on its last legs after AC3, I’m still not convinced Assassin’s Creed’s core gameplay is fun enough to sustain an annual release without stagnating. But Black Flag certainly alleviated some of those fears and as long as they’re able to keep coming up fresh, new environments in which we can run around stabbing important historical figures then I’ll keep enjoying Assassin’s Creed games.

On that note; VIVE LA FRANCE!

P.S. If you’ve never heard of Miracle of Sound, he’s a musician who writes songs inspired by video games. His song for AC4, ‘Beneath the Black Flag’ is catchy as hell, and really captures the rollicking action-adventure nature of the game.

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