Thursday, January 2, 2014

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag - The High Seas Caesar

Over the last couple of years or so I have become more of a fan of the Assassin’s Creed franchise. Each game has managed to improve on the last one in some way, but also introduced ideas that don’t really pan out very well. This became more pronounced when the franchise started going to a yearly release schedule with Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood and Revelations, which helped pave the way for the divisive Assassin’s Creed III (though this divisiveness came more from reactions to the main character and setting). That said, it was a little surprising to me that they would announce a fourth numbered game shortly after the last, but I was still on board anyway and wanted to find out what it was like. Though I had pre-ordered Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag and picked up on the day of release, I was only able to play it after finishing a couple other reviews after college finals, so I apologize for that delay on my end. Once I finished it, I did find myself overall liking this game more than its predecessors.

Black Flag follows the life of Edward Kenway, aka Connor’s grandfather. Edward wants to impress his estranged wife, Caroline, by becoming a “man of quality” and making a lot of money. To accomplish this, he becomes a privateer for the navy. While out to sea, he turns to pirating and ends up killing an Assassin named Duncan Walpole and taking what’s on his person. Afterwards, he meets up with Templars and, in the guise of Walpole, sells off valuable information that concerns the Assassins. Later in Nassau, after freeing a man named Adéwalé, he forms his own pirate crew and gains his own ship, which he dubs the Jackdaw. In search of further fortune, he ends up on a search for a place called the Observatory and eventually finds out just how big of a mistake he made in his meeting with the Templars.

The story moves along at a pretty good pace and is written well to boot. I was very fascinated by the information the player is given about the Templars and the First Civilization, as well as a more in-depth look at the titular Assassin’s Creed: “Nothing is true. Everything is permitted”. Edward is a man who at first runs his life purely out of love for money and with a blatant disregard for the safety and livelihood of everyone around him, even the allies who begin to trust him. As a result, he kind of deserves all of the scorn that he gets for his initial philosophy and way of life. Not only do I like having a protagonist in the franchise who is this deeply flawed, as opposed to a total ladies man, I also found it to make his character development later in the game that much more satisfying as he comes to realize the consequences of his actions. He does try to right his wrongs throughout the story, especially in a particular lengthy side quest, but eventually he grows to care about more than simply monetary gain and it was nice to see him fully understand the meaning behind the Assassin’s Creed and care for the lives of others. This real progression of character is what helps make him my favorite Assassin yet.

Yes, that is Blackbeard (left) and Black Bart (right) with Edward Kenway (middle).

Of course, the other half of the story is the modern day segments, which I found to be handled surprisingly well. Rather than focusing on a single Desmond-like character using the Animus, it follows an unnamed Abstergo Entertainment employee who is hired to look into the life of Edward Kenway and help the company get footage for a couple of their upcoming projects, those being a video game and a feature film. Since these segments are also in first-person, this implies that the employee is you, specifically, which helps some of the bigger twists in the story carry more impact. Also, in an effort to appeal to everyone, these segments are deliberately designed so that you can spend either a few minutes or a few hours trying to explore everything and learn more, so if you really dislike the modern day parts of the story, you can pretty much skip them entirely. This is a great move, though I ended up trying to get everything in the modern day anyway and one should be aware that there are points where you must interact with the real world to advance the plot.

In an intriguing twist, the setting of Black Flag is in a time before the events of Assassin’s Creed III, taking place in the Golden Age of Piracy instead of Colonial America. As such, the world itself is quite different, taking place in a much larger section of the globe. There are many different islands to explore, both big and small, all with varied environments that help them stand out from each other much more than Colonial America (though I wish to stress that I liked Colonial America anyway because my ancestors were involved in America all the way back to the Mayflower). I noticed a brighter color palette with Black Flag, which is actually very realistic and sells the very open setting as well as highlighting the high level of detail put into every part of the environment. The water is also very well animated, though I must say that the splash animations were a little sub-par. In any case, this is definitely the best looking Assassin’s Creed game yet.

True Fast Travel is a returning feature from Assassin’s Creed III, which is good because the world of Black Flag is absolutely gigantic. Getting to a spot on an island on foot isn’t so bad, but bigger levels may require you to traverse through dense jungles, so Fast Travelling on larger islands is more attractive. To get between individual islands however, you may need to sail all the way from one island to the next, which can take a really long time. There are ways to ease the length of the journey, but unlocking Fast Travel points becomes absolutely essential to cut down on travel time if you’re trying to go to a very specific location. Fluid movement among the platforms and trees is a returning element as well, albeit much more refined and less glitchy than before.

In searching for an appropriate image, I am assured that
this represents at least part of the game's world.

Combat is pretty similar to that of Assassin’s Creed III, but at the same time it seemed to be missing some features that I liked from the latter. Edward can still dual wield swords, but the effectiveness is limited to the individual stats of the swords, which was a little disappointing due to the lack of a single weapon to rely on. Unarmed combat and wristblade-only combat is also pretty much useless, a major disappointment as I had to depend almost purely on my swords to quickly get rid of enemies. Guns are also a viable option, though if you want to rapidly chain shots together, which you can with up to four shots, you have to wait a bit for Edward to reload before you can do that cool feature if you’ve fired already, and even then I was never able to reload back up to four (I have no idea if that was tied to my upgrade choices, so that could just be player error). Thankfully the momentum-based combat is still present, but the toughest enemies still can’t be taken down through this method, which awkwardly forced me to resort to breaking their guard even with a number of the enemies around me. This situation worsens as soon as a grenade gets thrown, so there was hardly an opportunity to kill a group with momentum alone. The blowpipe and rope dart also return for use both in combat and in the field, though the rope dart arrived too late in the game for me to really integrate it into my strategy all that well, though firing darts in the field is a good way to thin out the enemy forces before initiating combat. Also, smoke bombs are very helpful in a pinch to quickly eliminate a wave of unnecessarily tough opposition.

Since this is a pirate game, you will see the water quite a lot, mostly if you’re travelling somewhere for the first time. Fortunately there’s a lot on offer to keep things interesting and core ship mechanics introduced in III are greatly improved upon in Black Flag. The Jackdaw was very easy to maneuver and combat between ships is very refined and much easier to execute. Naval Battles are where the most improvements were made, including the ability to fire mortars and more advanced versions of specific weaponry. It takes a little getting used to, but after that it feels very intuitive and you feel like you can take on any ship. While locked in combat between ships, you can take two routes, those being to either sink or personally raid the ship. Sinking the ship offers less of a reward, that being half of whatever cargo that ship was carrying at the time; sometimes this is unavoidable once the Jackdaw is upgraded high enough. Boarding the enemy ship after crippling it will net you all of its cargo, though you may also need to complete other objectives like killing a certain number of crew members or destroying a flag. This option is the best route for gathering supplies for upgrades, so it’s fortunate that they made Naval Battles more fun to go through.

The Jackdaw (appearance can be manipulated by the player).

With that said, upgrading the Jackdaw can be extremely difficult if you don’t know what you’re doing. You’ll not only need Reales, the currency of the game, you’ll also probably need some amount of cloth, wood or metal, sometimes a combination of them. Earning the coin is easy, since you can just sell off all of the valuable sugar and rum you find, but getting the materials presents a challenge. There are a few ways to do it, but it can take forever no matter what you do, not helped by the noticeable lack of metal compared to the other materials. For this, there is both good and bad news. The bad news is that at certain points in the story you will be forced to upgrade the Jackdaw if you want to survive, making grinding for materials a necessity. The good news is that there is an exploit you can use if you haven’t been spending your time finding ships to raid, or don’t have the time, which requires you to repeatedly destroy a downed Man-o-War at a specific point in the story (I will only say Sequence 8, Memory 1) and reloading the checkpoint over and over before quitting to the Main Menu to save everything you earned. It may take a while, and the cargo may be random, but it’s the fastest and most consistent way to get everything you may need.

While you’re out to sea, you can also complete a number of side activities, enough to keep you busy for quite a while if you’re looking to do absolutely everything possible in Black Flag. Aside from Naval Battles, you can also go harpooning for a variety of whales and sharks [NOTE: While you can hunt whales, Ubisoft has stated that they do not condone whaling and that you are able to hunt whales for the sake of historical accuracy], explore underwater wrecks or even go on treasure hunts across the different islands in the game. There’s even more to do besides those, but being able to do so much in the first place allows the water sections to have even more of a purpose and I found what I did do to be a lot of fun. I haven’t tried to collect everything yet, due to the sheer number of Animus Fragments hidden underwater for instance, but I may go back in the future to try and find everything Black Flag has to offer.

Whaling doesn't look like this, but you can hunt what you see here.

The mission structure in Black Flag is improved over its predecessor, with no difference between gameplay and story to be seen (e.g. you actually follow instead of lead). I can see that more time was put into making sure that the missions were balanced and playable, but I found myself to not enjoy doing missions as much as I did just roaming around and doing my own thing. Eventually the story missions became a little monotonous, such as having to repeatedly tail people to find out information or accomplish something. When wandering through the world I felt more freedom and less constraint from the story, but I still went through it anyway to fully unlock everything, including the rope dart and diving bell (required for underwater exploration).

Before I get to PS3-specific content, I want to note that this is the first game I’ve played where sea shanties are a feature. You can find them around the world to have your crew sing them in a manner akin to a naval jukebox. Having your crew sing a shanty can make trips on the open sea less stressful and adds a bit of atmosphere. Collecting them, however, is another story. These things fly away when you try to get them, so you end up having to chase them down and you may not get them. This led me to do one thing I had previously never thought I’d say out loud: spawn camp the sea shanty. When you know exactly where they spawn, you can simply camp where they would be and you’ll get them without any problems except for the part where you have to wait what can feel like an eternity; still worth it in the end to get some vocal variety.

Running after a sea shanty can be difficult.

Since I played the PS3 version of the game, I also got access to an additional hour of gameplay (actual completion time may vary). Surprisingly, it follows the point of view of Aveline from Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation, so it felt a bit jarring to go between protagonists and time periods for only a small amount of time. This section has Aveline freeing a slave whom Connor mentioned via letter would be of interest to her. The story was more straightforward than the game she’s actually from, though I didn’t really find any trouble with combat thanks to the über powerful machete in her possession taking down enemies with ease. It might be worth it for some fans to get the PS3 version just for this one bit of story, but it feels like it could be safely skipped as it has no bearing on the events of any of the related games (including the tangentially related Black Flag). In any event, the controls for Aveline were a little better than the Vita, so I am now curious about the HD version of her original game just to see how much differently it controls.

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is a yearly sequel that is actually fun to play. Edward is a deeper character than others before him and his time period is a very interesting one to explore. Improvements made across the board also help his story stand out, though I think the missions were less fun than going out to sea or just running around on my own. Assassin’s Creed fans should pick this up to continue the adventure, though it is getting increasingly difficult for newcomers to jump on without spending a lot of money. This is my favorite Assassin’s Creed game yet, but I really hope that Ubisoft actually waits another year to put out the next one because playing the games is now more of a thing that happens instead of a real event worth getting excited for.

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