20 January 2014

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag Review (XBOX 360 Version)

(Note: My review of the previous Assassin's Creed games can be found 'here'.)

(Warning: Spoilers Follow)

After the overall disappointment of 'Assassin's Creed III', I was both anticipating and dreading this latest chapter of this series. Anticipating because it looked like the ship battles, which I felt were the best feature of 'Assassin's Creed III', were going to be expanded upon and made the main focus of the gameplay rather than a side mission. Dreading because of how many other things 'Assassin's Creed III' got wrong and I feared would simply be continued with this game as well.

Well, thankfully it looks like Ubisoft listened to the fans for the most part because 'Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag' is a significant improvement. It fixes many of the problems I personally had with Part III and more importantly, it's a great deal more fun to play. It's not without its flaws, to be sure, but I personally enjoyed it and it gives me good feelings and hope for the next part as well.

'Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag' takes place in the Caribbean during the latter era of the golden age of piracy. You play as Edward Kenway, father of future Templar, Haytham Kenway and grandfather of future Assassin, Ratonhnhaké:ton from 'Assassin's Creed III'. Edward is a pirate who claims to be solely motivated by gold but as we learn from flashbacks during the course of the game, he is hell bent on providing a better life for his wife, despite her insistence that she loves him regardless and that she wanted him to get a normal job and live a normal life, something Edward refuses to accept.

Fate leads Edward into the path of a turncoat Assassin, whom he is forced to kill and decides to assume his identity in order to scam his way into more gold. Unfortunately this decision leads to him helping the Templars and causing much harm to the Assassins.

Edward tries to ignore the consequences of his actions by focusing on tracking down the location of a place called 'The Observatory', which he convinces himself will lead to riches beyond imagination, by seeking out a mysterious 'Sage' that knows the location. This single-minded obsession leads to tragedy after tragedy, even as Edward's ship grows strong and his wallet grows fat. Will he be able to change his course before it's too late or will he sail himself and everyone else who follows into hell?

Meanwhile, back in the real world, Miles Desmond and Warren Vidic are dead, (Thank RICHARD for that!), and the protagonist is now... well, you. You are a playtester for a software company called Abstergo Entertainment, testing out the genetic memories of Edward Kenway, which will be turned into a sort of virtual reality pirate game. Gee, how meta. ^_^;

Of course it's all a front for Abstergo and the Templars to discover the location of the Observatory, even though they practically run the entire world as it is, or so the games keep telling us, but I guess they have to weed out the Assassins somehow.

"You", however, are blissfully unaware of any of this, as you cheerfully go about your job, until you're contacted by a mysterious stranger and asked to start hacking into Abstergo's computers. As your security clearance is increased, you'll learn a little more about Abstergo, the origins of Warren Vidic and Subject Zero and Desmond’s thoughts before his death.

It's mildly interesting I guess, but I kinda already knew Warren Vidic was a bastard and Desmond is still dull as dishwater so yeah, don't really care. I did laugh though at the shameless attempts to sully the previous protagonists of 'Assassin's Creed' games by Abstergo, bitter much? ;P

Sadly, Shaun and Rebecca only have small roles in this game, which is a shame because Shaun especially was a highlight of 'Assassin's Creed III' and made the historical material in that game less dry to read with his snarky editorials. The "programmers" bantering back and forth during the descriptions in 'Assassin's Creed IV' came off more meta and occasionally too obnoxious for me. Here's hoping Shaun and Rebecca can come back strong in the next game.

Back to Edward's world for a moment, there were many characters to interact with, several of them from actual history such as Blackbeard, Mary Read, Anne Bonny, Sted Bonnet and Black Bart to name a few. And while the above names made an impression, there were others that I could barely remember later when they reappeared and the story lost me a few times, I remember thinking in those times "Who the hell are you again?" ;P

OK, I admit I'm not as knowledgeable on the history of pirates as I am other eras but some of the characters were difficult for me to distinguish from others and it hurt my immersion into the game at times.

As mentioned before, many of the problems I had with the previous game have been addressed. The Assassination missions now have more of a purpose than simply "Kill Templars Dead!" and require more skill and stealth to kill your targets, as in 'Assassins' Creed II'. There are also Naval Missions which usually involve you destroying certain ships or attacking convoys and stealing their cargo.

The ship mechanic is now a central feature in the game and it is SOOOO much fun! Not only do you get to blast the crap out of a ship, you can now board it and slaughter your enemies into submission and steal their cargo, which you can then either sell for gold or improve your ship. I have to say the first time I grabbed the rope and swung onto the deck of the enemy ship into combat, I had a smile on my face a mile wide. :)

As you face tougher ships, there are more challenges put in your way. You might have to climb up to the crow's nest to destroy the enemy's flag or kill annoying scouts taking pot shots at your crew. Or you have to blow up the powder kegs on the ship, ideally without blowing up your own crew members in the process.

You can get a head start with the smaller cannons on your ship and take a few shots, though it's best to do this BEFORE your crew starts boarding the ship, less you blast them by mistake. The longer you take to subdue the ship, the more of your crew get killed so there's pressure there as well.

But as much fun as I had with boarding the ship, I have to mention a couple of nitpicks. At times it was frustrating to fight on the deck of the ship because there are so many people fighting around you that at times you will have great difficulty focusing on a single opponent and will often lunge towards another person without meaning to.

Honestly, the camera can be your biggest threat during these battles as it tends to zoom in close on the action and either the scenery gets in the way or people attack you from off-screen and you can't defend yourself, giving them a free slash or two. It's not a huge deal but it was annoying, especially when it means you have to start the boarding all over again if you die. The scenery getting in the way can also happen in certain locations of the game and if possible, it's always best to move to an open space and fight there to hopefully avoid that problem.

Also, and this has always been a big issue with the Assassin's Creed series to some degree, it is very easy to leap onto the wrong thing or end up balancing on a railing when you meant to leap somewhere else entirely or jump up on an item when you didn't mean to. This problem mostly rears its ugly head during the ship boarding scenes as there is a LOT of background objects on a pirate ship and it can be frustrating when you want to make a grand entrance into battle, only to be thwarted by a railing or a net or a barrel or a cannon or a crate or a... well, you get the idea. ^_^;

Money now serves more of a purpose in this game as there are plenty of things to buy and upgrading your ship is absolutely necessary if you hope to survive later battles against multiple ships or the Man O' Wars and ESPECIALLY if you hope to have a chance in hell of winning a battle against one of the Legendary ships, which provide a true challenge even if your ship is fully upgraded.

You can also upgrade your base with various shops and places to keep your crew happy, along with your own house, in which you can buy art to display. Personally the art didn't really interest me but I can see how others would appreciate it.

Weapons are also more useful in this game as you actually have a reason to use your pistols this time. I admit I saved my money to buy the best available sword and guns but the option to level up slowly is there as well. You also gain the use of sleep darts which can temporarily put down a pesky sniper long enough to sneak past or assassinate him and berserk darts, which makes your enemy go into a blind rage and attempt to kill any soldier in range. Late into the game, you also get a rope dart which you can hang your enemies with.

Hunting animals now lets you craft items such as extra ammo pouches for your weapons or clothes if you wish. You can also improve your armour and raise your health in the process. The hunting mechanics are pretty much the same as the previous game but at sea, you can also hunt sharks and, yes whales as well. This was a subject of controversy for some people but thankfully the option to hunt whales is entirely OPTIONAL and you can buy, at some expense, any animal hides you require and skip the hunting process completely if you wish, and I personally appreciate the choice being given to me.

There are numerous side quests to undertake in this game. Besides the small chests, you can find treasure maps with coordinates to islands where you then rely on visual clues to find buried treasure with more valuable rewards. There are manuscripts that seem to serve no purpose in the game other than historical curiosity, and are usually under guard for some reason, maybe to make collecting them more exciting? Darned if I know.

Collecting Animus Fragments will provide you with cheat codes and other benefits to multiplayer. There are also glass bottles to collect which gives you more insight into the character of 'The Sage' and helps explain events taking place in the real world as well. There is also a multiplayer aspect called 'Kenway's Fleet' but since I don't do multiplayer, I can't comment on it.

In the previous game, there was a rather pointless side quest chasing sheets of paper across rooftops containing pages of Benjamin Franklin's Almanac that gave no real benefits. In this game, however, the papers are sea shanties and they are far more worth the effort to catch them as you can now sing while sailing your ship across the sea. Not only do the songs add a real touch of authenticity to the pirate feel of the game but chances are, you'll be singing along to several of them yourself as they're pretty darn catchy. ;P

One fun side mission was taking out forts on the map, which act as viewpoints in the sea, letting you spot items and towns otherwise hidden. After you successfully crush their defences with your ship, you storm the fort and can either kill soldiers for the fun of it or just skip ahead to killing the officers and the fort commander to claim victory. This also opens additional Naval missions.

There are Templar hunting missions which lead you to keys that will eventually give you access to the now obligatory ultimate suit of armour, though during my playthrough I couldn't figure out how to trigger the mission to find the fifth key for some reason. Fortunately, it wasn't necessary as there was another side quest involving collecting Mayan stones and this gained me access to a... different ultimate suit of armour. Huh, well, nice to have a choice, I guess. ^_^;

One new and fun side quest are underwater dungeons in the form of sunken ships and caves which you can explore about halfway through the game with a diving bell. What make it more challenging is that you constantly have to worry about your oxygen levels and avoiding the numerous sea creatures that will take off your health piece by piece... and scare the hell out of you if you're not expecting an attack. (Fuck you, eels. FUCK YOU.) But the rewards are well worth the effort as many of them give you plans to vastly improve your ship.

So, my final thoughts are this. While I still consider 'Assassin's Creed II' to be the best game of the series so far, I did have a lot of fun playing this game and unlike Part III, this is a game I'm glad I bought and will definitely be replaying in the future.

There are rumours that the next game could take place in China or Japan, which would be of great interest to me and after watching the movie 'Heroes of the East', which I highly recommend if you've never seen it, to be able to use those kinds of weapons and possibly upgrade the fighting engine to include martial art techniques would be all sorts of awesome. Here's hoping. :)

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