What’s often the saving grace of the “follow this dude” activities is Black Flag’s competent approach to stealth. That may sound like faint praise, but the Assassin’s Creed series (despite the name) has never been great at allowing the player to act sneaky. The illusion was always there, but it lacked the functional mechanics to back it up. In this installment, they’re (mostly) in place.
Murdering folks in the open is generally more effective than luring them into a bush with a saucy whistle (what? that’s really what you do,) but when the game enforces a stealthy approach it’s reassuring to know it’s actually supported this time. Having stealth as another option is useful, and it’s enjoyable to exploit the simplistic enemy AI with a few well-placed berserk darts and stroll off to rob a plantation warehouse while they fight one another. It’s also a relief to have long-distance riflemen picked out on the mini-map with a special icon, so you no longer have to worry which of the 14 different red blobs is the one who can see you from half a mile away.
Some of Black Flag’s other additions are not so tremendous. Diving does nothing wrong, but aside from the novelty of some different movement controls and cooing at the pretty underwater fauna in 1080p (or higher,) there’s not much to it. Whaling is about as horrific as you’d imagine it to be, and I don’t have plans to try it again. Mind you, I feel pretty bad about killing any of the wildlife (though “air assassinate an ocelot” is as funny a mission parameter as I’ve ever seen.) I can slice soldier throats all day long, but the fluffy critters really get to me.
Black Flag has made quite an effort to clean up some of the bloat added by previous titles in the series. Crafting is still there, but can now be done immediately once you have the required items, and there’s no more of that painstaking bomb-making bollocks from Revelations. This is a Ubisoft game though, so you’ll still have to suffer multiple layers of barely-relevant social nonsense. It’s easy enough to ignore, but the addition of ‘shared’ online treasure chests, a Kenway’s fleet mini-game that would shame Facebook and (at the time of writing) a non-functional Assassin’s Creed ‘Initiates’ website full of further opportunities for empty questing all feels so unnecessary. Not to mention a ship’s hold of cosmetic DLC crap.
The same criticism could be applied to aspects of the overall story, which would be much better told if it were to stick to Kenway’s tale of pirate redemption. Instead, the series baggage means it also has to encompass Assassins vs Templars and Ubisoft’s persistence with an increasingly absurd ‘real world’ layer. To their credit the writing team has done their best to keep Kenway out of too many narrative tendrils, but it’s not quite as clean a break as it might have been.
Speaking of the modern day stuff, it’s at least halfway decent this time. It has also disappeared all the way up its own animus, casting you as a mute protagonist who playtests videogames for Abstergo. They’re working on a pirate game right now and … well, you see where this is going. Basically it’s Ubisoft celebrating and/or laughing at themselves. It’s not too obtrusive, has a few amusing moments and encourages you to hack every work-place computer you see. Though perhaps my tolerance for weird, Pong-meets-Frogger hacking mini-games just speaks to the utter failure of Desmond as a narrative device in previous outings.
You may have heard some horror stories about how Black Flag has been optimised for the PC, but the reality (while not great) is not quite as bad as all that. Those who should be most concerned are the people with high-end rigs who want to slap everything on maximum and maintain a steady 60fps. An apparent CPU bottleneck (where quad and eight core processors are being under-utilised) means that achieving that elusive 60fps is going to be tricky without making sacrifices like reduced Ambient Occlusion or toning down soft shadows. Not ideal, and understandably frustrating for those who’ve shelled out on powerhouse systems.
It’s also worth knowing that the in-game vsync is the type to automatically drop down to 30fps whenever the game dips below 60. But if you’re willing to make some compromises on graphical options (something I needed to do anyway, as my mid-range box from a couple of years ago is showing its age,) getting frame-rates in the 30-50 range is very doable at 1080p. While on the subject of resolutions, it’s pathetic that Assassin’s Creed games still don’t have proper support for 16:10 formats on PC. Those bloody black bars are back again.
I feel a little bad relegating Black Flag’s multiplayer to a few thoughts at the end of the review, because it’s really the same splendid, thematically appropriate structure that’s been present since Brotherhood. But that also means there’s scarcely anything new to talk about. An addition of a ‘game lab’ allows the creation of semi-customised modes of play, though you’ll have to coax enough players away from already-established modes like Wanted or the co-ordinated boots to the head of Wolfpack. If you maxed out your multiplayer characters in the past few installments then there may not be much to lure you back in for a fourth time, but for everyone else it provides the same tense, stalker/stalked antics as before. Unless you’re one of the people who doesn’t quite ‘get it’ and runs around trying to blast everyone in the face from rooftops, of course.
Oh, and the ability to pay real money to unlock level-gated abilities stinks.
Parts of the Assassin’s Creed formula are starting to creak harder than a scuttled Man ‘O War, but Edward’s pirate adventures manage to wring just about the best out of the old mechanics. The open world collection-fest is given purpose, stealth approaches are now viable and Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag re-introduces a likeable, witty protagonist in a period of history ripe for videogaming. When the game stumbles it’s largely down to the narrative and mechanical baggage still being carried around from former Assassin’s outings, but the majority of new additions (sailing, boarding actions and treasure hunting chief amongst them) are successful in their intent to add thematic flavour to an already great setting.
See, Ubisoft? Piracy isn’t all bad.