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Assassin’s Creed IV : Black Flag Review

November 14th, 2013 by

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I don’t know how many people out there will agree with me, (or maybe I should ready myself for the lynch mob), but Ezio Auditore ruined Assassins Creed III. I make no bones about it that the Florentine executioner bled out AC3 as surely as if he had run his blade through its throat. Let me explain before you start sharpening your pitchforks and donning your hoods. Putting aside the bugs and glitches that hampered the games launch, or the regular hatred we all felt throughout the series for the non-entity that was Desmond, the biggest problem I had with the Revolution era stab-em up was Connor.

After living vicariously through the ultimate Renaissance man that was Ezio, the introduction to Haytham Kenway gave me what I thought was an insight into what leading man, Kenway’s son Ratonhnhaké:ton (Connor) would ultimately shape up to be. Unfortunately this was not the case as Connor, through some fluke of genetics was born without a personality. After two such colourful characters as Ezio and Haytham, (three if you include the sullen, impulsive Altair), my luke warm reception to Connor was, in my eyes, justified.

Thankfully, no such stigma can be posited to Edward Kenway, Connor’s Grandfather, and lead character of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. Edward can be summed up as the ultimate anti-hero. Selfish, greedy, dishonest and quick to violence; Edward Kenway is the Welsh equivalent of Captain Jack Sparrow but without all the crazy. Given the time period when you begin your story with him, this is an appropriate analogy. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.

<Spoiler Alert>

Firstly, it has to be said, that the writing team at Ubisoft Montreal has done a fantastic job of explaining away one niggle I had over the latest game and its modern day plot. If Desmond died at the end of AC3, (if you don’t know this by now, why are you reading about AC4 instead of playing AC3?), how can you be living the memories of one of the many assassins throughout history that makes up his lineage? Well, suffice it to say they answer this question with a pinch of Templar resources, and good old fashioned technical and medical knowhow. You begin in the modern building within which Abstergo Entertainment  has their headquarters, and given from the regularity of English and French spoken in the opening minutes, you would be forgiven for thinking there was some self reference at play here from the team at Ubisoft Montreal.  As you are shown around the AE building, you see the work they have already completed. Abstergo have extracted key defining points from historic characters memories, to be used as elaborate entertainment, allowing the layman to experience history through modified versions of the animus. You have been recruited to work on the latest piece of entertainment, the life of Edward Kenway during the Golden age of Pirates, commonly known as the Sample 17 Project.

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abstergo industriesabstergo industriesShown to your cubicle, you are fired into the simulation and straight away you find yourself neck deep in a sea battle as a privateer, trying to commandeer another ship to sadly disastrous results. Kenway is thrown overboard and upon waking, finds himself on a beach with one other survivor, the assassin Duncan Walpole. After a confrontational introduction, (Walpole tries to shoot Kenway but thankfully his flintlock’s powder is wet), Kenway chases down, kills Walpole and steals his identity, hoping to make some quick money off the assassin’s name and mission.

This starts a series of events that leads Kenway into the middle of the millennium old battle between the Templars and the Assassins, and sets him on the road to great riches and greater glory during the most prolific period of pirate activity in the West Indies.

At this time, and as evident from the amazing trailer (see above) you will be rubbing shoulders with some of the most infamous pirates and privateers to sail in the caribbean in the 18th century. Ed “Blackbeard” Thatch/Teach features prominently, but appearances from Benjamin Hornigold, Stede “the Gentleman Pirate” Bonnet, Bartholemew “Black Bart” Roberts, John “Calico Jack” Rackman and many others cross the path of Kenway during his time in the west Indies.

Ship to ship combat was one of the best features introduced in Assassins Creed 3 and takes centre stage in Black Flag, receiving a major overhaul due to its necessity during this period in history. Quite honestly, where would the Golden Age of Pirates be without the ship to ship combat?

It is not long into the game before you are sailing around on the Jackdaw, an “acquired” Spanish Brig, taking out English and Spanish Gunships and Sloops to your heart’s content. Ship controls have been tightened up and a much more in depth upgrade system has been implemented to allow you to get the most out of your career as a Caribbean pirate.  

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If like me, you were gaming in the 80’s and 90’s, there is inevitably one comparison that needs to be drawn between any modern game involving swashbuckling brigands and one from my gaming youth. Satisfactorily, the only thing missing from Black Flag’s Pirate-em up is romancing and dancing with the governor’s daughters. Between missions at many of the famous locations in the Caribbean, (Nassau, Kingston, Port Royal, Havana, etc) you can board your ship and take to the seas looking for adventure and booty. Upgrade your ship sufficiently with materials plundered from smaller vessels to enable you to tackle larger ships and even coastal Forts, taking over these defensive positions to serve as a way-station during your travels. There is truly no feeling like taking down your first Man’o’war with your specially modified, but distinctly smaller and weaker, craft.  Special Royal Transport ships and unique event ships traverse these waters, and should you have the firepower enough to take down some of these behemoths, these can reap some huge rewards. Or, you can revert to the life of a simple fisherman hunting and harpooning the whales and sharks that make these waters their home.

Taking down ships is a simple affair. Movement is refined and simplified in Black Flag. Trim the sails to gain maneuverability at the cost of speed, let out the sails for the inverse.  Weaponry is simplified. Chain shot is fired by focusing you view to the fore, swing your view aft and you can drop Fire Barrels. Look to either side, and you can fire either an un-aimed heavy shot which does a great deal of damage or aimed standard shot with more precision. Once unlocked, the mortar can be fired from any viewing position, in the same way as the swivel guns to give you a little long range punch when fighting those larger vessels. Once you become familiar with each of the weapons, it is not long before you are crippling ships with your chain shot and mortar, before swinging round to bring the broadside cannons to bear and finish them off.

Larger ships will also typically stay buoyant allowing you to take the opportunity to board the vessel. The size of your prey will dictate what actions you must take to seize control. It may be as simple as to eliminating five enemies on the ship, which can be achieved without leaving the comfort of the Jackdaw by manning your swivel guns, up to taking out 20 men; the ship’s captain; the ships powder reserves; picking off the two annoying riflemen in the rigging of the ship; and removing their flag. Strangely enough, the swivel gun won’t manage this with its five shots, so Kenway will need to get his hands dirty. Waiting until your grappling hooks can pull the two ships within jumping range is an option, but where would assassins creed be without climbing, so a much more appropriate approach is to scale your own mast and transferring across from yardarm to yardarm.  

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Once the ship is seized you are presented with three distinct options. Strip the ship to repair the Jackdaw, (top tip: this can be done during battle, so if taking on a distinctly bigger ship make sure to have a few “healthpack” ships lying around), Recruit the sailors and scupper the ship to reduce your wanted level, or send the ship to “Kenway’s Fleet”.

Actions you take on the high seas each increase your wanted level, and once you fill a symbol, you will become hunted. This can be an easy way to pick off bigger quarry, as the higher your wanted level, the more powerful the ships and crews they send to hunt you down.

Combat hasn’t evolved a lot since the original game. When you are greatly outnumbered, learning how to counter is a key component to surviving battles, but the changes that have been made are no less spectacular for this decision. Kenway has not benefited from the creed training, being the first of his bloodline to join the assassins, but his abilities are adequately explained. There is none of the precise deadliness of Altair, or the beautiful finesse of Ezio. Kenway is pure focused aggression. Combat moves and finishing blows from Kenway are simple, but brutal affairs, and the combat as a whole benefits from this brawler mentality. It is hugely satisfying to watch. His years of carousing and drinking back in Wales has led to you being introduced to a man who learned to fight in back alleys and pubs, and his naval career has, as Kenway himself puts it, “given him fingers like fish-hooks”. The skills Edward Kenway possesses are, in my opinion, the measure of what an assassin recruit should be and the transformation from roguish Privateer to equally roguish Assassin seems a natural progression for his character.

Fans of the series will be glad to hear, that most of the collectables and side missions from previous games make a welcome return, with treasure maps, messages in bottles, Animus data fragments, and shanties to hunt down and add to your database alongside assassination missions, couriers to mug and pirates to save. Once saved, these pirates will join your crew, facilitating easier takeovers when boarding enemy ships in sea battles. Minigames are common place  in the present, with your character using their company provided Tablet and security level to track down notes and hack computers to piece together the origins of Project 13 in the present. None of these have posed as much a challenge as the glyphs from AC2, but this in itself is not a bad thing, allowing you to progress the dual stories without too much frustration.

Multiplayer in Assassins Creed has been a welcome addition since Brotherhood, and become a firm favourite with fans since inception. Those of you that have already experience the joys of hunting and assassinating your fellow players will be glad to know that not only does the multiplayer continue in this iteration, but also remains, on the whole, the same.

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Minor tweaks have obviously been made, but nothing that changes the flow of the combat in the game. A few new tricks have been added to your characters armament to give you further chances to survive. These abilities including being able to shield yourself against an incoming attack; disguise yourself as a generic npc; and fire your pistol at an opponent are new timed mechanics that may mean the difference between life and death. Updates to the HUD also give you more active visibility of your surroundings, but at no time did any of these changes make the Multiplayer feel any less enjoyable or challenging than its previous incarnations.

Finally, its worth addressing the external support for AC4. Ubisoft, like many other developers, are getting firmly behind companion apps bringing us into a more connected future of gaming. Though minor inroads in cross platform play, it does give a decent indication of what can be achieved. The AC4 companion app turns your tablet or smartphone into what can only be called an interactive PDA. Collectibles you retrieve, documents you find and manuscripts you recover are all available to view instantaneously on the companion app. Found a new treasure Map? view it on your PDA while sailing to track down that elusive bounty. Meet a new character in the single player game and your PDA is updated immediately with the atypical Assassins Creed biography. These nice touches really flesh out the app, but the icing on the cake is Kenway’s Fleet.  As highlighted earlier, capturing ships allow you the option to send them to your fleet. From here, you can either access your fleet from the maps in the captains cabin in game, or utilise the in built functionality on the companion app.

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From here, you can scrap ships for resources, repair your fleet, send your strongest or fastest ships to clear the shipping lanes, and ultimately send your ships off on trading missions throughout the world. These missions earn you additional cash in game, and additional resources with which to trade. With a lot of similarities to popular Social Media games, these missions are in real time and completing and unlocking these take anything from an hour to 24 hours to complete, thereby needing you to periodically check your fleet status on a daily basis to ensure best returns. Thankfully, this is not necessary to do, but is well constructed and fun.

MLG Rating: 9/10      Format: Playstation 3/Xbox360/PS4/XB1/PC/WiiU   Release Date: 29/10/2013

Disclosure: Midlife Gamer were provided a copy of  Assassins Creed IV: Black Flag for review purposes. The title was reviewed over the course of 7 days on a PS3. AC4 Companion app was utilised using a Nexus 7 Tablet.  For more information on what our scores mean, plus details of our reviews policy, click here.

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