Game Review: "Assassin´s Creed IV: Black Flag"

Platforms: PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, Wii U and Microsoft Windows
While Assassin's Creed II still remains the highest place-holder of Ubisoft's long-running, time-traveling cash cow, Assassin's Creed Black Flag is the most FUN. At least for me.

To be frank, I wasn't particularly hyped up to play this game after III. I wouldn't consider the third installment a bad game per se, but there was nothing truly remarkable about it. I have grown to appreciate Connor as a character and his personal journey as well as the delicious Haytham Kenway, but in the grand scheme of things, III felt akin to a missed opportunity. So when Black Flag was announced, I wasn't precisely optimistic. Yes, it involved pirates and an expansion on the naval travel that III tantalized us with, but what else? I needed solid evidence to know that this game would be worth my simoleons. Then, in October of 2013, my PS3 crossed the rainbow bridge so I went out of my way to buy a new machine complete with three new games: one of them was Black Flag. I decided I already got excellent value for money so I popped that sucker in to give it a try and boy was I glad I did!

Although Edward Kenway for the longest time of gameplay is NOT an Assassin, there is something so damn fun about sailing through the West Indies and submerging myself in the Golden Age of Piracy. Discovering islands, exploring the colonies of Havanna, Nassau, Tulum and Principe, just to name a few are experiences coated in rich graphics, an immersive sound design and a sugar sweet craft and reward system. It also doesn't hurt matters when Edward comes into contact with some of the most notorious sea-dogs of the era; Blackbeard, James Kidd, Anne Bonny, Calico Jack Rackham and Charles Vane but to name a few make their mark on Edward and you as the player. You are in the dominion of pirates, me hearty, make no Billy Bones about it.

Having the opportunity to best the likes of Man o' Wars on the high seas in the middle of a torrential rainstorm, battling water spouts and defying Poseidon himself, combing deep sea ship wrecks for plunder and rare treasures, finding maps chronicling the locations of booty, collecting runaway sea shanties for your crew to sing and reading mysterious letters in a bottle all around the world. Bless me, I had a blast. This is as far removed from the typical Assassin's Creed game, but in a sense, it was a refreshing breath of salty air because the distinct element of fun was injected back into a franchise that had started to take itself a little too seriously.

The game looks incredible for the previous and current generations and you can tell Ubisoft took the assignment of recreating this era not only with care but also in the name of good fun and encouraging the player to explore and most importantly ENJOY. If I sound tremendously biased in singing my praises, I won't lie and say I'm not because I am; I've been wanting to see the series take another direction after the Desmond Saga that I was willing to take almost anything so long as the series kept itself fresh and for the most part, it succeeded. The conventional Wanted system has gone from this game because everybody would be on Edward's Chris Hemsworth-looking butt on land, but if you sink multiple ships while at sea, you steadily build a reputation. When the Wanted meter is high, pirate hunters come scoping for you, hoping for a reward from the authorities. Bribing harbormasters at various fort ports come in especially handy, but you will first need to conquer the fortress from British and Spanish occupants, and these battles usually require Edward to barrage the forts with the Jackdaws' ordinance before he may come aground and fight his way to the strongholds' commander. These domination missions are varied in their difficulty, with some of them taking place in a seabound maelstrom in which the West Indies oceans throw everything at you. Oddly enough, when Edward has claimed one of these locations, the insane weather seems to... disappear. How convenient.

Perhaps one of my favourite cosmetic aspects of the game is Edward Kenways' ship, the Jackdaw. Fully upgradable throughout the story and afterward, the Jackdaw can steadily become the Devil of the Carribean. Building up a mighty hull, gaining more canons, powerful mortars are just some of the various alterations that can be made to Edward's high-sea home. There is something special while sailing Jackdaw in her glory during the witching hour whilst listening to my crew sing Drunken Sailor upon a quiet, dark blue sea with the polaris of moon and stars shining above.

Edward Kenway himself is a double-edged cutlass; deep down he is a good man who has a morality that men in his profession rarely seem to possess, but he has buried it under a superficial desire to obtain as much wealth as he can because he believes his self-worth and a respectable title comes from how much green he has, not what he has inside of him. In other words, for half of the game, he is pretty much a self-serving dick whose nostrils flare at the scent of treasure rather than having a good mortal compass. It's understandable of course given his profession as a privateer turned pirate, but his likeability is not worn on his sleeve first and foremost.

Of course it takes quite a few crises put into motion by his own machinations before he realises what his true spiritual and emotional calling is. While his character arc may not be as sharply defined as Ezios' there is a sense of change as Edward realises that to live the good life doesn't mean to live easy; it is to live hard in order to gain experience, fortitude and gratitude.

Now, just because I had an absolute ball of replay upon replay of this game, I know problems when I see them.

I've never been a fan of the optional tasks during a mission, I believe this trend started back in Assassin's Creed Brotherhood when you were given some mini-assignments to perform in order to achieve 100% synchronisation. Black Flag is no different; you'll be asked to do quite a few strange and downright unnecessary tasks while taking part in a main mission that for the most part have no bearing on how the mission will result. Why give these tasks if they have nothing to do with what Edward himself is up to?

I completely understand why this game's detractors consider this game repetitive. Sailing the high seas is great, boarding and fighting enemy crews are exciting and when you are victorious it's a wonderful feeling... for the first 10 times you do it. Now again, you can appreciate why; enemy ships carry valuable materials that Edward can use to upgrade his ship, the Jackdaw, so to take part in nautical combat is an ideal requirement, but most of these events offer little to no true challenge.

The enemies are the stock same that you will find on land what with Captains, Brutes, Agiles and regular soldiers who all have their weaknesses. There is no sense of unpredictability coming from these NPCs. Okay, it would have been deeply frustrating if every crew of every ship had their own dynamics, but there is nothing remarkable about the Spanish and British army on these vessels who offer anything in the way of a worthy trial. I almost felt like a bully for sinking them. Fancy that, ME getting pirate's remorse!

I will give massive props to the Legendary Ship battles, though. In all four corners of the map, there is one Legendary grade Man O' War and each of them contain their own sets of challenges that will be sure to test the Jackdaws' mettle as well as your patience. The key to all of these skirmishes is to identify the weaknesses of these floating fortresses of fright and work out a strategy that serves in your best interest. My only main recommendation is to insure you pimp out your ship as much as you possibly can because these monsters do not go to Davy Jones without a rumble.

Additionally, although it's not a harmful feature to the game, Kenway's Fleet, a mini-game of sorts, is somewhat inconsequential. When you capture ships, you can send them away to Edward's international naval fleet where you can send them across the globe to fulfill various tasks that can take up to a few hours to a day to complete in real time. I don't know why Ubisoft felt it prudent to make this. Why make these voyages take so long? You obviously have the player's attention enough throughout the duration of the main game, so why make them wait longer to unlock another locale to send their ships? It befuddles me.

The game is also a little buggy; nothing terribly catastrophic mind you, but sometimes I had to restart a checkpoint when the game tripped itself up, thus negating whatever hardcore stealth work I had employed beforehand. This experience I suspect is subjective, as I don't think I've read anything particularly notorious about Black Flag's bug-factor.

Overall, Black Flag is, for now, at least, my second favourite Assassin's Creed game to come out on console. Beautiful, rich with detail and filled with content and in the name of good fun and whimsy, the voyage of discovery for Edward James Kenway is bound to please fans of the series who have been wanting something new. Is is particularly revolutionary? Yes and no. It's a brand new chapter in the franchise with a unique graphic and control overhaul as well an intriguing alternate time setting that I will leave to you to uncover for yourself, but will it be considered an ultimate game changer for Ubisoft? Noooooooot quite. But an interesting rollicking and likeable step in the right direction.

Now, could you guys desist in saying female main characters are difficult to animate and characterize, please? I mean, by many accounts Aveline de Grandpre in Assassin's Creed Liberation was a compelling and intensely interesting character who is worthy of another game. We know you can do it, folks.

By the way, those bleeding hearts who said this game glorified the hunting and killing of sea animals, I have this to say; this game no more condones or encourages these things than it does to permit the bad behaviour the pirates of our reality. For the love of God, they are PIXELS. PIX-ELS. Take a swig of rum and cool your heads, folks. This game was made in the name of fun and adventure with an engaging story to boot, full of high jinks, plunder, greed and finally redemption, not an affirmation that deviance is the key to a happy life.

Yo, ho, ho, mofo!
Fun fact: Matt Ryan who provides the voice and mocap for Edward is Welsh, and when he auditioned for the role, the casting directors were originally looking for a Brit, but when they heard Ryan speak in his native Welsh accent, they swiftly decided to make Kenway hail from Swansea. Pretty cool, huh?
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About The Popcorn Unicorn

Fallen Botticelli Angel/Elightened Eldritch/Lunatic Fringe
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