Especially since the launch of 2003 feature film Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl and subsequent releases, there has been much interest in the “pirate” genre of storytelling, and a number of games over the last decade have been tailored to this market. While I have only played a few of them, while they were solid titles none really captured what felt to be an authentic pirating experience over hitting buttons. The Assassin’s Creed franchise has for many years brought us interesting storylines based on historical locations with Ubisoft Montreal’s own unique twists. As the title suggests, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is set in an area of pirates – but how does the pirate storyline fare against the usual Templars vs Assassin’s plot that has continued since the first title? Read on to find out!
Before we look at the events in this next jaunt in the Animus, let’s look at the events that are taking place in the real world – where last we former saw main character Desmond Miles sacrificing himself to protect the world from a solar flare on the 21st December 2013, with the Templar’s successfully retrieving his corpse. This time around they have decided to place yourself as the main character, who silent and delivered directly through his/her eyes is a new employee at
Ubisoft Montreal Abstergo Entertainment who has been assigned to work on their “Sample 17 Project” to eventually convert the life of pirate Edward Kenway into a marketable product.
These usually take the shape of 10-15 minute side-stories every few memory sequences into the game and don’t offer anything much in the way of what they did in ACIII BUT do feature a few returning characters and the opportunity to hack a few interesting tidbits about recent and past events out of other corporate Animus systems. Given the mixed reception to the current day scenes, it seems like they have tried to keep these parts of the game as minimal as possible instead of trying to make them more appealing to the wider audience. They are still okay, but six games in they should really be trying to do more in-game to build its storyline.
But of course, when you pick up Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag or any AC game for that matter, you go in expecting the experience of centuries past. After giving Ezio a trilogy to build his storyline in Assassin’s Creed II, the decision to set III during the American Revolution was a breath of fresh air and allowed the development team to try out new things while focusing on the storylines of both Templar Haytham Kenway and his son Ratonhnhaké:ton (Connor). However, perhaps because it covered a historical event that I won’t proclaim to have much knowledge of, the storyline lacked a certain appeal due to potentially requiring knowledge of the specific events and characters that depending on the country you live in and subjects taken in school you may know less or more about than the average gamer.
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag rectified this issue with pirates. While events surrounding pirates are historically factual, they have a prominence in storytelling and other aspects of education and fiction that make them much more approachable without having to study any specific history book. AC IV serves as a prequel to the last game where you play as Edward Kenway, father of Haytham who does not begin as an Assassin but rather a privateer / pirate. Unlike other games, while he does have contact with the Assassin Order, for a considerable portion of the game he pledges his allegiance to his pirate crew with a desire to make money. He only finds himself embroiled in the war between the two orders after impersonating a defected Assassin who was delivering items including a mysterious cube to the Templars.
Over the course of the game, Edward Kenway becomes captain of his own ship (The Jackdaw), grows a number of accomplishments as he sails across the Caribbean Sea and meets a number of well renown names including Blackbeard, Mary Read and a number of other colourful personalities. The characters all feel authentic in their personalities and actions, with Kenway himself being the most enjoyable to listen to – able to deliver a serious mood when necessary but otherwise being a charismatic, light-hearted and witty pirate.
What really works however is the change in setting. For pretty much every other installment despite era and setting you have spent most of the game locked into a storyline surrounding the Assassin Order. While elements and modus operandi of certain missions haven’t changed, the perspective of a pirate who occasionally deals with the Assassin’s Order changes things enough to make the experience feel more unique – and works well when coupled with the new gameplay mechanics.
If there were one issue with the storytelling, it would be that given the sizable landmass you are able to travel and do missions on, with many towns spread throughout the islands you can fall into the trap Assassin’s Creed II feel into where many of the locations despite being sizable and underused and under-appreciated by the gamer. Despite a few time jumps that they might have been able to work better with, the Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag experience is enjoyable and up there as one of the franchises best storylines yet. Flawless? No. Pointless missions? Yes. Enjoyable? Yes!
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is a title I would love to see run on a next generation console, as out of all current games in the series it is certainly the nicest looking. Given the open-world nature of the game on the Caribbean Sea, it is evident that they didn’t skimp on the quality, with ships bustling with life, the ocean looking realistic and islands that don’t look like they have just been copy and pasted with little regard to their design. Given that you will spend a considerable portion of the game travelling distances, it does help pass the time when you aren’t left with just open spans of water with nothing to look at.
On dry land the different towns look appropriate to the era and are are uniquely designed to highlight their location and the key demographic of individuals who reside there. For example the port city of Havana is more built up while Nassau, which served as the self-appointed Pirate Republic was more of the typical pirate town. While most of the typical residents of each main locale were pretty much unimpressive and came from a group of pre-set designs, the characters who were created with storyline in mind were well designed and animated. Edward Kenway is customizable with the use of funds, and additional unlockable robes based on the protagonists of previous games are obtainable for having the respective games save data on your console.
Unfortunately in what seems to be a design flaw that forces the player to abandon the game, when climbing onto the ship from sea-level, it is possible to fall through the ship into the void inside it – presenting you with an array of flashing colours and no way to escape. This only happened twice during my gameplay fortunately, but is still troubling when it happens.
The soundtrack for Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag was composed by Brian Tyler, also known for his role in Far Cry 3 and Call for Duty: Modern Warfare 3 among other titles. While the music isn’t always prominent and replaced by something even more awesome, when it comes to capturing the essence of the era it is really well done. These are complimented by realistic sound effects from the crashing of waves to the creaks made by a ship. But what stands as the best fact about the games music backing is the sea shanty’s. During the game you can collect sheets which give Edward’s crew new songs to sing during their voyage, and while they can be repetitive are really effective in delivering a sense of realism.
Voiced by Matt Ryan (Criminal Minds) as his video game debut, he perfectly matches his role as Edward Kenway well, even if the in-game characters joke about replacing his voice with a James Bond character in the “final product”. The rest of the voice cast is also stellar with some highlights being James Bachman as Stede Bonnet, Mark Bonnar as Blackbeard and Olivia Morgan as James Kidd.
The core gameplay mechanics of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag have not changed much in comparison to its predecessors, you are still left to assassinate particular targets, sneak while following somebody or one the number of generic tasks you would have cone to know and expect from a title in the series. Combat also remains the same, and while the hidden blade has pretty much been made obscure (Although still available for use), the game highlights the use of dual-swords, pistols and blow darts with various effects that allow you to put a guard or other target to sleep or make them berserk and attack others. The combat is better than ever and more fast paced, requiring a quick mixture of attacking, countering and breaking foes in order to take them down.
The weight of the new features come not on land, but on the sea. As the captain of the Jackdaw, you are given the largest open-world environment in the series’ history yet to navigate around with many landmarks and locations to visit. While this can initially runs the risk of become a “The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker” experience where you spend a considerable amount of time getting from one place to another (Which is offset somewhat by the fast travel system), there is much to do while out on the open sea. Throughout the Caribbean Sea there are other ships out there – which in true pirate spirit you can attack then pillage and plunder. Using a HP bar as a guide, using on-ship weaponary you attack the rival ship and once its HP is at the bare minimum you and your crew can climb aboard, attack crew members and take control of the ship. Initially this can be used to repair the Jackdaw or lower infamy or later be added to your fleet. Of course you can always take the easy way out and destroy the ship, saving you the trouble and potential death of crew members but a sacrifice of half the goods. Any ships you decide to add to your fleet can be used to take part in metagame missions throughout surrounding regions / countries, similar to what you could do with the Assassin’s you recruited in AC II – and can be used to trade resources for considerable sums of money.
Given that there is a level system to rival ships, to improve the Jackdaw’s combat proficiency you must use looted supplies found on other ships or drifting in the sea in addition to funds to improve the offensive and defensive capabilities of the ship. While you aren’t given free will over what weapons you use (Instead weapons are determined based on the camera angle), there is enough strategy required to offer a fun system that I found continued to draw me away from the main storyline. You also need to employ crew members via recruiting them at the local pub or saving them from one scenario or another.
Another nifty although heavily underused aspect of the game is its underwater levels. While when the Assassin’s Creed series franchise began Altair couldn’t even swim, Edward Kenway can acquire a Diving Bell to take part in a number of underwater levels in the game. It is a simple idea and doesn’t go much further past collecting treasure and avoiding enemies (Jellyfish, sharks etc) but was logical given the big mass of water that covered around half the world map.
During Assassin’s Creed III, Ubisoft Montreal gave gamers the opportunity to finally take the role of being an Assassin into the current-day world, where the war between Templars and Assassin’s have come down to technology more than fighting. With Desmond now assumingly dead, they have tracked back a bit and pretty much allowing you to hack the animus of office employees. There are a handful of hacking mini-games which provide some degree of challenge, but are lacking in comparison to their predecessor.
The single player mode offers a solid experience, that with the pirate-oriented gameplay systems really offers a distinct experience rather than the same Assassin gameplay mechanics from pretty much all earlier titles. The game also offers the standard multiplayer mode with many returning modes and a few additional features that serve as a good time sink upon completing the main game. Personally I haven’t spent too much time playing it, but if you have played any of the other three iterations you should know what to expect.
While the same can to some degree be said for online multiplayer titles, for a primarily single player series such as Assassin’s Creed with an annual release, there is the constant need to innovate, otherwise the series runs the risk of being repetitive and dull. Deciding to merge the Assassin and Pirate gameplay mechanics in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag together was a wise decision by Ubisoft Monreal and resulted in a game that remained tied in with the series but offered something more distinct in terms of gameplay and storytelling. It is at this moment my favorite installment in the series, but I am hoping to see even better when I assume the next installment is released in 2014.