Please be advised: This user review is based off the PS4 version of the game. This review only contains the single player aspect of the game as I did not play multiplayer. This review also contains spoilers for the ending of Assassin's Creed III.
What do we do with a drunken sailor?
Sure, it's a little late to write this review, considering Assassin's Creed IV: Blackflag was released at the end of last year 2013 but I'm gonna write one up regardless for two reasons. One, this is the game I got with my PS4 at launch and two, I love this game so much not because it was Assassin's Creed but because it's a damn good pirate game.
To me, Blackflag felt very new and fresh. I felt the Assassin's Creed series was slowly becoming quite stale. I noticed this evidently when I played Assassin's Creed: Revelations right after Brotherhood and I should have learned my lesson by then but no, silly me decided to try and play Assassin's Creed III, which I ended up hating. Luckily for us, Blackflag brings new ideas to the table, ideas which I and a lot of players very much appreciate. Ideas that are rumoured to become its own full fledged game that has nothing to do with this particular franchise. Maybe one day.
I've kinda stopped caring about the plot the of Assassin's Creed series. I don't like the whole present/future day thing that involves using the Animus machine to essentially relive the memories of ancestors through our own DNA and I really couldn't stand the ever so generic Desmond Miles. With this series, I enjoy the stories of the past, the true stars of the show and really wish Ubisoft never went down the original path. I think they're beginning to realise that themselves actually, considering the writers killed off Desmond Miles at the end of Assassin's Creed III... which brings us to Blackflag.
Assassin's Creed IV: Blackflag brings players into the shoes of a new employee at Abstergo Industries, the secret front of the modern day Templars. Abstergo is now a booming entertainment industry, using the Animus as a device for entertainment and pleasure and allowing users to relive the memories of past historical figures, all courtesy to the collection of Desmond Miles' body, mind and DNA. Of course, this is again a 'front' as Abstergo is really using said new employee as a tool to find an ancient device of the past called 'The Observatory', left behind by The First Civilisation.
The new employee you play as is from a first person perspective, who is nameless and voiceless, a silent protagonist who can walk around the office of Abstergo, investigating the darkness of the company if you want to... or you can jump into the Animus and be a pirate instead, which is a lot more fun.
Set before the events of Assassin's Creed III, players jumping into the Animus will be thrown into the memories of infamous pirate Edward Kenway (grandfather of Connor Kenway), who on his ship with his crew have come to nasty, destructive blows with an enemy ship in the middle of a storm, an enemy ship lead by what appears to be an Assassin. After managing to survive the battle and being washed onto a random shore, Edward would find this Assassin and unsurprisingly, murder him and steal his clothing, to impersonate him and continue the job he was doing in hopes of reaping the Assassin's reward.
That's so metal.
Like all Assassin's Creed games, Edward has the unexplained ability to free run/parkour all over the place, whether it's rocks, trees, buildings and boats. You can climb almost anywhere. Climbing seems a little more streamlined too, it seems smoother than previous games, although it's still pretty easy to accidentally make the wrong jump, or climb onto an object you weren't supposed to. It's all done by holding the R2 to activate free running.
Combat is essentially the same as previous games as well, albeit a little modified. Unfortunately there isn't much in the way of weapons. Edward always carries two swords and uses them both in battle, while he can carry up to six single shot pistols, using them one at a time. You can also acquire other weapons such as the rope dart, blow darts and poisons, smoke bombs and of course the wrist blade.
The counter mechanic of combat works again here although it's not as simple as previous games. Countering is easy, but in order to retaliate with an instant kill as seen in previous games, countering must be correctly timed. Some enemies may require different tactics to win, such as attacking with dirty kicks, or dodging around them. Should you cut down an enemy, you have the opportunity to instantly kill nearby enemies with the 'chain kill' mechanic, introduced in Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood. You can chain kill all you like until you're either interrupted by getting hit yourself, or having to do something like countering or dodging.
The biggest and freshest new idea to the series is of course, being a pirate, and you can't be a pirate without a ship or crew. Shortly after the beginning of the game, players get access to their own ship called the Jackdaw. As expected, throughout the game the Jackdaw can be upgraded, from better armour, to better sails, to better cannons and more weapons, there's a lot to upgrade. You're going to need these upgrades too, as when going up against other ships it's just gonna be your boat versus God knows how many.
Okay so maybe the idea of the boat and naval stuff isn't that new since it was introduced in Assassin's Creed III, but they've expanded upon it to make it feel quite new.
Naval combat is a lot of fun. It's You steer the boat with the analog stick and the wind carries you forward, depending on how many sails you've got down will vary your speed. Different weapons are controlled by different controller methods and also the angle of your boat. Want to completely obliterate your opponent with your side cannons? You'll need to get in range and along side the enemy, which means they may very well be able to shoot you too. It's a lot of fun and very intense.
Once the enemy has low enough 'health', they'll enter a state of helplessness where they'll just sit there and you decide their fate. You can board their ship, where you and your crew will jump onto their boat and finish them off by gun and sword, reaping all rewards possible, or you can finish them off from afar using your ship's weapons, which in turn while easier and quicker only grants you half the rewards and no bonus option. Should you successfully board a ship, there are three options after its defeat. You can either take the ship's resources to fix your own ship (basically healing your ship), you can claim the ship as part of your own fleet or you can reduce your notoriety, which will increase over time should you run around and well, do what pirates do.
Since you'll be spending your time on a ship sailing from place to place, there is a lot to explore. This is by far the biggest Assassin's Creed yet. The ocean is massive, there's lots of little islands to check out and then there's all the major cities on different isles. It's a big game. Luckily there's fast travel, so long as you've unlocked the location by visiting it.
Similar to the Brotherhood mechanic and idea introduced in uh, Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, Edward can recruit other pirates to his cause and build a fleet. To obtain more numbers of a fleet, you simply need to board and capture more enemy vessels. Just like the Brotherhood mechanic, you can then send your boats and overall fleet out on a variety of missions, some missions may be riskier and more dangerous and others but the rewards can be greater, rewards used for trade and upgrades.
Edward himself can be upgraded to a degree. By hunting down specific animals, Edward can collect materials to upgrade his own arsenal. Increasing his overall armour (health), to capacity limits on how much he can hold of certain items such as bullets, darts, smoke bombs etc.
There's a lot to do to keep players busy. I got so distracted from the main storyline I ended up doing all this side stuff and loving it. You can collect bounties, assassination contracts, swimming deep under water to collect treasure, with very pleasant swimming controls and mechanics I might add. You can even claim enemy naval bases for your own. Strangely, I found that I had nearly collected all the enemy naval bases before actually completing the storyline tutorial for it... which felt a bit strange but yeah okay, continuity broken but I still had fun.
That's a funny thing though. Personally, I wasn't very interested in the main storyline at all. The whole “Assassin's VS Templars” plot isn't very engaging to me and more so, just kind of feels all over the place and a little difficult to follow and comprehend. I found with Blackflag I had a lot more fun just running around, doing whatever I wanted and being a pirate. Which is why I really hope those rumours of Ubisoft developing a full fledged pirate game are true. I can dream, right?
Graphically, Blackflag looks amazing especially on next gen hardware. I love how realistic the ship looks when sailing across the ocean, especially when you zoom the camera out to a more cinematic view. The water is gorgeous and the weather effects are great. The character animation models, especially Edward are quite nimble and realistic and for the most part, most character models and animations look great too, typically though there are random NPCs in the crowd who look quite bland compared to the main characters but that's to be expected.
I love the soundtrack to Blackflag, especially the pirate sung 'shantays' on board the boat when sailing. Thankfully, songs can be switched or stopped altogether whilst sailing. Assassin's Creed games have always had great orchestral soundtracks and this game is no different. It sounds awesome, as does the overall voice acting.
As much as I loved Blackflag and have praised it in my review, it isn't without it's problems. No game is perfect, unfortunately.
Once again the tail missions return, forcing players to follow particularly targets. These kind of missions are quite boring and can be very frustrating, especially when the free running mechanics don't work as well as you'd like them to, e.g. accidentally jumping in the wrong direction or climbing over the wrong objects. Also as I mentioned before, I didn't really find the storyline all that interesting or engaging, frankly I had more fun just running around being a pirate. The modern day future stuff is really annoying and uninteresting too, with severely dislikeable characters returning from previous games. I found that it's quite frustrating when the game forces these moments upon you, which to me completely interrupts the fun and engagement of being a pirate. That being said, I know there are people out there who appreciate and better understand the story of Assassin's Creed and its lore than I do, so really the story I think is just personal preference. You'll either like it, or you won't.
I wish there was a little more weapon variety with combat in terms of weaponry. Sure, you can get away with using two swords the entire time but having some more weapons on you would be cool. Edward carries two swords and up to six pistols so I don't see the harm in throwing a few more items on the already walking, parkouring tank that is Edward.
Assassin's Creed IV: Blackflag is a big game. There's a lot to do, there's a lot to keep you engaged and interested and the naval pirate stuff is an absolute blast. The game looks gorgeous on past and next gen machinery and sounds amazing too. No pun intended, but if you've never been into the Assassin's Creed games, take a leap of faith with Blackflag, I'm sure you won't be disappointed.
Put 'em in the brig until he's sober.