Game Reviews

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag Review

 
When it was first announced that the Assassin’s Creed franchise would be going to an annual release format, I became a bit apprehensive. I know the phrase “annual release” has become somewhat of a bad word in gaming today, but even though I typically try not to let my prejudices affect my enjoyment of a game, I still wondered if the quality would suffer.
 
For instance, I’m not one of those people that hates Call of Duty, but let’s just say after a certain point, I stopped playing CoD. It wasn’t because the games became “bad” or anything like that; it’s just that I stopped having fun with them, and they didn’t warrant a $60 purchase anymore. I feared the same would happen to the AC franchise with annual releases.
 
Luckily, so far, that has not been the case. While AC III had its fair share of issues, I still loved the game, and the franchise still maintains the high quality that made it a smash hit in the first place. It also helps that the games are based on historical events, which was my major in college (history, not assassin-ing).
 
The Assassin’s Creed franchise is a pretty serious bit of storytelling, and while AC IV: Black Flag maintains the historical heavy hitting, it’s probably the most fun I’ve had in an Assassin’s Creed game. There’s something about the pirates of the Caribbean setting that just gives the game so much personality. Sailing around the open waters in your ship while battling other ships, diving for sunken treasure, exploring the countless little islands dotted about, and attacking forts is basically every kid’s pirate dreams come true. In this regard, AC IV is brilliant.
 
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There are a few bones I want to pick with not just AC IV, but the series as a whole. We’re now many games into the AC franchise, with this one making its debut on the PS4 and Xbox One. I think it’s time to make the “follow a character while walking through town and listen to some heavy exposition” a little less…prominent. I’m serious, it seems like every few missions I’m waltzing around listening to people talk.
 
I’m also not a big fan of the tailing/eavesdropping missions. Once again, I felt there were too many of those. To me, the AC franchise, especially Black Flag, is about swashbuckling action. This “Splinter Cell” stuff works fine in small doses and they’re easy enough to pull off (there are literally hiding spots everywhere), but toss in too many instances where you are forced to sneak about, and the pacing takes a huge hit.
 
Those two things aside, AC IV is awesome. The core gameplay hasn’t changed too much from its predecessors, though this installment has a lot more platforming sequences. Some of these scenes (including a number of puzzles) felt a bit too reminiscent of the Uncharted games, which is a compliment. It adds some fresh gameplay sequences into a game that tries to introduce new elements while retaining what made the AC franchise so popular to begin with.
 
For starters, the bulk of your time with AC IV will be spent on the open waters, sailing the ocean blue in your ship, the Jackdaw. While the previous games had you traversing large swaths of land between major cities, Black Flag eliminates that form of gameplay in favor of wide expanses of open sea with a myriad of islands dotted about. You’ll still be climbing towers, walls, running and jumping along tress and the like, but that is no longer the centerpiece of the game. Your mobility is less about your abilities as an assassin and more about how well you can maintain and upgrade the Jackdaw.
 
The sequences on the water are a ton of fun, and I found myself frequently abandoning the main missions in order to pursue a variety of side quests, including assassination contracts, diving for sunken treasure, gambling, and harpooning sharks/whales. In fact, the game is so gorgeous and has such a great sense of atmosphere that I often just sailed around for the hell of it.
 

 
Of course you can’t just lollygag around on the ocean forever, since you’re bound to run into enemy ships and forts. If you played the ship sequences in AC III, then you get the general gist of how maritime combat works, though this time around the controls seem to be much more responsive. Once you’ve incapacitated a ship, you can either unleash one last volley to sink it, or board the ship to accrue supplies, repair the Jackdaw, or bring your wanted level down. It’s a pretty neat game of positioning, made even better when there are multiple enemy ships circling you like a pack of hungry sharks.
 
And then there are the fort assaults, probably my favorite part of the game. Fort attacks are like a ‘greatest hits” of all your skills with ship combat. Not only are the forts fearsome structures with a ton of firepower and defenses, but they are generally protected by a small fleet of warships as well. Also, with forts being landlocked, this provides an additional problem as you also have to watch where you are maneuvering in case you slam into the rocks. These sequences are no walk in the park; even the very first fort battle took me a few tries to finally nail down. Once the fort is damaged enough, you can dock and storm the walls, slicing and dicing everyone in your way.
 
There’s the multiplayer mode as well, but I didn’t spend too much time here. It’s still one of the more clever multiplayer concepts I have played, and the “hide and seek” approach of trying to blend in with NPCs is as fun as ever. Those who want to beat their friends by outthinking them rather than just emptying a rifle magainze into their faces will find lots to like here. The pacing is a lot more deliberate than your standard deathmatches.
 
I know graphics aren’t everything and I will take great gameplay over great graphics any day, but good graphics done right can add a lot to the overall quality of the game. This is what AC IV accomplishes, where the gorgeous graphics add so much to the ambience of the game that I can’t imagine AC IV being the same experience without the stunning visuals. I reviewed the game on PC, and even though I’m not one of those “PC master race” folks, I have to urge you to get that version if you have a rig strong enough to handle the game on max settings. Of course the PS4/XB1 versions look nearly as good as the PC version from what I’ve seen.
 
The game looks so lush; everything from the jungles to the clear waters just pops off the screen. It’s especially awesome to be sailing at night and watching as the moonlight reflects off the water. Sail through a storm, and you’ll notice water splashing on the decks then sloughing off the sides. Walk around in the rain on the deck of the Jackdaw, and you’ll notice the rain creating individual splashes on the wood, which actually gets wet. So many little touches combined make this a truly living, breathing world.
 
If you choose the PC version, you’ll get a variety of Nvidia technologies to play around with. TXAA, HBAO+, God Rays, and PCSS (Percentage-Closer Soft Shadows) all add a ton of enhancement to the game’s visuals. An upcoming patch will add APEX Turbulence effects, self-shadowed particles, soft particle shadows, and make the God Rays and PCSS effects more pronounced. Finally, AC IV is the first game to ever launch with 4K textures, though I haven’t had a chance to test that out since I do not currently own a 4K monitor. Darn.
 
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God Rays is what stood out the most to me. God Rays (crepuscular rays) are rays of light that emanate from a point in the sky where the light source is located. These light rays are able to stream through gaps in between objects (such as clouds, foliage, wooden planks, etc.) and are highlighted as columns of lit air separated by darker regions. God Rays are a more efficient way of constructing light shafts since it leverages the DX11 API and tessellation of current hardware to create the effect. It’s more efficient in terms of processing power and memory usage than the existing approach.
 
In other words, it makes for some pretty lighting effects.
 
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is easily my favorite AC game. Not only is it the culmination of everything that the franchise has offered in the past, but the story is just so much more fun. No offense to Altair, Ezio, Aveline, and Connor; but Edward Kenway is just awesome. Black Flag is a much more lighthearted affair than its predecessors, but again, it does not eschew the historical drama that makes the franchise so compelling.
 
So why should you get AC IV? Because pirates.