She’s Not Dead Yet: Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag [Review]

The series seems to be headed back in the right direction... Kind of.

Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag

If you’d told me that I would be here telling you that the 2013 Assassin’s Creed game was good this time last year, I would have called you a lair.  Yet, here I am, about to tell you how good Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag is.  Obviously, this review is a few weeks late, because honestly, I didn’t even buy the game until the week after it came out because I had so little faith in the series after the last game.  The reason it’s taken me so long to get this together is because I’ve clocked in around 40 hours of Black Flag, and I was only able to finish the game after a 13 hour grind session where I refused to stop until the game was complete.

Black Flag totally took me by surprise.  Assassin’s Creed III had lost my interest within the first few hours – mostly because the game has about five hours’ worth of tutorials. Black Flag made sure not to make the same mistake again; From the moment you start the game you are instantly put into a naval battle during a fierce storm. Also, tutorials in Black Flag aren’t nearly as long or boring as its predecessor.  New players quickly learn how to move around the world as they chase down an Assassin through a Caribbean jungle.  The good thing is that the chase isn’t so watered down that returning players will be bored.Many of the tutorials are like that.  Most of them are included in tasks that make you feel like you are pushing forward instead of just learning the ropes.

I guess the developers of Black Flag felt that the series has been around for so long that there aren’t many people who wouldn’t know how to play it because, on top of tutorials being short and to the point, many of the activities that used to be locked away until you reached a certain part of the game are open from the start.  As soon as I reached Havana (the first city in the game) I was able to access assassination contracts.  There does come a point later on where the assassins talk about the contracts, but as a returning player I didn’t need that, and I appreciate being able to access that feature early on.

Not much needed to be explained with combat because it hasn’t changed much.  The biggest changes the series saw to combat were in Assassin’s Creed III, and the only thing that’s really changed from that was countering.  Now, when you counter you can press one of three buttons that will either push your enemy away, wound the enemy, or kill the enemy.  Pushing away is the fastest, followed by wounding, and killing takes the longest most of the time.  I thought this was a great mechanic and felt it might add some depth to fighting, forcing players to gauge whether they had enough time to kill this punk or if they would just have to settle for hurting him for now.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.  Most of the time I could kill an enemy no matter how long it took with plenty of other enemies surrounding me with full attention on me.  Sure, there were times when I would start my kill attack and an enemy would swipe me, but if I got more than a second into the attack I would be able to kill the guy with no problem while all of his homies stood around and quietly said “dude, weaaaaak”.  One of my biggest grievances with the combat system in AC3 was that blocking was removed, and that carries through to this game.  It leads to getting hit unnecessarily when you miss a counter, even though it is something you could have easily blocked in previous games.  It’s not game breaking, but it sure as hell is annoying.

Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag

When it comes to weapons you’re pretty much dual-wielding everything – Dual hidden blades, dual cutlass, and even dual guns.  The fun thing about dual-wielding guns is that you can fire them back to back while in the mix with a few enemies.  You can also craft additional holsters and carry up to four guns at a time – quadrupling the good times.  You can also purchase upgraded weapons and ammo from shops in the towns you visit.

Upgrading your gear is a different story though.  I thought hunting was cool AC3, but I ended up not doing it much because it felt pointless.  Now the supplies you get from hunting are used to upgrade your gear.  You can increase your heal, add additional holsters for guns, create larger pouches for darts, etc.  If you aren’t a fan of hunting, however, it’s not that big of a deal.  You are given enough health from the start of the game to make it through the end.  Having the upgrades for health just helps you out a bit, but I wouldn’t call them necessary.  Actually, none of the upgrades are necessary, so even though I did more hunting than before, I was glad I didn’t feel pressured to do more for fear that I was going to have a hard time.  Also, it gave me more time for what I got the game for in the first place: Naval combat.

I loved the ship battles from AC3.  I was surprised by how good they were.  The developers took pretty much everything that was great about the naval combat system they had and made it better.  First off, it’s now open world; You can literally sail from Kingston, Jamaica to Havana, Cuba if you want to.  If you don’t, you can always fast travel to various locations that you’ve already been to, or possibly nearby to locations you haven’t.  But if you do that, you will miss all of the fun stuff.While sailing you’ll cross paths with many other seafaring vessels – some are small gun boats, while other are very large warships.  Some ships are alone while others move in convoys or even fleets.  Now, you could just go on your merry way, but you’re a pirate, so why would you do that?

In order to stop a ship you need to damage it to a certain extent.  There is an indicator for this, and if you go past it you will sink the ship and only be able to claim half of its cargo.  In AC3 you were able to switch between what type of broadside cannon ball you would use, and I wish that was still the case.  In AC3 to stop a ship from moving you had to specifically use chain shot to bring down their sails and make them sitting ducks, and with that removed from Black Flag I think there was a missed opportunity for more strategic naval combat.

Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag

Another difference in this game  is that your weapons are dependent on what direction your camera is facing.  Facing forward will use your chase cannons, the side will allow you to use your broadside cannons, and facing the back will allow you to toss fire barrels in the ocean.  You can also use mortars, but there is a separate button for that since it’s primarily for long distances.

Once you stop a ship you can pull up next to it and board it, and at that point you need to complete certain objectives to take the ship over.  On smaller ships it usually involves killing a certain amount of sailors on that boat, but on larger ships you will be tasked with doing that and killing captains, destroying certain items, or cutting down their flag.  Also, the larger the ship, the more people you are required to kill.  If you board successfully you will take all of their cargo which includes sugar, rum, cloth, and various other items (You might even take a member of their crew).  Sugar and rum can be sold for a good amount of money, while cloth, metal, and other materials can be used to upgrade  ships.

In order to upgrade the ship you need both money and supplies.  Upgrades include increasing armor, buffing up damage, increasing crew quarters, and other items like buying new sails.  Unlike the upgrades for Edward himself, the upgrades you get for the ship are quite necessary.  You can go into any mission with the ship, but if the ship isn’t upgraded enough for the mission you’re about to take, you will get a warning message.  With as much time that I spent at sea and upgrading my ship (which was about 70% of the time I spent playing, btw), I still hit this message a few times.  I never had trouble completing the missions, but I do have to admit they were a bit harder than I expected.

After you successfully board and claim a ship you have a few options.  You can use parts from that ship to repair yours, you can let the ship go (lol, right), or you can add the ship to your fleet.  You can send ships you add to your fleet  on trade missions to earn money.  Besides getting regular in-game currency, fleet mode has its own currency as well, represented by jewels.  You use jewels to repair ships in your fleet and open more docks so you can add more ships.  You get jewels by breaking down ships you’ve captured or winning battles in fleet mode.  On the fleet map you will notice colored lines to different locations – each line representing the current status of that route.  Routes range from safe to treacherous, and the worse it is, the lower the chance of success your ships have of making the trade route.

In order to make the routes safer, there is a minigame you can play where you select up to three of your fleet ships and do battle with other ships on the route.  The battles aren’t full blown naval battles, but the game displays your ships against the enemies trading fire back and forth until one side is completely sunk  (You can deploy fire barrels to help deal extra damage if you’re in trouble).  Depending on the initial status of the route, after a few battles the route should be safe; but it doesn’t stay that way.  If you leave a route unattended for too long it will get worse over time.  This isn’t difficult to stay on top of at first, but as you get more routes and the trades take longer, this can become an issue.  In the beginning completing a trade took about 5-10 minutes in real time, but later on in the game you are looking at 13-14 real time hours.

Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag

There is one HUGE flaw with fleet mode: It doesn’t work if you are offline.  I became extremely frustrated with it at one point because I ran into trouble getting connected to PSN and I had about 13k in cash coming back from trades that I couldn’t access.  Another thing that is reliant on you having an internet connection are your UPlay rewards.  If you have previous Assassin’s Creeds registered on your UPlay account you will have access to the assassin’s robes of Altair, Ezio, and Connor –  All of which look better than Kenways assassin’s robes.  Even after you get the awards initially, if you get disconnected from the internet you will lose them for the time being. Also, you are constantly told that trades go faster if you play with friends, however, I never got to experience that because the three people on my PSN friends list don’t play PS3 anymore.

As I mentioned, I spent most of my time at sea.  Besides battling other ships and boarding them, you can also take on fortresses.  Fortresses pack some serious firepower, and if you manage to get caught in a barrage it will be bad news bears.  However, if you keep your sails up and knock down their cannons and mortars, you will be able to infiltrate the fortress.  Once you’ve infiltrated the fortress, you need to locate the captains and kill them, and once you do that you can kill the commander and take the fortress.  When the fortress is  yours, you can stop there for repairs and naval contracts (like assassin contracts, but for boats).  Also, the fortress will now fire on enemy vessels; so if you find yourself in a tough fight and there is a friendly fortress around you should probably try to bring the fight within range of the fortress.

All this pirating doesn’t go without cost though.  Every time you take or sink a ship your wanted level increase, and once it hits a certain point pirate hunter ships will start to track you down.  The higher the wanted level, the more hunters appear.  You can clear your wanted level with bribes or by letting ships you attack go, but to be honest, it’s much better to keep the wanted level.  The amount of money and supplies you gain from taking down those ships will be well worth it.

If you’re just in a peaceful mood there is more than enough to explore.  I would say more than half the available areas for you to explore aren’t needed for game play; in fact, you need to go out of your way to get to many of them.  There are full areas with lush jungles on some smaller islands where you can explore and find treasure, leaving lots to do to keep players busy for long periods of time.  Beyond that, I had fun just sailing the sea, since it’s not really a straight shot.  Sailing is more like you battling with the sea, where weather conditions change at random, making high winds, storms, and even hurricanes pop up.  Even without the weather, sometimes you just run into rough seas with aggressive waves.  The ship reacts pretty realistically on water, so as the captain you will need to keep the ship on course versus allowing the waves to toss you around.

Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag

If you’re a land lubber it’s not bad to be on solid ground, though.  Not much has changed with the core of the game, though I do believe the missions in Black Flag focus way more on being stealthy than the last few games in the series.  I did notice an improvement in the towns in  how easy and fun they were to traverse.  One thing I have to give the guys at Ubisoft is that with each game they get better and better at making a parkour gym look like a town.  Going from ground to roof top to trees and then back to ground is pretty much seamless in any order.  It was way more fun moving around these cities than it was in the colonial cities of AC3.

While I had great time with Black Flag, if you’re in it for the story I think you will be disappointed.  First off, this is not a pirate-themed Assassin’s Creed ; it’s a pirate game with assassins thrown in it to make it match the title.  Most of the game is Edward pursuing riches, and unlike what we were told by the Ubisoft marketing team, he is not a pirate trained by assassins.  Most of the conflict you come across is pirates vs. the British and not Assassin’s vs. Templar.  Edward’s association with the assassins is squeezed in there, but it’s not that much and it’s toward the end.  The story in present times isn’t much better, either.  I won’t spoil it, but the big secret in this one left me feeling like Ubisoft isn’t exactly sure what to do with the series.  On the plus side, there is a ton of additional information you can learn about the Assassins, Templar, and Abstergo if you push through the modern day narrative.  Also, you DO find out what happened to Desmond.

Overall I felt that Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag was the best the series has offered in the past few years.  If you don’t care much about the story (which a lot of people don’t after the way AC3 was treated), then you will have a great game on your hands.  While I won’t say that Ubisoft has completely won me back with this game, I will say that it’s putting me back on the path to enjoying the series again.

Jarret Redding
Jarret Redding
Jarret Redding

Executive Director

Jarret is Executive Director as well as one of the founding members of Mash Those Buttons. He plays all types of games, but tends to lean more toward FPS, Stealth, and Combat games.

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