Note: This review contains spoilers that include ending story details from “Assassin’s Creed III” (2012)
One of the more dangerous caveats to annual video games is “franchise fatigue.” Repetition can cause fans and critics to become exhausted and bored with the pillars of gameplay of said video game franchise, and why shouldn’t they? Video games take, at minimum, two to three years to be developed, tested and shipped, so fans naturally become dubious of annual franchises. Often times, separate studios will work concurrently to one another, so while one studio is shipping a game, the other is developing. The Assassin’s Creed franchise is one that began its annual release after 2009’s “Assassin’s Creed II.”
Now we’re up to “Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag,” which has a concentrated focus on sailing in the 1715 Caribbean during the Golden Age of Piracy. In development since 2011 by Ubisoft Montreal, the questions remain: Are there gold doubloons in this chest or does “Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag” walk the plank?
“Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag” begins with Edward Kenway, grandfather of the “Assassin’s Creed III” protagonist, on a ship that leads him to be stranded ashore with an assassin. From there, Edward’s journey will lead him from Havana to Nassau to the Bahamas with a wealth of side islands to explore with various goodies and treasure chests on each one. Edward Kenway is not motivated by revenge or justice but is instead smitten by fame and glory – completely contradictory to the tenants of the “work in the shadows” mantra of the Assassins. Edward also meets a wide variety of famous pirates including Edward “Blackbeard” Thatch, Calico Jack and Anne Bonny.
The plot of “Assassin’s Creed IV” is also noticeably better paced than “Assassin’s Creed III.” It doesn’t take upwards to three, even four hours to play as the protagonist and another hour to acquire the iconic Assassin’s robes.
The same cannot be said for the present-day segments, which take place at a fictional media studio, Abstergo Entertainment. The company, which has been making the Assassin’s Creed games, plans to make a pirate movie based on the genetic memories uploaded to “the cloud” of the present-day protagonist that died in a ludicrous fashion in “Assassin’s Creed III.”
The present-day segments are played in first-person and are almost completely unnecessary. One segments requires you to go meet the CCO of the fictional company, and he plainly tells you to continue playing the game that you were already playing before you were interrupted. If the aim of Ubisoft Montreal was to make the player hate Abstergo Entertainment, then the mission is accomplished.
Gameplay and combat is expectedly similar to the combat in “Assassin’s Creed III” with buttons to counter, kill, break defense and throw. The free-running gameplay is less pronounced or even used in “Assassin’s Creed IV,” because much of the game takes place on your own personalized ship — the Jackdaw.
Labeled by developers as “the players’ millennium falcon,” the Jackdaw becomes a figurative supporting character to Edward, and the two are nigh inseparable. Both can be upgraded with better weapons, more health or more damage. The player’s means of upgrading is to hunt and skin animals, and to harpoon the various sea creatures with Captain Ahab’s own obsession making an appearance.
As you can tell, “Assassin’s Creed IV” is a massive game. There will always be something that the player will discover or be distracted by on their journey across the Caribbean seas. The open ocean holds many a danger as various ships, which vary from tiny schooners to massive warships that you’ll be able to pillage and board. There will also be natural disasters, such as waterspouts and tidal waves, which can benefit you in sea battles if you’re a competent captain.
One thing for which Assassin’s Creed is well known, and for good reason, is nailing the atmosphere of the time period in which the game takes place. “Assassin’s Creed IV” retains that standard with clothing and structures typical of the 18th century and acting complete with expected vernacular and inflections. On the Jackdaw, the player can practically smell the sea air with dolphins and orcas swimming alongside you. Your loyal crew will expectedly sing shanties while you travel from one point to another, and they never become an annoyance as it could have easily in any other video game.
With all of the improvements and additions made to the single player of “Assassin’s Creed IV,” it’s unsettling to see little done to the multiplayer portion. The same tried and true gameplay is preserved. You hunt other players in a social setting for points being awarded to more subtle approaches. The roles are then reversed, and you are the hunted while you hide within crowds from your assailants. There are the requisite capture the flag, deathmatch, and co-op objectives, with various 18th-century maps on which to play, but the result is an unexciting and trivial side-attraction of which one would expect to see better. You won’t be mad at the multiplayer offerings, because the gameplay is still tense and addicting; you’ll just be disappointed that more wasn’t done with it.
Somehow, year after year, the Assassin’s Creed franchise continues to impress even the most jaded gamer to its unique settings and expansive world. “Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag” improves in important areas, such as the naval combat from “Assassin’s Creed III” and a more engaging storyline. One would wonder, just like the previous year, where the next Assassin’s Creed game will go, but regardless of where they go, you’ll know that the ride will be worth every penny of the asking price.
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