The Ultimate Man’s Game

Let’s be honest, the arrival of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag hasn’t exactly been stealthy. From promotional footballs to huge advertising hoardings, Ubisoft has been pulling out all the stops to make sure their latest title takes the market by storm. It’s rather fitting really; after all this is the game that has decided to ditch a fair amount of the series’ subtlety in return for being sleek, cool and, well, a bit badass.

 

With a heavier focus on hero Edward Kenway’s physical might than on his deviously covert murders, Black Flag is actively seeking to thrill you. The series looks to be shifting towards adventure, rather than stealth, based gameplay and nowhere is this more apparent than in the brilliant new naval sections. Although there are a few missions which ask you to be a little sneaky, the vast majority of the time you spend on the waves sees you flying your pirate banner free and proud. Anyone that takes exceptional to your dastardly deeds will soon find themselves staring down a smoking barrel, and it’s here that Black Flag’s direct approach really shines.
Windy Weather Boys

 

When you first cross cannons with another ship, amidst the rage of an ocean storm, there’s a spine tingling sense of tension and danger. Slightly ponderous reload speeds and projectile travel times leave you a few agonising moments between each round of shot that will play upon your anxieties. Is it worth it, you’ll wonder, will this bring us the fortune we need to save our way of life or will it cast my crew into a watery grave? The on-land combat may provide a potent cocktail of cold hearted stealth and adrenaline fuelled massacres, but it’s the naval engagements that really get your heart pounding.

 

As well as being psychologically thrilling, Black Flag’s naval combat is also surprisingly deep. There’s no right or wrong way to approach an engagement; every tactic comes with its own downsides that a successful captain will need to account for. Slowing down to pivot faster may ensure a full set of hits upon the enemy but it will also leave you a sitting duck to their return fire. If you try and fight at full sail however, you’re unlikely to land all your shots and your movements will be a lot less precise. Positioning and anticipation also add a great deal of skill to the combat as predicting your opponent’s path, whilst simultaneously dodging their own barrage, is the key to winning difficult clashes.

 

Of course, not every moment you spend aboard your vessel will be in combat. Much of the game is spent exploring new locations and searching for secrets amongst the game’s impressively expansive world. There’s easily an additional 30 hours of extra gameplay for those that want to dawdle a little and take in the sights. And trust us, you’ll want to because some of the environments are breathtakingly beautiful. The lush, verdant jungles and ramshackle shanties that comprise Kingston are especially jaw dropping, but pretty much every location in the game makes use of Wii U’s powerful hardware to deliver some amazingly well crafted scenes. There are a few low-res textures here and there but, given the speed at which the game operates, you’ll rarely stop long enough to notice them.

 

A Rogues’ Gallery

 

The game’s plot, with its secret orders, mystical elements and modern day flashforwards is as colourful as the locations in which it’s set. At times the modern sections can seem a little unnecessary, as has been the case throughout the series, but the main quest is certainly enthralling enough to make up for it. The cast are varied and well rounded, with the usual blend of crazed templars, dour assassins and generally hapless civilians. Even those that initially seem to be included only for comedy relief eventually develop some interesting and occasionally tragic backstories.

 

One particularly intriguing and well developed rogue stands heads and shoulders above the others however. Kenway offers the player the chance to experience life through the eyes of a character who’s far more morally ambiguous than the standard protagonist.  Previous games in the series had a sense of righteousness to their heroes, who were ultimately using dirty means to accomplish good ends. Kenway however, seems to care much more about money, power and fame than he does stopping the manipulative evil of the templars. There are some twinges of guilt involved in his motivations as the plot progresses but throughout the game it’s always incredibly clear that he likes he does and does what he likes.

 

Black Flag certainly isn’t perfect and some of the flaws do occasionally ruin the immersion of an otherwise wonderful setting. Glitchy flying ships, some bizarre hitboxes and Kenway’s rather annoying tendencies to climb everything except the one pole that you’re trying to scale all feel a little sloppy for such a big release. The naval stealth missions are also heavily lacking at times as they essentially take the base game’s trailing system and then remove the ability to travel vertically, a.k.a. the bit that makes it fun. Trailing itself is also used far too often and in such a needless way that you can’t help but wonder if many missions were added purely to help the game retain its stealth genre credentials.

 

Despite these issues, Black Flag represents a true triumph for Ubisoft. After mixed reactions to AC3, it would have been easy for them to produce a run of the mill sequel that wouldn’t ruffle any feathers. Instead they opted to take a risk, and made a set of ambitious new sailing mechanics a core part of the gameplay. The result is a truly excellent stealth adventure game that fearlessly explores uncharted waters and breathes life back into a franchise that had been beginning to look more than a little stale.

 

The verdict

As charming, devilish and strangely beguiling as its hero, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is a new high for an already excellent series. A must play. 90%


June 5, 2018

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