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Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag

15:3108/11/2013Posted by Chris Morell2 Comments

The eternal struggle between the Templars and Assassins continues in this latest instalment of the now-annualised franchise. The folks at Ubisoft Montreal have tried to inject new life into the series after Connor Kenway failed to live up to the legacy of Italian Stallion, Ezio Auditore. AC4: Black Flag is all about setting sail, plundering booty and living out your Pirates of the Caribbean fantasies, and while fans of AC3’s naval combat will feel right at home, those who considered it a nice distraction will rightly approach with caution. Is it worth splashing out on this sea-faring escapade or should land-loving assassins stay ashore?

Connor’s grandfather, Edward Kenway, is every bit the anti-hero you would expect from a tale involving pirates, and his supporting cast of boozed-up braggarts do much to sell the mythology of the era… as samey and clichéd as they are. Character motivations remain unclear for the majority of the adventure, with things only heating up towards the climax. It’s a pacing issue that plagued its predecessor – with a whole lot of build-up and not enough payoff – but while Connor always had a specific goal in mind, Edward spends most of his time simply being a pirate (sorry, privateer) and murdering those in his way for one reason or another.

There’s an open world just waiting to be discovered, with three main cities (Kingston, Havana and Nassau) plus a number of smaller towns and tiny islands, the latter of which you’re unlikely to bother with. Cities are considerably smaller than anything seen in the core series to date, each sporting around seven viewpoints only. Treasure is more plentiful than ever, though you’ll rarely feel like it’s worth going out of your way given the middling rewards on offer. The game can be a visual treat on current gen systems despite the sound glitches found in our PS3 review copy. Things can also get unnecessarily bright or dark depending on the time of day – a head-scratcher we’ve never had with the series before.

It’s tough to agree with the touted ‘60% classic Assassin’s Creed and 40% naval combat’ figure once things get going, as Edward is almost constantly out exploring restricted waters. Areas can be claimed with the destruction of forts, but you’ll have to upgrade your ship The Jackdaw before taking on anything stronger than a modest Schooner. Targeting neighbouring vessels is a necessity if you hope to gain resources, and this is when the seamless boarding system comes into play. Blasting foes from a pivot gun before leaping from one ship to another without a loading screen is every bit as impressive as it sounds. The problem comes when you’re forced to do this to repair mid-battle when severely outgunned, or when the game simply won’t allow you to reach the next mission in peace.

To say that the series shies away from frustration would be an outright lie, but Black Flag seems to delight in your tears as you try to adhere to the game’s strict rules; fail to perform exactly as intended and it’s instant desynchronisation for you. Gone are the days of setting up a kill and – should things go awry – improvising your way to victory; here to stay are the infuriating tailing and eavesdropping missions that ruin much of Edward’s time on land. For every pro that Black Flag can muster, there’s a con that inescapably puts a damp squib on the action. In short, it’s not always as much fun as it should be.

Gamers who wish to milk Black Flag for all its worth will find a huge amount of content including side missions, Mayan puzzles and shipwrecks filled with sunken booty. There’s also an online, turn-based side activity standing in for the global assassin contracts once issued by Ezio. Multiplayer shenanigans return, but they haven’t quite had the same overhaul as the single-player portion. It’s a decent addition for those won over by AC: Brotherhood, and with fresh characters and maps. Online matches typically boil down to the deadly game of cat and mouse that we’ve seen before, so don’t expect to be won over if you had your fill with past instalments or have shown a disinterest so far.

Assassin’s Creed 4 does have a few standout moments that not only do justice to the franchise, but would serve as highlights in even the grandest of outings. These usually involve a return to the Creed formula however, where you’re given a location and a target (in some cases, a number of hidden targets) and told to deal with the situation. In such cases you might just feel the rush of clipping the alarm undetected, skulking through the bushes before moving in with a perfectly timed strike. It’s the foundation on which the AC series was built upon, so it would be great to see a return to these roots, plus the tombs which blended climbing with puzzle solving in the Renaissance trilogy.

Jack Sparrow enthusiasts looking to set course for exotic climes and hunt for buried treasure could do worse than pick up Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag as it’s a voyage that they’ve never quite taken before. Running alongside an enemy ship, cannons ablaze before swinging across to continue the fight is a clever technique and a technical marvel. As an Assassin’s Creed title however, Black Flag too often sinks like a lead balloon.

Attempting something new is an admirable goal when looking to progress a series, but with a lack of focus or an engaging story, plus a huge problem in the relentless tailing missions, it will be hard for some to see through the frustrations. We expected AC4 to mark a step to the side for the series, but a step back in the core gameplay is less forgivable. Pirate fans will merrily pick this up and discover a solid purchase, but the rest might want to hold out in hopes of something different from next year’s iteration.

This review is based on a PS3 copy provided by Ubisoft.

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