It’s been a long time since the first Assassin’s Creed made it’s ground breaking debut and since then the franchise has had its ups and downs. Personally I felt that AC III was perfectly on track and pushed the franchise forward in the right direction. With the finesse and polish Ubisoft showed on AC III, Black Flag has the potential to be an amazing entry to this great franchise.
As far as the main missions go get ready to tail. Tail this diplomat, tail that boat. I don’t think I went more than 20 minutes of main story progression before I had to follow someone in the bushes, listen to a conversation they where having and then inevitably kill him anyway. On one occasion I followed a target to his fort and then killed him. I can’t help but think it would’ve been easier to kill him at any point during the 5 minute tail rather than in the fort.
And it’s not just the endless tailing – all of the “main” missions are remarkably uncreative for such a creative studio. Tailing, listening in on conversations and killing a target are endlessly repeated and only very rarely, if ever, is there anything else to do. That is if you only play the main memories. While I love open world games and the freedom of going where I want, when I want and doing what I want I was still disappointed with the narrative element that Black Flag has to offer.
Luckily outside of these Ubisoft have created a truly impressive and immersive open world. The scale and ambition of the world map is incredible. Everywhere you go the level of detail is astonishing. There are plenty of corners and desolate islands to check out and none of them feel even slightly ignored. There is so much to do and explore in the open world element of AC IV that the main story soon pales into insignificance.
To explore this vast world you are provided with a very competent ship to sale as you do it. The ship handles much like it did on AC III and controls are satisfyingly heavy. Battles are exciting and visually stunning. Plus who doesn’t like swinging on a rope across to another ship and clearing out huge waves of enemies with relative ease? Piracy and general pirating activities are fun, rewarding and combined with Black Flag’s massive map endless fun can be had if you seek it.
Outside of the Animus things are weird. Not super-pope weird, but weird nonetheless. It’s nice to see a return to the mysterious out-of-Animus experiences much more akin to older Assassin’s Creed games. There’s loads of extra easter eggs and secrets to find with a few fun hacking mini games that don’t require a degree in History and Mathematics to solve this time around.
Visually Black Flag is certainly in keeping with the current selection of end-of-gen titles but most of the more exciting moments are marred by poor frame rate on PS3. Running through the larger cities or fighting on the deck of a busy ship you’re boarding on occasion tax the PS3 beyond its capabilities. Perhaps a patch could fix it but it certainly feels like Black Flag belongs on a PS4. The frame rate can also make the combat a little tricky as most of the time you will rely on counter prompts to stay alive.
Although it looks better the combat is certainly a step down from Assassin’s Creed III. On more occasions than I can count, and in particular when boarding ships, enemies would charge in from off screen to stab me in the back. Because the counter prompt appears on an enemies head there is no possible way to avoid such an attack and the whole flow of battle is yet again ground to a halt. The simple solution to this would just be to zoom the camera out, just a little. Almost all of the tedious combat scenarios would be eliminated if the camera would just let you see what’s going on around you.
That being said, none of the enemies are difficult to defeat on their own. Normal grunts can just be attacked head on and the slightly tougher foes only require you to break their defences by first pressing ‘X’. Again, it’s not a problem with single enemies but you’re vulnerable when you do it so often a nice stab in the back will greet you which can be tedious – especially if it comes from off screen and there’s nothing you can do about it. The whole feeling of flowing combat that was so satisfying, although admittedly a little easy, on AC III is all but gone. Instead it feels much more like the combat from ACII, just without having to constantly hold block. Very often I found myself shouting at my TV in frustration despite how cool the combat looks when it works, which is a shame.
The free running has also regressed to feel much more like older AC games. Between the combat flow is broken with you constantly pulling yourself up over a ledge slowly or struggling to get on or off a specific object. Objects seem to be specifically distanced from each other so that you can’t quite make it without hanging from a ledge and slowly edging your way around it or endlessly jumping up a wall that you can’t, and don’t want to, climb. During the tailing and eavesdrop objectives this can be a particular problem. To help you on your way you will be accompanied by battalions of the famous British and Spanish Roof Guards, ready and more than able to knock you off as you cling to the ledge you oh so narrowly missed through no fault of your own.
The tedious moments will be nothing new to AC veterans or anyone who has played any of the older games but it just feels like a move backwards. So many of the irritating little things where gone (or at least minimized) on AC III and so many of them have returned in Black Flag. I appreciate that the focus has been on creating a massive open world to play in and in that respect Ubisoft have undoubtedly triumphed but it’s at the expense of some core gameplay mechanics and imaginative story missions.
In terms of scale and visual quality Black Flag is one of the most impressive games I’ve seen in a long time. Running on a PS4 nice and smooth it would be great but unfortunately it seems the PS3 can’t quite handle the pressure. Ubisoft have also moved the overarching plot into an interesting new direction that I think will work well for future instalments – allowing them freedom to, more or less, do what they want without the need for half baked excuses.
But Black Flag doesn’t really feel like an Assassin’s Creed game. It feels a lot like UIbisoft wanted to make an open world pirate adventure and then wrapped a crude Assassin logo around it. The plot doesn’t get moved on much, if at all and the main story missions feel like a fleeting concern. For me characterization is at an all time low with no truly hateable villains and rogues that lack charisma.
So if it’s an open world swashbuckling adventure you be wanting then Black Flag more than comfortably fills a strangely empty niche for video games. But, Assassin’s Creed veterans may be disappointed with Black Flag’s lack of focus on the franchise. I definitely would’ve scored higher had Black Flag not had the Assassin’s Creed title in front of it, but it does. Despite Black Flag’s obvious greatness, after 5 years of AC games I would’ve rather played “Black Flag” and then waited for “Assassin’s Creed IV”.
Reviewed on PS3.