Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is our 10th (or so) foray into the Animus, and to be honest, I wasn’t chomping at the bit to get my hands on it. Sure, I was incredibly smitten with AC3…but in my rampant quest to reach 100% synchronization, I began to realize some of the cracks of the Assassin’s Creed franchise…especially in its newer versions.
How is it possible that a man who can deftly scale a tree and freerun through the treetops, but only in select trees? Why can he climb certain outcroppings and not others? Why does he suddenly stop running, as if hitting an invisible barrier? And why is the story so damn heavy?
Well, it seems that Ubisoft was paying attention to player criticism, and remedied damn near every one of these issues. The story has more of an emphasis on fun and exploration. Finding structures you can’t climb is the exception, rather than the rule…and his freerunning seems tighter and far more refined.
Yes…I’ve fallen for Assassin’s Creed all over again.
Granted, Assassin’s Creed IV isn’t perfect. A sandbox environment that encourages exploration is bound to have its share of glitches, and I seem to have discovered every one of them. I found that if you’re attempting to fight off three pursuers at the edge of a rooftop, you’ll often be unable to attack or block. I’ve discovered a series of inexplicably unscaleable poles, situated next to others that can be vaulted without issue.
Assassin’s Creed 4 also takes a page out of AC: Liberation’s handbook, by setting the entire “real world” experience inside Abstergo Entertainment, a company concerned primarily with creating “immersive games”. Or, to quote Ubisoft themselves:
“Abstergo Entertainment is fun, chic and modern. Picture Google – if Google were secretly run by an ancient order out to create their own corrupt version of a perfect world. When you exit the Animus and wander around the office there are little statues on your desk (which showcase your progression in the game) and your coworkers are hard at work or milling around talking to each other…”
You’ll be pulled out of the Animus at certain key points in the storyline, and you’re allowed to wander (somewhat) throughout the office. Of course, there are a bunch of Easter eggs, one of which gives you some new information about Assassin’s Creed III protagonist, Desmond Miles. So be sure to explore the offices as thoroughly as possible!
Back inside the Animus, you’ll notice a lot of updates and upgrades in Edwards world, from more climbable environments to a better array of NPCs. Plus, progression allows you to unlock upgrades for Edward, including new ships, costumes and weapons.
Some of the upgrades made me scratch my head, though. For example, one of the Uplay point upgrades is Edward’s “classic” pirate outfit (resplendent with eyepatch), outlandish clothing that screams “LOOK AT ME! I’M AN OUTLAW!” and a swagger that makes Jack Sparrow look like Tim Conaway. Yet, during all of the story missions, NPC’s don’t bat an eye that you aren’t (yet) known as a bloodthirsty pirate. No, you’re totally an upstanding trader…nothing off about you at all!
Oddly, even those hiccups are present, I was too smitten with the rest of the gameplay, to be put off. I mean, at nearly any given point, you could sail to an island, plunder to your heart’s content, then go right back to the main story missions. There’s a HUUUUUUUGE emphasis on exploration, and less of the “ticking timebomb” feel that AC3 had. As a result, you can sail around the map whenever you feel like taking a breather, and you won’t feel like you’re missing out on too much.
Or, if you prefer to shoot through the main storyline, you can always come back and do all the fun “side stuff”, like hunt for treasure, hunt for animals, craft, fight and loot ships, free dive (and get eaten by sharks more than you’d think), sail, collect sea shanties (songs your crew will sing as you sail) and even do some whaling.
Whaling is a misnomer in this case, as you can hunt massive sharks, whales and other sea creatures. You will, however, have to upgrade your ship if you want to hunt the big fish. And where’s Quint when you need him?
If you have balls of steel (or Fallopian tubes of barbed wire), you can try your hand at sunken treasure. This may come as a surprise, but the majority of pirates originated because of claims of sunken treasure from battles on the high seas. Assassin’s Creed IV faithfully reproduces this (having you descend on an actual diving bell), sending you into an ocean that’s teeming with sealife.
Plus, since the graphics look so good, you’ll end up checking out things longer than you should, and dying. And if you don’t manage to die, there’s always a cadre of sharks ready to tear out your butthole.
I hate diving parts in games, where you have finite lung capacity and have to worry about creatures. Hate. It. Needless to say, much of the undersea treasure remained under the sea, in my playthrough.
Hunting is back, and is an integral part of crafting…so you’ll have to hone your sneaking skills to get the drop (sometimes literally) on the easily spooked animals. Sea Shanties have replaced ol’ Ben Franklin’s manuscript, and tracking ‘em down allows you to change the “playlist” that your sailors sing as you sail around the ocean. Sometimes, you can find messages in a bottle, or treasure maps on corpses, and provided that you have the patience to read them, you can find some slick treasure. Treasure that you’ll need if you want to survive.
Ship combat has been refined since AC3, and you’ll need to continually invest in your ship and weapons, via upgrades, if you want to stay alive. Keep in mind that the upgrades are often tens of thousands of dollars, so the couple hundred that you find from looting chests is pennies towards your goal. You’ll need to fight lesser ships, pilfer their contents and sell it back, either to merchants or from your captain’s cabin. Or you could just go all GTA and shoot everyone and TAKE ALL OF THE THINGS!
Multiplayer essentially has the same modes you know and love from the previous games, and yes, it feels a good deal more streamlined.
Now, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the Assassin’s Creed online modes, it pretty much pairs down to “Hide and Seek” and “Capture the Flag”.
Ok, so you’ll never see the words “hide and seek” in the description, but that’s pretty much what it is. Basically, you’re put into an area that’s chock full of assassins that look just like the characters you can pick from. This means that you can blend in with exact NPC (non-player character) replicas of yourself. The ultimate goal is to hide from your pursuers (which will be alerted to your general location via HUD), and not die. If you happen to see an enemy, you can track them by pressing the L trigger, and if they get close enough, you can punch ‘em in the head, thus stunning them. Stunned enemies cannot move or attack (for 4ish) seconds.
On the flipside, as a hunter, you’re cruising through crowds, checking for movements and/or mistakes that will pinpoint your quarry. If you highlight them, then stalk them, you’ll get a vastly higher score than if you simply stab them in the back. Aerial attacks, hidden attacks and other “fun” executions will get you bonus points as well. Conversely, if they’re on to you, they can either hit you with a stun, or if they’re dead anyway, they can “contest” your kill (IE punch you in the nose before you stab them), which cuts your points by 50%! It’s a nice little “fuck you” to people who think they’re going to ring up a thousand-point kill.
CTF mode is straightforward: sneak (or run) into your enemy’s base, steal the “artifact” and bring it back to your base. There’s a catch, though. Once you pass into enemy territory, you can be killed…so plan your moves carefully. Also, when an enemy is in “your” territory, you can execute them without issue…but in “their” zones, you can only stun.
All in all, the multiplayer modes are a breath of fresh air, in an online world that’s teeming with FPS titles, it’s nice to play a clever online mode that requires patience, subtlety and craftiness. Plus, it makes getting a killing shot that much more thrilling when you’ve spent time plotting the perfect execution.
Overall, Assassin’s Creed IV is a significant upgrade to III. It’s a great swan song to the AC franchise on current-gen consoles, and gives some of the most unique and lengthy side-quests that the series has ever seen. It’s a blast to play and multiplayer is a great breather from other FPS-heavy online interactions. Even if you’re a passing fan, Assassin’s Creed IV deserves a place on your game shelf.