A Pirate’s Life Indeed.
By Corey Dirrig
After playing each game in this massive franchise year after year, feeling a combination of disappointment with last year’s title and franchise fatigue, I never thought that I would ever spend longer than what was required to finish the story until Ubisoft dropped Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag in my lap. I spent a lot of weeks sailing the high seas searching for every last treasure chest, secret, and sea shanty. Overall I dumped almost 90 hours, and I am still itching to go back. Spinning the Assassin’s story into the world of pirates and Caribbean life, Black Flag changes the perspective from Desmond Miles to YOU exploring the life of Edward Kenway, the Pirate Captain of the Jackdaw. Edward gets mixed up in things much larger than himself, which lends to a story filled with assassins, Templars and, well, more pirates.
What makes Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag so different and great is that is expands and focuses on the naval sequences from Assassin’s Creed III and really fleshes those aspects out to create an immersive experience. When first gaining control of the Jackdaw, handling the navigational duties on top of giving commands to the crew during a battle can feel overwhelming at first, especially for those who skipped the last game (and who can blame you?). I advise you take the ship out into a less aggressive area to practice the controls. It will only be a short time until you’re sinking entire brigades, attacking forts, and hunting the white whales, becoming entirely second nature and never wanting to leave the ship.
But it’s not all about water in Black Flag. There’s a lot of ground to cover, too. Sailing the high seas to the sound of your crew bellowing the shanties really reestablishes that feeling of freedom and hopefulness, even in the most intense situations. Encounters with stormy weather and other ships are unscripted, making these randomized circumstances in between the main set pieces and story moments really make the experience that much greater.
The open world is without a doubt the star of Black Flag. Outside of the massive ocean that players can explore, there are sprawling, living cities and so much dynamic pedestrian interactivity. Outside of the three major cities, there are dozens of smaller islands to explore secrets and find treasure, as well as forts to invade and British outposts to raid. Accepting assassination contracts will have you traveling all over the map stalking your target and plotting the best course of attack. And the best part? Some of the contracts get you out on the water for some ship on ship mayhem. Looting maps from the bodies of the men you killed can lead you to buried treasure that you likely wouldn’t have stumbled upon otherwise. And of course there are a multitude of items to collect scattered about the different islands. I found myself wanting to track down all of these optional items, and mostly preferred them to the story missions as it gave me an excuse to explore more.
As far as the land-based story missions go, you find yourself in situations that you’ll presumably be familiar with if you’ve spent any time with the series: sneaking in the weeds, running across rooftops, eavesdropping on conversations, going blade-to-blade with a cluster of enemies, and participating in some pretty unique assassinations. The majority of the on-land missions rotate between these types of missions, but paces them out well and doesn’t feel like a chore as in some of the more recent games. Some mechanics, like following specific people, have been completely overhauled. The game highlights the specific person you are following so it is easier to hide and track at the same time.
Moving around the world in general feels better than in III. Assassin’s Creed III was the first game to use the Anvil Next engine, and with that came some control issues. Connor felt clunky and heavy, as moving around the cities felt off from the Ezio trilogy. Controlling Edward feels more on par with the latter, as moving around Kingston, Nassau, and Havana feel more natural. Some issues in precision still exist, and I still found myself jumping sideways off some buildings and rocks when i wanted to just leap to the next platform.
The story is pretty bare-bones, but still more than serviceable, and the pirate theme injects a much appreciated sense of liveliness. Samples taken from Desmond Miles’ body were taken by Abstergo to explore his genetic memories to find out more about the Assassin order through making a pirate video game. The historical portion of the story revolves around the most notorious pirates, including Blackbeard, Benjamin Horningold, Mary Read, Stede Bonnet, Calico Jack, and Charles Vane. Streamlining your adventure by sticking to main missions is expected to take close to 20-hours of play, but if you’re looking to see all the sights and do all that’s doable, expect to double or even triple that playtime.
Black Flag introduces a strategy-type mini-game, giving the player the ability to recruit a fleet to handle, gaining supplies by completing their own missions while the player is off doing something else. It’s a fun and engaging way to grind for supplies without actually grinding. Selecting from a list of missions shows each ships probability of success and what commodities can be attained if victorious. The more ships you gather in your fleet, the faster you gain supplies. All of this is managed from the Jackdaw’s cabin. This all takes place on menu screens, so once you’ve put the ships into action, you’ll be free to get back to your in-game duties. Ubisoft has even released a companion app for tablet devices, letting you manage your fleet away from your console. The Wii U version does include this feature as well, as it is all done through registering the game through Uplay.
Multiplayer makes a return in Black Flag, where teams of human players will need to blend into a map filled with AI characters, and assassinate the others without getting assassinated themselves. Fair warning, there’s a bit of a learning curve when first dropping in, especially if you have never played the multiplayer in previous entries. But if you put time in, there’s a highly rewarding and thrilling experience here. It’s worth mentioning that I had little to no problems finding or connecting to a match, even in this version.
8.5/10 – The DNA Network
The world of Black Flag was surprisingly fun, immersive, and engaging, giving me the pirate game I had always wanted. Straying from the normal Assassin’s Creed formula really seems to have reinvigorated the series, giving it the boost it needed to shed the stench that was AC III. It definitely lacks the polish to make for a masterpiece, but that doesn’t mean it can’t offer up one of my most memorable gaming experiences of the year. This a great addition to the Wii U lineup, and should satisfy the thirst of those seeking a little mature-themed adventure on Nintendo’s console.