Assassin's Creed 4 review: high seas, high thrills

After the disappointment of Assassin's Creed 3, I was nearly ready to write off the franchise. Ubisoft's open-world foray into the American...

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After the disappointment of Assassin's Creed 3, I was nearly ready to write off the franchise. Ubisoft's open-world foray into the American Revolution was too unfocused and too unpolished. Certainly, a one-year turnaround for Black Flag—the next fully-numbered entry in the series—wouldn't be enough to move the series forward. Or, so I thought. Black Flag improves upon nearly every aspect of Assassin's Creed 3, largely by focusing on a grand mission statement: be a great pirate game. Although you engage in a multitude of activities—from hunting wild animals, to diving for treasure, to assassinating—they all work towards the goal of furthering your pirating ways. Shifting to a pirate theme makes so much sense. In fact, it feels like the franchise was always meant to be a pirate game. Your motivation as Edward Kenway is rather simple to understand: get rich or die trying, and every action you take furthers your quest to rule the seas. Of course you'll get into a drunken bar brawl as a pirate. Of course you'll recruit new sailors to join your cause. And of course you'll end up assassinating some targets—for the right price. Telling players to "get rich" is a rather easy way of directly translating character into player motivation. However, there's no point in earning money if there's no way to spend it. Surprisingly, one of the most impactful additions to Black Flag is the ability to spend money on your ship, the Jackdaw. Whereas previous games in the series have given you the ability to improve your character or build out your Homestead (which you can also do in AC4), no upgrade tree in the series has felt as meaningful as this. Why? The improvements you acquire make an immediate impact on gameplay. And given how often you sail your ship, it's no surprise you'll quickly become attached to it. Naval combat proved to be one of the highlights of Assassin's Creed 3, and making it the focus of Black Flag is a wise decision on Ubisoft's part. Like its predecessor, AC4 makes naval combat accessible, but challenging and satisfying at the same time. While it may be far from a proper naval sim, you'll still have to be mindful of wind speed, wind direction, waves, and boat position. Given all the factors one has to consider while commandeering a boat, even fights against stationary objects can be thrilling. While you'll engage in a fair share of skirmishes against other ships, the best fights in the game are those against armored forts. These structures take and dole a lot of damage, and you'll have to master your approach in order to best them. Crippling a ship or destroying a fort's defenses will lead to one of Ubisoft's most marketed bullet points for the game: seamless transition between naval and on-the-ground combat. It may seem like an insignificant addition at first, but it does drastically change the pacing of the game. Being able to stop a ship, gun down a few soldiers with a cannon, and then jump aboard their sail and perform air assassinations below is an incredible experience, one that simply wasn't possible in previous games. Being able to instantly switch between the two modes of combat is liberating, and lets you properly appreciate the scale of your battles, from afar and up-close. There are other things to do with your ship than blow things up. You'll also be able to go hunting, harpooning sea creatures a la Resident Evil 4. However, the biggest surprise of the game has you going underwater, looking for treasure that may be trapped on the sea floor. These sequences feel like nothing the franchise has done before, presented more like a horror game than adventure. You'll feel claustrophobic from the limited air supply, and you'll feel incredibly vulnerable as sharks and other underwater threats look to make you a meal. These sequences introduce a new way of approaching stealth, as you try to hide in sunken ships and sea foliage. It's a fascinating new way of playing, one I wouldn't be surprised to see fleshed out more in future AC titles.

Black Flag's underwater sections are terrific

When you're on land, things get much more familiar. Here, you'll find yourself returning to the same mechanics that have defined seven-plus Assassin's Creed titles. You'll still find synchronization points to climb, you'll still tail targets to overhear their conversations, and you'll still hide in haystacks to murder-in-secret. On land, the formula begins to show its age. It may no longer be as fresh or exciting as it once was, it is nonetheless refined. You'll be able to use Eagle Vision to see through walls and track multiple enemies, for example. You'll also be able to quickly and easily restart checkpoints, if need be. There's a greater focus on doing awesome things on missions. Crucially, AC3's numerous tedious chase missions have been cut down. Assassinations have been better structured to enable cooler takedowns. You'll even be able to double-air-assassinate two targets in one mission, if you play your cards right. One mission even incorporate social stealth, letting you kill your target quietly while sitting on a bench.

Adewale is one of the many likable side characters in Black Flag

As a pirate, Kenway doesn't care much for the war between the Templars and the Assassins, and as a result, the player isn't given much incentive to care about the story either. While I enjoyed Black Flag's cast of supporting characters, the narrative is rather thin. Disappointingly, Kenway doesn't really grow much as a character until the very tail end of the game. In a rather bizarre twist, what does work is the modern-day storyline, which has you playing as a video game tester in the fictional Abstergo Entertainment. It is largely optional this time around, with players forced to play in the modern day for about half an hour. But, there's good reason to explore the environment and dive into the lore. By wandering the offices, you'll be able to find QR codes, and eventually, you'll be granted the ability to hack into terminals and access information you weren't "supposed" to get. Clever writing which parodies video game development as a whole goes into surprising detail about the fate of Desmond and goes into detail about the potential future of the franchise. It's smart and genuinely satisfying, especially for longtime fans.

Surprise! The modern-day story is really fun to play

Much like Assassin's Creed 2 took the unpolished ideas of the original AC, Black Flag builds upon the flawed AC3 experience. Ubisoft's latest adventure takes the best ideas of last year's game, refines them, and adds surprising new experiences in the form of underwater missions and a genuinely fun modern-day narrative. It's unquestionable that the Assassin's Creed franchise will one day outstay its welcome, especially at the pace Ubisoft continues to make these games. However, Black Flag shows that there's still life in the series yet. [8]
This review is based on early retail PlayStation 3 code provided by the publisher. Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag is now available at retail on PS3, Xbox 360, and Wii U for $59.99. It is also available for download on PlayStation Network. The game is also coming to PS4 on November 15, PC on November 19, and Xbox One on November 22. The game is rated M.

From The Chatty

  • reply
    October 29, 2013 1:00 AM

    Andrew Yoon posted a new article, Assassin's Creed 4 review: high seas, high thrills.

    After the disappointment of Assassin's Creed 3, I was nearly ready to write off the franchise. Ubisoft's open-world foray into the American...

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      October 29, 2013 1:29 AM

      i thought yall were going to add in scores to reviews?

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        October 29, 2013 1:35 AM

        It's there at the bottom, 8

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        October 29, 2013 1:36 AM

        I'm glad they don't, points are so arbitrary, Gamespot has all but ruined the gaming review landscape. Better to motivate your reviews with detailed descriptions of positives and negatives.

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          October 29, 2013 6:33 AM

          well they did... it's an 8. sorry to disappoint.

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      October 29, 2013 1:39 AM

      Am I the only person that thinks removing the Desmond reality plot like is stupid? I mean I realize that given the events at the end of 3 they had limited options left with that - but it feels like an unfinished story...that was ultimately the primary story being told. I have close to no interest in Abstergo game Development. And it sounds like there is very little going on in the new optional present day segments.

      Shrug. I guess I just always imagined this series eventually developing into a modern day entry where you play as Desmond. Not a pirate simulator.

      Not feeling it.

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        October 29, 2013 4:44 AM

        Nope, glad they did. I didn't like spending time out of the Animus really. Not that I didn't like his character or anything, just prefered all the other stuff.

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        October 29, 2013 5:23 AM

        I always figured you would eventually end up in the modern day as an Uber-Desmond fucking up a bunch of Abstergo bitches. I think they could have handled the Desmond parts a lot better and left that option open.

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          October 29, 2013 5:37 AM

          I'm hoping thats basically what Watch Dogs is.

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        October 29, 2013 6:23 AM

        I'm in the exact same boat as you. I'm holding off on AC4; I figure I'll watch a Let's Play of it before deciding whether or not I want to spring for it & play through on my own...

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        October 29, 2013 4:15 PM

        So they just completely dropped this major plot line of the whole franchise? Jesus, why do people like this shit? What a shady thing to do. Thankfully, I got bored of it fast enough to stop playing mid AC2.

        Seems to much like they dropped it so that they could just pump out more games. :/

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      October 29, 2013 5:17 AM

      AC5 needs to be set in feudal Japan, and AC6 needs to be in a Blade-Runner style future.

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        October 29, 2013 5:19 AM

        I would buy these games.

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        October 29, 2013 6:31 AM

        Yes and yes.. A sci-fi AC would be excellent.

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        October 29, 2013 6:32 AM

        That would be very cool. If they finally fixed the shitty combat.

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        October 29, 2013 7:10 AM

        I am very glad AC is the history game now. There's not enough cool history in videogames IMO.

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          October 29, 2013 8:51 AM

          Is there enough history in this one, though? That's the burning question for me.

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        October 29, 2013 8:42 AM

        Victorian England plz.

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        October 29, 2013 8:44 AM

        AC7: Caveman Assassin

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          October 29, 2013 11:00 AM

          Grog, why you stand in bush holding big club behind back?

          *whack*

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        October 29, 2013 9:18 AM

        AC1 hinted that the next one would be feudal japan and then it wasn't :/

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        October 29, 2013 9:19 AM

        Bolshevik Revolution Russia

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      October 29, 2013 7:02 AM

      I'm having a hard time not just saying fuck it and getting it for 360. arghhhh

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        October 29, 2013 8:17 AM

        I think Ubisoft partnered with most retailers to offer quick and cheap next-gen upgrades. Something like, "buy the current-gen game, pay $10 and get a next-gen disc." That might just be a PS3 offer; I haven't followed Xbox in years.

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          October 29, 2013 9:11 AM

          I'm no longer planning on getting a new console at launch, so it's this or wait for PC.

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        October 29, 2013 8:42 AM

        I'm letting 100% in GTA occupy me until I get it on XBone at launch.

        And if that doesn't do it, I can always get the new Batman to tide me over.

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          October 29, 2013 1:51 PM

          So why are you paying the extra $100 for the less powerful console? Is it because of all the integrated Windows-like functionality?

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            October 29, 2013 1:53 PM

            By the way, not trying to be a fanboy or inflammatory, if it sounded that way, just genuinely curious.

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            October 29, 2013 1:53 PM

            OH MY GOD GO AWAYYYYYY

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              October 29, 2013 2:02 PM

              see above, not trying to be like that. For the record I didn't buy a PS3 until last year, so I care very little for either.

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                October 29, 2013 2:10 PM

                I suppose if I had to answer:

                * I like XBox Live, and already pay for Gold.
                * The Windows-like nature of it does look pretty cool.
                * I have a bunch of XBox Video content that I own.
                * The integrated TV stuff looks cool to me.
                * The new Kinect stuff looks pretty cool (I don't own a Kinect now), even if I only use it for control of the console and not for games.
                * 360 controller is infinitely better than the PS3 one ... I know the PS4 is better than PS3.
                * Titanfall. I don't own a gaming PC.

                And I don't think the performance is going really be all that different in reality.

                And I am not an XBox fanboy ... I would get a PS4 except I can't really justify the expense of two new consoles at the moment.

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                  October 29, 2013 2:15 PM

                  Cool. And I do think Titanfall looks like the best competitive multiplayer game coming next year. So that will be huge for Microsoft.

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                    October 29, 2013 2:18 PM

                    Not being able to play some of the PS4 exclusives makes me sad ... but such is the nature of consoles these days, unless you buy them all :)

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      October 29, 2013 8:22 AM

      as long as the story is good. needs more foreboding templar action. I miss the ezio era. rebuild the assassins, get your shit together because the templars are as cunning and determined as you.

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        October 29, 2013 8:25 AM

        Yeah, as much as I like the idea of being an awesome pirate, I feel like we haven't seen anything about the Templar and their role in this one.

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      October 29, 2013 1:49 PM

      Ok, so I've never played an AC game before, and I'm wondering if I should pick this up. They seem like a combination of GTA and Prince of Persia to me, neither of which I really care for. Am I off base there?

      I really liked Far Cry 3 (borrowed a bit from AC), but mostly for the combat/stealth. Is AC's core combat based on memorizing button combinations, a la God of War and DmC?

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      October 29, 2013 3:30 PM

      that actually sounds cool. I havent played the series since Brotherhood and it seems like I only missed out on sailing. Feels like this is the right title to jump back in if the pirate/sailing component is fun (which it sounds like it is!). Hmmm the only question really is, will this title hit 35-45 in a few weeks or is this CoD level price holding.