Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Review: Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag

Note: this review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game. AC4 is also available for the Wii U, Playstation 3, Playstation 4, and PC. It will be available for Xbox One at the console's launch on November 22nd. A developer confirmed that the game was functionally the same on all platforms.

Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed series has long been controversial. The first game attracted many fans with its intriguing plot, as well as its innovative free-running mechanics, while simultaneously discouraging others with its repetitive gameplay. Assassin's Creed II greatly improved on the concept, adding a lot of completionist-oriented goals and more weapon choices for flexible play. Brotherhood was a sharper refinement of AC2's best features, but then Revelations stretched our love for Ezio too thin with a rehash that only added some unnecessary and sometimes annoying features. Assassin's Creed III finally gave us a new Assassin protagonist and a whole new era for the setting, but not a lot of the actual game was truly new, and it failed to really win over fans who had grown bored with the yearly releases.

As a fan from the start, I was disappointed with how the series seemed to be going rapidly downhill. I greatly enjoyed the world Ubisoft had created, with its Assassin-Templar struggle as old as history, and its pseudo-magical relics that were seemingly involved in every significant event since the beginning of humanity, left behind by a mysterious precursor race. Fortunately, Assassin's Creed IV represents a major turn for the better.

Firstly, the plot includes some new beginnings. We still have the historical Animus sessions broken up by trips back to the present day, but no longer are we following Desmond and his Assassin crew as they desperately flee the Templars and try to prevent apocalyptic catastrophe. Instead, you'll step into the shoes of a new employee at a video game company (Abstergo Entertainment -- a branch of the Templar front organization). You are tasked with using an Animus console to explore the memories of British pirate Edward Kenway, eventual grandfather to Connor of AC3 (ostensibly to collect material for a new game, but naturally, you'll discover more about Abstergo's motivations as the plot progresses). Edward is our new historical protagonist, and while we never get as deep into the character as we did with Ezio, he's as roguishly charming as you'd expect from a pirate, and is instantly likable.

The present-day sessions are interesting, as they're a complete departure from the third-person free-running gameplay that generally comprises the Animus sessions. They're played in first-person, and you can't do much beyond meandering around the office and occasionally interacting with an elevator or console. These parts are slow, but they don't last too long. The fourth-wall aspects of the scenario are particularly amusing -- if you look around a bit, you'll see that within the game world, Abstergo Entertainment, a Montreal-based studio like the real-world developers, has released Assassin's Creed games (but with a pro-Templar spin), and you'll find many related allusions (even a reference to Ubisoft's upcoming game Watch Dogs).

The present-day components do a satisfactory job of providing context, but the meat of the game is in the Edward sections. On land, the gameplay is similar to the previous entries. You'll spend most of your time free-running and climbing across the landscape or attempting to kill a target. Control is persistently smooth but sometimes difficult to precisely direct, as before -- you'll occasionally try to jump to a particular branch only to have Edward grab onto the column next to it, or just leap off a cliff entirely. However, such problems aren't extremely common, and the game isn't very punishing anyway. At worst you'll lose a minute or two of progress; checkpoints and auto-saves abound.

Edward doesn't have many new moves. In fact, they've pared down many the unnecessary redundancies of equipment and abilities -- you have a pair of swords for open combat, hidden blades for stealthy, quick kills, and pistols for ranged attacks. Beyond that, you have a few auxiliary out-of-combat items, like smoke bombs, but you won't need them often. The game frequently encourages stealth during missions with optional objectives for staying out of combat, but almost never actually requires it. When you're exposed and become surrounded by a group of enemies, most of them will stand around with their swords pointed at you while you slice their friends apart. When they do attack, you can block and counter easily enough if you're paying attention. This means that when you're tasked with assassinating a target, you can usually just run straight through the front door and take down all the guards in open combat, but it's far more rewarding to come sneaking in through the bushes or over the rooftops for a silent kill. The game, unfortunately, does not do enough to tangibly enforce this reward. You can usually save quite a bit of time with a more direct approach and the optional objectives only contribute to completion percentage, which most players won't bother to get to 100% anyway.

Speaking of which, completionism is still at the heart and soul of the game. Every entry since AC2 has had a huge number of optional collectibles and other boxes to check, and this one is no different. Every chest, side mission, and so on will appear on your mini-map once you've climbed the area's viewpoint (generally a tower or tall tree). At this point, it's mostly just a matter of following your map to each icon, so a lot of the time it does feel like you're really just checking boxes on a to-do list. The nice part this time around is that there's far more incentive to actually go after a lot of the optional items -- you'll actually have a use for the extra money, so it's much more rewarding to obtain some. Upgrading your pirate ship gets expensive, and believe me, you will want to upgrade your ship as much as possible. You'll feel the extra power when you increment your cannon power or hull strength. It's quite satisfying to apply a useful new upgrade, and you'll need to have quite a few in order to comfortably get through the main missions.

This takes us to where the game shines -- the open sea. You can freely sail around on your ship in a way that is strangely reminiscent of Wind Waker. The controls here are well-implemented -- the ship feels suitably heavy but is still pretty easy to direct once you've gotten the hang of it. It's enjoyable just to sail around because the ship maintains a good balance between realistic movement and cartoonish, turn-on-a-dime direct control. When exploring on the ship, there are a lot of smaller islands to find that just contain more optional treasure chests and collectibles, but there's also a lot more. You can find stranded survivors who will join your crew, or floating crates of trade goods to pick up and use for money or upgrades later. You can also find sunken shipwrecks to explore and various aquatic animals to harpoon for crafting materials. Plus, there are always a lot of other ships sailing around, and you're free to attack any of them -- you're a pirate, after all. Naval combat is beautifully executed, again featuring just enough realistic sluggishness to make the fights consistently impactful and challenging. Enemy ships span a wide range of difficulties and you'll be rewarded accordingly with varying degrees of plunder.

Assassin's Creed IV sticks to the formula enough to be very familiar but refreshes it just enough to bring some new life to the series. Fans who had become jaded would be well-advised to give it one last shot with AC4; it is, happily, a good enough experience to rekindle interest. It's a solid game with a fairly low degree of difficulty that manages to hook and maintain the player's interest for the duration of a hefty amount of content.

Rating: 4/5

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