Thursday, May 8, 2014

Review: Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag (2013)

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag (2013)

Available for PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Wii U, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Price: $60 (at launch), $40 (as of this writing)

Arr, mateys! Man, I always wanted an excuse to say that. Anyway, Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag is the best Pirates of the Caribbean game that Disney never made, and arguably the peak of the series thus far. Technically, it doesn't do anything new, as nearly every gameplay mechanic on display here has shown up in a past game in the series. What it does do, however, is combine them all into a "greatest hits" collection of everything that people like about these games -- the stealth action, the swordplay, the highly mobile free-running, the third game's naval combat, the para-historical intrigue, the unbelievably open environments built for exploration -- and drop it into the middle of the golden age of Caribbean piracy, the 1710s and '20s, the age of Blackbeard, Bartholomew Roberts, Anne Bonny, Charles Vane, Calico Jack Rackham, and more, all of whom show up as key characters. While not perfect, it makes for one hell of a last hurrah for the series on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, not to mention a solid debut for the series on the new generation of consoles.

Perhaps I wasn't being entirely truthful when I described this game as the best Pirates of the Caribbean game ever made. It is that, certainly, but what it feels closer to in practice is Grand Theft Auto on the high seas. You only get to captain one ship, the Jackdaw, but you will spend the bulk of the game outside of missions capturing other ships, raiding plantations, and more in order to score enough booty and Spanish gold to upgrade your armor, guns, and ram and turn the old brig you hijacked during a storm into the terror of the West Indies. The game revels in pushing the player to act like a pirate, starting small with little schooners and working your way up to the point where even grand royal convoys and men-o'-war don't look intimidating so much as they look like targets. Attacking ships is the most fun I've ever had engaging in grand-scale larceny, from the naval battles that open up the assault to when the ship is well and wrecked and you're swinging from ropes onto its deck with your crew, fighting sword-to-sword with the enemy captain and his men. What's more, the process of actually piloting your ship is kept simple, with four speeds (stop, half sail, full sail, and travel speed), steering connected to the analog stick (like driving a car in any racing game). Aiming and firing your guns is as simple as turning your camera in the direction of which weapon you want to use (the front of the ship for the chase cannons that you fire on enemy sails, the sides to use the main broadside cannons, and the rear to drop explosive barrels to deter pursuers), then hitting the "fire!" button to hear the roar of a full blast of 18th century ship guns. The best part? Unlike Grand Theft Auto V's heists, which were just as thrilling but were sadly finite in number, you can go out and steal some ships whenever you please in this game. Ubisoft Montreal clearly realized just how much people loved the naval combat missions in the third game, which remain the best examples of that type of gameplay I've ever seen, and built the whole of the next game around going out on a boat and wrecking stuff.

And when you're not chasing booty, every other little activity and sidequest in the game meshes perfectly with the pirate theme. The obligatory hidden packages that populate open-world games are represented in the form of finding treasure chests on deserted islands, some of which are buried and have to be sought out using treasure maps found on dead bodies, as well as finding messages in bottles that relay some key bits of backstory and mythology. You'll hunt animals big and small in the jungles, mountains, beaches, and swamps, as well as head out on a rowboat and go head-to-head with whales and sharks armed with only a harpoon, and then you'll use their bones and pelts to craft new outfits and upgrades to your gear. You'll capture coastal forts in some of the game's most epic battles, which reduce the presence of the British and Spanish fleets, reveal the locations of all hidden collectibles in that corner of the map, and unlock side-missions where an "honest businessman and friend" pays you to wreak havoc. And when you're done scouring every inch of land for things to do, you'll be diving beneath the waves to explore shipwrecks and underwater caverns, watching your back for sharks and eels itching to take a bite out of you.

Of course, the naval gameplay isn't entirely rosy. Going all the way back to the first one, the Assassin's Creed games have been showcases of what the last generation of consoles was truly capable of, with open worlds that could be explored from the streets all the way up to the rooftops. If you saw it, you could probably go there right then and there, and if you couldn't, that area would be unlocked soon enough. No invisible walls restricting your movement, no load times within cities, just pure freedom, aided by acrobatic free-running that allowed you to climb any wall or ledge. And while this world is the biggest yet, it does come with qualifiers. The game world spans the whole of the western Caribbean, allowing players to visit Cuba, the Bahamas, the Florida Keys, Jamaica, the Cayman Islands, and the Yucatan in their quest for riches. The world is dozens of miles across, requiring quite some time to sail from end to end, all without a load time in sight unless you're sailing into one of the game's three ports: Havana, Nassau, and Kingston/Port Royal.

While technically impressive, it's also the source of the game's main issues from a gameplay standpoint. If you're indulging in all those side activities I mentioned above, it's great, but if you're just trying to get from point A to point B, sea travel is boring, far more than, say, traversing the wilderness was in the third game, or through cities throughout the series (including in this game). Furthermore, it fragments the map into a handful of smaller segments that, outside the cities, often take anywhere from a few minutes to half an hour to fully explore, which are individually a lot less impressive than the old cities and wilderness. While the sheer scale of the map may look daunting on paper, it's heavily atomized. I found myself thankful that this game had a fast travel option that allowed me to skip the journey and jump to my destination in an instant. It's a small price to pay for all the diversity of content, but I do wish that more could have been done to make the world in between the islands feel more alive when you're trying to just go someplace. The game already has things like battles between British, Spanish, and pirate boats, as well as community challenges and assorted loot that's been abandoned in the ocean, but having some more randomly-occurring events or sidequests would've encouraged me to go back through areas after I'd explored them. Perhaps some shipwrecked survivors requesting passage home, for a price, or royal convoys loaded up with more than just cash (which is almost hilariously easy to come by), but also cloth, metal, and wood to upgrade your ship with.

The on-foot gameplay is the same as it's ever been, which is to say, it's one of the best stealth action games this side of the Batman: Arkham series. Whether you're traversing rooftops and forest canopies, quietly moving through bushes waiting for the perfect time to strike, stealthily taking out foes with the hidden blade, the blowgun, and the rope darts, or entering five-on-one brawls armed with your dual swords and your frighteningly large array of pistols, combat and movement is both easy to learn and intensely rewarding if you put the time in to mastering it. The enemies have blind spots, but they're otherwise fairly intelligent when it comes to finding you, looking through shrubs and other hiding spots, sometimes bringing backup when they do so, and running to ring the alarm bell when they find dead bodies. When you get into a fight, it's done with only four buttons -- one for your basic attack, one for your block, one for your defense-breaking attack, and one to use the tool you have equipped -- but you will need to learn the ins and outs of all four of them, and learn how to use every tool in your arsenal, to have a chance against all but the weakest enemies. Agile foes can parry your sword strikes and outrun and tackle you if you try to flee combat, axe-wielding grenadiers can block and counter your attacks and throw bombs to break up a fight, officers can counter your defense-breaking attacks and shoot you with their pistols, and marksmen will shoot you from rooftops and long distances with muskets that will knock you on your ass. If you try to button-mash your way through combat, you will lose, badly and repeatedly, but if you know what you're doing you'll be rewarded with amazing fights that feel like the best classic Errol Flynn swashbucklers.

The story of the game -- or rather, I should say, the main story (I'll get to that later) -- keeps up that feeling. You play as Edward Kenway, a Welshman come to the Caribbean to get rich, leaving behind his doubting wife and family. After securing his own ship, he hears tales about a great treasure called the Observatory, which would grant wealth and power to anybody who controls it, and it just so happens that the Templars, the Illuminati-esque villains of the Assassin's Creed series, are after it. Kenway decides that it should rather be in the hands of someone like him, so he sets out to get his hands on it first. All the while, he interacts with the Assassins, the Fraternal Order of Freedom-Loving Good Guys who are at war with the Templars. The game doesn't hesitate to deconstruct a lot of the Hollywood pirate mythology and show the debauchery, backstabbing, and lawlessness that accompanied the age of pirates, yet it still manages to be a fairly lighthearted adventure compared to past games, filled with vivid characters largely based on actual figures from that era and keeping the Assassin vs. Templar wars largely in the background in favor of focusing on the pirates' quest for their own gain. I was eagerly anticipating where the story was headed all the way to the end, thanks to both fun writing and great production values. It's easy to get into even if you've never played any of the games before this.

Of course, as anybody who's played an Assassin's Creed game knows (and I've played pretty much all of them), that's not all there is to the story. From time to time, chiefly after a particularly big moment, you'll be pulled into a separate, modern-day story connected to the events that Kenway's been experiencing. This is the big story conceit that the series has relied upon: technology that employs the sciencey-sounding concept of "genetic memory" (basically Lamarckism taken to extremes) to allow people to relive the lives of their ancestors virtual reality-style, which the Templars are employing to scour history for valuable artifacts left behind by an ancient, high-tech precursor civilization that could aid them in their quest for world domination. Here, the setup is that you are an employee at Abstergo Entertainment, a video game company and Templar front that they use to fund their work and spread propaganda, exploring the genetic memory of the recently-deceased Desmond Miles (the modern-day protagonist of past games in the series) so that they can a) locate the Observatory for themselves, and b) create a trashy, lowest-common-denominator pirate blockbuster called Devils of the Caribbean. The experience is filled with not only plot points that move the series-spanning modern-day story along, but also with tons of self-deprecating in-jokes making fun of video game culture and the companies that develop and publish games, with Abstergo Entertainment itself being heavily based on Ubisoft, the makers of the series. Most of it is optional, with the parts necessary to move the plot forward collectively lasting about an hour at most, but between the hacking puzzles and the large volume of lore hidden about, it's a very cool bonus for fans of the series.

Score: 4 out of 5

While doing little to truly revolutionize the series, and having a couple of really glaring design problems, the good more than outweighs the bad, making this a great pickup for both Assassin's Creed noobs and those who have played every game since the first one. The high point of the series so far, and one that makes me optimistic for the next game.

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