Edward Kenway, loveable rogue, shiny teeth, natural free running expert, Chris Hemsworth lookalike, Privateer and the protagonist for the latest in the Assassin’s Creed franchise.
On reflection, the Assassin’s Creed franchise has needed a shot in the arm, the last game while adding a slew of options, setting and change of historical period fell a little short with the fans. The shining jewel of ACIII however was the naval combat, so it’s only natural that Ubisoft took that win and ran, or rather swam with it.
I’ve dragged my feet on this to be honest, having started playing way back late 2013 when the old generation was current and everybody had one eye on the next. There was a write up practically in the bag, then stuff happened, a trip, a PS4, Christmas and now a decent bit of playing the same game again on the new console, there excuses out of the way. Engage the Animus!
Here we are living the life of a brigand Privateer, Mr Kenway being the dashing father of Connor’s Dad in ACIII. After taking a two year trip to the Caribbean to seek his fortune, the story picks up Edward at a point where a chance meeting opens up the doors to the world of the Assassins and like any good pirate he sees the chance to get paid, in buckets of gold.
Like all Assassin’s Creed games the first couple of hours are full of set up and drip fed abilities, fair enough, but having gone through it all quite recently my second playthrough on a new platform made it seem somewhat pedestrian. Once that period is out of the way, Edward has obtained his own ship, a crew and the world is an oyster to be shucked then things start to get interesting. The game has a wealth of activities and events to experience, the gameplay is split between seafaring land based typical AC missions following the story through some incredibly well detailed environments. Traversing jungles, towns and remote deserted islands is a pleasure, that said, there is still a woodeness about the urban design and the world does not feel as ‘alive’ as it might have done, being more of a reason to make you climb rather than wander around in awe.
The sea based side of the game is incredibly satisfying, tickling some age old gaming itches with modern day presentation. Plundering vessels never gets old, neither does boarding them like a wayward Errol Flynn, then there is the whole trading side of things, the subgame development of your own fleet, whaling, diving and fortress assaults. The list goes on and the depth soon becomes apparent, you can go a whole evening of play ignoring that narrative mission marker and being drawn from one encounter to the next, upgrading your vessel as you go. The ship to ship combat plays well, control quickly becomes second nature and strategy soon follows, lines from classic movies come to mind as you jostle for position in the smoke and fire. This half of the game is full of satisfaction, whereas it is fair to say the more traditional side of the game carries a healthy dose of frustration. Some of the problems I have with Black Flag’s AC side stem from way back in the series, others are more seated in this story.
There is no doubt that Ubisoft love the franchise to death, quite possibly beyond, it feels like the game would have been spectacular under the steam of a new IP without the need to interweave the AC narrative. It would definitely benefit from having absolutely nothing to do with the modern day Abstergo nonsense, concentrating instead on expanded trading or fleet management. Perhaps having the choice of Pirate or Establishment.
The frustrations are along the lines of Edward and his typically Creed free running, all very fun while dallying around collectibles, but once there is an urgency it becomes all too easy to find yourself ducking into a bush mid combat, getting stuck on a fence or face running comedy style into various walls and pillars. Add to that the mission structures, the least favourite the ‘trail and listen’ type, with instant fail if you don’t toe the line or end up getting seen, the second being a foot chase generally because of the sticky environment. While we discuss free running, how does this roughneck pirate allegedly from Cardiff (although his accent does not betray this) suddenly become an athletic rooftop scrambler? If there was such a thing as youtube back in this setting, Kenway would have been an internet sensation. Personally I like to think these abilities would be more exciting if they were unlocked and improved in a progressive experience based manner, such as Crackdown.
Then there is the slight inconsistency in some areas that is inevitable in such an undertaking, but can become jarringly obvious. There are times when the gameplay moves seamlessly between situations, the weather systems change accordingly and the environment keeps step. Apart from those sequences that can be played out on boiling seas one minute, then placid millponds the next, the sea incidentally is at its best when out on the ocean rather than from the shore. The rolling waves and deck soaking storms all add to the atmosphere, until the ridiculously over-average occurrence of waterspouts becomes an irritation.
That said, the game is a wealthy experience with a decent amount of story to complete, innumerable side missions and collectibles, as part of the launch lineup for the new consoles it is an deep time sink worthy of attention. Plus the multiplayer component which I yet to even venture into. Extending the game beyond the PS4 with the Vita on Remote Play or the Black Flag tablet app also add to the package, the app allowing offline fleet management and growth of riches, and the Vita remote play functionality is a real bonus in a busy household. The gap between the generation of PS3 and PS4 is noticeable from a polish perspective, odd animation glitches tend to creep into the PS3 and the PS4 displays a much richer canvas for the adventure. Plants move and whisper individually as you creep by, the colours and higher definition making a much more pleasing thing to look at. Sound wise the game has lots going on, but this can’t be appreciated without a decent set of headphones.
It’s not hard to imagine another adventure setting sail sometime soon, I just hope that the developers start winding down the franchise side of it and let go of the Abstergo gap fillers. This is a well rounded and deep package, it can stand on its own seafaring legs.