Platforms: PS4 (reviewed) | Xbox One
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
If you’re a late comer to the Assassin’s Creed series, or your interest for it has waned in recent years, this is the game for you. It’s also an essential purchase for any graphics-devouring next-gen console owners out there, as it’s a visual powerhouse from start to finish.
The story sees you essentially playing a game, within a game. You’re some sort of beta tester at Abstergo Entertainment, using the DNA-memory technology seen in the series beforehand to relive the memories of a famous line of Assassin’s. Rather than trying to save the world from Templars as Desmond Miles, this time you’re running through the life events of one Caribbean-based, Welsh pirate, Edward Kenway, to create a video game. It’s very Meta and inside knowledge of past events is handy for the little snippets of information you may find, but newcomers shouldn’t feel left out. There’s always a quick glance at Wikipedia if you need to catch up on the finale of the previous game(s).
The modern day framing device isn’t very intrusive and for the most part, you’re free to enjoy the action and narrative like it was a classic tale of pirates, beards and booty. Kenway is a livelier character than Connor in almost every way, but Ubisoft have sensibly avoided making him a Jack Sparrow clone.
Kenway isn’t born into the Assassin’s Order, he just falls into it – after stabbing one of them and stealing his clothes. From there he uses his new skills and ever-growing notoriety to help his fellow pirates against the tyranny of Spain and Britain. At the end of the day though, he just wants to earn his fortune.
To help Edward achieve this, Ubisoft essentially give you what feels like whole Caribbean and West Indies to pillage. The sheer size only becomes apparent when you get on your ship for the first time, open up the map and zoom out, gawping at much of the world remains to explore. A large world is nothing without anything to do in it though. Thankfully, Ubisoft Montreal has been inspired by their work on Far Cry 3 and has packed the world with side missions and collectibles. Seriously, I’ve gone days without doing a story mission.
Story missions are a nicely varied bunch, but it’s the good old assassination missions that are always going to be the clear winners. For the most part, you’re allowed to approach them however you please. Sure, you can just get the swords out and go through every guard in a base to get to your target, or maybe you’d like to run past them all in broad daylight and launch yourself at your victim who is so stunned at your brazen disrespect for a castle full of guards he barely has time to lift his own sword.
We’re not all playing for speedruns though. Black Flag is best enjoyed when you take your time as the environments have been designed to encourage a stealthy approach with killing your target without raising the alarm being my own personal aim. 100% synchronisation side-objectives return to spice things up a little and they rarely interfere with a stealthy approach if that’s how you want to play.
Have a look at this video I captured onto my PS4 using the Share button. It's worth watching for the bit where I shove someone into a fire face first. Note: the visual quality takes a bit of a hit in the upload process.
A typical base will have lots of bushes or haystacks to hide in and there are usually multiple walls to scale outside allowing you to choose the quietest way in. Armed watchtower guards can pick you off from a distance with their rifles so taking them out first is always top priority. The ‘caution’ stage of the AI gives you a generous amount of time to hide again if you do leap out of cover by mistake -and you will.
Climbing and free-running seems unchanged. So it’s mainly automatic as you just run while holding R2. I can’t help but feel that Ubisoft should give us a bit more control. For example, implementing a few -optional- well timed presses for the jumps or grabs to make you move even faster. The current system looks great in motion, but you never really feel like you’re doing much apart from pointing Kenway in the right direction and saying “Go!”
Kenway is a capable fighter, but he lacks the fluid sword skills of Ezio if I’m honest. Combat is largely the same as before with countering being the best bet, but it’s harder to build up a combo of kill-strikes as opponents gang up on you in such large numbers it’s sometime difficult to get a rhythm going because you’re always spotting that ‘counter now’ icon indicating you’re about to get skewered. Smoke bombs and (up to four) one-shot pistols are available, but despite them sharing a dedicated button they’re often really unresponsive when you try to use them, the smoke bombs especially.
Clunky secondary weapons aside, assassination’s are back to their best. However, there are still a few mission types that are a chore to work through, as they always are in everything from GTA to past AC games. I am of course talking about the ‘follow’ missions where you must remain inconspicuous or out of sight while eavesdropping on a conversation. Protection missions are a bit of a pain too. Considering the huge freedom allowed in the other mission types, these two feel like shackles on your fun.
Step aboard the good ship Jackdaw though and your worries fade away. Ship sections were fun in ACIII, but they’re truly great this time. Controls for both sailing and cannon fire have been tightened up and naval combat is so enjoyable you’ll actively pick out fights on the way to any mission. Being able to board any ship you cripple and engage the enemy crew is a fantastic way to build up your supplies to make your ship stronger.
The ocean itself is a fantastic character in Black Flag. When all is calm, the views are gorgeous as you gaze off into the horizon. When the storms descend, there’s a real sense of danger as you have to look out for tidal waves so you can ride through them headfirst to survive. And then there are the tornados at sea that will inflict massive damage. When a storm arrives in the middle of a battle, the tension reaches incredible heights. These dynamic storms can be a gift though as even the largest ships are vulnerable to them, meaning you can often finish off a ship that’s well out of your league if you let a few tornados batter it before moving in.
Any ship you pillage but leave in one piece can be sent to your own fleet and sent on missions to earn extra cash, in much the same way as sending out Assassin’s in Brotherhood. Smartphone and tablet users absolutely need to download the free app so you can manage your fleet while away from the game as some of their missions take over 30 hours. It’s a great way to keep you tuned into the game when away from the PS4 and it gives me real hope that Ubisoft has something special lined up with second screen usage for the likes of Watch Dogs and The Division.
Black Flag offers tremendous value for money with the extra tasks scattered throughout its huge world. Unlock sections of map and you’ll have treasure chests, animus fragments, extra assassination missions, bottle messages, hunting expeditions, sunken ruins, buried Mayan treasure, new shanty songs for your crew (these are excellent for adding atmosphere to longer voyages) and more to discover on your travels. This is a game to live in for months and fantastic value for money, especially if you’re paying extra for the PS4 or Xbox One.
If you only buy one next-gen game, make sure it’s this one. I’m a big graphics fan and this game still surprises me with the visuals. The PS3/360 versions are far from ugly and have the same gameplay features, but once you play the game on a next-gen machine, there’s no going back.
Characters have drastically sharpened facial features. You can see every stubble and scar the way it was intended. Textures on the older machine have been smoothed over making them blurry. This also rings true for clothes, leaves, weather and draw distances too. Even the sun is brighter on next-gen (see video). I’m all about the next-gen rain on the tiled roofs of Havana though. I think that was the moment Black Flag sent Killzone: Shadow Fall packing. This is a launch game too; just think what we’re going to see over the next few years. Jaws, get ready to drop.
- Open approach to assassinations
- A huge world packed with activities and collectibles
- Generation-leading graphics from day one
- Kenway’s swordplay lacks finesse
- Follow/escort missions need to be left in the past
- This will be hard to top
The Short Version: Black Flag is comfortably the best Assassin’s Creed game yet. Ubisoft Montreal have crafted a world that you’ll never want to leave thanks to the well-designed open assassination missions, a motley crew of a cast, months of collectibles, an intriguing meta-gaming premise and a world that’s never short of stunning to behold on next-gen machines. So set sail today and don’t look back.
For a 360-PS4 visual comparison, don't forget to check out Matt's video below.