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Five Reasons Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag Is Better Than Its Predecessor

Author:
Matt Gardner
Category:
Features
Tags:
Animus, Assassin's Creed III, Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, Ubisoft, Ubisoft Montreal

The final touches are being applied to our AssFlag review, but here are five reasons why Black Flag marks a return to form after the somewhat divisive AC3...

A pirate's life for me

Five Reasons Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag Is Better Than Its Predecessor
Pirates will always be cool. The Romanticising of buccaneers and privateers-turned-pirates presents a fantastic opportunity for an open world game. When I spoke to lead writer Darby McDevitt back at Gamescom a few months ago, he'd said that this was a story he'd always wanted to write, and that the decision to tell the Kenway family saga led to a situation where the dates fell nicely into place.

It's not difficult to see why the time period and location make for a cracking setting for an open world title. For starters, the systemic nature of Ubisoft's world-building in AnvilNext makes for an ocean packed with targets, dangers, and opportunity. The Tropics make for versatile settings, with bustling ports and dense jungles often sharing a single island.

Sid Meier's Pirates! has been developed over the years, modernised and rebooted, but no other game has ever sought to even try and build upon its template to deliver an open game that offers the run of the Caribbean high seas, and the chance to pretty much do whatever you want as the captain of your own ship, flying under a flag of freedom. Until now, that is. Even without the Assassin's Creed narrative woven into things, the high concept nature of a pirate-based, open-world game is such that you can instantly identify a purpose and a focus for action without knowing anything else. And, as we'll see, there's always something to do in this game, in a world that feels much more cohesive than Revolutionary America ever did.

A stealthy return

Five Reasons Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag Is Better Than Its Predecessor
One of the biggest bugbears I had with Assassin's Creed III was the fact that it appeared to abandon stealth and player agency in favour of more linear action (ironically enough, in the largest game world that the team had ever created). But in Assassin's Creed IV, stealth makes a big return. It's not just the tools and moves that Edward has at his disposal, though he can now put guards to sleep or send them berserk with darts, no longer has to stand-up while in cover to shoot or throw knives, and can dynamically use solid cover to his advantage.

But it's clear to see that much of the focus of level design has gone into opening up environments to a plethora of player-driven approaches. You can of course go in all guns blazing, but now there's more verticality, more bushes and undergrowth to hide in, more bales of hay and hiding doors. And not just that, in working with next-gen systems and pushing the limits of current-gen consoles, Ubisoft have packed their world with more NPCs and crowds to hide in amongst too. The missions and levels and side quests take advantage of this realigned focus on stealth. More freeform assassination missions, more stealthy sideshows such as plantation infiltrations, and more powerful enemies such as the sniper-esque sharpshooters who can take large chunks of life from you in a single shot.

It all makes for a much more challenging, satisfying experience.

What a wonderful world

Five Reasons Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag Is Better Than Its Predecessor
If the first two points highlight the success of Assassin's Creed IV on a technical and conceptual level, then this is the bit where we get to trot out that old adage the devil is in the details. From the different cultural flavours of the game's main cities and settlements, to the raucous tones of the various sea shanties you can collect during your travels and teach to your men, to the subtle differences in accents between the main cast of pirates -- the game world is an immersive font of exceptionally-researched historical tourism.

The beauty is, that Ubisoft via Abstergo also deliver reasons for gaping historical inaccuracies, buildings being in the wrong place for example, and other such anomalies that would drive a historian insane. But the fact of the matter is, that this is a springboard into a time and place. More so than any other game in the series, and this has much to do with the excellent companion app allowing me to peruse the Animus database on the go and look into the game's context wherever I am, I found myself going beyond the game to explore the realities of the time and look beyond the fantasy so brilliantly wrought in the game.

Meet Edward Kenway

Five Reasons Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag Is Better Than Its Predecessor
It's nice to be in the company of a relatively-nuanced character again after babysitting a plank of wood in Assassin's Creed III. I always said that I thought the story of Haytham would have provided a much better look at the conflict and comparison between the Templars and the Assassin's than might Connor's, and grandad Edward proves to be even better because he exists as a character outside of the conflict, twisting the resources, the tools and the creeds of both to suit his own ends.

His goals as a character match ours as gamers playing an open-world game: to bend and break the rules of the world to become famous and rich, to pimp out our ship and eliminate those who stand in our way, and to sail the high seas to seek out treasures and adventures. He's not as relentlessly grim as his grandson, though his occasional tendencies towards moral turpitude provide some explanation for his violent ways, and he's a more accessible character from top to bottom.

Everything's so head-scratchingly META!

Five Reasons Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag Is Better Than Its Predecessor
As much as there's a mechanical return to the ways of the older games in the series, Black Flag also deviates from the franchise's formula pretty heavily, perhaps no more so than away from the Animus. Frankly, I'm of the opinion that it should have been us gamers plunging through history from the start. The Desmond story was awful, and thankfully he's gone. In its place is something deliciously meta in that we, us gamers, are now the ones plugged into the Animus, that Abstergo now has an entertainment division, and that the game itself is one of its products. It's enormously overblown and utterly ridiculous, and seems to involve a fair amount of Ubisoft laughing at themselves. Does it also point towards the fact that Assassin's Creed might be better off if they dropped the whole futuristic conceit? Probably. But they're also kind of stuck with it now, so we might as well have a little fun.

Add a comment8 comments
Late  Nov. 4, 2013 at 15:55

I'm sure I'll enjoy AC4 - probably more than I did AC3 - but I maintain playing as Connor was fun! (Mainly for his tree-top free-running, rather than his character, I'll concede.)

I appreciate I'm definitely in the minority on this one, though.

Look forward to picking up AC4 once it's dropped in price a bit. I usually wait about 4-6 months for each Assassin's Creed, and pick them up for about £15-£18, but with the console upgrade I'm not sure what I'll end up doing - but a game's got to be b1oody outstanding if it's expecting to end up in my game collection at £50.

MattGardner  Nov. 4, 2013 at 16:47

There's more treetop free-running in this, with the added bonus of rooftop running back in there too. Now there's even rooftop-to-tree running.

I think this one may prove divisive for some as well. There's a lot of sailing and it feels more independent and less like an AC game than those that have come before, in terms of world and theme and story, anyway.

Certainly interested to see what people make of it.

Adster  Nov. 4, 2013 at 17:07

I've played all the AC games and this is the first Assassins Creed game I'm not looking forward to. And its nothing to do with AC4 itself.

AC3 ruined it for me, the free running was more of a nuisance than a pleasure, I felt like I was spending ages trekking around, and the submersion of the main plot behind a myriad mini-games and irrelevant side plots were bad enough. But the loss of any meaning in acquisition made even the main game boring. (glitches meant I played the entire game with the starting weapons and pretty much never once felt threatened).

Or maybe its because I played it straight after Tomb Raider which never once felt like a chore.

Shadowmancer88  Nov. 4, 2013 at 17:29

It's nice for a change of pace it seems, it was a shame for AC3 and the war backdrop sort of failed it had a lot of potential, World War 1 or 2 could be interesting.

MattGardner  Nov. 4, 2013 at 18:04

@Adster: I know what you mean and I know how you feel. I felt the same way, and then I played AC4 for three hours on a PS4. And I began to hope.

Now, thirty hours into the Xbox 360 version, I'm pretty damn happy.

But then, I love pirates. Especially Sid Meier's Pirates!

socialjeebus  Nov. 5, 2013 at 03:24

Connor's abilities were great. But the character was, to put i politely, "vulcan-esque" and not in a comedic sidekick way.

Not played too much of it yet.

But technically it seems a huge improvement over AC3.

Firstly, the world seems bigger (I may be wrong) and more varied.

Secondly (and more importantly for me!), is that I had the digital PSN version of AC3 last year and though I had very few bugs, there was a lot of stuttering and pop-in at times (mirrored by Liberation on the Vita) but so far the digital PSN version of AC4 has been far better (and as yet unpatched).

I haven't played enough of the story (or read enough spoilers) to critique it yet but it does have potential.

I will say the stealth system is only marginally improved (ie. if I stand-up in stalking zone within eyesight I get noticed but if I stealth kill a guard from the same position no-one notices the guard is gone).

Like you Matt, I loved Pirates - had it on my PC, and my PSP - so it's nice to see the little nods to it in AC4: recruiting in Taverns, paying for tips, etc.

So far, I think AC4 seems a marked improvement over it's predecessor but as I said it's early days.

The problem I have with too modern a setting would be the shooting mechanics.

I'd like to see a game set Japanese occupied East Asia if they were going to go with a game set during the World Wars.

Simply because the European Theatre has been done many, many times and Japan, Hong Kong, China, Korea, the Philippines, etc could provide a great back-drop (while conveniently providing a nice big sea in the middle).

gmdlogan  Nov. 5, 2013 at 07:50

Assassins Creed has always had a fantastic story to keep you involved. Wanting to know what was happening next. I lost that with AC3. And had to force myself to play just to find out what happened. The most tedious AC, closely followed by the first.

I will definitely not buy this early. In so many ways, AC3 felt like the first. I almost felt like I was in a Call of Duty development. I.e. Assassins Creed 1 was a Treyarch, 2, Brotherhood and Rev were like Infinity Ward efforts. Then the tedious-nous of 1 returned. Thats the feeling I got.

I must admit I had no intention of getting at all this year, but it does look really good. But on the other hand, 3 looked absolutely awesome. But quite clearly wasn't. So i'm not as easily bitten this time round.

socialjeebus  Nov. 5, 2013 at 09:27

Assassins Creed has always had a fantastic story to keep you involved. Wanting to know what was happening next. I lost that with AC3. And had to force myself to play just to find out what happened. The most tedious AC, closely followed by the first.

I will definitely not buy this early. In so many ways, AC3 felt like the first. I almost felt like I was in a Call of Duty development. I.e. Assassins Creed 1 was a Treyarch, 2, Brotherhood and Rev were like Infinity Ward efforts. Then the tedious-nous of 1 returned. Thats the feeling I got.

I must admit I had no intention of getting at all this year, but it does look really good. But on the other hand, 3 looked absolutely awesome. But quite clearly wasn't. So i'm not as easily bitten this time round.


Tbh I planned to pick it up once the price had come down.

Then Watch_Dogs got delayed.

But actually I've enjoyed it more than I thought I would.

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