This is the first Assassins Creed (AC) game that I've pre-ordered or even bought any time close to the release. I've not normally been hugely into jumping on the AC game straight away especially with the slow decline of story that has been occurring since AC 1 & II. When I saw that this game was basically a free-roam RPG Pirates with an AC theme I jumped onto everything I could about it and before long I pre-ordered it. I have to say, money well spent.
This game has a lot of good points. The story is far better and more enjoyable than AC 2.3 (Revelations) which I consider having the weakest story. As of writing I still can barely remember it. I would go into detail but this isn't a review about that.
The gameplay is very good. The addition of free-aim greatly frees up targeting with ranged weapons and makes them far more useful than before. Now you can specifically target the guy who has spotted you instead of the dude to his left with his back to you. Free running is still present and with a number of both urban and natural areas there are plenty of places to zoom above the ground.
The protagonist, Edward Kenway, has so much more life and character than Connor (poor kid) and is refreshing to play as someone who is less motivated by revenge all the time (at least for much of the game). Getting to meet a sizeable bunch of the famous pirate captains such as Blackbeard, Black Bart, Anne Bonnie, Calico Jack and more was great and the way they were portrayed gave them a less of a maniac murderer sheen and more of a "they are guys just like us who just want to make some coin, but they are less picky when it comes to occupations".
I'm going to just list the good and bad points because I have a feeling that I'm just going to waffle otherwise and make little coherent sense so here goes.
- Huge open world to sail across. It's roughly 15km from one side to the other which, if unimpeded, is about 5-10 mins sailing at top speed. Maybe more since I've not actually tried it. The quantity of islands you can visit are astounding and provide many hours of exploration even after the game is completed.
- Lots of collectables. Normally, I would be putting the AC collectibles on the bad side of the review since they put way too many in and more often than not they are more infuriating to find than fun. However, in Black Flag the collectables come in the form of treasure. There are treasure maps that you can find on skeletons left of beaches which would have a grid co-ord and a rough sketch and you have to find the loot. Usually it's gold but sometimes it's plans that are used to upgrade the Jackdaw (or as I like to call it, the Unintended Victory). The mysterious door with a suit of special Assassin armour is back, this time in the form of a Mayan theme. You have to find about 22 or so Mayan keys which to open the door. Most are scattered on islands that you don't normally go to, so lots of searching. These are the fun collectibles, the others are sea shanties, which behave in the same way as the torn pages in AC3 and therefore infuriating to catch, and animus fragments which I've yet to see the point of yet.
- Beautiful ships! I am a big fan of the ships used in this period so it's really good to sail around in a really nice ship and look at all these badass Man O' Wars and Frigates perusing the ocean lanes.
- Story is a lot more interesting with Edward completely stumbling onto the Assassins rather than being adopted into the group early on. There are some really fun missions and plenty of funny bits.
- Ship combat is pretty much the same as in AC 3 however the targeting is a lot better, you can manually aim the cannons for example, and your ship a lot faster. With the addition of Heavy Shot, Mortars, fire barrels (which, to be honest, I've found being bloody useless. Personally, I would prefer a group of rear facing cannon, maybe a custom option for later?) Taking on a fleet of Frigates and wiping the sea with them is a very satisfying thing, And the fights with the Legendary ships, I nearly crapped myself when I came face to face with one. Heavy fog, thunder and lighting, the flashes lighting up the silhouette of this massive ship looming towards your ship which is about a third the size. Pretty scary and really cool.
- Ship upgrades. This feature is pretty standard with you being able to boost the combat prowess of the Jackdaw pretty substantially throughout the game. For example, you start off with 7 cannon per side to eventually get 23 per side. That's over 3 times the power!
- Edwards upgrades. This feature has changed from that massive and confusing system that AC3 had and instead adopted the Far Cry 3 system. each upgrade requires 2 or 3 pelts of a certain animal. You just either hunt it or purchase them as a shop (very expensive, money better off upgrading Jackdaw). This makes it very simple.
- Mission Rating. This is just a small thing but it could go on to improve the next game even more. After each main mission you are asked to give a rating based on how much you enjoyed the level. Personally I only rated the gameplay. This could be slightly problematic, however, on Ubi's end because sometimes so pretty infuriating missions were related to really good story elements and I'm slightly worried that (if other people rate it the same) they would think that the story was bad as well rather than it just being bad gameplay.
- Modern times. I have to say that this time being in the modern world was far more enjoyable than running around as Desmond in the previous games. It looked nice, played nice and there was lots of cool things to look at. It was a nice change to have something different between sessions than basically playing the history part but this time as Desmond in modern times. There wasn't really much change and Desmonds sections were relatively boring. Cutscenes were much better.
Bad - Much of these bad things that I've outlined don't have that much of an impact on the story nor on enjoyment in general. They are mostly just nit picky things that I've identified throughout my playthrough that are either bloody annoying or a feature/glitch that could be addressed in future.
- Auto targeting. While they gave you access to free aim with the ranged weapons, melee is still restricted to auto targeting. It is unfortunate that this is even more clunky than any AC game I can remember. I think even AC 1 had better than this. There are many times where I'm in a fight and my attacks aren't going for the guys I'm aiming for. Sometimes Ed jumps halfway across a ships deck to try and skewer some poor sod over there as opposed to trying to kill the big dude right in front of him. This is very annoying since these big guys only seem to die from being knocked over which takes 2 break defence attacks in quick succession and if your character keeps getting someone else despite the targeting being on the big guy then it just becomes infuriating.
- I've had a few run in with some funny and annoying glitches. One time I told Edward to climb onto a log so I could vault to the next area. Instead he crouched and jumped, normally not so bad but this time he seemed to develop temporary flight capabilities and launched himself nearly 500 metres into the air. Unfortunately, he came plummeting back down to his death. Another glitch was a mission which ran with no dialogue. For some reason, even restarting the mission, it refused to play any dialogue. I had to turn on subtitles in order to understand what was going on and even then I had missed most of the conversation.
- Sometimes, some of the content in the mission seems random. Obviously the developers wanted plenty of situations for the player to go into but some didn't really have a decent premise as to why he was doing it. I remember one mission regarding Torres and a fort. Plotwise there was a lot going on there that didn't make sense. I won't go into detail because I don't want to spoil anything for anyone.
- Commands are sometimes unresponsive. I've lost count of the times when I've pressed B to counter and bugger all happened apart from acquiring a new scar Ed could show to the ladies. Also Ed can easily climb up a mast but coming back down he seems to struggle with so I always have to leave killing the scouts/ destroy the flag as the last objective purely because going down is 95% fatal to Ed. B seems to be the most unresponsive so it might be my controller. I know there are many infuriating mission fails caused by my slightly sticky analogue stick (sounds rude) constantly launching me back out of haystacks when I'm trying to hide in them.
- Sometimes the mission parameters aren't outlined early enough. Normally they appear on the screen telling what you should do and what to do for extra sync (still an annoying idea, I have to say). Sometimes they don't do that early enough and it pops up after I've already failed it. Examples such as don't get spotted, don't kill anyone. I realise that I have that objective only after I've desynchronised.
- Modern time plot. While I mentioned before that the modern time section is far more enjoyable than the previous games, the section in Black Flag is more plot empty. Nothing seems to happen. I mean, literally. Plenty happens to the player, but nearly all of it very unrelated to the overall plot that Ubi has been going for. In previous games there's always at least some massive cliff hanger at the end but this one doesn't really. There's nothing that's made me go "OOOOOHHHH" at any point. While many would argue that the modern sections are unnecessary, I argue against that but a lot of the things that they put as gameplay could be done better as just cutscenes. The modern section in Black Flag was much better and shows that they can still make it enjoyable, just not as Desmond. But in each of the previous games at the end there's been some big thing that happened. Not here. There was a slightly big thing that happened but nothing that could really be arched across to the rest of the series. Nothing hugely revealing. In essence, the modern sections were really only there to give you an idea of what was going on. Personally, I think that they either wanted to beta test the new method of doing the modern sections and didn't want anything too heavy or (the more likely) it's intentionally empty because they are running out of ideas on stretching out the modern story any longer. They are bad enough as it is with stretching it but making a game which doesn't even advance it is going a bit far, I think. We are close to the end and they don't want to stop making AC games because it's a big money grabber but it will end eventually. However I don't think that they realise that they could make other games just like this. Maybe have another story set in the AC universe. Have games which just explore historical events that are defining.
- Ubisoft servers. They have a feature which allows you to create a fleet and have them trade and battle around the world, a bit similar to the trade combined with the assassin's feature in AC3. However, for some reason they require you be connected to the Ubisoft servers, probably because I think there is a friend help feature. However, there are many times when the servers go down. At least 3 or 4 times a day for a couple of hours each where I can't connect and use my fleet. It can get a bit annoying. It should be available to use without connecting to the servers, just with the friend feature missing, obviously. Also, I wish we could skip the sea battles in the fleet mode. once you've picked the ships that you want to fight you basically just watch them take pot shots at each other which can take a minute each fight, and there's usually a lot of fights. I just wish that there was an option to just quick resolve it.
-Hacking. I will finalise with the hacking feature. While most of them are relatively enjoyable just as the sphere and the number multiplication, the dodge the red lines hack was bloody infuriating.
EDIT: One thing I neglected to mention was the overuse of restricted areas. This has been done since they were first used in the series and it has become a proper thorn in my side. The restricted areas are dotted all over the place with no indication as to why they are restricted. I can understand areas such as a prison or a guard post but I've found random patches of grass, beaches, random area's in the sea and various other places that are restricted for no apparent purpose. Again, with regards to the sea, I can understand restricting an area around, say, a Royal Navy Convoy but other places which are devoid of ships of any kind? I don't think so. Also, when they create these restricted areas, citizens seem to be able to come and go as they please. It's hardly realistic for it to be only restricted to the player and not the citizens. And if the area is restricted only to the player then the guards should identify him and charge rather than wave him on like some other numpty. These restricted areas really get on my nerves when I'm entering one that has no reason for it's existence other than, for what some might give as an excuse, to make it more challenging. There's a lot of stupid stuff done in games to "make them more challenging" and if anything, all of them are just plain dumb if not annoying.
I will conclude this review here with just a brief summary. The story is much improved in the animus world, the *method* of story telling in the modern sections improved, they just needed a story to tell. Combat can be clunky but it's not normally a problem, Great ship battles and love the bijillion miles of free roam available. A really big game. If you like sailing the piratical waters of the West Indies, ship battles or even just exploring, this is the game for you. Even if you're not a fan of the AC games in general, the pirate aspects are enough to keep one entertained.