Assassin’s Creed has come a long way since it’s first faltering steps with Altair. Despite the original game’s flawed gameplay, it was easy to see the potential of parkour and sneaking over the rooftops of ancient Jerusalem and Damascus. Assassin’s Creed II introduced Ezio, the rakishly charming hero of the next three games, who remains the benchmark protagonist. The second game gave Ezio a mansion to upgrade along the way and in subsequent games, shops and city neighborhoods could be upgraded too. With Brotherhood, the series began to feel tired and the team seemed to lose sight of the game’s central focus, as annoying side quests, such as the protect the fort RTS sections, as well as the much-maligned chase missions bogged the whole game down.
Assassin’s Creed III took us out of Europe and into the American Revolution. Our first non-white protagonist of the series was Connor, a half-Mohawk man, who feels more at home in the wilderness and gives the game an excuse for its sprawling landscape and rich flora and fauna. Assassin’s III left the city and focused on hunting, as well as introducing naval battles, giving the whole game a much more open world structure. However, many felt Connor was a lackluster hero, whilst the gameplay suffered from a lack of cohesion, leaving us wondering how much life was left in the series at all.
Step forward Edward Kenway, Connor’s grandfather, and the ‘hero’ of Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag. This time around the open sea is our playground, as we step into the shoes of an 18th century pirate, roaming the Caribbean (or West Indies, as it was then) and plundering to our heart’s content.
Kenway is perhaps the closest thing we’ve had to Ezio, but fails to charm me. He’s supposed to be the flawed, yet appealing rogue, but doesn’t quite hit the mark. That said, at least his characterization is consistent. Kenway is once, twice, three times a pirate. He finds the assassin’s outfit on a corpse, after being shipwrecked and washed up on a beach. Like any good pirate he steals the suit and heads off, assuming the identity of the deceased, in order to climb up the ranks and make his fortune. Kenway skirts along as an assassin, but only when it suits him and he has no real loyalty to anyone but himself. He’s not saving the world. He just wants gold and a girl.
There are no gameplay revolutions in Black Flag. When we are in the small and contained cities of Havana or Nassau, the missions fall back on the old eaves-dropping, tailing and chase tropes the series is famous for and yes, they do feel tired and contrived. The capitals of the Caribbean don’t give Kenway much call for running over rooftops, so fans of the traditional, stealth gameplay may feel hard done by here. The real innovation of Black Flag is the expansion of the nautical missions.
Just as Connor was at home in the wilderness, Kenway’s game is at its best on the sea. His ship, the Jackdaw, can be upgraded with heftier cannons, new ammunition or a reinforced hull to make naval combat a bit easier. Roaming the seas, Kenway and his crew can engage ships of different strengths, with different cargo and try to take them down. During the battles the crew shouts out instructions to target weaknesses or watch out for cannon fire from an enemy ship. Once a ship takes enough damage, it’s time to board, finish off a few officers and take the cargo for your own, without so much as a cut scene. This makes the whole thing a seamless and exhilarating part of the action.
Black Flag takes a much more open world approach than its predecessors, which means there are a plethora of distractions from the main mission. Sharpen your harpoon and go whaling in a spray of bloody water and needless killing, if that’s what takes your fancy. There’s a new gallery of critters to hunt, from ocelot to lizards and everything in between, if you want to make some extra cash or craft some items. Then there are the obligatory in-game shinies, which this time around include chests to loot, pages of sea shanties to catch, which your crew then sing, as well as treasure maps and the old animus fragments, which feel like needless grind.
More than just mere distractions, some gameplay aspects, such as using the diving bell to roam the ocean floor, offer a new dimension to the game, but Black Flag remains an evolutionary title, rather than a huge leap forward for the series.
Thankfully, Ubisoft has listened to fans and the present day missions are kept to a minimum, though if you want, there is actually quite a lot to do in the modern day missions. You just don’t need to and aren’t directed to go off hacking your employer’s offices, though you can if you want. In general, the game offers some quite interesting quests – even if it is in danger of imploding in a self-referential piece of meta-gaming. The load of old hokum combination of pirates, Templars and assassins storyline persists in an increasingly confusing timeline, but doesn’t detract from what is ultimately, a fun romp on the high seas.
It looks like the Assassin’s Creed team has taken its visual lead from Far Cry 3 for Black Flag. The soft, sun-bleached aesthetic of the previous games has been replaced by crisp, fine-lined and highly detailed graphics. The effect doesn’t appeal to me and reminds me of the shimmering PS2 graphics of yore. I suspect the team went for this look to get the most detail out of the lush, tropical environments.
For all my misgivings about the new look, the graphics were showing their age on the old games, so a change was needed. And when it comes to the water, Black Flag will take some beating. The rolling ocean is something to behold, especially when a storm sweeps in off the horizon or sometimes fog rolls in, adding a ghostly atmosphere to the otherwise bright and bold graphics. Wading through the turquoise waters to a tropical island, the ripples and gentle lapping of the Caribbean Sea is spot on and beats GTA V. It’s no Beyond: Two Souls or The Last of Us when it comes to faces, but Black Flag certainly holds its own on current gen machines. This only bodes well for any follow up titles on the new generation.
Black Flag is likely to welcome a new wave of fans, rather than wooing the Creed faithful. As pirate games go, Black Flag has a lot going for it, but whether it’s a classic Assassin’s Creed game is another matter. I’m all for refreshing the series, but I think we need a far more enigmatic lead character than Edward Kenway to do that.