Gaming | Film | TV
Gaming | Film | TV

‘A Few Months Later’ review: Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag

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Is Assassin’s Creed 4 sailing strong? Screen Robot explores how the game is holding up a few months after release. 

A return to form

Assassins creed 4

After the awkward inevitability of the ‘annual update’ model, which carried the Assassin’s Creed games on a slow downward spiral, from 2009’s awesome Assassin’s Creed II, through to the stuttering Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood and tired Revelations, right down to the lacklustre Assassin’s Creed III in 2012, I had lost my way with the franchise.

By the time rumours of yet another Creed game in 2013 surfaced, all interest was lost. When Assassin’s Creed IV was first announced, it barely even registered.

However, when the first official images were revealed, we caught a glimpse of sun-kissed beaches, blue skies, galleons and pirates. Interest was, quite unexpectedly, piqued.

Upon its release, it didn’t disappoint. AC IV was fresh-faced, slick, stylish, and worthy of all the accolades and praise it received. If anything, this new, light-hearted approach to the story was under-appreciated from some quarters. Suggestions that the story was too linear and empty, or that the game was ‘directionless’, showed that not all appreciated the freedom on offer.

Nearly four months have passed since the game launched. After a stellar first impression, has Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag continued to impress, or fallen foul of the tired old trappings of its predecessors.

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Assassin’s Creed games have always looked great and moved incredibly well. Black Flag is no different, and it is  the best-looking game of the franchise. The games have always suffered from convoluted stories, and a narrative that drives you towards the next checkpoint for your next slice of plot. Thankfully, this is where Black Flag deviates from the formula, by offering a much stronger variety in the gameplay elements, and a story that is neither convoluted, nor particularly pressing on the player. More so than anything, it is the variety that has held my interest, and opened the door for AC IV to keep finding its way into my PS3 (when The Last of Us is kind enough to make way).

Jumping back into the Caribbean setting is always exciting, as your mood can greatly affect the adventure you will have. You can continue with the exploration of the larger cities, if so inclined, but equally, you can set forth across the briny sea and let a different adventure find you. Alternatively, you can engage in epic, strategic naval battles, which are often unsuccessful if you stray too close to corners of the map before your ship is fully upgraded. If feeling particularly murderous, stay on dry land and take on Assassin contracts spread over the enormous map. Or avoid killing anyone and stealth around an area, collecting treasures, maps, and secrets along the way.

The game keeps track of everything done and yet-to-do in each area, so there’s always a sense of direction for what your next mission or adventure will be. Edward Kenway, our charismatic protagonist, is always developing as a character. From chance conversations with other assassins, through to improving his weapons and upgrading Jackdaw, the ship, with the spoils of the various hunting quests, Kenway never stops progressing with us.

The biggest pull from the narrative is experiencing the story, which will unlock further quest opportunities and a greater array of  weapons and items at your disposal.

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It’s this unusual freedom from the story that has kept me playing AC IV months on, though it’s probably also responsible for the game being misunderstood by some. For a franchise that has always held its story of paramount importance, it was an unusual approach to push it to the background. However, a more imposing story, coupled with the ever-present ‘go here next’ marker on the map, would have completely ruined this game by directing you down a set path, rather than allowing room for exploration that is key to the game.

Assassin’s Creed IV is very much about creating your own adventure, through the loose story in a gorgeous setting. If you allow yourself to be swallowed by the character, rather than the story, you’ll find the game is more than happy to get out of your way, and just let you ‘be a pirate’. Thankfully, this comes very naturally to the player, as Kenway is immediately likable, and reasonably unconcerned about progressing through the story. He seems more eager to experience life as a pirate, than life as an assassin. Though the linearity of games, like the Uncharted series (or more recent, The Last of Us) can be incredibly enjoyable, if you want to play a truly open-world, sandbox game and get your exploration hat on, it’s awesome when the game’s narrative supports your decision to do so. Assassin’s Creed IV does this better than any game on the market.

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The multiplayer element is also something to behold. It’s bravely trying to do something different. Though it comes with a variety of set modes and gameplay options, a heavy emphasis has been placed on player creativity and crafting your own experience, by changing the parameters to your suiting.

Every action you take in multiplayer nets you an amount of points. Usually the highest points are reserved for the stealthiest of kills, but this can be tweaked as you see fit. The collective pooling of the world’s creative minds can make for pretty unorthodox modes, such as setting a frantic pace by giving open kills equal weight, or calming things right down by making stealth kills the only ones that count. One mode saw the normally irrelevant pistol catapulted to greatness as the only weapon permitted for killing. Memories of playing Goldeneye on the N64 and allowing proximity mines as the only weapon were stirred. It isn’t as absorbing as the Factions mode in The Last of Us, but it’s always worth checking in to see what gamers have created next.

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Ubisoft have been keen to keep expanding the Assassin’s Creed IV experience. Adding the infamous pirate, Black Beard, to the multiplayer was an entertaining cosmetic addition, but far more compelling was the single-player DLC ‘Freedom Cry’. Moving away from Kenway, and allowing players to take control of his quartermaster, Adewale, as he embarks on his own Assassin adventure, was a brilliant way to add to the Black Flag canon, without trying to force more story out of Edward Kenway.

Another interesting addition, that I ended up spending far too much time on, was the Kenway’s Fleet mobile app. The ability to send out ships, expand the armada, and unlock hidden extras is available to players from within the game, by going to the Captain’s quarters. However, the fact that I could spend more time in the game exploring, and still develop my fleet from my mobile whilst riding on the train was awesome, and yet another way that Assassin’s Creed IV managed to invade my daily thoughts. The app itself isn’t much without the game, it relies on it almost entirely to make sense and be worthwhile.

Assassins creed

In the weeks before release, Black Flag boasted 80 hours of gameplay. In the four months since it came into my life, it has easily delivered on that promise, and more. The less said about the disturbingly enormous amount of time I’ve spent on the Kenway’s Fleet app, the better…

Images: Games Press, davidnicholson1978 via Flickr

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