Saturday, December 28, 2013

Keeping Afloat: The Unique Triumph of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag

Black Flag is a masterclass on efficient sequel-making. Few media so skillfully borrow the positive elements from their predecessors, and so readily discard the negative ones. Gone are the endless loading screens, muddled interface, and frustrating AI of Assassin’s Creed III. No longer do I have to sit through pandering dialogue from characters I don’t care for or understand, or endure boring and buggy missions whose rewards conferred no tangible benefit. Ubisoft has very capably trimmed the fat, and replaced it with nothing but juicy prime cuts. 

They say that context is king, and in order to fully appreciate the considerable achievement that is Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, a small amount of context regarding its place within its own series (and in current gaming history) is necessary. The quality of the Assassin’s Creed series has followed a definite arc since the release of the first title in 2007. That game showcased exciting potential, even while crippled by repetitive and restrictive design. The sequel (Assassin’s Creed II) realized that potential, and raised the bar in all aspects. The follow-ups (Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood & Assassin’s Creed: Revelations) fleshed things out, and – while the series hit its peak at this point – they also began to show their age, retaining superfluous mechanics and bloating themselves with redundant or irrelevant new ones. Assassin’s Creed III marked an unprecedented low point, with oversimplified combat and missions, limp storytelling, an uninteresting setting, a weak protagonist, and a plethora of prohibitive bugs and loading screens. Since Altaïr first donned his hitman’s hood, series developer Ubisoft has consigned the franchise to an annual release schedule, meaning that we can expect a new Assassin’s Creed title every calendar year until “fans don’t want to play them anymore” (which of course is code for “until they’re so terrible we stop paying for them”). I played – or, more accurately, suffered through – Assassin’s Creed III thinking that the series had arrived at that fateful junction even earlier than anticipated. Black Flag, however, is continually showing me how wrong I was, and proving that there’s a lot a dedicated developer like Ubisoft can accomplish in just a year.

Black Flag is set in the West Indies during the height of the Golden Age of Piracy. Gameplay is heavily varied, split mostly between on-foot missions based on the scattered islands of the Caribbean, and the many chores to tackle on the rolling blue waves in between. Every mission you undertake – from assassination contracts to item collection to puzzle solving – unlocks something new and exciting for you to do. Anywhere on the massive world map you care to explore will contain something for you to collect or complete. Cast off, spy an enemy ship, engage in some swashbuckling, and then spend your hard-earned coin on upgrading your weapons, outfits, and your most important asset: your ship. The player character at the helm is a young pirate named Edward Kenway, whose blind lust for fortune and glory starts to wane in the face of a greater purpose as an instrument in the larger conflict of the series. His motivation is clear, but what’s more, he’s likeable - and not just as a Jack Sparrow clone. He’s acerbic, ambitious, and frightening; he’s drawn as less of a cartoon and more an accurate representation of the kind of person who could (and would) pillage and plunder without mercy. Yet he’ll always win back your sympathy, which helps keep the story on an even keel (pun fully intended).

All of this is presented to the player in a highly-polished package, both in terms of the streamlined mechanics and the jaw-dropping visuals. Even on the PS3, Black Flag is a graphical feast, making it easy to get lost in a world of flapping sails, swaying palm fronds, sun-dappled beaches, and bloody conflict. Jungles, temples, shanty-towns, military forts, shipwrecks – the game runs the gamut of piratey locales, and they all look and sound beautiful. Sit and watch your brig slice through the sea, and listen to the wind whistle past as it carries the sound of your crew singing a mournful shanty. This is escapism at its most intoxicating.

So Black Flag is a savage delight to play, and a breath of fresh air for the series. But the time of its arrival is noteworthy too: it saw a worldwide release on no fewer than six platforms between the end of October and November. The game was actually designed for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One (both released this month), and then reverse-ported to PS3 and Xbox 360. In this way, Black Flag straddles the line between the death of this generation and the birth of the next, galvanizing otherwise weak launch libraries for the PS4 and Xbox One, and even providing a lightning-fast PC release in the same month. Like the best buccaneers, Ubisoft knows how to spread its bread around. In terms of sheer volume – of hours of fun produced per dollars spent – Black Flag is some of the best bang for your buck available. In terms of the Assassin’s Creed series, it knocks back a shot of revitalizing rum, shaking off its predecessor’s slump and ensuring that hopes are high for the next installment (Come on, feudal Japan!). And in terms of the quickly-evolving marketplace into which it was born, it provides both a hearty last hurrah for the current console generation, and a polished beacon of promise for the next. As an exercise in subverting expectations, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is a triumph, and as a simulation of the brutal freedom of Caribbean piracy, it’s a visceral joy. A pirate’s life for me, apparently!

This review was completed using a purchased copy of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag for the PlayStation 3. I finished the story campaign and experienced roughly 30 hours of gameplay.

Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid gamer and industry commentator since he first fed a coin into a Donkey Kong machine. He is currently pursuing a career in games journalism and criticism in Toronto.

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