Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag ReviewGuest_Jim_* - November 24, 2013
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Not too long ago, a partnership was announced between Ubisoft and NVIDIA, in which NVIDIA lent its resources to the development of three Ubisoft titles to ensure the utmost quality graphics. The first of those games was Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Blacklist and Black Flag is the second. (The third is Watch_Dogs, in case you were wondering.) It should come as no surprise then that multiple NVIDIA technologies are featured in Black Flag, including HBAO+, an ambient occlusion scheme for higher resolution shadows; TXAA, an advanced anti-aliasing technique; and enhanced DX11 God Rays, for better looking light rays/shafts. Black Flag will also feature GPU PhysX, but it is to be patched in at a later date.
Now, personally I am of two-minds for the graphics of Black Flag. Definitely it has the best graphics of the franchise, but a bit too often I was seeing graphics I felt could look better. Primarily this was with models that had plainly visible edges, due to a low polygon count, which made me think of console ports. To be fair though, perhaps I have just gotten too use to seeing games with a lot of tessellation or less to show on screen. A LOT less.
Depending on where you are in Black Flag, the environment can be exceptionally vibrant, with colorful plants everywhere and detailed leafs. According to an NVIDIA article on the game, each plant and tree you view is a dynamic object, which means that when you or the wind moves through them, they move in response. From what I have seen, this is the case. I have not taken the time to observe the movements of trees and bushes during storms, but when I entered the underbrush to stalk around, it did react to my presence. Curiously though, laundry hanging out to dry is hard as a wall. I once tried to run through some to escape, and was immediately stopped. Not very dynamic.
Speaking of storms, let us talk about the rain. While it is a neat effect to see reflections added to surfaces as a film of water forms, and then ripples move throughout the film, it does not impress me much. The film never looked like more than an extra filter thrown on top of the models to me. Also, no one ever seemed to respond to rain. I mean it would suddenly start to pour and everyone would continue walking around on the streets, instead of seeking shelter to keep dry. If nothing else that would have been a nice touch.
Black Flag features a dynamic weather system, which means that as you play, the day will turn into night and back, and storms will arise at a moment's notice, with rain, wind, lightning, and more. On land this amounts to little more than a change to the environment, but at sea, it can be deadly… or useful if you are lucky. Rogue waves and water spouts will appear during storms, and both can damage ships quite heavily. That means your ship and those of your enemies, so pay attention when you enter a storm to keep your ship safe, and perhaps take advantage of a damaged enemy.
I think it is time to talk about in-game fluids. Black Flag contains both fire and water for the engine to deal with and while both are better than they have been in the franchise before, neither is as good as I would like it to be. Fire still looks to be a looping animation instead of a living flame, but this time it has volume and depth to it in most places, which is very welcome. Fire on the hulls of ships, though, are still just an animation, but the animation is thick, so without a close look, you likely will not notice it. Probably the best you can get without some more resource-hungry, real-time fire system.
Water, which is a primary component of the game, is a little confusing, which I will explain in a bit. Depending on where you are and what time it is, the water can change from an opaque blue to a clear green. Near land, you can see through the water to the sand below, but at sea, it is just the consuming color of the ocean. Looking just at the water's surface, you will occasionally find a distorted reflection of the Moon or Sun, following the curves of the waves. Also foam caused by the churning water of ships can be found where appropriate.
Now for how the water is confusing. If you look behind any ship, you will find a trail of foam. Looking at the ship cutting through the water, you will also see it splashed up, above the level of the deck. Both the foam and splashes look to be textures displayed in the air or on top of the water, so neither look very realistic when looked at too closely. Those are also the only effects associated with sailing. However, when you go harpooning for whales or sharks, the sea animals are able to disturb the surface of the water, creating wakes and waves. This is what I find confusing, because surely if they can disturb the water that way, a ship should as well.
Time to talk performance, so here are my specs:
- Processor: AMD A10-5800K @ 4.40 GHz (44.0x100)
- Cooling: Corsair H110
- Motherboard: ASUS F2A85-M PRO
- GPU: EVGA GTX 770 2 GB
- PhysX: EVGA GTX 570 1280 MB
- Memory: G.Skill Ripjaws 4x8 GB (32 GB total) at 1866 MHz 10-10-10-27
- PSU: OCZ Fata1ty 750 W
- OS: Windows 7- Professional 64-bit
I put everything to max, except motion blur (personal choice) and anti-aliasing, and I would say the framerate averaged in the mid to high fifties. At times it seemed to hit the 60 FPS goal, but at other times the framerate dropped down to the forties. Exactly why it would drop, I do not know, because it would return to the mid-fifties while I was still in the same area doing the same things. Of course, this is something that may change for the better in the coming weeks and months. When I first ran the game I was using drivers released prior to the game, instead of those released with the game. The game before was very stuttery, but with the newer drivers, which contain optimizations for Black Flag, performance was significantly better. Not perfect, but better.
There are many options for anti-aliasing, from FXAA to TXAA 4x. I played at the one just above FXAA: SMAA or Subpixel Morphological Anti-Aliasing. Like FXAA it is not anti-aliasing in the traditional sense, as it just applies a filter to remove the aliasing. This allows it to be very light on resources, which is what I needed to run everything else at max. Perhaps I could have gone up a step more and still have 'playable' framerates, but I was happy where I was.
As is (too) often the case with newly released games, and open world games, I have experienced multiple glitches and/or bugs. However, these have all been more humorous than harmful. The only bug that interrupted my gameplay at all involved my ship apparently not loading in at the right time after fast traveling (actually, a lot of the glitches I experienced occurred after fast traveling). This caused Kenway to fall into the water and have the ship load around him, trapping him inside. To fix this, I just reloaded at the most recent checkpoint for the mission, which was the fast travel. (To be clear, the mission triggered this fast travel event, but the game has glitched when I have triggered fast travel as well.) There have also been times that characters were stuck at odd angles and flashed back and forth between positions during an animation.
One other glitch I have noticed occasionally is that the 'God rays' graphical setting will change on me. Not sure why, but it does and I have to manually change it back.
Overall, the graphics are a definite step up for the franchise, even if not as large a step as I would like. Of course, at least one patch is going to be released to improve the graphics by adding GPU accelerated PhysX and improving the performance of God rays.