Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag ReviewGuest_Jim_* - November 24, 2013
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Black Flag has had many mechanics changed, added, or removed, compared to previous games, and that is the order I am going to use.
The economy has undergone some changes as now most everything is available from two places: the general store and the harbormaster. The former is where you can purchase new swords, pistols, outfits, and more, while the latter is where you purchase upgrades and ammunition for your ship. The general store behaves like similar stores in the previous games, while the harbormaster has one mechanic I am confused and annoyed by. Many of the upgrades for the Jackdaw have multiple levels, such as the number of cannons on the ship. You are able to view those upgrades to see what they offer and what they cost. The confusing and annoying part of this is that while you can see the costs of the highest-level upgrade, you are not able to purchase it without purchasing every prior upgrade. This makes little sense, though, because it can recognize you have the resources to make the purchase, and shows how great an improvement it will be over the current level. Either it should not give you the information, or allow you to save up and purchase the final upgrade, without having the other purchases.
Upgrades for Edward cannot be purchased. Instead they must all be crafted from materials you hunt for, primarily skins. Technically there are two exceptions to this, as two armors can be unlocked by collecting enough of certain items.
The game world is also different than previous games as you travel between islands and other landmarks, each with their own items to loot and secrets to uncover. Easily it is the largest Assassin's Creed game yet, but it rarely ever feels that big. Maybe if you need to cross the entire world it feels big, but with the fast travel system, those trips can be significantly shortened.
I cannot forget to mention that viewpoints have been returned to their former glory. By synchronizing with them, you are able to reveal the entire map, along with every collectible, chest, and secret. You no longer need to run around and manually uncover areas.
Notoriety has also received a rather significant change. The semi-permanent notoriety of the game is only present at sea. On land it is just the same notoriety of having been spotted committing some act, and then having to escape sight. However, it appears to be much harder to escape now than ever before. Seriously, at times it feels like your enemies have Eagle Vision as well. Speaking of Eagle Vision, it has received two changes of its own. One is that it cannot be used while running anymore and the other is that targeted people will become highlighted, making them visible through buildings and other people. It can be a little weird, at least for figuring out what is between you and your target, but is also useful for trailing.
One final change to mention is small, but welcome. As in earlier titles, missions can have side objectives, such as staying out of combat. Previously completing the mission without the other objectives got you 50% completion. This never made much sense to me before, as the primary purpose of the mission is the mission, not the side objectives. That has been changed as completing the mission itself is now marked as 80% completion. I know that may seem like a small change, but I could go into psychological reasons of why it is significant, if not for a review being the wrong place for it.
The most obvious addition is the sailing mechanic and it is fun and well-designed, though not without issues. Your ship, the Jackdaw, has four speeds available to it: anchored, half sail, full sail, and travel speed. Travel speed is explained as a special addition from the Animus that is faster than full sail for quickly traversing the world. While I do believe it is faster, it does not seem very fast to me. Of course that feeling could be in part because the camera zooms out to show the ship when at travel speed. This appears to be a mechanic to give the player a reasonable explanation for why they cannot use weapons at this speed. You can employ travel speed in combat, if weather permits, but you cannot attack at that speed.
Something you will notice on your own while playing is that the sea and winds will have their way with the Jackdaw. You have to pay attention to your course. You also have to pay attention if you run into a storm, so you can avoid water spouts and rogue waves.
Naval combat is quite enjoyable, but the boarding mechanic is a little bit of a mixed bag. First you have to incapacitate a ship, so we will start there. You have a number of weapons available to you, including your broadside cannons, swivel guns, chase cannons, and fire barrels. The chase cannons fire chain shot forward to damage a ships sails, and slow them down. It is not particularly damaging to larger ships, but is your only ranged, forward attack. The most damaging attack is the broadside, which has some pretty good range and can be aimed up or down. This is important when you attack a fort. The swivel guns are only accessible if an enemy ship has a weak point to hit and when you are attempting to board a ship. The fire barrels are meant to be a kind of mine you drop behind you for enemies to run into, or your swivel guns to hit when an enemy is near.
You can also unlock a battering ram and mortars. The ram at higher levels can do a lot of damage, but its use requires you to get so close to a ship, it is risky to use. The mortars, however, are your longest range weapon, and can be devastating when used properly. The strongest forts and largest ships can be severely hurt by the time you approach with your broadside. With all of these weapons, you can take on the strongest ships in the Caribbean with your relatively small brig.
Boarding is a somewhat involved process. When the process starts, your crew throws hooks over to pull the ships together. While this happens, you can grab a swivel gun and do what damage you can. Different ship classes require different numbers of enemies to be killed before you take the ship. Also, sometimes other requirements must be met, such as killing the captain, scouts, or taking down the ship's flag.
Once successfully boarded, you have up to three choices of what to do with the ship. You can use it to repair one-third of the Jackdaw's health, release it to lower your notoriety, or add it to your fleet. These options are context sensitive though. Oh, and I said 'one-third of the Jackdaw's health' because its health is broken into three chunks. So long as a chunk is not completely lost, it will regenerate over time. Losing a chunk requires repairing the ship at a harbormaster or with a boarded ship to get it back. The latter option can be abused, and I am freely admitting I have abused it. This is not possible if you are fighting a legendary ship though, as there are no smaller, easier to defeat ships in the area during these events.
When boarding a ship, the Jackdaw is removed, temporarily, from combat. This means that you can leave combat in the middle of a battle, and get significant repairs, just by boarding a small ship. This can be a very useful tactic when going against a strong enemy. It also appeared to have glitched on me once, as the ships that had been attacking me, in an attempt to defend an island, sailed off, ending the battle. It is possible that what happened was the ships went off to fight some others, and moved out of range of me, which meant I was free to dock at the island. Nice.
The weather can also be intelligently used, to a point. During a storm with water spouts, I watched a large man of war ship be incapacitated. At the time, I was not powerful enough to take on the ship alone, but because of the storm, I was able to sail up, board, and claim the ship for myself. Of course it was risky to stay in the storm, and sail right by other water spouts, but I got my prize.
I am not sure if you want to count the Fleet mechanic as a change or addition, but it fits here, so this is where I am putting. Captured ships can be added to your fleet, which can be sent on trade missions to many places in the world. This is similar to what you could do with assassins in previous titles, but the ships can never be called upon in the Caribbean. They can only be sent abroad for one of two kinds of missions. One kind is the trade mission, which brings in resources and money, and the other is an attack mission to make trade routes safer. The latter takes minutes to complete, while some of the former can take hours. The game does inform you that these missions can be accelerated with friends helping you, but I have no friends, so I cannot verify this. With how long these missions can take (we are talking multiple hours in some cases) it makes the combat missions all the more welcome.
One mechanic I wish was present with your fleet is some means to upgrade the ships, or send multiple ships on trade missions. As it is, only the Jackdaw can receive any upgrades, so if you want better ships in your fleet, you need to capture them. The largest, and hardest ship class to get, is the man of war. It is an impressive amount of fire power, but despite the accomplishment of capturing one, it really only has one use in your fleet: the biggest transport. These ships have the lowest speed, which means they take the longest time to shoot in the combat missions, so enemy ships have the opportunity to really lay into them. In one of these missions, my man of war lost half of its health before making a single attack. I am no longer using them in combat, which is a waste of their firepower.
Another addition to do with sailing is the harpooning mechanic. This is how you gather shark and whale skins and is lacking one aspect, in my opinion. Harpooning itself is fairly straightforward. You are in a boat with harpoons. Throw the harpoons at your prey. The first hit will attach a rope, so you will keep with the animal as it tries to escape. Eventually, though, it will break the rope and even come after you. This is where I feel it is lacking. There is no defense mechanism for you, aside from hitting the animal with more harpoons, to interrupt its attack. You cannot cut the rope before the animal can snap its tail at you and you cannot move the boat before it surfaces to crush you. These are both actions that are reasonable to believe a sailor could make, but neither are available to you.
Now for what has been removed. Some of what has been removed is not going to be missed, but some will be. Small weapons, such as knives, are gone. Considering how little use they really had in the other games, I doubt anyone is going to care much. You only have your two swords, guns, and hidden blades, which are enough. Dodging has also been removed, and I have no idea why, especially since heavy enemies, like those you had to dodge previously, remain. Now you have to break their defenses instead, and this has not always proven successful for me.
One last mechanic that has been removed is the assassin mechanic, where you could call in assassins to kill targets for you. You are on your own now, despite having a crew. Perhaps they are not reliable enough or good enough fighters to call upon? It just seems odd to not have them available. Of course you do not need them to be successful, but they could be useful. Instead you have the ability to make hiring drunken sailors and dancing girls, the new forms of prostitutes and fighters, free. This is accomplished by purchasing certain upgrades for your island compound.