Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag Review
Reviewed by: Guest_Jim_*
Reviewed on: November 24, 2013
After a respite, I have returned to Animus to live the life of Edward Kenway in Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag. This title picks up after the events of Assassin's Creed III, but has a very different setting. Instead of being a modern day Assassin, hiding from the Templars and delving into the past via an Animus, your character works for the Templars, or rather their Abstergo Entertainment Company as an analyst for the Sample 17 project. The goal of the project is to produce a video game, set in the Caribbean during the golden age of piracy, based on the 'donated' memories that comprise Sample 17.
As the games before it, Black Flag is a third-person, open world, action-adventure title with a heavy emphasis on stealth. As pirate captain Edward Kenway, you stalk the Caribbean for the biggest prizes, and remove any obstacle from your path, typically with a sharp blade. Of course, a pirate would not be much without a ship, and yours is the Jackdaw. It is not the biggest ship sailing the seas, but given the proper resources, it can become the fiercest. Black Flag has an M rating from the ESRB for blood, strong language, violence, and sexual themes. If you should not be exposed to such content, then you likely should not be reading this review.
Should you set sail under the black flag or scuttle this game? Time to find out.
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.
If you have never noticed that the Assassin's Creed franchise is a kind of metaphor for gaming, you will have to notice it with Black Flag. Outside of the Animus, you are an unnamed employee of Abstergo Entertainment, working through the memories of Edward Kenway, so everything can be recorded and eventually made into a video game. After completing memories, you actually have the ability to rate the mission on a five-star scale. While that is the publically known purpose of your efforts, the Templar's true goal is to have you find the Observatory, a place built by the First Civilization containing an artifact capable of revealing the sight of any person.
When outside of the Animus, you are able to explore the Abstergo Entertainment building. I would describe it as what you would expect a Google-designed game development studio to look like. The company's opulence is obvious everywhere, both in terms of aesthetics and function. The elevator alone reveals this as the shaft is surrounded by an aquarium, while the elevator itself is controlled wirelessly with a tablet, given to you by the company.
Despite the grandeur of the building though, apparently Abstergo Entertainment does not have much of a bonus system, as instead of receiving a check for good work, you receive statuettes for achievements. These statuettes appear in your office as you earn them for beating challenges, but there are also some visible in other offices.
You eventually gain the ability to go anywhere in the building and hack any computer to uncover Abstergo secrets, or Ubisoft having a bit of fun. The latter is exemplified by market analyst videos discussing if games should be made by Abstergo featuring the prior assassins of Ubisoft's titles. Needless to say, they reject all three assassins because, well, they are assassins. You would not want to make your enemies the protagonists of your video game. You will also find documents about Templars encountered in the previous games, talking about all the good they did before being martyred.
By the way, because I have played all of the previously released Assassin's Creed PC games, outfits for the previous assassins were unlocked for Edward to wear.
Speaking of Edward Kenway, he is an anti-hero through and through. Every choice he makes is to increase his coffers and save his own hide. Occasionally this leads him to make good choices for bad reasons, but he also makes a number of bad choices, such as helping the Templars severally damage the Assassins. This has an interesting impact on the story, as you remain disconnected from the activities of the Assassin Order for almost all of the game. Instead you are a part of the pirate leaders, trying to create a free pirate state, where people can do as they please. This struggle does have some larger political intrigue, but is still just the goings-on of a world ignorant of the Templar-Assassin war.
Though initially having no interest in either side, Edward eventually finds himself befriending and working with the Assassins. Largely this is because of how often his and their goals align, with profit being his gain, and his skills theirs. Eventually he does recognize the destruction he has brought upon himself and the world, due to his anti-hero ways. This leads him to try to become a hero and earn the assassin clothing he stole and wears throughout the game.
This placement of Edward, outside of the conflict, is reflected by the position of the unnamed, out-of-Animus character. In the beginning you have no knowledge of the Assassins or Templars, but by living Edward's life, you learn about the two sides, and by helping out a co-worker to collect and share information with the modern-day Assassins, you realize the truth of the situation.
For those of you wondering how Black Flag deals with the ending of Assassin's Creed III, everything is explained. If you do not want to know, skip to the next paragraph. The project you are working on at Abstergo Entertainment is the Sample 17 project, which is using the genetic memories recovered from samples of Desmond Miles' body to explore the past. One rather neat aspect of this explanation coupled with the Abstergo Entertainment concept is the stated potential for living the memories of any ancestor of any person. Many of Desmond's are in fact listed as potential sources for future games. Juno's plans have also been revealed and explained, at least in part, after having escaped the Grand Temple.
I enjoyed the two stories of Black Flag; inside and outside of the Animus. I found them both to be intelligently crafted and driving. I want to explore the two worlds to uncover what I can about them. Edward is an interesting character, as are his friends and enemies, at an interesting time and place in history, where one man can be reasonably expected to have grand adventures. Definitely a story that is fun to experience.
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.
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Is it the pirate's life for you, or should Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag be allowed to sink beneath the waves? Grab you saber and prepare to set sail! I have found this game to be a lot of fun and a solid experience. It does have an odd place in the Assassin's Creed franchise, in my opinion, because of how Edward Kenway and your out-of-Animus character fit into the Templar-Assassin war. Both are ignorant of it for so much of the game, but that does not detract from it. In a way it actually helps you understand what the differences are between the two sides by exposing it all from different viewpoints than we have had before.
I would easily and gladly recommend this game to any fan of the franchise and anyone looking for a good open-world, action-adventure game. It may not be perfect, but it is close enough to deserve that opinion of mine.