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Assassin's Creed, aka the extra baggage of "Black Flag"
on March 13, 2016
TLDR: You can tell this is meant to be a pirating sandbox game, but the added "Assassin's Creed" in the title means all the extra baggage that entails had to be included in the game as well. Sailing = okay. Everything else = upsetting. The following is a long list of complaints.
I know I'm in the minority by giving this game a negative review, but it is good to have differing opinions, so here I go...
Black Flag portrays several years in the life of Edward Kenway, a nobody with dreams of grandeur. Kenway is a man who loves the idea of his wife more than his wife herself and thus decides to abandon her for a decade or more in order to raise enough money to take care of her, yet meanwhile leaves her with nothing and no support...
Poor backstory develops into poor main story as we follow Kenway in his pirating adventures. The story starts off slow, completely disappears for 4 sequences as you hunt for medicine, and eventually concludes with a "that's it?" feeling of disappointment. As a gamer who finds story to be as--if not more--important than how the game is played, this is entirely unacceptable. By sequence 9 I was literally running through every mission just to finish this pointless chore called a game.
AC4:Black Flag has every appearance of another 10-month rushed Ubisoft AC game, much the same as AC:Revelations. (I realize development was longer than that, but I can picture the project lead saying, "Drop everything! We've got an entirely new direction for AC4!") Players loved captaining a ship in AC3, so Ubisoft threw a game together around that singular aspect. All other aspects of the game seem to be in place simply so they could slap the title "Assassin's Creed" onto this game. In fact, you can see distinct differences in quality between sailing and everything else in terms of how the game is rendered, ease of control, mission scripts, and the like. The mechanics for captaining a ship work remarkably well; everything else simply doesn't.
This game should have been a mere sandbox pirating game instead of the 6th console installment of the AC series. As it stands, however, Black Flag has the feeling of an incomplete game with severe technical flaws that introduce numerous glitches. The two aspects that grieve me most of all are the huge dive backwards in control mechanics and the hastily thrown-together graphics that are barely on par with the PSN version of AC:Liberation. I couldn't even count the number of times Edward did exactly opposite of what I wanted or the number of times I died because Edward failed to block several attacks. Shadow rendering and other textures are a glob of black dots and lines, destroying the aesthetics of everything that moves. This graphical flaw appears to be limited only to animated objects, but that still means pretty much anything with motion is simply ugly to look at.
In-game tutorials are completely backward. The game gives players more instructions for finding trinkets than it does for naval combat, which is the actual meat of the game. Captaining the ship and effectively attacking other vessels is not at all intuitive at first. Sailing controls become familiar over the course of a few game sequences, but Ubisoft could have saved me several hours of adapting by giving me a 10-minute training mission. I admit I am no hardcore gamer, so perhaps others will not find this as lacking as I did. The timing of what few tutorials are included in the game are all wrong as well. For example, you are "taught" how to complete assassin contracts and to discover Mayan artifacts in Sequence 4, but contracts have already been available the entire game and by is point you should have already found three Mayan artifacts from earlier main story missions.
Of course, all of this is per the usual of AC games--after all, you can capture forts in AC3 before Connor even teams up with Americans, and it takes 3 sequences for Ezio and 5 sequences for Connor to become assassins--but AC4 just seems to blunder worse an any of the previous titles (except for perhaps AC:Revelations, which is just awful). Even so, sailing the open seas is rather enjoyable, at least for a time. The game certainly does suffer from rapidly diminishing returns if you sail for the sake of sailing. Don't forget to actually progress the story in your travels!
What is unusual within this title compared to earlier AC releases is the annoying upgrade system and the terrible respawn locations. All previous AC titles required the use of gold to upgrade the protagonist's gear and then offered various methods by which to collect income. Black Flag's upgrade system throws money overboard and literally forces you to perform menial hunting tasks in order to gather the ridiculously over-varied quantity of supplies necessary to upgrade Edward's gear. Fortunately, weapons can still be paid for with money, merely your ability to carry additional ammunition is hindered. Upgrading the Jackdaw (Kenway's ship) is not as difficult, but it does force you into countless naval battles as you scrounge for raw materials. At one point is spent 4 hours just pursuing naval combat and was still only able to afford a handful of upgrades. What is most upsetting is that Ubisoft did this intentionally so that they could offer in-game purchases called "Time Saver packs" that give you whatever resources you need, for a price. Paying for DLC is one thing, but deliberately punishing players who refuse to buy your in-game purchases is a low blow.
As for the respawns, should you die or otherwise fail a mission or quest that involved getting somewhere by boat, the game respawns you leagues away from your destination. I assume this has something to do with not dropping you into the middle of conflict, but being placed just out of range of an enemy would have sufficed. I hated having to waste 5 to 10 minutes in travel every time I failed a mission.
In terms of the assassin aspects of AC games, Black Flag really isn't all that good. The game simply doesn't fit well within the Assassins-versus-Templars world. If, however, you rate the game based on the actions you perform and content available, this game is okay. Examining shipwrecks and engaging in naval combat is vastly superior to crawling through haystacks and slashing guards, though you'll still be doing much of the latter. Hunting for treasure and harpooning whales is another added plus to the monotony of looting chests and chasing pieces of paper in the wind. I only wish Ubisoft would get rid of eavesdropping missions. I find these tedious and obnoxious, yet are were so many of them that it feels every third mission requires eavesdropping.
I'd easily rank Black Flag among the worse games within the AC series. AC fans, be warned, this isn't your typical AC game. Your enjoyment of this game will be immensely improved if you don't dive in expecting a continuation of what you've been doing for the past several games. That being said, if you expect anything more than a sandbox sailing game, you'll probably be vastly disappointed.