Top critical review
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A brilliant and addictive experience that likes to troll you
on November 4, 2013
First off, I'm a newcomer to the AC series. I've known about it since it first came out but didn't have a 7th gen console to play the first back in '07. As such, I only followed it from the sidelines, that is until Black Flag was announced. Much as I love this game, there is much that annoys and frustrates me which I will get to after I've addressed all the positives.
The main feature of this game, piloting your own ship as you navigate the Caribbean to pillage and plunder, plays better than I had hoped. You really get the feel of controlling the seemingly massive ship as you steer across a constantly shifting landscape of rolling waves. To control a ship from the perspective of the pilot, moving the massive wheel and watching the entire vessel turn slowly, would have been an amazing novelty on its own, but it's the water physics that make this experience shine. Your boat will be tossed and turned by waves, winds and storms as you sail from place to place, making even the mundane task of travel a fun and stimulating exercise. Patrolling the landscape of, say, Skyrim was already fun, but in Black Flag, the landscape is never static and you feel as if the world is interacting with you as much as your are interacting with it. I seriously can't help but smile with childish glee as I watch my ship sail around at Travel Speed, the camera following at a distance while my crew sings Sea Chanties. (I actually love finding new chanties around the game because I can't wait to hear what new song my crew has learned!).
The first time I piloted a ship through a fierce storm after escaping from a British ship and saving several others who would become my loyal crew, my jaw dropped in awe. Imagine the gut clenching tension of going up a roller coaster as you feel the world angle upwards, waiting for the inevitable drop with fear and excitement. This was the feeling I got when I sailed into a large wave head on, braving its onslaught to avoid the pummeling it would have given me had I tried to turn away in vain.
This is your inception into the world of Assassin's Creed 4 Black Flag. It grabs you by the seat of your pants and throws you into the experience, and what an experience it is.
The sandbox (or fish tank, as it were) is a world with plenty to do and explore as you travel around collecting treasures and other collectibles both on land and at sea. The main theme of being a pirate is put side to side with that of being an assassin without one overshadowing the other. You will patrol the waves, looking through your spy glass at targets to strike. Once you've taken their load of commercial items, you can sell them for money or use to continually upgrade you ship into a mighty vessel that can stand up to even the most powerful of ships. The weapons at your disposal include cannons fired from the sides of your ship, featuring standard ammunition which is infinite, and heavy shot which packs a punch but has less range. Front cannons fire chain shots which slow down your victim, and mortar fires powerful shots far overhead to strike vessels and forts from a safer distance. The waves move enemy vessels as much as they move you, an element to take advantage of. Angling your shots over a particularly large wave which simultaneously shields you from the enemy's fire is a strategy that works well.
Once you've crippled a ship, you can then sail up close to it for the boarding process. These segments are fun, but also one the sources of the game's needless frustrations. Most often, conquering a ship will be as simple as killing a set amount of soldiers and their officers before they surrender. Other times, however, you'll have to kill scouts up in crows nests or, I kid you not, destroy the enemy flag. While these segments show off the mechanics of parkour on a ships rafters they usually amount to tedious tasks that force you to jump around looking for the proper footing while the swords clash below. I can't help by feel like I could be doing something more important, like helping my crew while they're getting killed off, instead of climbing to the top of the ship for a freaking flag. I feel like ship parkour is being forced on me. Yeah, it's cool and all but most of the time it's impractical, so why does it have to make you do it? I need to be fighting with my crew and helping them before they get killed!
Which brings me to the combat. It's apparent that Ubisoft was trying to emulate the combat from the Arkham games, what with your character, Edward, being able to fight and parry multiple enemies at once. But whereas Arkham City feels fast, fluid and intuitive, this game feel more like a button masher with clunky gameplay. The combat is not terrible mind you. Grabbing an enemy to use as human shield before an enemy can shoot is fun and movie like, but in the end, a movie is all if feels like since I'm only hitting buttons when the prompt comes up. Not quite QTE but not as involving as it could be.
(Editor's note: before anyone tries to tell me again that this style of combat existed first in the Ass Creed series before the Arkham series, let me remind YOU that it in fact existed before either in the Matrix video games for the PS2. And if I make more of a comparison between the Batman games and the Matrix games, it's because both had more refined combat whereas this is sluggish, so there. Don't you feel clever now with your passive-aggressive, cutesy emoticons)
Having read other people's reviews on various AC games, I find myself plagued by similar grievances addressed by them in the past, such as the story based missions. Sneaking around as an assassin is fun but sometimes absurd. There are times when you need to jump carefully from place with swiftness and then there are times when you just need to take it slow. But in AC there doesn't seem to be a button for sneaking. You're either walking or running from bush to bush to conceal yourself, not moving slowly in a crouched walk like you ought to. It makes me pine for the days of MGS3: Snake Eater when sneaking around was a simple and easy on my nerves as crawling from bush to bush. Sneaking feels hit or miss in AC 4. It's either fun or frustrating.
It's especially frustrating when you've spent an entire segment sneaking your way through without getting seen, and getting caught anyway as the story dictates. After all that, I feel like I've been trolled by the game (because I just spent the last twenty minutes trying and failing over and over just because I didn't act fast enough or failed to notice that one guard!).
Even more frustrating are the segments when you have to tail someone just to listen in on their dialogue. I'm too concerned with not getting spotted and staying within the designated listening range to pay attention to what they're saying, so I imagine Edward can't concentrate on what they're saying either (why do you make me do this, game!).
For as much as you'd be led to believe there are multiple ways around a situation sometimes there's only one, and not following this very narrow setup as the game dictates will only result in more punishment, via being forced to do it all over again.
Fortunately, only the story segments are like this. The rest of the time you can approach a situation however you'd like to during the small time assassinations peppered throughout the game. Sneaking around (when it works) and silently dispatching your hit without anyone seeing is a rewarding thrill, as is running away by scaling rooftops and trees. Although, parkour on trees is very hit or miss as it's not often clear which tree you're supposed to jump to. And trying to climb higher up a tree will have you inadvertently jumping off, which means climbing back up again! But probably the worst climbing segment is when you have to climb a windmill to talk to an important character (who just HAD to choose a dangerous place to climb up to). Be prepared to die a couple times trying not to fall off the spinning blades. Also, as pointed out by another reviewer who hated AC3, sudden QTEs with dangerous predators leaping at you is not very fun at all.
What it all amounts to is that AC 4 is such an amazing and addictive game that the occasional moments of frustration will seem all the worse when the game mechanics suddenly feel awkward or asinine. If feels like a truly great game is trying to get out but is being held back by the status quo of the series. This makes you, the player, feel held back whenever a task seems too demanding or when you're reminded that this is all a simulation in the Animus. You're actually some nameless dude sitting at a desk at Abstergo and you have to keep the memories of Edward synchronized or the whole thing goes Matrix on you and the maritime environments suddenly look digitized. I didn't get into the .Hack// JRPGs because I didn't like the idea of a video game about a video game so why does AC need to have this whole Animus conceit? I don't care about the present day, I care about the past! Isn't the whole point of games to escape sometimes and forget reality?
Well, anyways this game is still amazing and I strongly recommend it. Just be prepared for frustration to come in the wake (no pun intended) of great fun.