PS4 – Assassins Creed IV: Black Flag

You may have seen my writeup on the PS4 and some of the games I tried out on it – but in there I purposefully skipped talking about AC4 since I’ve actually put quite a lot of time into it and wanted to cover the game properly.  At the time of writing I’ve made it into the top 50 most feared pirates, completed the story and all the side quests, and mined the entire map for all collectables.

Assassins Creed IV is a bit of a departure for the series.  I’ll be honest, the original games just didn’t interest me at all, and as such I don’t know much about the original story in them.  What I am interested in is pirates though, and this game makes a break from the original storyline so I decided this was the right time to sail in.

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You take the role (or experience the memories) of Edward Kenway, a man with a loving wife but who has amounted to nothing, so he decides to seek riches by becoming a privateer, and sails out to the West Indies.  However the war there ends and Edward finds himself out of work, and turns to a life of piracy.  The game picks up after Edward has been captured but shipwrecked, he chases down and assumes the identity of a man who turns out to be an Assassin, eventually becoming embroiled in the fight between the Assassins and Templars as a result of his greed.

Since this is an Assassins Creed game, part of the story is that you’re actually an employee who works for a company selling virtual reality memories to customers, just experiencing the life of Kenway – honestly I think they could have dropped this entire aspect of the game.  While the sections are thankfully short, to be honest they just detract from the actual storyline – the game simply doesn’t need them.

The game itself is the marriage of two halves – the story will take you all across the Caribbean, through jungles and temples, busy cities and small island settlements.  It also takes you across the seas between them, sailing and related activities are a big part of the game and the integration between land and sea play is for the most part seamless.  The only exceptions to this are large cities which have to be loaded in, for the rest of the map you can literally jump overboard, swim to the shore and walk into a local bar.

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Much of the main story takes place on land – and the land based gameplay will be familiar to AC veterans even if it was new to me.  Edward can run and climb across almost any part of the terrain, scaling buildings, vaulting obstacles and leaping around the map freely – all achieved by simply holding R2.  It’s a parkour style movement and works very well, really allowing you to use the terrain to your advantage when stalking targets or simply trying to get quickly from one place to another.  Stealth is important too, you can use vegetation as cover, stay high and out of sight, or blend in by walking near people milling around in the streets.

Being a pirate and an assassin, you’re going to end up in a lot of fights.  Enemies can be attacked from behind, pulled into undergrowth, jumped on from above, or hit with sleep/berzerk darts which won’t alert guards to your presence.  Eventually you’ll also get rope darts which can be used to string enemies up or drag them over to you.  That’s if you want to keep a low profile anyway – but in the majority of situations you also have the option of just getting into a fight good and proper.  Since Edward is a pirate, he’s also more than comfortable with swords and pistols – and here the combat is a mixture of free attacks and timed counters.  Counters are definitely your friend and make most fights perhaps a little easier than they should be. You can upgrade Edward by buying or crafting him new equipment or even clothing – it’s well worth getting the extra pistol holsters as soon as possible since they fire a single shot and reloading takes a long time.

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When out at sea you’ll be in control of the Jackdaw with Edward at the helm (although as I say, you can let go of the wheel and walk around the ship and even jump over the edge whenever you feel like it).  This area of the game really shines, the interaction of the ship and the waves is just brilliant.  The game also features dynamic weather – while some events are scripted the majority of weather effects just come and go as they please, and the current time of day and weather carry across into cities too.  Where it really matters is at sea though, since it can change the dynamic of a naval battle considerably.

The Jackdaw has seven methods of attack and you’ll end up using them all in the frequent battles which you get dragged into (or instigate yourself).  Firstly there are front cannons which fire cannonballs joined by a chain – these will temporarily stun a target ship and slow it down a bit.  Next you have standard broadside cannons which can be aimed or fired blind to use heavy shots (note – NOT in the manual or explained anywhere!), and the rear of the ship can drop fire barrels to damage chasing opponents.  Control of these is pretty good, you’ll aim/fire weapons depending on which side of the ship you point the camera over, which is a lot easier than it sounds on paper and really leads to a feeling of fighting on multiple sides during the larger battles.  You also have mortars on L1 which you can control the range of prior to releasing to fire, and swivel cannons which lock onto ships just after you attack and can be fired with the Y button for extra damage.  If all else fails you can ram enemy ships too, and with an upgraded ram this can be a significant attack. All of these aspects can be upgraded with plans and materials found throughout the game – a fully upgraded Jackdaw is a force to be reckoned with.

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Defeated ships can be immediately sunk for half the potential spoils, or left to burn.  Alternatively you can board them, which starts a sequence where your crew use grappling hooks to pull the two ships together, and from there you can board the other ship to claim your prize.  While initially the requirements are as simple as killing a number of enemy soldiers, later on you have to kill captains or even climb up and cut down their flag.  During these sections the whole area of the battle is playable map space – you can swim around the ships, climb up the sides, climb the rigging and leap between masts, which opens the door to melee or aerial assassinations, whatever works best for you.  The sea will affect the battle here too – since the ships are loosely coupled and waves will cause their locations to shift in relation to eachother.   When the battle is over, you can use the ship to repair the Jackdaw, trade it to reduce your wanted level (which attracts pirate hunter ships), or send it to Edwards fleet – more on that later.

Also while out at sea you’ll need to go diving from time to time – using an old fashioned diving bell.  These really were a large bell which trapped air underneath – and these are the most challenging parts of the game in some respects, because you’ll need to return for air (or find some in upturned barrels) frequently, and you have no way of fighting back against the sharks and eels which lurk down there.  It’s a nice diversion though and some of the underwater sections are really nice to look at.

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Another thing you’ll need to do from time to time is attack forts.  These are scattered around the game map and defeating one will uncover a detailed map of the area as well as taking them over to fight on your side should enemy ships stray too close.  To take over a fort you need to bombard all the defences until destroyed, mortars are very useful here although sometimes an aimed broadside is just as effective and certainly easier to execute.  Once the defences are destroyed you can take to land and claim it in a battle sequence.  These are some of the more exciting fights in the game with the smoke and fire billowing around you. They follow the same basic pattern – kill the captains and then take the war room.

There are a lot of side activities in the game too – as well as the main quest line there are Templar hunts, in which you need to help the Assassins you have greatly inconvenienced earlier in the story. There are assassination missions, stockpile raids, memory fragments and chests to collect, sea shantys to find, animal hunting on land and sea, a series of treasure maps which lead to the most powerful ship upgrades, mayan puzzles to solve, games to play in bars, royal convoys to plunder and Kenways fleet.

The fleet consists of ships you’ve captured – and it’s essentially a mini-game where you send them on trade missions. These gain you money, upgrade plans, and even treasure maps and it’s definitely worth investing the time in them. As you complete more missions, more of the map will open up – different missions will require heavier ships or take longer – and since they run in real time this is something you’ll want to check now and then each day. Over time routes will become dangerous and you’ll need to send ships to fight and reduce the danger level, it’s a simple automated 2D fight, you get to pick the ships you send. There’s even a phone app so you can direct the fleet with that too – unlike the GTA 5 app you don’t NEED to use this for fleet functions, it’s an available option.

A final but notable side activity involves taking down legendary ships. These lurk in the four corners of the map, and they’re significantly more dangerous than anything you will face in the rest of the game. To stand a chance against them you’ll need quite a bit of battle experience and all the upgrades you can find. The legendary ships have different methods of attack – one primarily uses mortars, one is an all rounder, one is actually a pair of ships which circle and broadside you, and the final and hardest one will go out of its way to ram into you. The ships are faster, stronger, and more agile than the Jackdaw despite their size – so tread carefully. You don’t even have to know they exist, you could play the whole game without knowing they were there – but they are, and they’re awesome.

Black Flag is a multiplatform game – and in some ways I think that’s actually worked out well for it on the PS4. It runs at an extremely solid 30fps while being 1080P native (with the day 1 patch), which makes it significantly more attractive than all of the other versions bar the PC one. While technically accomplished, what really shines is the design. The Caribbean looks beautiful in this game – vegetation is lush greens, sand is bright, the sky is blue, the sea is a mixture of blues and greens, everything pops in a really pleasant way – it’s exceptional. It also sounds great too – good ambient and direct sound effects, and some recurring musical themes here and there, including a series of songs your crew can sing while at sea (gained by chasing musical notes across difficult terrain). It can be quite haunting at night with a quiet song, the sounds of the waves and the creaking of your ship. The only downside is motion blur which is used to make the game appear smoother – I wish you could switch this off, it just doesn’t need it and made it hard to get good screenshots of action scenes.

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In terms of other content there’s already some DLC (a PS4 platform exclusive as well as some retailer exclusives), plus at least one substantial one to come. Honestly I don’t like retailer exclusives at all – Ubisoft have made it far more complicated than it needs to be to get the content you want. I ended up finding a description of packs in the US, then trying to find out how I could get them in the UK. End result is I had to buy the Buccaneer edition from GAME, which is expensive and comes with a giant statue of Edward by the Jackdaws mast. I had to buy it from GAME because nobody else sold it, even though I try to avoid that retailer normally. I wanted this edition for the Black Isle extra, which gives you the costume you’ll have seen me using in the above screenshots and videos among other things. Just stop it Ubisoft, please. In fact that goes for all publishers. Fucking stop it, let us choose to buy what we want from where we want. There’s also a multiplayer mode, but I’ve barely looked at it. What I saw was like Party Games – Assassination Edition, ultimately I wasn’t too interested in that though. I did notice epic microtransactions there for unlocking skins and so on. Prices that make Forza 5 look almost reasonable.

So overall judged on the content everyone gets in the basic version of the game. I’ll just come out and say it – this is my game of the year for 2013, it’s so much better than GTA 5 in virtually every respect including story and voice acting that it’s not even a fair comparison. There’s so much to do, when you go to these places you can see in the distance or on the map, there’s actually something there. This helps make the game world seem more like a real place instead of what it is – a giant sandbox. Edward is a great character – he’s a good man who sometimes does bad things, and the supporting cast are strong too. There really are three main characters in this game however – Edward, the Jackdaw, and that vast living ocean. If you play this game you’ll come to know all of them.

Apologies for the video quality by the way, end result of having to upload to Facebook then re-upload to Youtube.