I am going to start off this review with a confession. Yes, I am one of those scumbags who goes ‘Black Friday’ shopping on Thanksgiving evening. Go ahead and hate me for it, but we eat Thanksgiving dinner around lunchtime, so after spending all afternoon/early evening with family, I am ready to go out and do something else. Which usually means going to Wal-Mart at 10 PM after all the crazies have left to see what sales we can score. One of which, was Assassin’s Creed IV : Black Flag, for almost 50% off list price. That’s a steal, and considering the game came out a month ago, I had to pick it up.
A little background information would be useful to start. I own and have completed all the previous games in the Assassin’s series. They are fun to play, if not the best created games in the world. I picked up the previous title, Assassin’s Creed III, on launch last year as I was excitedly awaiting what looked like the best installment in the franchise yet (don’t let the III deceive you, that title was actually the fifth in the series, and the fifth in as many years). Unfortunately I was disappointed, as the changes they made to the game such as the controller scheme and the setting did not improve my gaming experience. There were a good amount of bugs and flaws, and the story was simply not very good. I refused to buy the next year’s (this year’s) title on release, despite the fact that the Caribbean pirate-style setting looked like fun.
Which leads us directly into this installment. The overall strength from the previous title was the naval combat and the shipbuilding/seafaring aspects. Ubisoft recognized this fact, and built upon and expanded it for IV. The setting is a lot of fun, without a doubt. Being an assassin and a pirate on the high seas is a concept that a large studio like Ubisoft cannot ruin. Following treasure maps, engaging galleons in battle, upgrading your ship, boarding other ships and fighting hand to hand is a blast. I have waited for a while for a good pirate game to be released, ever since Sid Meier’s Pirates! was upgraded, updated, and ported to the PC in 2004. And Black Flag is that, a solid pirate game. The graphics are absolutely stunning on Playstation 4 (I got to play it for about half an hour), and still looks good on Xbox 360. If this game were simply titled Black Flag without being an installment in the Assassin’s franchise, I think I would love this game. Instead, I merely like it, because making it part of the Assassin’s universe is ultimately the biggest drawback.
And here’s why. The storyline in Assassin’s Creed makes no sense at all. I have sat down and played through every game in the series, and the story still is indecipherable. The concept is solid, with a secret war going on between the Knights Templar and Assassin’s Order, with secrets about the past (which help the future) being found in the Animus, a machine that lets you relive the experiences of your ancestors. However, once the third installment (Assassin’s Creed : Brotherhood) is reached, the present day storyline starts to become convoluted, with technicalities and jargon taking over intertwined with ancient Roman religions and powerful “pieces of Eden.” So much crap and contradiction goes on that the only way to play this series anymore is to sit down and mindlessly enjoy yourself. The storyline is junk, and you’re a fool if you try to comprehend it and its universe. As a side note, there are actually fans of this franchise out there who buy and wear Assassin’s symbols and attire. I have seen it first hand, and it is quite frankly frightening to see people ascribe themselves to something so fake and flawed. It would be like someone openly worshipping the Great Green Arkleseizure from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Just, like, what on earth are you doing?
As I digress, garbage storyline aside, the controller scheme from III is virtually unchanged in IV. Which means, it too is junk. The buttons are so unintuitive, and so unlike the other open world masterpieces of Grand Theft Auto and Fallout that you would think Ubisoft would have learned better somewhere along the line. There will be many times where you are supposed to be chasing after a thief or assassination target, that because the controls suck so much, you will jump off of the tree you were climbing instead of jumping to the next tree. Or, your character won’t jump up the side of the building and will instead remain dangling and motionless. Or worse, you’re trying to run down the street when you get too close to a wall which your character starts to climb. Just, no. Make things simpler and the universe as a whole less sticky. And, don’t change the controller scheme from game to game. The differences between Revelations (the fourth installment) and III are so dramatic that without being briefed, an Assassin’s veteran will be lost in the wilderness. If you play Grand Theft Auto IV, Red Dead Redemption, and Grand Theft Auto V you will notice that the controls are basically exactly the same. That is because Rockstar isn’t filled with idiots and knows a winning formula when they see one. Over six years, they have kept the same basic controller scheme. Ubisoft likes to switch it around in every single game. It is like piloting a Banshee in Halo 2, Halo 3, and Halo : Reach. The buttons change with every game, and unless you have the manual in front of you, the button you pressed to get out of the Banshee in Halo 2 is going to shoot a bomb in Halo 3, and then make you do a flip in Halo : Reach. At least with Halo, the controls had to change because of a platform change. In Assassin’s, they have all been on the same machine.
The real question is though, is Assassin’s Creed IV : Black Flag a fun game to play? And the answer is a resounding yes. It is fun to be a pirate, sail the high seas, and board ships while wielding a pair of swords like Anakin Skywalker dueling Darth Tyranus. Obtaining treasure maps that lead to buried treasure, and using that money to create a deadly pirate ship is fun. It is when you sit down and think to the reasoning behind your character’s actions that the game starts to falter. Why are there always so many ships in the Caribbean sea? Why do they always attack me, and why must I always sink them? Why can I explore entire cities and towns and do things with Edward Kenway (the main character) when I haven’t even progressed the story? How does Kenway fulfill Assassin duties without knowing anything about the Assassin Order? How does the present day storyline make ANY sense at all, and why should I even care about it? Why do they still include multiplayer in this game?
Like Activision and Marvel, Ubisoft asks the gamer to keep their logical thoughts to themselves, and buy the new version of the game that they release every year. Assassin’s Creed is becoming Call of Duty. New titles every year, but the same game with small, gimmicky, and nuanced updates. Some titles (like Black Ops) are more fun than others (like Modern Warfare 3). And to be truthful, this title is more fun than others. I have not had this much fun playing an Assassin’s game since 2010’s Brotherhood. As long as I turn off my brain and keep the beer flowing, I’m having a good time.