I applaud any video game that reaches franchise status. It’s a difficult task in today’s video game market to create something fresh and turn a profit (ask Curt Schilling’s 38 Studios about this) at the same time. Franchises, such as Gears of War, Halo, and even Call of Duty have constantly redefined their respective genres, pushing graphical and gameplay boundaries at each iteration. Yet I chose these three games for a reason: their products have fallen flat.
Gearheads like me found Judgment‘s storyline and level design to be too compartmentalized. Halo 4 was a transitional piece developed by 343 who feared of alienating Bungie’s fans by playing it safe. And even with the amazing dog and fish artificial intelligence displayed during Xbox One’s press conference, Call of Duty: Ghosts seemed like more of the tired gameplay. If you don’t believe me about Gears or Halo, check out the latest Xbox Live gameplay metrics from Major Nelson, or run a quick comparison of the dwindling Metacritic scores.
Innovation is what is desperately needed. Luckily, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag has this in spades. Before I deep dive into specifics, there are two features that really stood out to me which lets me know that Ubisoft listened to our complaints about Assassin’s Creed III. The first is that gameplay just starts. Tutorials are extremely streamlined. Within two minutes of starting up the game, you’re already involved in a high speed footrace through a beautifully rendered jungle environment. The second are the “comment cards” at the end of each mission. Purely optional, you can provide feedback on what you just played. Short of developing the game as you played it, I must say Ubisoft is really trying to win back fans after Assassin’s Creed III.
In case you couldn’t already tell, I love this game. I decided to wait for the PlayStation 4 version, which has minimal graphical improvements over the PlayStation 3 / Xbox 360 versions. Most noticeably to me is the amazing detail to water. If you’re like me, you’ll be spending a majority of your time sailing the high seas in search of deserted islands full of loot or entrenched in glorious sea battles. The attention to little details, such as individual drops of rain during a downpour, or the subtle splashing of waves against the bow are real stand outs in this version. Unfortunately, draw distance does suffer slightly, but by no fault of the PlayStation 4. Ships slowly phase in to eyesight, a byproduct of utilizing the same gaming engine between both older and newer platforms. This doesn’t affect core gameplay but is noticeable when you’re sailing amongst the high seas and a ship suddenly phases into eyesight some 1,500 meters away. It’s disappointing that the Ubisoft crew couldn’t address this.
Ubisoft took the idea of The Frontier, the massive sandbox which Connor explored in Assassin’s Creed III, and took that idea to an even greater level: open world gameplay. While there are some special sections of the game which load independently (major cities, such as Nassau), a great majority of the game is seamless. That means a typical gaming session start by hunting exotic animals for crafting materials on a deserted island to freeing prisoners to naval battles to ship boarding, all without a loading screen. This type of freedom is rarely seen outside of Grand Theft Auto titles, and is a welcome addition to the Assassin’s Creed universe.
Besides the main storyline, there are naval and assassination contracts to be completed, treasure chests and maps (based on global latitude and longitude for starting coordinates), shark and whale harpooning mini games, underwater exploration, clothing and weapon crafting, and even ship upgrades. Although most exploration yields money and material for upgrades, there are the occasional “epic plans” which provide top tier rewards. Exploration is rewarded, and no matter which direction you choose to go in, progression feels rewarding. It’s a smart system that has been perfected elsewhere and is finally gaining traction in Assassin’s Creed. Couple this with the great climbing and combat mechanics and you have a title that feels much more fleshed out than its predecessors.
Unfortunately, there are some elements of this game that come up short. Many of the problems that plagued Assassin’s Creed III remain prevalent. Edward can assassinate people via the hidden wrist blade before he has it. Guns and other stolen enemy weapons still get stuck and float aimlessly in mid-air when climbing. Unnecessary clipping is prevalent, especially climbing around the Jackdaw’s numerous sails and pulleys. These are all polishing issues, and by now, Ubisoft should have sorted these out. But none of them really impact the overall experience.
Oh, and although I think I’m in the minority here, but I loved the entire Animus/Desmond mystery. But fear not, for the entire Animus/Abstergo angle is almost entirely optional. You play as a nameless, faceless and voiceless Abstergo employee whose job is to fine tune the upcoming pirate vacation simulator. Of course, should you choose to snoop around the office, you’ll never know what you find…
The most frustrating thing about the game, perhaps, is that the overall plot seems incomplete. Edward Kenway leaves his family in search of fortune. Not revenge, not a piece of Eden, or establishing The Order… only money. What makes this goal odd is that the amount he actually requires doesn’t seem to matter. By the time I left the first island, doing my usual “grab every chest and loot every corpse” routine I had a little over 8,500 reals. What is the major payday after the first mission? It’s a paltry 1,000 reals. Although Edward makes a comment that the amount isn’t enough to retire, there is no “get enough money to go home” quest. In fact, I spent so long plundering the high seas I was near to 100K reals at one point. I ended up dumping them all into the Jackdaw and upgrades, but nowhere did I get the sense that I was close to getting Edward home. The arbitrary “I need more money goal” is sloppy.
Overall, this game is not perfect. But in my opinion it’s the greatest Assassin’s Creed game to date (sorry Ezio!). I highly recommend it to old and new fans alike. It’s a great peak into what truly next generation, open world gameplay is all about.
As much as I love Assassin’s Creed, I haven’t dabbled in the multiplayer until Black Flag. It may or may not have something to do with the hunt for my first Platinum trophy. That being said, I know that many of the gameplay elements that are present in Black Flag have been around since Brotherhood. Since it’s all new to me, I’m going to discuss my experience in its entirety.
Maps: Each map is themed based on a particular portion of the single player game (Havana, Tampa Bay, and even the Prison!). They are appropriately sized, bounded by the “memory not available” walls we’ve all grown accustomed to in the single player experience. They are littered with NPCs carrying out their daily routines, which include hanging out at bars, haggling wares, or conversing around a campfire. As with the single player game, standing near a group of NPCs will allow you to blend in. An added multiplayer bonus is that your character will also like them. This is great for hiding as you truly blend into the crowd. If you’re near a bar, for example, your character will automatically spawn a mug and sip on it occasionally. This is also true of NPCs who walk around the map. If you get close enough, you blend in and walk with them as if you’re part of the discussion. There are also doors which temporarily seal behind you, great for get-aways.
Maps Verdict: Full of varying terrain and diverse NPCs, the maps are laid out very well. It’s very easy to blend in to crowds of people as you progress towards a target or away from a potential attacker. Full blown pursuits will lead you sprawling between busy city avenues or across roof-tops. Be careful though, as wildly sprawling through the city is clumsy and can result in devastating takedowns.
Game Modes: There are a few distinct game modes which result in one of the following game mode types: hunter vs. hunted, capture the flag, and zone control. While the latter two are common in most other game types, the hunter vs. hunted game mode is unique to Assassin’s Creed and where I spend most of my time.
In the traditional Manhunt mode, you take turns being either the hunter or the hunted.
As a hunter, you follow an indicator on the bottom of your screen; the larger the shaded area gets, the closer you are to your target. This is somewhat misleading as the indicator reacts to your character’s line of sight and not your own, as this game is taken from a third person perspective. The result is that careful camera work is required as your view may be obstructed by a box whereas your character can already see around it. Once the entire area is shaded, that means your target is in your direct line of sight.
Since the area is littered with NPCs, some of which look like your target, finding the correct target is a challenge. Luckily, there are abilities which can assist you. Throwing coins down to elicit a small riot, for example, is great at weeding out human players from their computer counterparts. Of course, the real excitement comes from the Focus system. The longer you have marked a target (using the trigger) and the closer you get, the more points you get for the execution. This is a very interesting dynamic that results in some pretty intense gameplay. Any sprinting (from either the hunter or hunted side) is penalized by being auto-marked, so discretion is key. Choosing the wrong target also penalizes you from attacking for a brief time and also disrupts your indicator. It’s important to select your target wisely as you will only get a single chance. Some of my most memorable moments result in sitting quietly near look-alike NPCs, waiting to see if I’m going to get hit or if my attacker choose poorly, opening a counter attack and an escape.
Regarding the hunted side of things, your only indication of enemy placement is via aural cueing (whispers). The louder the whispering gets, the closer your attacker is. With abilities such as blend (which automatically changes the closest NPC to turn into your character model) or bodyguard (which sends out a look-alike to go attack the hunter) you can try to stay one step ahead of being the next victim. By stunning your target via punch, you can temporarily escape and move to the next hiding spot. I cannot count the number of times I stunned an enemy and ran way, only to be blindsided by a second hunter as I turned a corner.
A variant on this team based mode is the free-for-all Wanted mode, in which you are not only the hunter but the hunted simultaneously. While you must be aggressive in hunting your target, you must also be casual enough to blend in, as somebody is looking for you. Progressing higher in points will result in additional hunters being assigned to you. This is a great game balance that ensures one player doesn’t run away with the victory too quickly!
Lastly, Wolfpack mode is human players vs. NPC targets. In this mode, communication is key! Simultaneously killing four people scattered across the map for big multipliers, or defending key chests from waves of NPC attackers will earn you points and time to progress. Any unspent time at the end of the session is converted into points. Getting your pack onto the leaderboards is a lot of fun and is great for bragging rights.
Game Modes Verdict: The most unique multiplayer I have played in some time. Carefully assessing a situation may yield a huge point kill, but may also leave you exposed for the counter attack. There are numerous offensive and defensive abilities to master. Successfully using them and scoring a big takedown is one of the most satisfying experiences in multiplayer. It’s a great combination of risk vs. reward.
Misses: There are a few things that really bother me about multiplayer. At times, whether it is an issue of the PlayStation Plus service or Ubisoft’s servers (or even peer-to-peer networking), human players will pop in before NPCs. It’s pretty easy to figure out who your target is, and it makes setting up for the big point kills much too easy.
Also, sometimes chaos reigns. I’ve been killed (and killed) for maximum points even when my focus meter wasn’t fully charged. I’ve seen other players “game” the system by running around wildly and getting a lucky kill, too. It seems that the system sometimes cannot keep up with frantic, fast action. It’s annoying to lose the game with a sloppy buzzer beater kill.
I know people also sit on a lead by jumping from rooftop to rooftop, preventing you from killing them. While there are ranged weapons in the game, they take too long to fire and require a direct line of sight, which is difficult to obtain. Although there is a penalty for a sloppy kill, there is no penalty for sloppy hiding, something I’d like Ubisoft to address in future titles.
Overall: Despite a few annoyances, it’s a great addition to a great game. It’s the most unique multiplayer experience I have had so far and I really enjoyed it. If you were like and kept passing it over, I strongly encourage you to go back and see what you were missing!