It occurs to me that there is a sad dearth of pirate and sailing games in the market. The original Sid Meier's Pirates! is almost 30 years old! And the PC remake was released all the way back in 2004. Other than that, the only pirate or sailing-themed video games that I'm aware of are mobile games.
We saw a proliferation of cowboy and western-themed games after Rockstar's Red Dead Redemption (which, in hindsight, probably isn't as good as I gave it credit for). Perhaps Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag could trigger a similar renaissance for pirate video games. And if those games are as good as Black Flag (or better), then that would be a real treat!
Hrm, this mission seems familiar...
[LEFT] A plantation raid in Assassin's Creed III; [RIGHT] another plantation raid in Black Flag.
The first hour or two after Black Flag's introductory pirate ship battle is a bit dull because it's mostly just the same old stuff that you've played in Assassin's Creed III: exploring the little town and playing a few "go here, do this" missions with an assassination or two.
Being stuck on land is usually pretty dull. In fact, some missions even seem copy-pasted from previous games. When I got to the mission in which I had to raid a sugar plantation, I couldn't help but think "Hey, didn't I already do this in III?" The only notable difference was that that the plantation raid was wrapped in a segment in which I had to pursue the plantation-owner's ship from a trade island to his plantation island.
Over the course of the game, you'll frequently be forced to step back onto land for story missions. some of the environments are a bit original, since there's some trekking through jungles and along beaches and scaling cliffs to break up the monotony of the usual parkour that the series is known for. Most of these jungle paths are closed and linear, so you won't be exploring open jungle with a machete.
The jungle and beach settings provide some visual variety beyond the city parkour, but are functionally similar.
There aren't any dramatic new gameplay functionalities associated with the more rural and wild settings beyond the tree-hopping that was featured in Assassin's Creed III. So while these missions provide some visual variety, they don't add much to the actual gameplay. The biggest change is that it takes a lot of your freedom of movement away, since you have to follow more of the pre-designed trails through the levels, rather than having the freedom to create your own route.
Land-based missions (both story and optional) suffer from a proliferation of annoying tailing and eavesdropping missions that are boring and tedious. Movement and combat on land is also subject to all of the same frustrations as the previous Assassin's Creed games. The free run still screws up enough to be annoying, and sometimes Edward just won't jump where you want him to jump.
Setting sail on the adventurous high seas
But the dumb controls are minimally-impactful this time around, since the land-based content makes up a minority of the gameplay. Once you finish a handful of missions on Havana, you will once again hit the seas. And fortunately, this is where the bulk of the remainder of the game will take place.
Controlling your ship is relatively simple and straightforward. Maybe even a little too much so. You can toggle the amount of sail that you expose to the wind with the push of a button, and turning is handled with the analog stick. The ship is extremely responsive to your commands. There's no delay for you to wait for your crew to physically furl or unfurl the sails (it just happens magically when you push the button), or while you wait for the wind to catch them. This might be a bit off-putting for fans of hyper-realism who were hoping to see your crew scurrying around the boat at your command, but it's kind of necessary with the scale of the world and pace of the game.
Firing the cannons requires constant, potentially-dizzying camera movement, but keeps the action always on-screen.
I really wish that the attack commands were different. It's annoying (and sometimes dizzying) to have to manually rotate the camera in the direction of the cannons that you want to fire. This prevents you from being able to see where you are going, and it restricts your ability to fire a cannon to the single set of cannons that you're focusing the camera on. It also limits the speed with which you can fire different weapons, since you have the wait a moment for the camera to pan. I would have preferred for each different weapon set to be mapped to a different button (such as L1 firing port broadsides; R1 firing starboard broadsides), and then have the ability to toggle precision firing by holding down the button. That way, you wouldn't have to maneuver the camera to attack, and you could fire multiple weapons simultaneously (like firing both your port and starboard broadsides as you sail between two enemy ships).
The camera sometimes focuses on specific events, even while you're in the heat of combat.
The camera also sometimes automatically focuses on events of interest. But it doesn't stop the game in order to do this. Since firing weapons is dependent on pointing the camera in the direction of your target, this involuntary camera movement prevents the player from attacking. It's especially frustrating since the camera movement is rarely necessary. The things that the camera points at are usually highlighted on the mini-map anyway, so you know something is happening and where it is happening, and you can look at it at your own leisure. Or they could just have you press the "Up" button on the D-pad in order to look at the event, just like they do in free play when you pass by an island that has loot on it.
Naval combat is very fast-paced. The ships are nimble and rarely ever feel like they have the weight that they are supposed to have. So for the most part, there isn't much tension in racing to be the first to line up your broadsides, since you're going in and out of range every second or two. The challenge of naval combat doesn't come from the inherent difficulty of navigation and naval tactics, but rather from the rapid pace of the action and the fact that enemy ships quickly outgun you or sink you with those annoying rams.
But this actually does benefit the gameplay. It makes you feel weak and vulnerable, and forces you to pick off weaker targets and complete side quests until you can afford to invest in the ship upgrades. Since the ship upgrades are actually meaningful and necessary, all that money that you collect is actually worthwhile. Unlike Assassin's Creed II & III, there's actual game utility to searching the world for loot crates and performing side missions to earn a few extra reales!
I might be in over my head... I'll probably desynchronize and have to upgrade my own ship.
There's other side content that has in-game utility as well. For example, collecting the sea shanties in villages gives your sailors a larger repertoire of songs to sing, so they don't drive you nuts with the same three songs every time you set sail. Of course, you could always just tell them to shut up... Most of the rest of the side content, however, is just mindless, worthless collectibles (animus fragments, messages in bottles) that are just achievement bait with no tangible value. At the very least, these collectible hunts are well-themed for the swashbuckling, exploratory nature of the game.
The nimbleness of the ships is, however, nullified during storms. When a storm hits, you really feel the weight of the ship and have to struggle to keep your bow turned into the waves to avoid taking damage. And this is when the sailing really captivated me. The ships started to feel like slow, lumbering hulks, and struggling against the waves to be the first to line up your broadsides is slowed down just enough to be tense and exhilarating. If the rest of the sailing had this sense of weight, then the whole experience would have been much better.
During storms, you can feel the ship's weight as you struggle to turn against the waves.
Boarding ships reinvigorates melee combat
The focus on sailing and privateering even contributes to the game's melee combat. The combat mechanics are still the same as the previous game, and it still has the annoying ability to insta-kill an enemy after parrying them. But a lot of missions and side content require the player to fight a naval battle to disable the enemy ship and then jump over and board it. Your crewmates are mostly useless during this time, and you end up having to do most of the work. But the preceeding naval battle gets the adrenaline flowing, and fighting on a burning or sinking ship keeps the excitement going through the still-easy melee engagements.
Infiltrating a ship and stalking your prey from the rigging is a different experience.
But there are other situations in which you have to infiltrate ships, and the unique "architecture" of the ships feels different enough from the rest of the game to be fresh and interesting. There are new and different challenges to boarding the ships unseen, and there's a greater satisfaction to patiently eliminating the crew of an English frigate one at a time. It's too bad that the ship's crew doesn't realize that their numbers are decreasing, but such is the nature of most stealth action games...
It's getting awfully crowded in my sea
I do have the same core complaint that I have with every open-world game: the map is too compact, too dense, and too overcrowded with random nonsense. If you stop at any point on the map and sweep the camera around 360 degrees, you'll almost certainly be able to see at least several enemy ships off in the distance, not to mention some small islands or collectible loot crates just floating in the water. So there's rarely any sense of being alone on the open sea.
There always seems to be ships, settlements, and quests within the horizon. (click
to view panorama)
Early in the game, you can't go a whole minute without sailing in the face of an enemy ship or passing by an island with loot or a collectible on it. Fortunately, other ships aren't openly hostile unless you're in a restricted area, so they aren't constantly stopping you in your tracks like those annoying cougars in Red Dead Redemption that jump out of nowhere and eat your horse. If you need the money and resources (or are a completionist), then you'll be constantly stopping to board sloops or hop off the boat to open a loot chest or pick up an Animus fragment. This constant stopping can become tedious and can detract from the sense of immersion. Fortunately, loot crates can also appear floating in the water so that you don't need to stop to pick them up.
But to make matters worse, the game just marks the locations of collectibles and loot on the map! So you don't even have to go out looking for the stuff, the game just tells you where it is. So in addition to hurting your immersion, it also sucks away much of the sense of adventure or discovery. It's not as bad as Amazing Spider-Man [game], because at least the collectibles sometimes require a little effort to collect, but it does make the whole game feel like it's boiling down to marking off blips on a map rather than going out and finding them.
But even though the game does half the work for you, setting sail is still a fun enough experience as it is, and so navigating the world can be its own reward. The fact that all the side content is built around this core gameplay concept really helps to bring all the little pieces into a much more cohesive whole than Assassin's Creed III.
You can recruit captured ships into your own trade fleet, and the loot that you earn is relevant to the main game.
Even the trade mission side content feels more relevant to the main game. Much like in Assassin's Creed III, you can also set up a base of operations, which you can upgrade. And there are also trade missions that allow you to trade your captured plunder for money and other resources. As you sail the seas in the main game, you can capture enemy ships and add them to your own trade fleet to be used for these missions. And since the money that you earn has actual in-game utility, these trade missions feel much more useful and relevant, even though they can still be mostly ignored.
A breath of salty, fresh air
Based on my play-time with Assassin's Creed III and the brief bits of exposure to the other games in the series, I can't say that I'm a fan of the Assassin's Creed franchise as a whole. While the original game or two may have felt unique and interesting at the time, the excessive oversaturation of sequels and spin-offs since have made the series feel stale and tedious.
Black Flag, however, is a novel breath of fresh air that changes up the fundamental gameplay enough to be interesting and fun and even put a spark of life into the side content and futuristic meta-game. Not only is it a great entry in the Assassin's Creed series, but it's also a unique, stand-out title in the larger proliferatoin of open-world action adventure games.
And best of all, Black Flag does not rely too heavily on the previous games, since Desmond's story came to an end in III. Everything that you need to know will be summarized for you by this game, and I didn't feel lost at all, despite having jumped in without much experience or knowledge of the previous games. So in addition to being a good stand-alone adventure game, it's also a perfect jumping on point for newcomers to the series. Heck, if the save file could be transferred to the PS4, I'd even shell out the money to upgrade to the next-gen version!
Even if you're an Assassin's Creed hater, give this one a chance. You might be surprised.
Black Flag sails triumphantly into the sunset as a stand-out game in an oversaturated franchise.