Jaysus, lookit dem guns!
I’ve finally completed a (somewhat thorough) playthrough of Black Flag! I don’t say “finally” as in I’m especially happy to be done with it. I say “finally” because I got the game for Christmas and it’s now a month and a half later and I’ve only finished one of the pile of games I received. Having all of a few hours a week to myself to play a video game isn’t the most conducive lifestyle for playing sandboxey games like the AC series has become. Ironically, it wasn’t until I was pregnant and playing Skyrim that I realized I enjoyed games like this. Granted, I could have absolutely bulldozed the plot, but I felt almost guilty doing so. Black Flag is so much more than the basic Sequences. In fact, if someone told me they had more fun during the overdone, lame plot missions, I’d suggest they get their head examined.
I stand at odds with how to rate this game. On one hand, the open sea beckoning me to explore its uncharted lands never got old. I found myself distracted for hours and hours of gameplay sailing around, looking for trouble. Well, mostly loot, but trouble was always closely tied to filling my purse. The Templar Hunt missions, naval contracts, forts ripe for the conquering, animus fragments and treasure chests waiting to be collected, and whales to harpoon can keep any gamer busy for countless hours. There are also animals to hunt like in ACIII, except this time around you actually have incentive to do it. Animal pelts and other hunting goods are used to upgrade the main character, Edward Kenway’s, gear. To upgrade his ship you NEED to conquer other ships and steal their booty. Awesome. And, like I said, it doesn’t really get old. I enjoyed all of these optional features (I wouldn’t have committed like, 30+ hours of my life if I didn’t).
However, there’s always a butt. And my “butt” is, well, the rest of the game. If you’ve been with the AC series since its inception, the “trail so-and-so without being seen” and likewise missions won’t do much more for you than elicit big yawns. Then they had to go and incorporate the same stuff into the ship missions. I liked captaining the Jackdaw, but navigating a big, clunky ship when you have to try to remain hidden or sail quickly to not loose sight of another vessel is annoying. Call me a simpleton, but I’d rather stick to blowing the other ship up and killing the target on it, thanks. A new added feature to make the game feel more piratey are treasure maps! Dead cadavers throughout the world have treasure maps on them that are ripe for the picking. Each map has a crudely drawn picture of the hidden treasure’s whereabouts and the coordinates. Sounds easy enough, but I found the pictures to be pretty off sometimes, or hard to find in a big settlement area. I only got the treasures that were easy to find or gave upgrade plans for rewards.
As expected, the same old frustrating free-running mechanics exist. Enemy AI is weird and inconsistent. There are glitches abound (though I won’t pretend some of them didn’t work out in my favor). Like with every other AC game, you’ll swear at your avatar because he just won’t cooperate even though you KNOW you’re supposed to climb a certain ledge. They just like to pause mid-walk or press against a wall instead of moving for some reason, especially when guards’ detection bars are filling up and you’re supposed to remain incognito. I liked the little tweak to Eagle Vision Ubisoft incorporated. When you’re tailing a golden target, after you use Eagle Vision you can see them through walls and other barriers which is pretty useful.
The battle system is largely unchanged. You purchase or unlock swords and guns. You can create holsters, carry more pistols, and perform devastating combos. The swordplay remains unchanged for the most part. It is a relatively simple game of waiting for the counter prompt and pressing the corresponding button, then hitting attack for a fancy insta-kill animation. Once in a while you’ll stumble upon an ‘especially’ difficult enemy that requires a Break Defense button press instead of Counter to do damage. And… that is about as complicated as swordplay gets. To make things even easier, you can toss a smoke bomb and kill 4 or 5 people while they’re hacking their lungs out. The other tools you receive are sleeping darts, berserk darts, and rope darts, which are all in good fun. The troublesome enemies you’ll come across are the stupid axe guys, only because if you let them get a hit on you because they do a ton of damage. The snipers are frustrating because if you don’t have goons to use as human shields they’ll keep popping you with bullets until you can get to them.
Okay let’s talk about the story and characters for a little bit. I often joked that most of the AC games had main characters driven by pretty similar factors: mean Templars killed someone in my family and I want revenge. Well, this time around, Edward Kenway really only cares about one thing for 75% of the game, and that’s moola. He wants money. Yeah, he says it’s to have a comfortable life with the woman he loves, but he leaves her for years on end and only writes once a year after she begs him not to go. Anyway, the only thing keeping your main character going is the prospect of more money, which is how he gets wrapped up in the entire Templar/Assassin conflict in the first place. I also have a little bit of beef with calling this an “Assassin’s Creed” game, as Edward never actually recites the creed or become inducted into the Brotherhood. Edward is pretty shallow, but predictable. I’d argue that this is the first AC game to have supporting cast that I found more engaging than the main character. You’ve got infamous Blackbeard, a former slave first mate who finds his convictions way before Edward does, and the series’ first transgender character! Very interesting cast, most of whom were way more fascinating than Edward.
The present day characters are not nearly as engrossing. For reasons you’ll learn about if you hack Abstergo’s computers, Desmond Miles is no longer with us. The new protagonist is a faceless, character-less entity who only exists to tap into the animus for me. To increase immersion, I assume, you explore Abstergo Industries in first person POV. You carry around a functional tablet; using it for opening elevators, hacking into Abstergo’s PCs for supplemental information, and probably even using the loo. Your character is a faceless Abstergo employee, never even earning themselves a name. I suppose I’m supposed to feel like it is actually me running around and diving into the animus. But no. Just, no. It didn’t do that for me. Because I would never keep my mouth shut while being bossed around by some douche without even asking why. There are collectibles in the present day too, but they’re strange post-it notes scattered around that were clearly written by a deranged First Civilization worshiper who should’ve gotten themselves fired. I don’t know if I did something wrong but there was little to no conclusion to the present-day story arc. Basically the aforementioned douche gets what he deserves, but a couple other loose ends don’t even get mentioned or teased. I’m wondering if they plan on the next game taking place in the same building with the same main character and returning characters (like how Ezio’s arc was a trilogy) but Edward Kenway’s story seemed pretty solidified. Ubisoft has remained true to their pretentious formula of continuing the AC series as an annual cash cow, from the looks of it.
Annual cash cow that Assassin’s Creed has become, I’ll admit I had way more fun playing Black Flag than ACIII. The biggest open-world exploration system to date served the series well. ACIV was my first Playstation 4 game completed. I can’t complain about the graphics, but the game had the usual glitch-fests known to the AC series. I think Ubisoft should definitely continue on the path of making bigger, better, more involved worlds, but they really need to find a way to jazz up the main story line because the formula is getting stale and I found myself dreading going back to it at times.