Conservatism. I think that’s the closest I can come to defining annual franchises in a singular word. It’s a forced necessity though rather than a design choice. The amount of time the game spends in development doesn’t leave a lot of room for radical changes. You could argue that stagnation is inevitable in cases like that, but on the flip side, those series also go through a process of procedural refinement that hones the core gameplay down to a perfect sharp edge.
It’s built on the same principles as the last few titles in the series. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
In theory, Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag is a significant departure from the series so far, but spend some time in it and you realise that it is still as conservative as any Call of Duty, FIFA or even previous Assassin’s Creed titles. Sure, the nature of the setting by itself forces new scenarios of gameplay that would previously have not been possible, but it’s built on the same principles as the last few titles in the series. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
So Black Flag sees you trade your horse for a ship and your Assassin’s heritage for pirate life. One of those changes is purely in name only as you soon realise that being a pirate doesn’t really make you that different from the previous protagonists in the series. But the other change sometimes makes the game, and just as often breaks it. Being a pirate means you control your own ship, and while it’s an interesting prospect at times, it’s not always smooth sailing (it was either this pun or pirate jokes, pick your poison).
While it’s fun enough exploring the sea when you are free-roaming, the missions tend to drag things out more than it’s needed.
For a series that’s spent almost all its gameplay time on foot free-running, it’s no surprise that the game’s best moments come when you are on foot doing any one of a bazillion activities the game is filled with. That doesn’t necessarily mean the seafaring sections of the game are poor. It’s just that there are so many of them. About a third of the gameplay (at least in story missions) takes place at sea. And while it’s fun enough exploring the sea when you are free-roaming, the missions tend to drag things out more than it’s needed.
Sea combat is still fun at times though, and at worst, it’s inoffensive enough to be digestible. I just wish there wasn’t so much of it or at least not so much of it in the storyline. In fact, the storyline of the entire game is hit and miss. A lot of the story missions, even on land, tend to devolve into “Follow person X, overhear their conversation, and then murder them”. So rather surprisingly (to me anyway) the game makes its bones in the free-roaming side of things.
The story is a little on the bizarre side but still enjoyable, but missions by and large are rather dull and uninspired.
The amount of stuff you can do in the game is just off the charts. There are (just off the top of my head) people to assassinate, places to rob, treasures to dig up, ship wrecks to dive into, animals to hunt, etc etc. The list just goes on and on. And all of that layered over with the by now standard Ubisoft open-world upgrade system, where you upgrade your character (and ship) with the items you find or craft or pillage.
If you want to play Black Flag purely for the story, it’s a hard game to recommend. The story is a little on the bizarre side but still enjoyable, but missions by and large are rather dull and uninspired. If you are willing to ignore that and just submerge yourself in the free-roam mode, it becomes an incredibly fun experience. It’s a wonderful mixture of the pirate-assassin lifestyle and just by the sheer amount of things that are thrown at you, you are bound to find things you like.
Multiplayer is still a fantastically fun game of cat and mouse.
There is also the multiplayer side of things to keep you occupied if you get bored of the single player. Like with any multiplayer game today, there is a ton of customisation and levels to progress through. But beneath all that is still a fantastically fun game of cat and mouse. The multiplayer is fairly polished as well. I found games in a matter of seconds and there was little to no lag involved. In fact, the whole game feels well polished to a shine. I was a little wary since Assassin’s Creed 3 picked a bad reputation for bugs, but in all my time with Black Flag, I didn’t run into anything worth mentioning. That’s fairly remarkable for a such a massive open world game.
It also looks rather lovely even on current gen’s dated hardware. The small towns and settlements of the West Indies may lack the awe-inspiring architecture of massive European cities, but they do have a lovely Mediterranean look to them. Be warned though; the game comes on two discs on Xbox 360 and, as far as I know, installing the game disc still means you have to swap between DVDs to switch between single player and multiplayer. It can get a little annoying at times.
At its core though, it’s still very much an Assassin’s Creed game with just enough changes and refinements to call it a proper sequel. But that’s not always a bad thing. It’s a well put together, polished game and while it might not set the world on fire, there is still something to be said for consistency. Or conservatism.