Year of the Console, May Review. Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag

Welcome back to the TLYW Year of Console Gaming. It’s the end of Month 5 already. I’ve been quite busy this month, what with all the romance and going on holiday and I feel like I’ve barely spent enough time with this month’s game, Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag. I had to be quite dedicated about playing it last weekend to log enough hours to get a feel for the game (I managed to play 9% of Black Flag before running out of time). On the plus side, the fact that I feel like I haven’t spent enough time with it is a good thing, and a sign that I want more. We’ve now played 5 of 14 games and this is my second favourite game so far, after Ark: Survival Evolved (February).

As you know, we are following an historical trajectory throughout the year. This month was the 18th century. AC 4: Black Flag takes place in the Bahamas and Cuba and the Caribbean sea in between. Pirates plunder each other’s ships, attack the British Navy and run around Nassau and Havana, assassinating local bosses and recruiting more pirates. I was hoping for sunshine, glittering blue seas and to sail my own ship, and all this was granted. Here are some screenshots.

Assassin's Creed® IV Black Flag_20170528235950

Black Flag takes a while to get moving, as these games often do. The USP of the game is that you will spend as much time at sea as on land, but this only becomes true when you’re about seven per cent of the way through the game, by which time you’ve spent quite a few hours on dry land, running around Havana and trying to assassinate the military. This is a little bit frustrating when you bought the game because you wanted some seafaring action but the game design does a pretty good job of ensuring that you know how to climb buildings and rigging with the agility of a monkey, and fight competently with swords and pistols before you are allowed out on the sea firing cannons at other ships, which you will then have to loot.

Once you are finally seaborne, you feel the open-ended aspects of the game. Yes, there’s a prescriptive sequence of quests that you still have to follow, but around that structure there’s a lot of opportunity to pick and choose various naval combat, assassination and other types of missions, sail around, plunder mats and gradually do up your own ship. It was quite thrilling when I managed to get behind the wheel of my own ship for the first time, sail around the sea and start attacking things.

The NPCs are well animated and well acted. The dialogue isn’t too painful. The story is engaging without being overbearing. This month’s psychopathic hero, Edward Kenway, is a lot easier to like than last month’s Geralt of Witcher 3. Geralt was a horrible man who would rob the homes of dying families and step over their children on his way out of the door with pockets full of stolen loot. Edward has better morals. Yes, he kills a lot of people, often for not very good reasons, but he restricts himself to the Navy and other legitimate enemies. He doesn’t kill civilians, esp not kids. When he was practising with his pistol and shot a chicken, he felt bad about it because it was some kind of domestic pet. So as you can see, as psychopathic killers go, Edward is a lot nicer. This really helps with immersion and emotional engagement; so important for satisfying game play.

Combat is not very difficult, esp on land, which is good, as you don’t want to be wasting your time there. At sea, it’s just difficult enough to be challenging without becoming frustrating. The controls are somewhat automated, quite intuitive and well sign-posted, making gameplay easier because you’re not effortfully trying to remember what combination of buttons to use.

The scenery is gorgeous and everything I’d hoped for. The weather is fantastic. It occasionally rains but never for very long. Mostly it’s blue skies, white sandy beaches, lush green foliage, glittering sea, brilliant sunshine, birds, tropical flowers, the white sails of ships and the architecture of 18th century Cuba, expressed as little churches, courtyards and inns. Glorious. So nice to have gameplay in a pleasant environment. Steering a boat is masses of fun and I want to spend more time on the sea, exploring and going to different islands. It looks like a large map so there should be plenty to do. I will definitely come back to this game; after finally getting my own ship and taking to the sea, I’m a happy customer.

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. Ubisoft (2013), PS4. A single-player, third-person, action-adventure game set in the 18th-century Caribbean.

Plot and setting: Pirate Edward Kenway sails a ship around the islands of the Caribbean, firing cannons, plundering other ships and carrying out assassination quests around Nassau and Havana.

General remarks: A happy and cheerful game. There are no depressed mediaeval villages that are being terrorised by ghouls. Rather, there are bright and lively cities where the sun shines all the time, people sing and dance and drink rum and pirates cheerfully plan their next outing.

Thumbs up: Easy to learn and play. Glorious scenery. Naval combat really offers something new and it’s super fun being at sea in a decent-sized ship that can go fast, take on big waves, and defend itself.

Thumbs down: The seafaring action took a while to get started but once you are past the first few quests and out at sea in your own boat at last, it’s no longer a problem.

Return to?  Yes, definitely. The mood, like the weather, is sunny and the chance to be at sea in a ship is different and appealing.

Let’s have a tune. I quite loved this game. I didn’t love it as much as Ark: Survival Evolved because Ark doesn’t have any quests at all to constrain the player and also because I felt a huge amount of ownership of the flimsy little houses that I’d managed to build. In contrast, I wasn’t quite as emotionally invested in my ship, the Jackdaw. But this might change with a bit more gameplay, as the ship is gradually upgraded. Now let’s sing along with this traditional sea shanty by Cypress Hill.

Cypress Hill: When The Ship Goes Down

Stay tuned for the next exciting episode of Year of the Console as we move on to a new game and a new era of history, starting on 1 June.

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