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Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag
Graphics: 9.4
Gameplay: 9
Sound: 9.3
Control: 8.8
Replay Value: 9.5
Rating: 9.1

I will freely admit that I had my reservations about Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. I loved last year’s Assassin’s Creed III and had no qualms about rewarding Ubisoft for a fantastically ambitious project, recognizing the many upgrades and additions to the gameplay that made it a positive step forward for the franchise. However, I also wanted the developers to take a year off, as this “annualization” concept puts a definite strain on innovation. And yet, I’m once again astonished by the product that Ubisoft can deliver in such a short span of time.

The latest AC adventure is polished, massive, engaging and it does feel relatively fresh. This freshness begins with the visual presentation, which is lighter, airier, and somehow even more expansive than ever before. There was a certain severity with ACIII’s landscape and towns, which was appropriate given the surroundings; it was the birth of a nation. However, the setting in Black Flag is brighter and more free-wheeling, and it encompasses the full romantic majesty of the legendary pirate lifestyle. Character detail isn’t overly impressive but the animations, world design and effects are all exquisite and a joy to behold.

Once again, Ubisoft has recruited super talented voice actors, and the result is another authentic-sounding production. Combine the stellar voice performances with a fantastic, sweeping orchestral soundtrack that beautifully complements the era, and you’ve got an audio tour de force. Some of the effects can get a little muddled, especially when engaged in naval combat, but the breadth of the sound presentation is nigh-on unparalleled. There’s just so much going on; ambient effects, voices, realistic background noise in a port or city, and the high-powered, explosive combat all contribute to the game’s high level of gloss and immersion.

With a huge emphasis on freedom, the high seas await. Many a port town is ripe for exploration and even plundering, and there are seemingly countless islands to discover. The sun shines brightly on a deep blue ocean, and one can’t help but fall in love with the golden age of piracy. Those living in such a hectic and uncertain time (circa 1715) give the game a richness of personality, and the lighter tone lends the adventure an almost bemused countenance. It’s as if the entire game is saying— “Pirates may be violent criminals, but they also know how live the carefree high-life!”

The Caribbean is full of places to explore, and the team did a great job of implementing eye-catching gameplay sequences that keep you riveted. The bright, sunny locales are a perfect contrast to the more somber tombs you may find in your travels, and those colorful characters are everywhere. The highly accomplished graphical presentation allows you to really feel the sin-packed lure of piracy, and you’re constantly surprised at the sheer size and scope of this wonderfully appointed virtual world. You can explore for hours upon hours upon hours, often getting sidetracked and losing any focus the main narrative may have.

The latter may sound like a drawback and for some, maybe it is. But it’s the default flaw in any giant game that encourages so much player freedom: If you’re the wandering type, you probably won’t remember each step of the plot with perfect clarity. That’s just because there could’ve been a good five or six hours between plot-advancing missions; optional exploration is quite addictive, after all. It’s all the more addictive when you realize that your adventuring is rarely thwarted; there’s very little that’s stopping you from doing whatever you wish to do. The map is wide open from the start, and each and every area seems to have something new and interesting to offer.

Whether you’re going fishing for fun, raiding a loot-laden tomb on a hidden island, tracking down another clue concerning the Templars, acquiring various missions, or simply sailing about, you will always enjoy your travels. That’s part of the problem, though, because it really does put the main storyline on the back burner. Black Flag embraces freedom more than any series installment yet, but it does this at the unfortunate sacrifice of a cohesive plot. Oh, it’s there, but it’s not especially impressive and it’s just complex enough to demand your attention…more attention than you’re willing to give it, given everything else the world has to offer.

As for control, there have been minor issues that have always plagued these games. For those who understood how the free-running mechanic works, these are only minor eccentricities. For instance, the character might run up a wall when you never wanted him to, or he may leap in a direction otherwise intended. This is an unfortunate downside of the movement mechanic, which is actually quite complex when you stop to consider the number of points the character can interact with in the environment. Once you’ve firmly grasped every aspect of the control system, you probably won’t have too many problems. But irritating miscues do remain.

Furthermore, there are other hitches and glitches that are most commonly associated with huge open-world games. There’s so much going on, there’s so much to do, that perhaps this is unavoidable. Those who appreciate the massive scope of Black Flag won’t say that such glitches cripple the gameplay, but they can certainly have a detrimental impact on your experience. If you go out of your way to do all the side missions and fully explore this lush, vibrant world, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll encounter some sort of bizarre hang-up. You just have to accept that this will happen.

While the series has always thrived on single-player immersion and a long, involved narrative, the multiplayer element has become more appealing over the years. Playing online offers a refreshing respite from the realm of shooters and multiple various modes encourage highly strategic thinking, timing and tact. This really is about assassins versus assassins; it’s about blending in, devising the perfect plan and stalking your prey with grim, deadly precision. It also reminds you just how challenging it is to tackle human assassination targets as compared to AI targets. Speaking of AI, it’s a little better than it has been in past franchise entries, but there’s still room for improvement. It should be one of the team's next-gen goals.

The combat is better than ever, as the free-flowing system full of brutal attacks and awesome counters really shines. Add in the naval combat, which was excellently implemented in ACIII and greatly expanded upon in Black Flag, and you’ve got a dynamic game that utilizes vastly different forms of fighting. From sneaking and stabbing to cannons aboard ships to all-out duels, this one has it all. Yes, you will likely find many of the combat situations – and the missions of which that fighting is a part – to be familiar. But that familiarity isn’t a bad thing, especially when there are some refinements and the overall production values are so high.

The story isn’t exactly amazing, but it’s interesting that Ubisoft has opted for something a bit more…well, fun. There have always been very dark, historical overtones in each AC entry, and many of the emotionally dramatic sequences have been gritty and visceral. This time, to go along with a brighter general design, we get a storyline that is a bit more straightforward; protagonist Edward Kenway is mostly about the loot and living large. There are still a few expected twists and turns involving the age-old Templars but rather than delving deeper into that element, this game focuses more on the concept of piracy. And let’s face it, that’s not complicated. It’s a nice change of pace, but I worry that they may permanently toss aside the plot intricacy I’ve always appreciated.

Lastly, there are several intriguing first-person missions that take place outside the Animus. These are all optional but they provide us with a really cool alternate perspective: You’re a new Abstergo employee who is working to create an entertainment product based on Edward’s life. This eventually leads to clues about future series entries, and involves plenty of sinister corporate business. However, when you’re done, you’ll definitely want to get back to the gargantuan, brilliantly devised virtual world within the Animus. It’s begging for you to explore every island, town, and expanse of ocean, and that’s precisely what keeps you coming back for more, again and again.

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is a rousing, spirited display of glorious adventure on the high seas. The world is your oyster and you’re gonna take advantage at every turn. It’s more about freedom and less about following a linear plot (which some may like), and the AI and control still isn’t spot-on perfect, but it’s tough to ignore the inherent vast, epic grandness. It’s one of those games that draw you in with its unparalleled atmosphere and style. Despite any aforementioned reservations I had, I’ve succumbed to the lure of the legendary pirate lifestyle and if you play Black Flag, you might end up in the same boat. Get it? Get it?! Sure ya do.

The Good: Beautifully detailed and designed world, full of vibrant life and possibilities. Great voice performances and music. A diverse array of missions and activities. Memorable action sequences. All forms of combat are a joy to experience. Overall epic size and scope.

The Bad: Lingering control and AI issues. Story is brighter and more fun, but lacks some of that expected depth.

The Ugly: “A pirate’s life may be ugly to the moralist, but it’s just plain gorgeous to the hedonist.”

11/4/2013   Ben Dutka