Sometimes, a game sequel can feel like it wasn't meant to be part of the series. Super Mario Bros. 2 is an early example of a game that was retrofitted with Mario and pals for American audiences. Silent Hill 4: The Room is another example, since it was supposed to be an original IP from Konami before being associated with its top horror franchise. It may never be known whether Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag was supposed to be part of Ubisoft's top stealth series, but it certainly feels like it was meant to be a separate pirate game before executives thought it would be better with a more recognizable name. AC4 is actually a standout among the initial PS4 offerings despite being a cross-generation, multi-platform title.
This time around, you play the role of Edward Kenway, grandfather to the protagonist Connor Kenway from Assassin's Creed III. The promise of riches drove you to leave your wife in Wales while you became a privateer, but the need for your kind evaporated once treaties had been signed. With no country to turn to and a pittance to your name, you became a full-fledged pirate when your boat is attacked by a member of the Assassin order. Donning his identity, you hear about an observatory and the power that it holds. With the idea of using that power for economic gain, you get a crew and try to find someone to lead you to the observatory.
Though the story starts off like any Assassin's Creed tale, albeit with a protagonist who has accidentally joined the order, it doesn't stay there for long. Very early on, once you ditch the Templars, you get a crew of your own and sail to Nassau, where you meet the pirate community. Apparently, Kenway is well known enough to at be acquaintances with some of the more legendary pirates of the time, like Benjamin Hornigold, Calico Jack and Edward Thatch, who would later be known as Blackbeard. Together, they want to set up a country free of European rule where men can do as they please. Edward is roped into helping them establish such a nation in Nassau.
We eventually return to the Templars vs. Assassins plot that has governed the series, but it is refreshing to see it take a back seat for much of AC4. While some would say that it lessens the importance of what has driven the series, it makes sense from a story perspective. The idea that the conflict is bolted on to a different game makes sense when you see how heavily involved you are with the pirate story line, which could its own separate title. The merging of the two disparate plots works very well and makes for a very interesting chapter in the game's universe.
Part of the reason the story works so well is Kenway. Unlike the other heroes in the series, his motivation for the quest is very base. You're not doing this out of any noble notion such as balance, justice or revenge. Instead, everything you do is out of greed. Your character has a broken moral compass and desires greatness through money. It's oddly refreshing.
The gameplay reflects the two different styles rather well. On land, things take on a familiar slant for returning fans. Despite the lack of formal Assassin training, Kenway can move and kill with the best of them. He can leap into haystacks and jump off cliffs into pools of water. He might not be able to duck, but he can stealthily crouch among the foliage and lure people with a whistle. Climbing up most walls and leaping between rooftops also comes easily to him. Along with those abilities come the complementary tasks. Enemies with vital information need to be tailed, so you can eavesdrop on their conversations or have them lead you to special hiding locations. Vantage points need to be reached, so you can locate areas of interest. Animals can be hunted down and skinned for upgrades and items like Animus cubes, and treasure can be sought and collected. Assassination missions can be handled any way you want, but overall, everything you've been doing since the series inception can still be done here.
Once you get your first boat, the game really opens up beyond the naval activities in AC3. The ship is upgradeable beyond aesthetics, so your additions can give it better speed or reinforce it against cannon fire. Hunting for animals expands to sea life, and weather can affect your vessel. Aside from finding and exploring other islands, you can hunt for sunken treasure by swimming. Combat includes using flaming gunpowder barrels as rudimentary mines, chain shots for light damage, or side cannons for wider range and more damage. You can even use the boat to ram enemies.
Should you run into enemy ships, destroying and looting them would be the normal thing to do. Running alongside a ship also gives you the option to plunder it for goods and new crew members — as long as you fight. With dying crew members acting as a timer of sorts, it pressures you to quickly dispatch enemies or else you'll come away with fewer crewmembers than you'd started with. As the game progresses, you can even capture ships for your personal armada. There's no shortage of things you can do with the boat, and that gives the game some versatility and makes the entry more enjoyable.
If you have an iOS or Android Smartphone or tablet, you can further the experience with an app that lets you send your fleet on missions. Those ships return with loot, and you can always upgrade them for even more loot. The feature is a nice way to stay involved with the game, but don't expect the app to be much fun since it plays out like many early Facebook games. Each time you send ships on a mission, you have to endure a timer that signifies how long you must wait before you get your rewards. While you don't have the option to pay real money to bypass the timers, you can make their durations shorter by recruiting friends. It's a nice addition that mirrors the ability to hire assassins in prior games, but you can live without it if you don't feel like getting involved with the app.
For all of the game's positives, there are a few segments with questionable gameplay. Sneaking has always been a big part of the game, but it feels odd to use your ship to stealthily tail another ship. The mechanics are similar to tailing people on land, and the game makes the mechanic work, but it's a head-scratching activity nonetheless. Also, combat hasn't progressed. Compared to games that use similar combat systems, like the Batman Arkham series, this title feels very inferior.
Introduced in Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, the multiplayer has been a big hit, and this entry provides some slight improvements. The basics are still here in traditional multiplayer modes, such as capture the flag and deathmatch, but they're augmented with series-specific traits, like stealth kills and hiding among throngs of civilians. Each match lets you level up your character to access new abilities, like faster running or longer disguise time. There are many different modes to browse if you're looking for variety.
You now have more customization options, so even though you can't create a new character from scratch, you can make your character look far different from others. Far more interesting is the Game Lab, which lets you customize just about everything, using the available game modes as templates. It works similar to the custom multiplayer features in Killzone: Shadow Fall in that just about every rule can be modified, so it's possible to have team deathmatches that only use hidden wrist blades. It is a great addition, and hopefully, the series will keep it in future titles.
The PlayStation 4 version comes with two extras over the non-Sony iterations, though only one of those is really exclusive. You get some missions designed for Aveline, the heroine from Assassin's Creed III: Liberation. Taking place sometime after the events of that game, the missions comprise an estimated 60 minutes of gameplay. While it is advertised as being exclusive to both the PS3 and PS4 versions, the extra content is also available on the PC, though only with the gold edition of the game.
The second extra, which is truly a system exclusive, is the ability to play the game via Remote Play on the Vita. It can take some getting used to as far as substituting the touchpad for the extra L and R buttons, but the process works pretty well, and the game looks fine on the smaller display. Should you find yourself in a situation where the main TV is occupied, this extra works well in a pinch.
Graphically, AC4 looks great despite not being developed primarily for next-gen consoles. The character models have always been built well and had great animations, but they now benefit from much cleaner textures. Whether you're far away or up close, the textures are so detailed that you can see skin pores and the stitching on clothes. The environments look great, with lots of foliage on land and excellent weather effects while at sea. Towns are heavily populated and while there are clones lying about, their dispersion is great enough that you really have to sit down and give each inhabitant a good look before you can spot them. Fog is thick but nuanced, and rain is heavy but doesn't just look like a bunch of white lines coming down at random angles. The water effects are also brilliant.
The impressive environmental effects are helped out by a vast draw distance, which becomes apparent when you go to the high points in an area and synchronize. With the whole game done natively in 1080p, it looks sharp and has few jaggies. About the only thing that can count against the game is that it moves along at a locked 30fps. The experience is smooth, and it makes for responsive controls, but the game runs on 60fps on the PC at the same resolution, so the expectations for new consoles to reach that benchmark is still a little ways off.
From an audio perspective, the game is very well done. Once again, the voice acting has created some very believable characters with personality. This not only extends to the main characters that are essential to the story but incidental ones and bystanders. The musical score takes obvious cues from the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie series but it fits well enough with the theme. The sea shanties that are sung during your time at sea are a nice touch and give the score a much-needed break, considering how long some of the voyages can be. As for effects, they're generally fine, though there are a few times when effects fail to play. It doesn't happen often, but you'll notice when a hit you deliver is met with silence instead of a sword clang or the sound of steel hitting flesh.
Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag is a great launch title for the PS4 and nice entry for the series. From the graphics to the sound, the presentation is top-notch, and the inclusion of an app makes it so there isn't a moment when you're not playing the game. The open world gives you plenty of things to do and see on both land and sea, from collection quests to naval battles and everything in between. The story is less dour this time around, and even the usually boring present-day environments have been livened up. Most importantly, the game is purely fun because it runs with the pirate motif and highlights the more romanticized aspects. Despite a few oddities, AC4 is worth picking up on any platform, but it's definitely worth checking out on the PS4.
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