Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag Review – Xbox One

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It’s ironic that the best Assassin’s Creed game in the series to date has the least to do with the core premise upon which the franchise was founded. Sure, there are Assassins and Templars, cool hooded cloaks, fancy parkour moves, swords, pistols, and even that blue/red/gold instinctual hunter vision mode, but this latest installment in the series has much more up its sleeve than just a pair of deadly wrist blades.

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag uses the death of Desmond Miles to essentially reboot the series, or at least take a serious detour. The centuries-long battle between Assassin’s and Templars is a mere footnote in the historical Animus archives. Abstergo has gone from a shady corporate villain to a major public company that has joined forces with Ubisoft (yes, this gets pretty Meta) to create entertainment products from harvested DNA memories. You play as the latest new hire, destined to spend countless hours in your cubicle tapping into the memories of Subject 17 – aka Desmond Miles, whose body was recovered after the tragic events at the end of Assassin’s Creed III.

There is a rich tapestry of ancestral memories ripe for possible game ideas, but as you start hacking into your coworkers computers you’ll realize that most are unsuitable for consumer gameplay. In fact, the only game to be successfully marketed so far was Assassin’s Creed Liberation (another meta-reference to the PlayStation Vita game that launched in 2012). You are now conducting research on a new historical figure; Edward Kenway.

We meet up with Kenway in the opening prologue where, after a brief ship battle, he finds himself marooned on an island with an Assassin. After a brief chase, Edward kills this Assassin and steals his clothes and mission orders. You’ll need to suspend your disbelief on how Edward is suddenly imbued with all the skills and inherent abilities of a professional Assassin. Apparently being a seasoned pirate shares many of the same skill sets.

While Edward certainly has the skills of an Assassin, he lacks the motivation and allegiance to their cause, which provides players with a unique mercenary perspective to the story. Edward is obsessively driven by two things; treasure and information that leads to more treasure, even to the detriment of his crew. When he learns of an ancient place/device known as the Observatory he becomes obsessed with finding it and exploiting it for profit. Both the Assassins and the Templars are also desperately racing to find this ancient artifact, and hundreds of years in the future, Abstergo is also trying to mine its current location from the DNA memories of Subject 17 and using you to do it.

With the core premise in place it’s time to settle in for what is easily a 60+ hour game and one that completionists can spend upwards of 80-100 hours, and that’s before tackling the DLC content and the online multiplayer modes that now include an exciting new Wolfpack mode, complete with its own 8-chapter story.

I can make a lot of hyperbolic claims about Black Flag. Yes, it’s the best game of the new generation – not saying much this early into the limited libraries of both consoles, but it is easily the best Assassin’s Creed game in the franchise, and personally, the best game I’ve played in several years. I normally struggle to finish any game that lasts longer than 12-15 hours but I was desperately seeking reasons to keep going back and playing Black Flag, whether it was to collect some missing treasure, hunt the elusive white whale, sink all the Legendary Ships, or simply check off a few more of the 100 Abstergo Challenges.

Part of the appeal to Black Flag is the sheer freedom you have while playing it. You can play for hours; even days, without touching that icon that will trip the next memory sequence to advance the story. For the most part, the entire massive map is open from the start, and you are free to plot your own course to adventure, and there is certainly no shortage of ingredients when it comes to cooking up your own pirate experience. There are dozens of cities; some quite large and others merely small island settlements. There are Smugglers’ Dens, Plantations, temple ruins, and you even get to setup your own island pirate base and build it up with various structures. Scattered about the map are 46 uncharted treasure chests that are stashed on beaches or remote sandbars and only revealed on the map after you have defeated any of the numerous enemy forts to lift the “fog of war”.

Fort battles are just one of the many sideline activities where you begin by first assaulting the island structures with cannon and mortar fire to level the battlements then invade the interior with your crew to kill the leaders and take over the fort. Navy forts provide you with money-making privateer contracts as well as a friendly dock to repair your ship and lower your wanted level.

Also scattered about the map are various shipwrecks and underwater ruins that can be explored later in the game when you have acquired the diving bell. This opens up a whole new world of adventure as you quite literally hold your breath while seeking out even more buried treasure and Animus fragments while hiding from sharks and avoiding jellyfish and Moray eels. These underwater sections are some of the most visually striking and terrifying moments in the game.

There is also a surprisingly in-depth crafting system in place that will have you hunting various types of wildlife on land and in the sea; the latter triggering a quite enjoyable and sometimes-challenging harpoon mini-game where you battle sharks and whales from a small rowboat. Skins and bones can then be crafted into all sorts of useful accessories or simply sold for cash.

For as much time as you’ll spend on land you will likely spend even more sailing the ocean, and let me say there is nothing quite like the exhilarating feeling of sheer open freedom as you glide across the rolling waves, identifying ships with your spyglass, and engaging in exciting naval combat. The level of tactics and strategy is seamlessly integrated into the easy-to-use controls where weapon selection is as simple as facing a certain direction. Look forward to fire the chain cannon to stun your opponent while looking to the rear will drop fire barrels that float and explode on contact like mines or can be shot with your swivel shot. Your broadside cannons fire from either side, often revealing weak points that can be targeted with the swivel shot for precision damage, and you also have the long-range mortar that rains fire from above when you get within range. Of course you can always ram your enemy in moments of desperation. You’ll need to mix-up your tactics based on the type of enemy; especially when going up against the four Legendary Ships.

Assassin’s Creed III only gave you a taste of what is possible with ship battles – Black Flag takes it to the next level. Your ship, the Jackdaw, is the second most important character in the game next to Edward. It can be fully equipped and upgraded with hull upgrades, rams, cannons, mortars, and fire barrels. You can upgrade your hold to carry more cargo and your barracks to sleep more crew. And don’t even get me started on all the visual customizations like sails, mastheads, and steering wheels.

Upgrades require both cash and in some cases resources such as cloth, wood, and metal. These precious resources are obtained by raiding island warehouses and defeating enemy ships. Sinking a ship will get you half the possible salvage but actually boarding a ship will get you the full amount as well as some extra perks. Once you have battered a ship down to critical damage you can pull alongside and board. Victory requirements change based on the size and type of ship. Sometimes you just have to kill 10-15 crew but other times you’ll need to kill the officers or scouts, cut down the flag from the main mast, or blow up powder kegs. Once the ship is captured you can scrap it for parts to repair the Jackdaw, or in some cases recruit the crew to lower your wanted level or salvage the entire ship and send it off to your fleet.

Fleet battles are the new replacement for the Assassin’s Guild missions in past games. In this strategic mini-game you will build up a fleet of various ships ranging in size, speed, and firepower. You are then given a map of the Atlantic with a growing number of destinations. You’ll first need to engage the enemy in these turn-based ship battles with as many as three ships. Once the shipping lanes are safe you can then send your ships to various cities to deliver or exchange cargo, thus unlocking new destinations on the map. Missions require ships with certain cargo capacity and they all have a preset time of completion – some taking 30-40 hours of real-time, so this is one of those activities that you need to queue up before ending each game session so it can play itself while you are away.

Collectors are not forgotten and Black Flag has plenty of collectibles like 200 glowing Animus shards found in cities, under the ocean, and even on the random sandbar. Like the floating pages of Ben Franklin’s almanac in Assassin’s Creed III, you now get to chase 35 Sea Shanty pages around city and jungles, and for each one you collect a new song opens up for your crew to sing while you sail the high seas. There are 20 letters stuck in bottles, 22 maps that lead to buried treasure, and 18 blueprints to upgrade your ship and equipment. Then you have 30 Assassin contracts, and 5 special Assassin missions that result in 5 keys that unlock a special set of armor. And if armor is your thing, there are 16 special Mayan monoliths that you can climb and use your vision mode to reveal 16 stones that when combined, will unlock a cool piece of Mayan armor.

Previous games had you buying maps to reveal all of these item locations, but Black Flag only asks that you either defeat the navy forts or simply sync the numerous Viewpoints to reveal all possible pickups in the surrounding area. With literally hundreds of collectibles and hours of sideline activities, it is easy to see how you can get lost in this world without ever touching the core story, but periodically you will be swept back to reality – aka the real world – and asked to wander the impressive office tower of Abstergo.

Your time outside the Animus is limited but still entertaining; especially if you are a fan of the lore and backstory of the franchise. As you sneak around hacking into 33 computers and collecting 20 Sticky Notes, you’ll become privy to a lot of controversial information about Desmond, Subject 16, and even Subject 1. There are three types of hacking puzzles; one where you navigate a sphere searching for an infinite loop, another where you must get a data node across multiple scrolling firewalls like a game of Frogger, and another where you must dial in a certain frequency using a set of mathematical rules. None of the hacks proved terribly difficult although I did feel I stumbled on the answer more often than solving it. Most of the resulting data is either audio or video so you don’t have to spend hours reading, but for those who really want to sink themselves into every last bit of content, Ubisoft has created something quite wonderful – the companion app.

The Black Flag app is a free download I was able to install on my iPad (also works on iPhone) that gives you unprecedented access to features and modes of the game even when you aren’t playing it. The app connects to both Uplay and your specific platform (if the game is running). When used during gameplay you have full access to the world map with the ability to filter the icons and even plot waypoints. You also have access to all of your treasure maps making it so much easier to find where X marks the spot without having to open and close menus on your main game. Using the companion features just makes the whole experience that much more seamless.

iPad Companion App Gallery

The app also lets you track your progress, total sync, play time, etc. as well as granting you access to ALL of the information you have been slowly unlocking in the massive Animus database. If you can’t be bothered to read all the information on people, places, and things, or learn the lyrics to your favorite sea shanty during the game, you can now catch-up on all that peripheral info anytime you have a free moment with your iPhone or iPad. And then we come to the most useful part of the companion app; Kenway’s Fleet. Yes, you no longer have to retreat to the captain’s quarters to manage your naval empire. You can play the complete fleet battle mini-game from within the app anytime, anywhere, and then collect your earnings the next time you play the main game.

The last part of the companion app is the Initiates feed which provides a list of Hot Topics as well as a real-time progress feed outlining major events within the game. This also ties into Ubisoft’s new website, acinitiates.com that opens up another tangent world of activities and challenges. This site syncs with Uplay and provides multi-tiered challenges that reward you with XP and other special rewards that can be redeemed on Uplay. I got an awesome set of new sails by completing all three levels of the Beachcomber challenge.

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is a work of art, but sadly the Xbox One version falls just shy of the PS4 experience when it comes to graphics.  The game is being upscaled from a native 900p which translates to a fuzzier image and reduced clarity on distant objects.  Xbox One continues to use its sharpening filter  that creates unwanted grain and sharp edges of up-close objects, and while the PS4 manages a consistent 30fps, the Xbox One periodically dips lower creating some uneven motion and even occasional screen tears.

Obviously, the PC version is going to be the technological winner but the video card alone would cost as much as an Xbox One to create a comparable experience.  Even with its deficiencies the rolling waves are a treat for the eyes or perhaps a terror when a storm rolls in and giant rogue waves start sweeping your crew from the deck. The night and day cycle creates some of the best sunsets and sunrises, and nothing is as calming as sailing through the night with nothing but the glow of the moon and the twin lanterns on your stern to illuminate the blackness.

The next-gen version of Black Flag also adds a unique skeletal system to the plant life so it bends and moves with your body, or even to the gentle breeze. Since you spend a lot of the game hiding in bushes this makes it much easier to keep track of Edward while stalking your prey. The lighting, textures, and level of detail are definitely better than Xbox 360 with minimal pop-up and impressive draw distances that really make you appreciate those spinning 360-sync cams. The world is so natural and alive it’s hard to believe that it was created by artists and programmers. God would be impressed.

Load screens are nominal, and you can now transition from land to ship or even ship to ship with nary a break in the action. The only significant loads are when fast-traveling, advancing chapters, and when going in and out of the Animus. The Xbox One functions flawlessly with smooth analog motion on the sticks and some cool use of the impulse triggers to reflect combat damage during ship battles or other physical interactions.

As of this review I have logged over 120 hours with Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag including both the Aveline and Freedom Cry DLC missions, and that doesn’t include the hours I’ve spent managing my fleet on my iPad. There is so much to do in this game and it is all addictively fun. Beneath all the pirate panache there is a lot of repetitious gameplay – some might even call it grinding, but the only thing that gives it away are these silly little post-event cutscenes like a crew cheering when Kenway spares their lives or watching your crew repair your ship and test fire a cannon. These animations are much more obvious and repetitive than the activities that trigger them.

Black Flag also has a competent and surprisingly addictive online multiplayer component that, for me, rival the depth and fun of anything Call of Duty or Battlefield has to offer. All of the traditional modes are back as well as the new objective-based Wolfpack mode that even comes with its own 8-chapter story and can be play cooperatively with up to four people. The more you play the more XP and money you earn which will increase your rank unlocking new weapons and abilities that can be purchased and assigned to the various slots in your character sheet and organized into various loadouts for specific missions and game types. While the graphics take a slight hit in quality, there is no shortage of suspenseful hide-and-seek gameplay in Black Flag’s thrilling online modes; especially when you factor in the new Game Lab that lets players create and share their own custom online game modes.

I have to confess to a bit of separation anxiety now that I am out of content and have no real reason to sail the seas with Edward and crew. I can only look forward to the next DLC coming in the Season Pass collection, and further into the future with whatever adventures the Assassin’s Creed franchise has for us in their next sequel. I only hope it can live up to the incredibly high standards Black Flag has set for the series. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is easily one of the best games currently available for the Xbox One and our pick for the best game of 2013.

Screenshot Gallery