Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag Review – Xbox 360

Does anyone remember when Lara Croft died?  No, I’m not kidding folks; Lara Croft did die – for real.  Well, not like in real life – but for real in a game – Tomb Raider IV: The Last Revelation to be exact.  The year was 1999, and the original developers of the Tomb Raider franchise – Core Design – were so overwhelmed with Eidos’ demand for yearly releases that they killed Lara off in the ending cutscene.  At the time of her death, Lara was one of the most recognizable characters in gaming (actually, she still is) aside from Mario and Crash Bandicoot, and her unceremonious demise rocked the gaming world.

And then like an angel, Lara was back.  Yes folks, just shy of a year after her overwhelmed developers killed her off in an attempt to put the brakes on Eidos’ yearly release requirement, Core Design brought the very same Lara back in a new adventure called Tomb Raider Chronicles.  To their defense, Chronicles was sold to gamers as a replaying of Lara’s favorite experiences of her past life.  But just over a year after Chronicles, Core released yet another Tomb Raider title – Angel of Darkness – and Lara was back as if nothing had ever happened.

You would think that after the sadness left in the wake of Lara’s passing in The Last Revelation that gamers would be ecstatic to have their high-profile heroine hack on the small screen.   But they weren’t.  In fact, after gamers had finally come to terms with the realization of Lara’s passing, the announcement of Chronicles seemed like a bit of a slap in the face.  And even though Chronicles and Angel of Darkness were technically solid games, the fact that gamers felt like Eidos and Core Design had toyed with their emotions for financial gain put a negative stain on the franchise that remains with it still.

So why am I talking about Lara Croft and Tomb Raider in the opening of my Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag review?  Because there are a lot of similarities between the timeline between Assassins Creeds III and IV as there was back in those dark days of the Tomb Raider franchise.

Spoiler Alert: Desmond is dead.  Actually, he sacrificed himself at the end of ACIII to save all of humanity (sound familiar?).  While gamers have become accustomed to having their favorite characters killed off all sorts of media in those 13 years since Core killed off Lara – Desmond’s death still sent a minor tremor through the gaming world.

And here we are – a year later, our main character (of sorts) is dead, and we’re looking at a new Assassins Creed title with Black Flag.  But rather than come up with some cockamamie explanation for how the storyline can continue without its main character – the developers have picked the most meta explanation they could think of; Cloud computing.

Yes, Desmond may be dead, but gamers can continue to explore his ancestry through the wonders of cloud computing, as all of his genetic memories have been uploaded from samples taken from his body immediately after his death.  This means that from this point forward pretty much anybody can jump into the Animus and connect to Demond’s ancestors.  It is a lame end-around to avoid the inconsistencies posed by the dramatic ACIII ending, but thankfully the exciting and accessible gameplay more than makes up for any hurt feelings.

It doesn’t hurt that most gamers are bound to like the new present day Abstergo Entertainment subject better than they did Desmond – simply because, well…it’s them.  The premise that that the gamer has been hired to do research on the pirate Edward Kenway for the production of an interactive feature film on his life and will enter the Animus to gather information for the film.  By now it’s no surprise that Abstergo has more insidious plans for the gamer’s visit to the past – and in the case of Assassin’s Creed IV it is to find an ancient structure called the Observatory for the Templars.

The tale is a rich and exciting high seas swashbuckling adventure that brings the gamer in touch with legendary real life pirates like Edward “Blackbeard” Thatch, Calico Jack, and the elusive and beautiful Anne Bonny.  The Assassin’s Creed franchise has always been a bit of a history lesson of sorts, and Assassin’s Creed IV’s story does a fantastic job introducing gamers to the Golden Age of Piracy.

And by high seas, I really mean high seas.  Assassin’s Creed IV puts gamers in command of Edward’s ship, The Jackdaw (a species of crow-like bird) from which the will not only do they get the chance to do the normal Pirate fare – sailing from port to port and battling with other seafaring folks – but gamers also get the unique chance to explore the beautiful underwater landscapes, and to hunt sharks and even whales.

Whales?  Yes, gamers will get the chance to become whalers, hunting a very large Humpback Whale.  It is It is exciting, it is gruesome, it has even stirred a bit of PETA-led controversy – but the whaling segment is one hell of a ride, and a realistic glimpse of what the life on the high seas was (and is, in some cases) all about.

The best part is, all of this high seas action is rendered in some of the best graphics yet seen on any gaming console.  A simple glimpse across deck and between the realistic waves and lighting, and few would argue that this is about as close it gets to a realistic seafaring experience without getting wet.  Likewise the on-land segments are just as richly detailed with gorgeous city streets representing the hubs of Caribbean Piracy; Havana, Nassau, and Kingston.   The streets are bustling with pedestrians, police, and soldiers and the beautiful architecture gives ample structure for the Assassin to make his elevated traversals.

Not only are the visuals impressive, as Assassin’s Creed IV easily delivers the best sounding game of the year with superb voice acting and overall sound production.  The wash of the waves against the hull of the Jackdaw, the cry of the seagulls overhead, and even the nonsensical NPC banter in the streets – the audio package is spot-on for a high seas adventure.

As with any Assassin’s Creed title there is as much fun to be had out of the story as in, and the simple act of exploring every nook and cranny of each city in search of hidden treasure, Animus fragment, letter in a bottle, and any of the numerous other objects scattered around the world.  Like that seminal enjoyment we all got from the original Crackdown title, Assassin’s Creed IV has enough fun outside the game that most gamers will spend more time exploring than they will playing.

And then there are the modern-day stealth missions in which the gamer – as himself and from a first-person perspective.  These segments are right out of the journal of Sam Fisher, as gamers sneak around the Abstergo offices collecting information that helps the hero (the gamer) realize the nefarious plans of their employer.  The gameplay in these segments is actually quite compelling, giving the same sense of excitement and vulnerability of games like Mirror’s Edge and the classic Breakdown.  If that was not enough already, the developers have seen fit to once again include the online multiplayer modes from Assassin’s Creed II and III, including the excellent four-player cooperative Wolfpack.

It all sounds too perfect, right?  Well, yes – Assassin’s Creed IV does have its share of issues as well.   There are a number of nagging problems that really detract from the gameplay.   The Assassins have always had issues with the occasional unintended wall climb or roof jump, and with a game of this degree of freedom that kind of problem is forgivable.  But having the character suddenly hung-up on, or in, pieces of the scenery in the middle of a mission is not.

More often than I care to count, entire missions had to be restarted because Edward had mysteriously dropped into a piece of scenery and we simply could not figure out how to free him.  Then came the disappearing characters – NPC’s necessary for progressing a missions would simply disappear altogether as if the mission had ended, again requiring a mission restart.

These issues were frustrating, especially in the frequency they seemed to occur – they were not enough to totally ruin the stellar gameplay and presentation, we I have hopes the developers will address them in an update.  Additionally, I have become a real snob about the whole online code/passports required for online multiplayer, and I was about to write a long-winded rant about Ubisoft requiring a uPlay Passport code for to access their online play.  Then I read the news and found out that Ubisoft recently did away with the uPlay Passport and Assassin’s Creed IV is now free to play online.  Kudos to Ubisoft.

When the folks at Core Design killed Lara Croft then brought her back a year later, it put a dark shadow over the franchise that really has remained with it ever since – regardless of how good the gameplay has developed over the years.  Ubisoft seems to have learned from Core’s mistake, and rather than magically bring Desmond back from the dead, they came up with a concept (as ridiculous as it is) that keeps the Assassin’s Creed story moving even without the trademark hero.

But they would not have been able to sell it if the gameplay of Assassin’s Creed IV wasn’t so utterly captivating.  And maybe not so much in the story itself, but in the wealth of exploration Black Flag provides on land, at sea, and underwater.  Gamers will be blown away by the sheer expanse of the world that is available to them right from the beginning of the game, and they will quickly find that sometimes it’s more fun to make your own story than to follow the one presented by the developer.  And as an added bonus, they learn some Pirate history in the process.  It’s a win-win, even when the game is riddled with as many annoying bugs as Black Flag.

Wait – Black Flag, riddled with bugs…now there’s some irony for you, matey.

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