(Originally posted at SpawnFirst.com.)
This is how I imagine the planning session for Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag went: Ubisoft brings in some branding guru, who says to them, “Hey, guys, you know what you need? A pirate game.”
And the Ubisoft designers look around the table at each other, and one of them finally speaks up. “Hey, sure, cool– except we’re kind of working on this Assassin’s Creed thing right now, and–“
“Great, fabulous,” says the branding guru. “Just go ahead and make that into a pirate game. And if you could somehow get rid of all of the present-day stuff you did in the last games, that’d be great. Let’s tone down the Assassin’s Creed part of it and really ramp up the pirate thing. People love pirates.”
You begin inside the Animus as Edward Kenway (the grandfather of Ratonhnhaké:ton from AC3), privateer/pirate-at-large, resident heartthrob and ne’er do-well, who ends up washed up on an island shore, chasing an assassin because … well, because Kenway’s a pirate, after all. Kenway kills the (not very good) assassin and takes his hood, and the game kicks off. (“See, here’s what you do,” says the branding guru. “He can be wearing the costume– but he’s a pirate. Perfect, right?”) As Kenway, your role is to travel between three primary cities, Havana, Nassau, and Kingston, and interact with various historical pirates, most notably Blackbeard, in some sort of vague, nonsensical search with the Templars for a man called the Sage and something called the Conservatory. The Conservatory, in true Bond-villain style, will enable the Templars to see everything that every world leader is doing. It’s hard to understand what Kenway’s true motivation is here, beyond some generic cut scenes regarding a woman who might be his wife and a hateful father-in-law and a desire to have money, because, again, he’s a pirate.
Out in the real world, you’re a nameless faceless new employee of Abstergo Entertainment whose job it is to sift through Desmond Miles’ memories in search of future material for an Animus-powered film. There’s a sinister(ish) ulterior motive here, but you’ll have to find it yourself.
The mechanics are virtually unchanged from the previous games, but that’s fine, because Ubisoft doesn’t need to mess with a pretty good thing. Most of it involves walking, hiding, diving into hay, and quietly pursuing people while using your eagle eye vision. You hide in the high brush, you whistle, you gut a guy, you drag his body away. It’s mostly a stealth game, like its predecessors, and if you’re not a fan of stealth (or, like me, just bad at it), it’s going to be a bumpy ride. If you’re also like me and you want to break away from long West Wing-style walking-and-talking sessions and get on with your bad parkour self, it’s also going to be a very long game. The parkour is occasionally clunky, but maybe that’s just because I kept falling off of things.
A large part of Black Flag has to do with the business of being a pirate– that is, attacking Spanish-flagged ships for their rum or other supplies, hunting animals to create better weapons and gear, navigating your ship through rough waters, and running after music sheets that will provide your crew with new shanties to sing. Black Flag is, at its best, a pretty good pirate RPG(ish). It seems to exist on the premise that everyone wants to be a pirate, and it may be right. For what it’s worth, all of the various pirate-type activities are pretty entertaining– thereby fulfilling that whole people-love-pirates theme I’m sensing.
Graphics and Sound
Black Flag sure is pretty, but it takes place in the Caribbean, and it’d be super depressing if it weren’t. In the moments where Black Flag recalls its predecessors the most– in the long climbs to the tops of churches and masts to get an eagle eye view and dive into the hay bales below you– is where the game is at its prettiest. Those crystal clear blue waters are enough to make you want to put up your feet, and, well, become a pirate. The sea is beautiful, the changes in weather gorgeous, and if you don’t want to visit the Bahamas after you play this game, then you need a better TV or computer.
The voice acting’s all fine, in a sort of standard yar pirate kind of way, and almost everyone, including the ugliest characters, look like they belong out of central casting for a pirate movie, or at the very least a romance novel of a pirate movie. It’s a game you look at for the scenery, and in that respect, it succeeds. The music is also thematically appropriate, and the sea shanties are easily my favorite part of the entire game: nothing inspires you to be a pirate more than your whole crew singing to bolster you up.
So, you know what? Black Flag is pretty fun. Being a pirate is, in fact, pretty fun. (Yeah, yeah, branding guru.) It’s also occasionally boring. I personally found it difficult to go back to my game when in the middle of a sea battle trying to control a ship that handles like a drunk rhino (credit to BioWare for that line). That said, for every one of me, there are probably a hundred people who absolutely adored the sea combat. It’s certainly a sight to behold as your crew shouts various piratey things while hurling themselves across the water to a burning ship. And there’s something really beautiful at lowering your sails and taking off towards the sunset, the spray in your face. Yes, branding guru, you’re making me love being a pirate.
There are a lot of cut scenes, too, most of them not unwieldy, but it does sometimes feel like a game where you run and walk and hide just to get to the next dramatic (or undramatic) story moment. The problem of motivation I mentioned above mostly just means you have to accept the fact that you’re running around doing things simply because someone’s told you to– or, because, thinner still, you’ve been told by Kenway himself that it’s time to get some money.
And this may be a niggling comment, but Ubisoft seems to have listened to my imaginary branding guru, because the game kicks off with you as Kenway, before you even go into the Animus. Why? Who knows. Probably because people love being pirates. (I told you so, says my branding guru.) You’re given roughly four minutes of some vague bookending where you are told, inanely, that you are now going to be running through Desmond’s memories for research, and then into the Animus you go. You can leave the Animus at any time, but there’s no point for the vast majority of the game, except that you can wander around the office while no one acknowledges you, have conversations with no one, look at some artwork on the walls, and then go back into the Animus. It’s an artifice that mostly seems to exist to remind you, vaguely, that this is an Assassin’s Creed game– in mechanics, if not completely in spirit. This is probably a significant win for people who felt like all that Desmond stuff was silly anyway (and they probably wouldn’t be wrong, though I miss him already). The game occasionally remembers where it came from and harkens back to that, and the only real problem with this is that it distracts from what the game really is: a fine pirate game indeed. RIP, Desmond.
This all goes down to what really is the bottom line: don’t play Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag because you love Assassin’s Creed. Play it because you love being a pirate.
Not out yet, but look for it soon. Ubisoft has already released several details of the multiplayer, which has always served the previous single player-focused games well, and it looks like you’ll be able to change weather conditions and various other perks– but no sea battles. Yet. It sure does look cool, though.
I feel like most of the game is extras, in some weird way. The best parts of it are when you wander away from the story quests, which are mostly just nonsense anyway, and you run around a deserted island or interfere in the affairs of strangers.
SpawnFirst Recommends …
Okay, geez. Being a pirate is a lot of fun. There are places in Black Flag that may feel a little like the video game equivalent of white noise, but everyone loves pirates, so put your feet up, look out at the coast from the bridge of your Jackdaw, and embrace your inner pirate tendencies.