Having plied us with six games in the last five years, it’s little wonder that the Assassin’s Creed series has started to go a little stale.
We’re not talking full-on green spots of mould, but enough crispiness in the crust to make the formula a little less appealing to fans.
Ubisoft has decided that pirates are the solution (and why not? It worked for Lego in the late 80s), so now there’s more sailing, new underwater elements and expanded multiplayer modes. In truth, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag isn’t the reinvention it might at first seem, but it is still a fun, feature-packed action adventure.
Back to the Future
Seafaring was the most enjoyable part of the otherwise flawed Assassin’s Creed III, and Ubisoft has wisely turned it into the main feature of this sequel (the split between land and water is 60/40). You get a ship early on in the game, and from there it’s up to you to explore the treacherous Caribbean waters. Black Flag is a much more open-world experience than previous games in the series, with a massive amount of optional exploration.
As before, you can hunt animals to forge items and purchase upgrades for your ship. But this time, you can also find treasure maps and explore under the sea - a second player can even aid your plundering using a companion iPad app.
And, in a move that’s already angered PETA, you can harpoon whales for their blubber. Black Flag goes all-in on the pirate theme, and it turns out to be one of the best settings for the series yet, capturing the thrill and excitement of the high seas while still offering plenty of land-based assassinating.
Pirates of the Caribbean
Assassin’s Creed III’s Connor Kenway was a noble but somewhat boring protagonist, especially after three games starring the suave and likable Italian Stallion Ezio Auditore. In Assassin’s Creed IV, Edward Kenway is a mixture of the two characters - he’s the grandfather of Connor, but he’s an ambitious Welshman with a taste for adventure (in a nod to Ezio’s philandering ways, he’s shown in bed with a woman within the first five minutes of the game). He’s a better avatar than Connor, but not a particularly memorable one, while the current-day replacement for Desmond Miles is similarly non-descript.
Thankfully, the supporting characters add some personality to the game, especially pirates Edward "Blackbeard" Thatch and Anne Bonny. It's worth noting that the great hiring mechanic makes a return from Brotherhood - you recruit new members of crew to your ship and then promote them as you wish. We also like the new setup for the contemporary parts of the game - you’re working for a games developer to uncover secrets from within its games. It’s a little bit meta, as is the act of performing the modern-day equivalent of piracy by hacking into their systems, but it works well in the context of the universe, and the back story that’s uncovered in logs and other hidden messages is particularly well written.
Fixing what's broken
While Assassin’s Creed III was widely praised on release, it wasn’t entirely flawless. Thankfully, Ubisoft has addressed the main criticisms. The long, monotonous opening has been removed - you’re into the action and playing as the main protagonist straight away, while you’re awarded your first ship within the opening few hours. Switching between weapons is easier than before and there are also far fewer loading screens, even though the game world is much bigger - they only really occur when moving from the present day into the past.
Not fixing what's broken
While the issues specific to Assassin’s Creed III have been addressed, there are still a number of problems with the series in general. The combat is cumbersome, easy and no longer very satisfying, especially when compared to the balletic grace of the Batman: Arkham series. Free running is also lagging behind the competition, most notably Sleeping Dogs - it’s not satisfying to just hold down two buttons to navigate everything, and it means you often jump off things you don’t expect to, which is frustrating when chasing down enemies. The stealth missions don’t feel as free or satisfying as those in Dishonored or Ubisoft’s own Splinter Cell series either. There are also numerous small bugs such as non-playable characters walking in mid-air, and enemies grouping together in large numbers when they’re alerted.
New multiplayer features
While it’s true to say that Assassin’s Creed IV doesn’t bring any major innovations to the series, it does boast a few notable new features. First up is the aforementioned iPad app, which allows another person to mark points on the map for you to navigate to. It couldn’t be described as riotous fun for the second player, but it’s an entirely optional extra that doesn’t cost anything and is worth a wee dabble.
The series’ excellent multiplayer, which has never been as popular as it deserves, has also been expanded. Beyond the expected additions to characters and locales, the game also features a great new Game Lab mode in which you can create your own modes by tweaking up to 200 variables.
Assassin’s Creed IV is a robust package - from the massive story mode to the expanded multiplayer, it offers great value for money. Its greatest strength is how well the pirating vibe has been captured, with a huge open world to explore, fantastic naval battles, and loads of treasure to plunder.
Sadly though, it’s not enough to entirely freshen up the Assassin’s Creed formula, and basic elements (not to mention tenets of the series) such as parkour and combat don’t feel as polished as they are in other games. Having said that, as with Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed has become an annual event that offers fans a dependably enjoyable and lengthy experience. So if you’re yet to tire of the series it’s still worth picking up, but if you found the last Assassin’s Creed a trial, there’s little to pull you back here.