Assassin’s Creed Retrospective: Black Flag
By Kimberly Kuxhause
After playing Assassin’s Creed III, and Assassin’s Creed Liberation, I don’t think anyone could say they were overly confident about Black Flag. Sure, it had pirates, but the world had seen that trend play out time and time again. By no means do pirate themes guarantee success (The short-lived TV show Crusoe comes to mind). Yet as the beginning scenes unfurled, the game revealed its true colors as something transformative and groundbreaking. The developers did so much work to improve the quality of the game in all its aspects, making Black Flag a well-rounded game that everyone can enjoy.
The gameplay improvements we’ve seen in Assassin’s Creed are extensive to say the least. It’s only natural that when you get a series of this magnitude and this many spin-offs, there are bound to be a few bump along the road. I think Black Flag comes the closest to game perfection I’ve seen in a series. You can now fast travel to viewpoints which makes it far more useful to collect them. Fighting and running is impressively fluid. You don’t have to wonder about missing a jump or falling behind your tail because of a cart in the road. Not to mention that you don’t have to manually shove through people – Kenway does this for you. The new weapons wheel, or should I say cross, allows for fast and easy selection of weapons options. The player never has to scroll through more than 2-3 options for their desired weapon, as opposed to the constant scrolling in AC III. Post-mission feedback not only immerses the player further into the overarching storyline of Abstergo video game industries but gives Ubisoft valuable mission feedback. Within missions there are now several checkpoints to which a player can restart if they’re looking for that 100% synch. The feature is an absolute must as it makes missions far less frustrating. More stealth options mean new ways of completing missions. My favorite is the “whistling” option. It’s a great way to nab guards just out of hand’s reach. Another small, but significant, improvement is that looting only requires one touch of a button. No more accidental interruptions by guards, just a quick snatch and grab.
Side missions and collectibles receive their own feedback, resulting in Mayan Stellae, Naval Forts, Animus Fragments and Shanties. Mayan Stellae offer quick little puzzles with a big payoff, Mayan bulletproof armor. Naval Forts function like Borgia towers or Assassin dens in previous games. I especially like the fact they can’t be reclaimed. With so much else to do on the map, going back to defeat the fort – just to make sure you aren’t hounded while completing other missions – would be annoying. Black Flag intertwines collectibles into its gameplay much better than previous games. I really appreciate that these are already marked on your map, instead of having to “happen” upon them as you travel. With the larger open-world map of Black Flag, marking them is essential to retain interest. Animus fragments can be anywhere, in areas as small as sand banks, and their collections give the player multiplayer awards (whether or not that’s beneficial to you depends on your use of multiplayer). Shanties provide a wonderful way to immerse the player in the game and learn about traditions of old. They are properly difficult to catch and the fact that they disappear for a few minutes after a failed attempt is less than ideal, but understandable. Hearing them as you sail your pirate ship brings the player into the story and gives them something else to listen to besides the crash of waves.
No game is without its drawbacks, and though it reached near perfection, Black Flag does have a few. The running and fighting aspect, while fluid, might be too fluid. Kenway is rather eager in climbing ladders instead of buildings, or taking a sharp turn instead of a slight one. Getting used to the new controls does ease some of this frustration, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to restart a mission because of fast footing. And speaking of missions, sometimes they run together too seamlessly. If a player wants to replay a mission due to poor synchronization, they might have to wait through 2-3 other missions to even get to the DNA progress screen. There’s also a small glitch in the first mission with regards to hunting. Though Kenway didn’t “receive” his Assassin gear, he can use the Assassin blade to hunt animals on the island. It’s small, yes, but worth noting. The biggest issue, however, is how large a role the multiplayer aspect plays in the game. As someone doesn’t enjoy multiplayer modes, and has a poor internet connection to boot, the multiplayer awards for collectibles really don’t intrigue me. In fact, once I made this realization, I stopped collecting the animus fragments. I almost wish Ubisoft would make multiplayer its own game. Leave me to my assassin’s and their storyline please.
Now we get to the intense narrative that really defines Assassin’s Creed. The pirate storyline is less Assassin oriented than Pirate, but don’t let that fool you, the game still involves Assassins. Kenway begins his journey as an assassin, and one of his best mates is an assassin – although he doesn’t discover that until later in his tale. We receive a rich tale of several real-life big name pirates – Blackbeard, Mary Read, and Charles Vane to name a few. We see the triumphant rise of piracy, and its lackluster fall as the world caught on. I can’t make much critique of this story. Multiple missions provided introductions to new game components, like underwater exploration and plantation robberies, while allowing for hours upon hours of engaging gameplay. Assassins overlapped with pirates, fusing the two worlds into an amazing entertainment experience. And at the end of my Black Flag replay I made the sober realization: This was the first game in the Assassin’s Creed series where I enjoyed the main story more than the overarching one. But why was that? For one so interested in storylines, why didn’t Black Flag check off all the boxes?
While the first person narration in Abstergo Entertainment does directly engage the player in the Assassin world, they don’t receive that rich characterization from previous titles. Melanie and John are really the only characters with which we interact. Melanie is entertaining, but she isn’t really a dynamic character. John drops creepy, mysterious hints as to his ulterior motives, but we only realize his devious nature at the end. Coworkers are all silent NPCs. I suppose I wanted more interaction with the world in which I was supposed to be invested. I want to talk to Shaun, see what icons are historically important. I long to hear Rebecca’s witty quips about “baby” and join in on her excitement at the latest technological opportunity. In becoming a character in a silent world that isn’t sided with either Templars or Assassin’s, the player becomes neutral component of the game. I actually miss the engagement we had from Assassin’s Creed III where we travelled to different modern day locations, making a difference in real time, or even the character exploration we received from Revelations, where we relived Desmond’s past with him. I just wanted something more to tie me to the war my character is (unknowingly) mediating. Now, don’t get me wrong. I still loved becoming a character in the game, hacking computers and reading secret sticky notes. It was absolutely delightful. But as much as I enjoyed it, I felt there was something missing from my experience. I want more than casual engagement in a storyline – I want to feel that sense of urgency that compels me to play both the modern and past story with equal vigor.
Black Flag exceeded my expectations. The extensive open world, multiple side missions, and character engagement set the game at a much higher standard than its predecessors. Multiplayer offered more to those who were looking for it and we received a solid enough overarching plot to transition us from the Desmond era. And although I would’ve liked a richer narrative, I can’t help but applaud the stories I did experience. Regardless of my own preferences, there’s no pretending that Black Flag wasn’t a spectacular game. Ultimately, it’s Ubisoft’s dedication to improvement that keeps me coming back to Assassin’s Creed for more. They nurture artistry and innovation in their game creations, which is obvious to see in the games they produce. At the end of Black Flag, I looked forward with anticipation and glee. The series was as strong as ever.