Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag had a lot of making up to do. I thought the previous game in the series, Assassin's Creed III, was a resounding disappointment. I've already weighed in on the new, pirate-themed Black Flag: It's pretty good. But for those who felt burnt by the last game, a more thorough comparison may be in order.
Last fall, I wrote an article titled "How Has Assassin's Creed III Disappointed Me? Let Me Count The Ways." The final tally: Ten. The game disappointed me in ten ways, though as I found while writing, its small disappointments were far more numerous. That article is below, if you'd like to relive the letdown of Connor's Big Historical Adventure.
The reasons for my disappointment with Assassin's Creed III were as follows:
- Nothing works all that well.
- It's all rough edges.
- The music is a drag.
- The intro? Also a drag.
- Basic interface fail.
- The "Gump Factor."
- Time for a control overhaul.
- For a stealth game, the stealth sure is jank.
- I avoid doing things.
- It's just not all that fun.
I thought it might be useful to re-state those ten disappointments as questions posed to the new game, the better to get to the bottom of where Black Flag has improved, and where it still has a ways to go.
Here we go.
1. Does anything really work all that well?
Basic functionality is an ongoing problem for the Creed series, and so it was with AC III: Nothing really worked all that well. Last year, I wrote that "it's almost as though Assassin's Creed III has no core game mechanics. It's all ancillary stuff."
Black Flag does improve on a number of small mechanical things. Shooting, in particular, is much easier, mostly because aiming is finally mapped to the left trigger. Targeting has been simplified from past games, and it's no longer possible to lock onto a target. Perhaps to make up for that, the new tagging system makes it much easier to keep tabs on a given enemy. Fist-fighting isn't horrible, though it still doesn't come close to the likes of the Arkham games. And, welcomely, inventory-management has been overhauled and brought up to snuff; it's finally easy to switch between weapons mid-fight.
With all that said, I still can't quite say anything actually works all that well in the new game. It's improved, sure. A lot of the time I could pull off tricks and maneuvers just how I'd planned, which is a nice new development. But there's still that nagging feeling that the series presents a collection of ancillary abilities in search of a primary one.
2. Is it all rough edges?
Assassin's Creed III was buggy as a Bushwick street-mattress. Assassin's Creed IV is far from bug-free, but judging by my time with the PS3 version, it's nowhere close to the glitch-fest AC III was. I encountered nary a weird audio loop, nightmarish laughing child or hand-standing-horse glitch in my time playing the new game, and while I'm sure it's has gotten some patches since launch, they haven't felt as necessary or substantial as the patches released for III. The visuals, too, are almost as lovely as they were in Ubisoft's now-notoriously "heightened" promotional screenshots. No game will ever look as good in action as Ubisoft's promo department would have us believe, but Black Flag is a game of remarkable beauty. So, significantly fewer rough edges.
3. Is the music a drag?
It is not, blessedly. For Black Flag, Ubisoft brought a new composer to the series—Brian Tyler, fresh off his work scoring last year's dubsteppy Far Cry 3. Tyler's work on Black Flag is much like his work on the recent Marvel films Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World—serviceable, if not particularly memorable. He's a workmanlike Hollywood guy who rarely conjures a truly iconic theme, though Black Flag's main theme comes close in places:
In the game, when it came time to take on an enemy ship, Tyler's amalgamation of Hans Zimmer's Pirates of the Caribbean theme did more than enough to get me psyched for some swashbuckling. His score doesn't match the iconic beauty of Jesper Kyd's work on the first few games—particularly the series-defining music of Assassin's Creed II—but it's an improvement from Lorne Balfe's often ponderous work on Revelations and III.
4. Is the intro also a drag?
No! And hooray for that. Black Flag makes a clear improvement over its predecessor by throwing us into the action right off the bat. The game gives Edward an immediate series of quests to undertake but doesn't blow its pacing, instead building toward a terrific mini-climax as Edward liberates his crew and steals the Jackdaw. That mission was one of my favorites in Black Flag, and marked the place where the actual game—the one where you sail around and explore islands—began. A huge improvement over AC III's endless "go here, press a button" introduction. Haytham could have learned a thing or two from his old man.
5. Does the basic interface fail?
I'm more mixed on this one. On the one hand, Black Flag's interface is an improvement on past games, certainly III. The inventory has been moved seamlessly into the game, and it's now possible to flip through your entire loadout using only the D-pad. It's almost like it's a functional action game!
On the other hand, the Creed user-interface is still a visual disaster zone. The problem seems intractable at this point—maybe these games simply have too much information to impart? When reviewing Black Flag, I wrote: "The Creed games seem addicted to UI clutter, on-screen text and icons that act as flesh-eating digital ants infesting an otherwise aesthetically wondrous game." I have no idea if there's really a solution for this problem. That said, I remain thankful that I can toggle off various aspects of the interface, and while I haven't experimented all that much with the "naked" game, I have a feeling it might work better than one might suspect.
6. How is the "Gump Factor?"
When writing about Assassin's Creed III, I worried that as the series gets closer and closer to modern times, it'll feel weirder and weirder to see its protagonists shoved into iconic historical moments. Call it the Gump Factor: Oh, sure, Connor fought at Bunker hill, Connor commanded the troops at Concord, Connor went along with Paul Revere on his famous moonlit ride. The more familiar we are with the events the games portray, the more aware we'll be of how contrived it all is.
Black Flag actually moves backward in time from AC III. It also tackles a place and time (the 18th-century West Indies) that is less familiar and less loaded with famous historical characters. Sure, Blackbeard is fairly well known. Some of us have heard of Mary Read and Anne Bonney. But for the most part, we've only a passing familiarity with these folks. That leaves the story with a lot more flexibility. It's a return to the vibe of the past games in the series: Interesting and occasionally educational without feeling Gump-y.
7. Is it still time for a control overhaul?
Yes. For all the things I like about Black Flag, the controls are still mostly a wreck. Smart level design has gone a long way toward making the controls seem better, but when it comes down to it, it's still difficult to do basic things like, say, walk through a doorway. Or maneuver in battle. Or jump onto this guy, but not that guy.
It's time for a crouch/take cover button. It's time for players to have more precise control while climbing. Maybe we need a grappling hook or something. Maybe some sort of time-slowing ability that lets players target more precisely. I don't know. But yes, it's still time for a control overhaul.
8. Is the stealth still jank?
Happily, stealth is one of the areas in which Black Flag has most improved over its predecessor. It is not perfect, but it is not "jank." Everything works much better, thanks largely to levels that have actually been designed to let players sneak. Bushes and hiding spots are liberally strewn around enemy compounds, and the patrol AI is less inclined to go on full alert, which lets you screw up and get spotted without feeling overly punished for it. This is nice because the controls are still a mess, so even the craftiest sneak will get spotted from time to time.
Back when I reviewed the game, I made a video to demonstrate the improved stealth:
Black Flag's stealth still doesn't come close to a dedicated stealth game, nor to Ubisoft's own Splinter Cell games or Far Cry 3. But it's getting there. In another game or two, we might finally get sneaking that matches Ubisoft's other output.
9. Do I avoid doing things?
One of the most damning things I could say about AC III was that I mostly wound up avoiding doing things. My boss Stephen has pointed out all the cool side-stuff in that game, and how rich it becomes if you take the time to dig into its nooks and crannies. But I was so bummed out by how much of a chore it was to get around, how little I liked the main character and how buggy it all was that I never really wanted to do much of anything.
I certainly want to do things in Black Flag. I plan to re-play at least a chunk of the game on either PC or next-gen systems, and am looking forward to more thoroughly upgrading the Jackdaw and maybe even taking on some of those legendary ships at the corners of the map. In short: Yes, I do want to do things in Black Flag.
10. Is it just not very fun?
If you've made it this far, you can probably guess the answer to this one. Yep, Black Flag is a lot more fun than Assassin's Creed III was. Most things work better, the setting feels more exciting, and the pirate-ship business is integrated well into the full game. It's still frustrating at times, some of the story missions are still junk, and there are way too many "follow the dude, and if you get spotted you fail" missions. But yeah, it's a lot more fun to play than its predecessor.
So! Several steps in the right direction, and a few remaining steps still to take. If you'd like to relive the bummer that was Assassin's Creed III, you can do so below.