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Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag PC

To say the internet has a big thing for pirates, it’s quite amusing that we have never had a fantastic pirate video game. Sure, we have had games that use a theme around piracy, say Skies of Arcadia’s sky pirates or the pirate theme of The Secret of Monkey Island, but there’s never been one game that has managed to blend in the concept of being a pirate, exploring the ocean and visiting islands quite like how it is done in Ubisoft’s latest entry in their ever increasingly popular Assassin’s Creed series.

Ubisoft has learnt from the blunders of the incredibly slow introduction that Assassin’s Creed III featured. This is great news for fans or newcomers, as it means people jumping into Black Flag don’t have to sit through hours of slow paced story plots and tutorials to understand the game’s mechanics. Within the time frame that it took the player to start playing Connor in Assassin’s Creed III, you’ve already learnt pretty much everything that you can do in the world of Black Flag. Even better is that the main character, Edward Kenway, the grandfather of Connor, is a much more likeable person. He’s got an aura around him that was missing from the forever-straight behaviour of Connor. The overall tone of Black Flag is much more light-hearted in nature, thanks to the comical and carefree personality of the Welsh pirate, which is on display throughout the game’s many cutscenes.

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Story wise, Black Flag takes place a few decades before the main events of Assassin’s Creed III, and is set in a vast ocean filled with the tropical islands of the Caribbean. It begins with Edward in the midst of a storm fighting with another ship, which just happens to house an Assassin. Things go horribly wrong and Edward is washed onto a beach, along with the Assassin that killed some of his crew members. Like any good Welsh man, he gets revenge and plunders his gear, becoming a pirate masquerading as an Assassin. He meets up with a merchant and soon gains his own ship to become a pirate captain once again.

The plot is filled with Assassins and Templars – it’s in the franchise’s DNA to do so – as they all hunt down a thing called the Observatory. What makes this story different is the piracy theme. Edward doesn’t care much about the Assassins or Templars and their thousand year war; he just wants to have the Observatory for himself, so that he can become the wealthiest pirate that ever lived. With no loyalty to either gang, you see Edward acquiring help from both sides as he tries to gain clues and figure out where this special place is hidden.

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Edward’s personality and the game’s theme makes the story an interest one, and it’s backed up with fascinating supporting characters that include famous pirates like Blackbeard (Edward Thatch) and James Kidd. The sci-fi elements still remain – Abstergo are featured in the present time, as the player is put into the role of an employee working at Abstergo Entertainment, who is currently testing a pirate themed game for the company. These moments out of the animus feel lacklustre compared to the amazing world that Ubisoft has created in Black Flag.

Near enough from the get go the entire game’s world is available to explore. There are some areas that are pumped with harder difficulty to make it less welcoming for the player to sail there, but once the boat is obtained, the ocean really is the only limit. The world is huge, and what is even more impressive is that it’s filled with lots of unique locations that contain plenty of secrets to discover.

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There is really something magnificent about sailing the Jackdaw (Edward’s vessel) around the ocean and discovering islands in the distance that you can travel to, jump off the ship and then swim to the shore to adventure on uncharted land. It reminds me a lot of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, but evolved on a much bigger scale. Yes, I just said that this game is the evolution of The Wind Waker, and if you enjoyed charting Nintendo’s fantasy ocean, then you are going to be completely absorbed in this beautiful Caribbean Sea. If you are a person who likes to aim for that 100% completion on your profile, then you’re going to be playing this game for a solid 45 hours plus. Black Flag is a massive game, but one that was never a drag to finish, unlike parts of Assassin’s Creed III, because sailing around and being a pirate is bundles of fun.

While it’s easy to get lost in discovering new land and finding all those collectibles, there are three major cities, Kingston, Havana and Nassau, that Edward will revisit on multiple occasions. Each city feels alive and distinct from one another, and all are packed with plenty of hidden collectables to find. While the cities do look fantastic, especially the ones that blend in with the local tropical vegetation, they do seem to be missing those more famous historic buildings that we saw in Assassin’s Creed II and III ,which makes the cities in Black Flag less memorable. You’re never forced to stay, so if you’re fed up with hanging around on land, you can just grab your boat and go for a journey on the waters to remember that you’re playing a pirate.

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Sailing around on the ocean is similar to how it was in Assassin’s Creed III, but with slight tweaks that make it for a better experience. In a move that seems inherited from the recent release of The Wind Waker HD and its inclusion of the quick sail, boats can now go even faster, thanks to “Travel Speed,” which pulls the camera out and forces the boat to sail forward at a speedy smooth pace without much interference from the wind. You’ll use it to explore areas you cannot yet fast travel to, because you have yet to explore that region of the map.

Black Flag builds a lot on top of the ship components of last year’s title. You’ll take part in plenty of ship combat, but thankfully that has been fleshed out with better controls of the ship’s weaponry. You no longer need to remember what button launches what attack, as depending where the camera is focused will determine what weapon will launch. Focusing on the side will launch cannons, looking behind will drop fire barrels and the front will pop chained balls into the air. There are additional attacks that are done through other means, but you’ll find that those three are your main methods of assaulting passing ships.

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But Black Flag is more than just blowing up boats, as when conquered ships are on their last legs, the player has the chance to pull in and board the vessel. Once aboard, a required amount of crew must be killed before the ship’s goods become your own. You’re not forced to board to steal the cargo and can blow the boat up instead, but you’ll have to sail towards the cargo that is left floating in the water, and you will only be rewarded half of the total amount that boat was housing. It also means you can’t plunder the boat for materials to repair the Jackdaw or add it to Edward’s fleet, which needs boats to successfully complete AI controlled missions that come back with rewards and money for the player to spend on upgrading various aspects of the ship or Edward’s gear.

There are plenty of side quests to do when out on the seas, such as hunting down whales or other creatures and using the materials gained from carving animals to improve existing gear, similar to 2012’s Far Cry 3. Forts, which are fortifications that guard coastal areas, need to be taken over to reveal everything on the map that is within that fort’s jurisdiction. Then there are plantations that Edward can sneak into and steal all the goods or Mayan puzzles to solve that offer pieces of a Mayan object to stick into a wall. I’ve said it already, but there’s just so much to do.

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One thing that is blatantly obvious is that most of the changes to the franchise are out at sea. When you’re on land and participating in the game’s story missions, it’s the same old mechanics that fans have been experiencing for the last few years. This means awful missions that require you to follow a key person, listening in on their conversation to progress the campaign. There’s a voting system at the end of every mission, which is a smart way of Ubisoft implementing a feedback device for players, while blending it into the game’s plot through the Abstergo storyline. I wish this showed what everyone else voted, as I’d love to see if people dislike those conversation stalking missions as much as I do. The rest of the missions range from okay to brilliant, but I did find that I was enjoying more of the game when I wasn’t held within the compound of a story mission.

Combat is still easy, continuing with the comparable counter-heavy fighting system that we have seen in games like the Batman Arkham series, but with less fluidity in animation. A change to the interface means equipping gear is snappy, and using dual pistols is as easy as pulling the shoulder button to aim or pressing Y to shoot at an auto target. If there’s one thing the combat can pull off, it’s that it looks flashy when you have mastered the skills and are taking down a group of guys. While it’s certainly awesome to act all pirate-like and kick everyone’s arse, there is a big emphasis on stealth, as there are plenty of spaces to hide in, due to the lush vegetation that fills the islands.

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When you’re done with the story and all its crazy additional side-questing, there’s the multiplayer that can be jumped into. If you’ve played the previous games, then you have an idea how it works. It follows the same principles of finding the target and killing them, while not getting stabbed by the people that are hunting you. A new feature is the Lab Tool that lets fans customise game modes, but, overall, it felt like the same multiplayer I was playing before, but with a Caribbean twist thrown into the level design. I was never a huge fan of the multiplayer and it’s an area of Black Flag I didn’t play much.

What I did spend a lot of time doing is looking in awe at how beautiful the game can be. Black Flag looks fantastic on the PC, with some thirst inducing ocean and wave effects that are some of the best generated in a video game. The world also looks great, with a lot of detail going into making a believable incarnation of the West Indies, with quality texture work and decent models. The animation can still come off a bit disjointed, which makes the game look like it’s coming from an ageing generation with flashy graphics built on top of it, but apart from that, it’s a very pretty game. The optimisation on PC seems wonky. On max settings with a 6990 graphics card, I was getting between 40-70 frames per second, which is a massive range to have. However, no matter what I did, even if I put it on the lowest settings, it would still drop a lot of frames when walking around on land. This game seems to require a beastly graphics card, and even then it’s not guaranteed to work perfectly.

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Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is an amazing pirate game, and also my favourite Assassin’s Creed title, which goes hand in hand with the more open nature of the pirate theme. I feel this opens the game up to more people that might not be into the whole Assassin’s thing, but love pirates. Fans that were bummed out by Assassin’s Creed III will most likely find Black Flag to be a welcoming return to what they love about the series, with a great story, amazingly crafted world and smart additions to the sailing that make it a refreshing part of the Assassin’s Creed formula. For people who just want to be a pirate, there really is nothing else for you out there, so indulge in the only real great pirate game on the market. That is until Ubisoft makes a full-on pirate spinoff from this mainline entry in Assassin’s Creed – well I can hope.

9 out of 10