Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag Review

The wind sweeps past your hair as the sun shines down on you, the subtle crash of the royal blue surf lapping against the sides of your softly creaking ship. The sun shines as you lick some salty water from your lips. The ocean extends to the horizon all around you. Another ship floats lazily in the distance. Nothing is true, and everything is permitted. The world is ripe for your adventure.

There’s a reason why pirates are so popular in pop culture, and why every kid wants to grow up to be one (if they don’t want to be an astronaut, of course). Pirates convey freedom, adventure, and the promise for riches, wonder, and excitement. Assassin’s Creed has always been a franchise of dichotomy—Assassin’s/Templars, Past/Future, Stealth/Combat. When Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag leans on its existence as a pirate game, it soars to some of the series’ highest heights. Unfortunately, when the game emulates past Assassin’s Creed titles, the recurring errors and frustrations of the series hamper what could have been a truly special title.

Black Flag’s setting is a fantastic choice. Your character, Edward Kenway, is a mere privateer whose main goal is becoming filthy rich to build a better life for him and his estranged wife. As the game is titled ‘Assassin’s Creed’ and not ‘Pirates Creed, Matey!”, Kenway gets caught up in standard-issue Assassin v. Templars shenanigans.

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SWASHBUCKLE, MATEYS

Kenway’s approach to the epic conflict is not standard-issue, though, and is a fresh take: he just does not care in the slightest. Pillaging and booty (both kinds) are his goals, and his role in the conflict is mostly accidental. He happens to fight with the Assassins, though more due to ‘enemy of my enemy is my friend’ circumstances than actual philosophical alignment.

Yet as so often happens in Assassin’s Creed games, this strength is accompanied by a related weakness. Kenway’s plight and character development remain stinted for a long, long time; though developer Ubisoft tries to make Kenway a multi-faceted character, his single-minded search for riches doesn’t make for a very captivating narrative. Piecemeal flashbacks to Kenway and his wife mostly fail to form a grounding for character building or plot development, though it could have and is probably the biggest missed narrative opportunity.

But, lest you forget that Kenway is a pirate, let me repeat: he’s a pirate. And Black Flag nails the Being A Pirate thing so extraordinarily well. In the course of the story, Kenway gets access to his own personal cove that you can upgrade to build structures, shops, and services. Kenway meets pirates along the way, including Edward Thatch—more famously known as Blackbeard.

You can’t be a pirate without your own ship, though, and ship combat and traversal is what truly makes being a pirate fun. Kenway’s ship, the Jackdaw, very quickly becomes a favorite place in the game (and arguably its own character). Black Flag’s locations are spread out in the Caribbean, and you must traverse to these locations with the Jackdaw before establishing fast travel points. Roaming the high sea is a blast, as your shipmates sing shanties, it’s never far to an interesting location, and enemy ships are plentiful.

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At sea on the Jackdaw

Ship combat is every bit as exciting, jarring, and terrifying as you might think. The ocean is filled with all kinds of vessels; some are teeny-weeny gunships you can destroy in one or two volleys, and others will eat you alive by themselves. Unlike in hand-to-hand combat, where a quick finger on the counter button can almost lend invincibility, choosing what battles in which to engage is a part of ship combat that is refreshing and challenging. At first, I found myself charging into a small group of ships, valiantly attempting (and failing) to strong-arm a trio of larger frigates into submission before the game forced me to take a more holistic approach: ship combat encourages using your entire arsenal and to heavily prioritize targets.

Importantly, defeating ships gives very real benefits. Defeated ships can either be captured or destroyed, and each ship contains varying supplies that can be sold or used in upgrading your own ship. Upgrades are varied, and each upgrade changes you how play in meaningful ways. In addition to your own ship, you can add captured ships to your fleet, which you can use to send on battles and trade routes of their own. Battles for your captured ships are bare-bones turn based strategy minigames, requiring minimal input but some forethought.

Since this is an Assassin’s Creed game, the majority of it is spent on foot. This isn’t automatically a bad thing; the core parts of traversing, exploring, and assassinating are as fun as ever, and the beautiful setting makes it feel quite different from the sprawling cities of earlier games in the franchise. But frustratingly, the same kinds of mistakes that have been plaguing the series for years are still here. When going quickly, Kenway has a propensity for leaping to random areas, which can be fatal. Tailing missions are still boring and feel like attempts to game-ify plot. The stealth system is spotty and the AI ranges from idiotic to genius. Curiously, Black Flag doesn’t even explain the stealth system at all, assuming you know what a yellow sign over an enemy means as opposed to a red one and how to escape and become incognito. Thankfully, the graphics, music, and sound effect are all very good and help with immersion. You can’t help but be joyful and invested when your crew sings your favorite shanty on the high seas in preparation for an epic battle with a Man O’ War.

Black Flag truly shines when it melds its two main gameplay elements. In order to capture a ship, you need to swing over to the opposing vessel and accomplish a set of objectives on foot. In order to take down a fort, you must destroy its various battlements with your ship and then dock to assassinate the fort’s captain. There’s a brilliant mission halfway through the game that involves tailing an enemy ship through a river, making stops every so often to leave the Jackdaw and take out the watchmen, culminating in an Uncharted-esque setpiece to make an assassination.

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Climbing Away

The 18th century story, unfortunately, is framed by a 21st century story. After Assassin’s Creed III, Ubisoft could have taken a different path, framing the story better or making the overall story more minimalist. Not so. Though you are given free reign for a significant portion of the early game, you are soon (and often) yanked out to present day, your character a voiceless and nameless protagonist in a world full of voiced and named people. Whereas the Desmond Miles story at its best helped to give your explorations of the past additional weight as well as a reason to enjoy when you’re pulled out of the animus, the modern-day story here doesn’t serve much of a purpose, and I spent my time in present day just wanting to be left alone as a pirate.

Ultimately, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag makes meaningful strides in the Assassin’s Creed universe. It fills a grand open sea with places to explore, from a treasure island to underwater excursions to bustling towns like Havana or Kingston. It successfully uses the Assassin’s Creed action as a fantastic base to make a great pirate game. The converse though, is not true: a great pirate game doesn’t fix the Assassin’s Creed series’ problems. Still, it’s a fantastic example of a game taking a core idea, making it a blast, and giving you the freedom to do with it what you will. It’s a pirate’s life for me.

The eight best women in gaming

 

Today is March 8, which for some of you just means ‘Wednesday.’ That’s ok though, because it can mean something new for you: it’s International Women’s Day today!*

*If you’re hunched over your screen and sneering, “BUT WHERE IS THE INTERNATIONAL MEN’S DAY?”, I would like to shoo you away to read a list of American Presidents and another list of the signers of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, and you may return as soon as you find a woman in either list.

Games have traditionally been about dudes doing dude things, which generally include dude violence and man strength. One of my favorite pictures is this collage of the standard middle-age, gruff, brown-haired white guys who are the heroes of their game.

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I like the one with the short hair

Some of those characters are really well-written characters! I even love some of them. But there sure are a lot of similar looking ones.

So today, let’s highlight some women in games. These women are awesome in a collection of ways, but they are all awesome. They are listed below by an extraordinarily scientific ranking system (read: MAH BRAIN) from #8 to #1. Eight characters for the eighth of March. Let’s do this.

#8: Elena Fisher / Uncharted series

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Uncharted is a series about Nathan Drake doing the most ridiculous things possible, repeatedly, and living through it. Drake is, basically, modern day Indiana Jones, replete with desert adventures and supernatural forces. Uncharted is tied to Drake and his adventures.

But that’s Drake’s thing. It’s not Elena’s thing. And yet…Elena perseveres, and she selflessly assists Drake in his adventures, which involve a lot of dirt, climbing and killing of bad guys. Unlike Drake, Elena thinks before she leaps, and is worried about what the type of work Drake is into does to him when he doesn’t. Still, she’s always there for Drake. Always. There is no Nathan without Elena, and their relationship helps drive the poignant final chapter of the series, Uncharted 4.

#7: Zelda / Legend of Zelda series

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There are a lot of versions of Zelda, coinciding with the many Legend of Zelda games. Let’s start there, actually. The playable character in those games is a green-clad elven man-child named ‘Link.’ Notice: Link is a different name than Zelda (citation needed). It is not the Legend of Link. Rather, it is Zelda’s legend. It’s about her.

So which Zelda do you prefer? Do you prefer the one in Ocarina of Time, who disguises herself as a literal ninja? Do you prefer the one in Wind Waker, who is a legit pirate captain before learning her royal lineage? What about Twilight Princess, where an archer Zelda helps take down the evil villain hand in hand with Link?

Pick your poison. Zelda will always be a legend.

#6: Liara / Mass Effect series

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For those of you who are particularly astute scholars of Mass Effect lore, you may disagree that Liara is specifically a woman. The Asari race, after all, is a single-gendered race, and ‘woman’ is not a term that can be used to specify one Asari (though they usually do adhere to female pronouns). I would offer a counter-argument that you are missing the spirit of the ranking, and would also like to give you a five yard penalty and a loss of down.

Liara’s journey from the first Mass Effect to the third is one that is rarely seen in gaming women. That journey is one of extended and multi-faceted character development.

In the first Mass Effect, Liara is a talented and brilliant scientist whose view of the world is narrow, her steps tepid. As the series progresses, Liara begins to aggressively pursue what needs to be done in any given moment, expertly leveraging her mind and skillset in order to achieve her goal. But she does so in a way that never feels contrived, and she stays true to herself even as she changes.

She’s also an excellent soldier and can cause mini black holes with her mind, so. There’s that.

#5 Ellie / The Last of Us

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Let’s say you are born in a post apocalyptic world. What would you be like if your entire life was devoid of a greater hope that your parents and elders grew up with?

You’d probably be cynical. That’s Ellie. You’d probably be deeply troubled. That’s Ellie. You’d probably do whatever you needed to do to survive, even if you didn’t or couldn’t think you could do it. That’s Ellie, too.

In the third quarter of The Last of Us, you play as Ellie for the first time. It’s a sobering, fascinating deeper look into her character as she cares for Joel like he cared for her for the months prior. Ellie is probably the most raw, real character on this list. That’s no small feat.

#4 Samus Aran / Metroid series

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Also known as the OG Space Badass, Samus has been kicking butt and taking names since ‘bush’ was known more as a type of shrubbery than a duo of Presidents. Character development for Samus is light, but that’s no biggie. She does what she needs to, and then goes home and ostensibly takes a nice long shower, just like any number of male game heroes.

When it was initially shown that Samus was a girl, it wasn’t a huge revelation. It was like Nintendo said, “Yeah, she’s a girl. What of it? Go shoot some more Space Pirates and explore some crap. Those Metroids aren’t blowing up themselves. Find another missile upgrade before your mom gets home and you have to eat dinner.” The gaming landscape wouldn’t quite be the same without her.

#3 Commander Shepard / Mass Effect series

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Commander Shepard can be either male or female, and is totally customizable. But, honestly, was there ever any doubt? The female Shepard, or ‘Femshep’ if you have a fetish for portmanteaus, is the best one. Jennifer Hale’s voice acting is superb, and Shepard’s gravitas works seamlessly as a woman.

Mass Effect is all about choice (well, that, shooting robots, and banging aliens). Letting players play as someone they relate to as they save the galaxy through Shepard’s skill, poor dancing, and grim determination to defeat the Reapers at all cost is essential. Far too few big games from big developers give you a female lead with the amount of rope to play with that Bioware does with Shepard.

#2: Ciri / Witcher 3

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Ciri seems pretty high up in this list despite appearing in only one game, but you and I need to get one thing straight: Ciri’s existence not only drives the entirety of Witcher 3, which is no small feat in a game that sprawls almost grotesquely, but the entire Witcher franchise.

I’m not going to spoil the Witcher storyline, but let me tell you a few cool things about Ciri. She can use magic. She is the heir to a powerful empire. She befriended a herd of unicorns. She can move at will through time and space. She’s an expert, nay, a master at swordplay. She’s been the center of political power struggles since before she was even a teenager.

The brilliant thing about the Witcher is that Ciri is the Hero around which everything orbits. You, as Geralt, are merely witness to it, the Hero’s friend and father figure. For this to work, Ciri has to work both as a hero and as a believable character, an emotional anchor. She does it brilliantly.

#1: Lara Croft / Tomb Raider series

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Croft has been through a lot. She began her character life as a bit of a cheesy gimmick, but she has slowly gained realism and respectability. Tomb Raider is one of the few game franchises to gain popularity and fame in the non-gaming world, with an assistance from Angelina Jolie’s portrayal of Croft in two Tomb Raider films in the early 2000s. Indeed, there is a reboot in the works, with Academy Award winner Alicia Vikander set to play the titular role in 2018 based off the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot by developer Crystal Dynamics.

That 2013 reboot was, simply, an amazing game, and out-uncharts Uncharted. Its sequel, the 2015 Rise of the Tomb Raider, continued to do that on top of doing its best Metroid impression and wildly succeeding. The franchise is once again one of the biggest franchises in gaming. It does so through a realistic depiction of Lara Croft as a simple adventurer, hunter, and archeologist, with flaws and humanity.

There is simply no other female lead with as much history as Croft or as much industry weight. In a world where we still see so many more male names than female ones, especially as main characters in games, it’s heartening to see Croft’s success.