Platforms: XBOX ONE, PS4, WiiU, XBOX 360, PS3 (Reviewed)
Set a drift on memory bliss
“All sail” Captain Kenway shouts as the camera zooms out to reveal your exquisite ship, with a course plotted for a distant West Indian location, the wind aiding the fully blown sails. The waves undulating, and bouncing you along, as your loyal crew sing shanties. On the horizon the weather looks starkly different from the sunny clear sky, and calm ocean. Then suddenly the weather changes and the seas become rough, the sky darkens and your Helmsman bellows “Rogue Wave, to larboard, sir!” The camera drops you back to just behind your character as you struggle to control, the Jackdaw and swing it round to face this massive wall of water. Hitting it straight on your boat breaks the wave, with a rush of aqua, losing a couple of crew to the deep. The danger’s far from over as you suddenly warned of a Spanish Frigate approaching with murderous intent of sinking you. Thankfully Neptune appears to be on your side as the dreadful weather has produced a “water devil”, that can be seen on your mini-map as a large yellow circle which passes over the red shape of the enemy vessel. You look into the distance and observe the destructive power of the typhoon as it ravages and sinks the enemy’s ship, leaving crew and cargo to be collected.
This isn’t a description of a set piece from the game just an example of how free this game feels when you’re on the high seas.
Nothing is true, everything is permitted
I was never a fan of Assassin’s Creed III’s ship battles and after doing the Tutorial levels I never went back to them, so I wasn’t ecstatic to hear how much of this latest game was going to be predominantly water based. The previous games annoyingly constant hand holding for a good third of the game has thankfully gone, Ubisoft seem to have learned some valuable lessons and throw you straight into the action. As a fan of the franchise I found it worked perfectly and reminded me of why I enjoy this world for Sandbox gaming.
As with all Assassin’s Creed games there are two worlds to explore the main Historical setting within the fictitious Animus computer system, that allows you to explore the ancestral line of it’s chosen subject. This time you’re the Eighteenth century Welsh Privateer and Grandfather of previous adventure’s protagonist Native American Ratohnhaké:don (Connor) Kenway, and what a different type of character he is by comparison.
The story explores via flashbacks how he leaves his wife and sets off to earn their fortune, as a sailor in the West Indies. The game throws you straight in to the action onboard ship which is rapidly ravaged by weather and battle leaving you washed up on an idyllic beach with golden sands, aquamarine waters, crabs scurrying around and palm trees swaying in the breeze. To explain where the story leads from here would be too spoilerific, but suffice to say Kenway is not allied to either Templars or Assassins. He is simply out to make some quick Reales, doing what ever it takes to get his big score.
The other world in the Assassin’s Creed games is a near future setting based in our world, no longer following the previous games reluctant Assassin in training Desmond Miles, but being deep within the opposition. The style of play and sub-story are intriguingly different, by being set in first person, as a researcher with Abstergo Entertainment the legitimate digital side of the Templar Order. These sections are different in style but I’ve felt this aspect coming since the Multiplayer was introduced in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, what I didn’t expect was how truly self parodic these sections are to Ubisoft themselves. Assassin’s Creed: Liberation and Assassin’s Creed III started this in the Multiplayer by a hacker deconstructing the Abstergo adverts, but the real world segments of Assassin’s Creed IV explode it.
Shipshape and Bristol fashion
As I’ve previously accerted this game is a return to form, largely down to the lack of forced tutorials, instead opting for on screen prompts or hints during the loading screens. This allows after only a few chapters you be able explore the world by ship, with the ability to release the wheel and leap overboard and swin to nearby islands for exploring. This part of the game is really impressive as the world is liberally littered with collectibles and interesting areas to explore. The part I most liked were the Buried Treasure Maps, located on deceased remains, which give you a drawing of an area with X marking the spot to dig it up. Most of the time these maps are for an area different from where you’re currently located.
I also found chasing and collecting Sea Shanties to be a lot of fun and serve a practical purpose, being that as you gain a new Song they are added to the roster for your crew to sing as you sail.
Finally the Synchronisation of Viewpoints serves a practical and visual purpose for locating areas of interest. No longer is this restricted to it populating your in-game map but now from your viewpoint you can get a sense of their location in three dimensions.
The game’s pacing is really good but I found myself at first just exploring, collecting and finishing tasks and contracts on each Island before jumping on my ship and heading out to sea.
The reason for trying to clear up the areas first, was when I went to sea I got addicted to sea battles and building Edward’s ship. To start off with your ship doesn’t have the best of defences or firepower but that can be built up buy collecting parts and money. What I loved was the choice between boarding enemy vessels or sinking them for half their value. The boarding requires disabling the enemy ship and pulling up next to them, then completing mini challenges such as killing a set number of sailors, the captain, removal of enemies flag, blowing up powder reserves. The combat is lovely and swashbucklingly good fun, you also get a good chance to use your now up to four pistols, which can be fired in rapid succession. Also the use of dual wheiled swords is lovely, and allows for flowing combos.
If you win the battle you are often prompted with three choices: repair your ship, reduce your wanted level or send to Kenway’s Fleet.
The latter has a superb integration with the companion App for iPads and Android Tablets. This second screen functionality is rather impressive, allowing a real time view of the world map, checking collectibles and a Kenway’s Fleet missions. These missions can be played from the Captain’s cabin or via the App, using ships you’ve chosen to send to Kenway’s Fleet. Before sending your fleet off you have to make sure passage is less hazardous, via a ship battle mini-game. This bears more than a passing resemblance to Assassin’s Creed: Liberation’s rather disappointing Multiplayer mode, but is way more playable.
After the route is clear you can send ships on missions which are similar to the Assassin’s missions from previous games, providing you have the required cargo space and required goods for trading. The rewards are opening more areas for trade and Reales, and collectibles.
I would use the app, when not connected to my system to send my fleet off on missions, then collect my rewards later.
The visuals of this game look similar to Assassin’s Creed III but with a broader colour pallet, the AnvilNext engine has been used to render the best water effects I’ve ever seen. The wave simulation and fluid dynamics are second to none, which really needed to be, to immerse you in this world. Especially when taking part in the new Hunting mini-game requiring harpooning various sea life, seeing the white foam of the water as the sea life beaks the surface. There are also some lovely underwater effects in the Diving missions. These serve as an interesting replacement for the tomb missions from previous games and look lovely as you deep sea swim, trying to locate treasure chests on sunken recks.
The audio on this game is really special, as always the games score and voice acting is incrediblely good, potentially the best in the series so far. Really unusual to hear a Welsh accent in a video game and works brilliantly. The use of sea shanties sang by your crew whilst sailing is a lovely touch, and no clichéd use of Pirate speak (unless you turn the cheat on) adds to the authenticity. Disappointingly I did encounter a couple of audio glitches such as sword fight sound effects disappeaing, and sea shanties turning in to rounds unintentionally, music now disappearing completely thanks to the latest game update.
“Every scrap of duck on the wind”
For me this game is finally a full return to form of the first sequel Assassin’s Creed II. An engaging story, rounded and interesting characters, a desire to see it through to the end and missions that are really enjoyable, though it did lack the emotional impact of Ezio’s story. I did find that the Assassination Contracts became a little repetitive, and far to easy to do in a very specific way. I had a borked Contract prevent my 100% Synchronisation prior to the latest game update too. I also experienced a few bugs, one leaving me stuck inside an area with no ability escape other than using a fast travel. Whilst on the subject of Fast Travel, it works brilliantly for travelling around a rather large area without having to sail for hours being destracted by ship battles. There are some graphical redraw and pop up issues, but generally only noticable when travelling from a great distance and do not distract from the game but show how much Ubisoft are pushing the PS3.
I spent over 58 hours enjoying this amazingly rendered world, immersed in the story as I was obsessed with doing all the additional missions and objective for my 20th Platinum Trophy, only hampered by a near gaming breaking bug on my final assassination.
I have purposefully left out any opinions of the Multiplayer in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag as I will cover them in my new Veteran’s Viewpoint of Assassin’s Creed Multiplayer, but it is better than the (sadly broken by patches) version on Assassin’s Creed III and makes it now an essential play. I can’t wait to redeem my £10 upgrade voucher and playthrough the whole enjoyable experience again on PlayStation4.