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Time to hoist the Jolly Roger!

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    Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag

    Rating: 4.5 – Outstanding

    Time to hoist the Jolly Roger!

    Assassin’s Creed is really one of the youngest gaming series to pop up and become really huge. With the release of the first AC game early in PS3/360 generation of consoles in 2007 Ubisoft really managed to create something that’d gain a huge following, and not very surprisingly. While the first game had a few kinks and got a bit repetitive, the sequels improved on it and expanded and with the formula they found that made it basically an open-world game like Grand Theft Auto in a real-world historical setting (though with a bit of sci-fi/mysticism twist) they managed to reel in both history nerds and action game fans alike, and for a while about one game per year was released in the series. That tempo can be really troublesome to keep up with, as it’s easy to just begin to rehash old ideas, but it also gives developers a chance to fine tune and polish the things they’re good at and improving the things the earlier installments got wrong. AC4 is not really the fourth game in the series, since Brotherhood and Revelations came in between AC2 and AC3 this instead lands it as the sixth main console game in the series, and was developed for two console generations and was released for both the PS3 and PS4 towards the end of 2013. But how much does the PS3 version drag it down in terms of appearance? How stale has the series gotten after that many installments? Well let’s break it down and find out!

    Graphics

    The Assassin’s Creed games have always liked to showcase their nice graphics and environments; from the very first time you climbed up high onto a building in the first game and synced the viewpoint and it spins the camera around to let you see a large part of the city you were in it was clear that impressive sights was a cornerstone of the series. While this used to be mostly cities it changed up a bit in Assassin’s Creed 3 where part of the game took place in the forests of the American frontier in the 1700’s. This made it apparent that not only urban settings but also nature environments work well with the Assassin’s Creed looks and gameplay, and in this fourth installment it goes all-in with it. While there are a few bigger cities for you to explore – Havana and Kingston being the most prominent – the hugest area in the game is a large chunk of the Caribbean sea. While a sea might not seem too exciting at first it is when you start to look at it in detail it shows how good it works; one of the coolest things is how seamlessly it works to control the ship, then you suddenly decide you want to just let the wheel go, dive into the water and run up onto the shore of a nearby island. It’s totally seamless and the only time the game needs to load an area is when you go into the bigger cities. Also all of the small islands and settlements you find in the game look really unique and have a lot of attention to detail, with birds on the beach that lift off when you come close and waves rolling in. The same can be said for the jungle areas where the density of the vegetation almost can be felt and smelled.

    What makes this a bit interesting is that it certainly sounds like something where the PS4 is needed and that such stuff couldn’t be pulled off on older hardware, but the game on PS3 manages to handle most of these things well enough. The biggest stuff that seems to be improved on the newer hardware is that, in addition to the somewhat more hi-res textures, it seems like you can see more stuff like seaweed below the water surface and some additional effects like pollen or insects (hard to tell which) filling the air in more dense jungle areas and more smoke during the naval battles – something which actually makes the game not only better looking but also a bit harder since you can’t really see what you’re aiming at. But overall the game really manages to deliver on the visuals for the environments; while the seas doesn’t really give you that breathtaking feeling when the waves run high during a storm like they did during the naval missions of Assassin’s Creed 3 that’s probably mostly because you get more accustomed to that here and it being natural instead of set pieces, rather than being that it actually has gotten worse.

    In addition to the environments the characters too have really neat looks; they move very nicely and the faces are detailed and it’s possible to see simple changes in facial expressions and gestures. One thing that also should be noted that’s kinda cool is that the game take place over the course of several years and the characters does change accordingly. That’s also true when you upgrade the ship; anything extra you buy will actually be visible on the vessel. All the attention to detail and the fantastic environments is definitely something that makes AC4 really impressive in the visual department, the only thing that actually draws it a bit back is that the PS3 version exist. Without that one it’d be easy to say that this could only be done on PS4 hardware, but since it exist and isn’t that much of a downgrade compared to the PS4 it’s quite obvious that this is a between-generations release and that it’s probably nowhere near to using all the available power of the PS4.

    Sound effects and music

    While not being that famous for it as the graphics, the series also has pretty fitting music; the background music that play at various parts in the games certainly feels like it’d belong in pretty much any other historical movie. However, with this game they’ve taken it a bit further to make it great. The score music is there at some parts and it works as well as it’s always done, but when you’re out sailing peacefully and not being into battle, instead of having some background music to lighten up the traveling a bit the crew on your ship starts singing. Sea chanteys! These really help to immerse you into the game and feel like you’re there; it’s not that fine polished, it can be a bit out of tune, but it’s really THERE. There might be some anachronisms among them but that’s just to nitpick since they make so much for the feeling of the overall sailing lifestyle. They also ties pretty nicely into the gameplay as you have to pick up each song as a collectible before your crew get it on their playlist, collectibles with actual rewards are always nice. But with a selection of things ranging from What Shall We Do With the Drunken Sailor to Lowlands Away to Leave Her Johnny it’s hard not to find some chanteys that you’ll really like. That’s not enough though; when you go into a pub when in a settlement or city it’s not too unusual to find a little band playing folk songs there, and these are just as good as the chanteys and probably a bit more well-known as some modern artists has recorded them too; Barbara Allen (Art Garfunkel and Joan Baez are probably tied as doing the most well-known versions), Star of the County Down (Van Morrison), Over the Hills and Far Away (a different version by John Thams is used as the main theme of movie series Sharpe) – overall this is just such a great way of making the game feel both more real in the age it happens in, and also ties it together very well with the real and modern world. Genius, and great to listen to too!

    The voice acting is really good too, but that’s something that has pretty much become expected by a big game like this nowadays. While not really having any really major names on board – except for Nolan North but what is he NOT in? – everyone really manages to do well and thankfully they’ve avoided using too much pirate cliche talks so there’s not too much in terms of "arrr", "shiver me timbers" or "scurvy sea dogs". It’d quickly get pretty tiresome to listen to but just for fun it’s actually included as an unlockable cheat in the game; and that’s also something Ubisoft deserves some praise for since no matter how stupid and small something like that is it often feels like nowadays developers try to make everything DLC instead of unlockable. But to get back to the sounds something that SOUNDS a lot like classic pirate movies are the sound effects during sword duels or naval battles; cannons really sound raw, powerful and dirty and swords cling like in any good Errol Flynn movie. Background noises in the jungle sound pretty eerie and in the towns you can hear the rats and other animals rummaging about. Overall the entire sound department of the game is really impressive, and it really works well together with the graphics to make the world you play in feel like a living, real thing.

    Story

    Another thing that most people probably know about the Assassin’s Creed series is how it utilizes dual-stories to keep everything connected; one in the modern world and one set in the past. While there are certain parts of the stories set in the past that manages to tie them to each other, much thanks to the series focus on bloodlines, the most straightforward story development is what’s going on in the modern world. The basic idea of this part of the game is that people are able to relive the memories of their ancestors through a special device, the Animus, that manages to extract it from the so-called junk DNA we’re carrying. This part of the story has been very sequential throughout the games in that it follows a timeline in the same order as the games has been released. While Assassin’s Creed 3 pretty much gave closure to the modern day story where we had followed Desmond since the first game this one picks up in a different way; basically technology has gone so far that you’re now able to explore the DNA memories of somebody else, and so the company Abstergo Entertainment has got hold of some of Desmonds DNA and now wants people to go through them to see if there’s anything worthwhile to be found that could be used to create a multimedia experience like a movie or videogame. All of these modern-day segments take place in a first-person view and you’re never called by name so it’s basically a situation where you’re supposed to put yourself in that position. During the game there are a few times when you’re forced to exit the Animus workstation you’re using and do some other stuff to progress, mainly since an IT support guy decide that you should help him out by hacking computers, but overall this is a pretty small part of the whole experience. It’s a pretty interesting change to the game – both compared to the rest of the gameplay in this game and to the series as whole, and even though it doesn’t bring the modern-day story forward to the extent of the earlier entries of the series it helps flesh out a few things that might’ve been unclear before and gives a nice wind-down period after the events of Assassin’s Creed 3. However it sure would help if Ubisoft would’ve picked it up a bit more for future games after this one…

    The story set in the past is a bit interesting though. While it was a bit worrisome in Assassin’s Creed 3 where Connor just didn’t feel like he could live up to the standards of Ezio that something like that never would be repeated, Connor’s grandfather Edward Kenway surely manages to be a lot more interesting. The game is set during the golden age of piracy in the early 1700’s, and when you begin the game it’s in the midst of a naval clash between two ships during a big storm, and both of the ships sink. A hooded man and a crewman washes up on a shore, and after a short while the hooded man has been killed with the crewman – Edward Kenway – taking his place to impersonate him for a meeting in Havana. This is a pretty interesting change since earlier it seemed more like the protagonists of the earlier games were more made to be assassins because of ideals and ideologies, Edward is more driven by chances to make some money, which actually leads to him selling out some assassins identities and locations to the templars early in the game, since when he goes to the meeting it turns out that the guy he killed was about to desert from the assassins. As the game progresses, Edward gets more tangled up in the assassins versus templar conflict though, and soon sees which side might be the best for him to be on – at least most profitable. Overall that’s one thing that sticks out a bit in this installment of the Assassin’s Creed series; the templar and assassin conflict has always been a centerpiece to the series, however here it feels a bit more shoehorned in and not as natural as it felt in the earlier games. However, while it would’ve been interesting if Ubisoft had made this a game or series of its own, it’s good for the AC games to progress, not least with the modern story, and it’s still good even if it doesn’t feel as natural.

    What does feel natural however, is the pirate lifestyle that’s found in the game. As said thankfully the game avoids the cliches and instead manages to portray the people and events very believably instead; it’d be easy to make extreme caricatures but the characters based on real life people – Jack Rackham, Edward "Blackbeard" Thatch, Benjamin Hornigold (William Kidd was dead by the time of the game but they included a grandchild) – feel very much like they could be real people instead of videogame characters. Stede Bonnet might be a bit of a comic relief though but to be fair he seems to have been rather incompetent in real life too… Also, in addition to the famous pirates you find here you also get to play through several iconic events of this golden age of piracy like Blackbeards search for medicine and the pardoning act from George I misfiring a bit with a few pirates escaping Nassau with the help of a fireship. Overall it was a pretty interesting time period for humans and human society, and it translates well into the game. So while this might not be the Assassin’s Creed that drives the modern day story forwards the most or has the most interesting reveals in the past it still presents a really good story even though it’s fragmented over several events, and much of it is because you really start caring about the characters. In the Ezio trilogy there weren’t that many characters except for the titular hero that you got a deeper relationship to as a player, but in this game you care just as much about Blackbeard, James Kidd and the others as you do about Edward, making for a very large experience.

    Controls

    Even though the control scheme has evolved and has been tweaked all throughout the series it’s still complicated with a lot of things to keep track of to be able to traverse and fight efficiently. While some of the basics are the same as any other game of the same genre – that you control the character with the left stick and the camera with the right one, there are some other things that are more specific to the AC series. While you can press X to walk fast, the actual run button is tied to R2. Learning how to use this efficiently is one of the most important things in the entire Assassin’s Creed series, as not only will it let you run at a higher speed, it also lets you freerun which means that if you come across an obstacle Edward will try to climb it, and very many vertical surface in the game can be scaled this way. It’s a must to learn to be able to get around easily and to be able to avoid or outrun enemies. You also need to learn when NOT to freerun as there are moments when it’s better to take it a bit slowly and not just stand up and expose yourself or jump to the next building. What’s also nice is that if a drop would injure Edward, he usually (bugs can happen) won’t make the jump if you just hold down R2 but you’ll also need to press the X button in that case. All of this makes the platforming moments of the game advanced but still pretty easy to work with as soon as you get it down.

    Combat is pretty easy, as least as long as the enemies haven’t discovered you. You can select different weapon types with the D-pad, and with a press of Square you’ll use the main weapon to assassinate an enemy and Triangle is used to use secondary weapons like smoke bombs or guns. All this is fine and easy, but when you get into active combat things get a little more complex. It depends a bit on the skill level of your enemies how they should be handled; some just require some mashing on the Square button to be killed, while others need you to instead use the X button to use the break defense command and then attack them. What’s true for all types of enemies is that you need to get good at countering or you’ll take a LOT of damage, which is something you don’t want as you don’t have healing items but instead get healed automatically once you’re outside of combat. Countering is done by pressing Circle just as an enemy attacks, and this is nicely enough highlighted with an icon over their head, and after that’s done the next button press will decide your follow-up action; another press of circle will just toss the attacker out of the way, while triangle will use your secondary weapon and X lets you do an advanced defense break. Square will let you kill weaker enemies instantly in a counter, but stronger enemies won’t fall for it but you instead need to use a defense break, but as soon as you’ve got a kill through a counter you can start a kill chain which lets you kill multiple enemies much easier by just keep pressing Square (or X then Square in the case of a stronger foe).

    When controlling the ship the controls are pretty different, but still not too hard to get into. With X and Circle you control the speed by letting the crew pull out more sail or haul them, and by using Square you shout out to the crew to brace themselves for incoming collisions or enemy fire to reduce the damage you take. Using the cannons and other weapons of the ship is determined through a mixed use of the shoulder buttons and which direction you’re looking – there are just too many combinations to be able to list them in a simple review, and this will take some serious time to learn and is something that even after many hours of naval combat actually has a possibility of if not fail at least somewhat slow down combat as it’s possible to end up in a wrong angle to be able to use a specific weapon. But overall the ship controls – especially when not in combat – manage to feel pretty easy to use and realistic at the same time. While the ship might have some more maneuverability than it should do when sailing against the wind, it still feels like you’re affected by it, just as you’re affected by waves, waterspouts and other things that stand in your way. Controlling a ship in Assassin’s Creed has been great ever since it was introduced in the previous game, and in this one they seem to have tweaked it to another level so it’s even more fun – and at least a little bit easier – to work with. Plus as mentioned earlier the feeling you get when docking the ship, releasing the wheel and then walk onto the docks to turn around and look at that huge thing and think "wow, 30 seconds ago I was controlling that" is a pretty awesome experience.

    Gameplay

    The gameplay is pretty similar to how Assassin’s Creed has been since the second installment, but only on a much larger scale. In order to make actual progression through the story of the game, you need to go to a specific part of the game world where there’s a mission marker and then begin a mission; usually the start of it is accompanied by a cutscene driving the story forward and explaining what you’re about to do. Then you complete the task in the mission; this can be pretty much anything from following people to eavesdrop on a conversation without being detected, going to a ship battle to assassinating a target. The format overall reminds quite a lot of other similar third person games, and those calling it a Grand Theft Auto in a historical setting can’t really be said to be wrong. In order to add some replayability to the missions the AC games also have optional objectives added; these are pretty much what they sound like and are found in most missions that have some sort of gameplay part and aren’t just a cutscene. It can be things like "Assassinate people in X way" to "Skin 2 crocodiles" to "Defeat ships with mortars" – just things that add a bit of extra challenge to the mission for people going for 100% completion of the game. In order not to make it too frustrating, and to let you revisit favorite missions, you can replay any of them from the pause menu and when there are two objectives present for one mission you won’t even have to complete them during the same playthrough – as long as you’ve done it once and then finished the mission it’s recorded as completed forever.

    In addition to the main missions there are also quite a few side missions; these range from naval contracts you can take to fulfil specific tasks out at sea or assassination contracts where you need to kill a specific target. Usually these are a lot quicker and easier than the main missions, and also won’t feature the optional objectives – the assassinations sometimes give you a reward bonus for not being spotted but they’re not possible to replay and it’s not recorded whether you succeeded with it or not. There are also a bit longer side mission chains called templar hunts where you help assassins to get rid of templars pursuing them trying to kill them; while the other side missions doesn’t amount too much these ones gives a bit of story insight and are pretty interesting. There are also an extreme lot of collectibles to be found in the game, and that’s something that’s become a part of the Assassin’s Creed experience. First of all, while not a collectible per se one of the first things you want to do when reaching a new area, be it a city, settlement or jungle area is to look for high grounds; there you can usually find a viewpoint which lets you, when you’ve climbed up there, get an overview of the surroundings and get the map for that area unlocked and all shops and collectibles added to it. Until then the viewpoint location is the only thing visible on the map; now it might sound a bit counterproductive to have all of the collectibles marked out on the map so easy, but if you think of it like this it might not – in a game like GTA there are 200 pigeons for you to shoot as a collectible. You find the first 50 while playing through the game, but then want to get them all. You look up a guide, but since you’ve forgotten which ones you’ve found you still have to go through every number and for some you might be unsure if you’ve already gotten it or if you’re just reading the guide wrong and are in the wrong location. That’s something you won’t have to do when it’s easy to see in-game which collectibles you’ve still left un-pickuped. So in a way, these games are the spiritual successors to the old collect-a-thons of the Nintendo 64 era; if you remember the stars in Super Mario 64 or the notes from Banjo-Kazooie with fondness then this is the closest thing (except possibly Yooka-Laylee that’s released now) you can come to those memories. The things you can pick up vary a bit in usefulness though; there are bottled letters that expand the background story of one of the characters found in the game, and there are chests that’ll give you some extra money, and treasure maps found on corpses that’ll lead you to buried treasures with more money and blueprints for ship upgrades, mayan stone puzzles that’ll give you stones to unlock a secret door in one area of the game, the aforementioned song papers to add to your sea chantey library and then there are the Animus fragments that do basically nothing but there are 200 of in the game just for the sake of it. They aren’t totally worthless though; as mentioned there are cheats (ranging from audio changes like said to stuff like controlling the weather or invincibility) for you to unlock and it’s done by completing the 100 in-game challenges called Abstergo Challenges. A few of these challenges are tied to collecting those fragments, but there are several different sections of them and some involve chaining kills in combat, hunting all different types of animals or sailing a specific distance. Some of them will come naturally as you progress through the game but others will take a little more effort to get, but it’s a really neat thing to have included as the presence of cheats in games sadly seem to have dwindled in the last few years. It might have to do with trophies and such becoming too easy, but here the game stops saving once you activate a cheat and that’s a way better solution than to just removing them altogether since cheats in any game can be pretty fun to play around with.

    Still, with all that said about main missions and side missions and collectibles we haven’t even begun talking about where the big part of the game take place. The thing that sets it apart from the earlier ones in the series – the seafaring. There’s a huge open map for you to explore, which is a kinda compressed version of the Caribbean, stretching from the southern tip of Florida in the north to the big areas of Jamaica and Cuba to the Yucatan peninsula in the west. Not only are the graphics in this area very detailed and nice with the jungles and weather effects – storms seem to be very common and they’re really neat to look at but can be a bit annoying at times when you try to just get somewhere (you can fast travel to any previously visited area though) – but there’s also a lot more to do than you’d might think in an area basically just being vast plain of water. The thing is that this area was pretty densely populated with ships back in those days so there are a lot of ships of varying nationalities, mostly Spanish and British, sailing around pretty much everywhere. At any time you’d like you can ram a ship or fire at it to initiate a naval battle, and you need to wear them down with your cannons, mortars and fire barrels until the ship is damaged so much it can’t attack anymore, then you can choose to board it or sink it. If you board it another stage of the battle is initiated where you get some random tasks like "Kill X crewmen", "Kill the enemy scouts", "Kill the captain" or "Destroy the gunpowder reserves" – the amount and complicity depends on the size of the ship you’re boarding – and when that’s done you get all of the goods the ship was carrying along with the choice to repair your own ship, lowering your wanted level or sending it off to the minigame Kenway’s Fleet. If you choose to attack the ship more instead of boarding so it sinks will just grant you half of the goods on the ship, and nothing more. There are several different types of goods a ship can carry; rum and sugar are of no real use but to sell to a vendor later for money, while textile, wood and metal is used to upgrade your own ship, and you can also find additional ammunition in the cargo of other vessels. What’s neat is that if you’re looking for, say, metal, you can just use a spyglass with R1 and look towards a ship and you’ll be able to see what type of cargo it’s carrying. However, nothing fun that doesn’t bring something bad with it – if you keep on robbing ships and don’t select the "lower wanted level" when boarding you’ll soon begin to be hunted down by pirate hunter ships; pretty tough ones that often attack two at a time, however these ships do often (for some strange reason) carry pretty good cargo so it can be worth sailing with a wanted level sometimes even if they can be annoying to have on your tail. However if you get bored of them you can either lower it through the boarding method, bribing an officer at a harbor or just lose in a naval battle to desynchronize and start over again clean.

    In addition to the ship battles there are also forts scattered about varying areas of the map; since the country officials know that the waters are pirate infested then they try to protect their ships the best they can. However, a little fort is nothing that you can’t take on – with a ship that’s a bit upgraded and fully repaired you’ll be able to go head to head with a fort and attack its towers and walls with mortars and cannon shots. Each fort has a number of these to be razed and when that’s done you can dock towards it and run up and kill off its officers and commander – and then you’ve taken over it, and instead of attacking you on sight it’ll help you if you get into a battle with another ship within its range. Taking over forts also has another benefit that it unlocks the map of the general area – pretty much like a larger-scale viewpoint – so you can see what the settlements are (those are earlier just visualized with a question mark symbol indicating something is there but not what) and also any chests or Animus fragments that’s found in the uncharted areas, really tiny islands without any civilization on them. Another thing you can do while at sea is to spend some time with harpooning; you can find whales and sharks at various places on the maps and initiate harpooning; it’s a small minigame where you need to find a pattern to attack and "hook" the animal with a harpoon and then keep attacking it by adjusting for the direction it goes in and attack to stun it when it tries to do a tail whip attack. It’s a pretty easy little game and it’s more dependent on the upgrades you’ve made – how strong your boat it, harpoon damage and storage capacity – than actual skill since once you understand how to do it it’s hard to get that much better at it. A bit into the game you’ll also get access to a diving bell so that you can go underwater and explore various caves and shipwrecks; this is pretty similar to other small areas in that you’re looking for chests and fragments but the difference is the swimming controls and that you need to avoid sharks instead of guards. These can be a bit frustrating when they’re too maze-like, it’s as they say that underwater levels in games tend to be among the most annoying, but still work pretty well as there aren’t too many of them.

    So overall the game is extremely content-filled and the sea is a neat playground for when you just want to cause some carnage. The good thing is that this game can be played in basically any mode you can be in as a person; if you feel like a challenge you can tackle some of the optional objectives of the main missions, or if you’re dead tired and just want something slow and easy to do it works wonder to just sail around the small areas picking up fragments and unlocking chests in the uncharted areas. The amount of times you go "oh, that’s only 500 meters away, I can go for that now before shutting down!" and then "Oh there’s a royal convoy, I can sink that too since I need the loot" is pretty amazing, and the game really manages to draw you in with both the gameplay and the story.

    Multiplayer

    For some reason during the PS3 era, it seemed like pretty much any type of game needed to have a multiplayer mode whether it felt natural for the genre or not. This affected Assassin’s Creed too and with Brotherhood they included one that wasn’t only hosted on buggy servers but also expected so much of the players who wanted to just get the trophies like reaching level 50 which took an enormous time when boosting and is hard to imagine doing without, and the trophy called Abstergo Employee of the Month which had unlock conditions that were extremely unlikely to happen in a normal game. However during the years since Ubisoft has actually managed to improve on the online aspects of the games, and ACIV is miles better than Brotherhood, even if it still feel

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