Unless this is the first time you’re being exposed to Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, you won’t need a telescope to notice that the landscape has changed drastically from past entries in the series. Residing in the Caribbean, you take on the role of Edward Kenway, an 18th-century pirate who dreams of obtaining enough riches to live well and free of worry. Sure to not divulge too much information, we’ll say that Edward gets mixed up in things much larger than himself, which lends to a story filled with assassins, Templars and, well, more pirates.
And being a pirate is grand. Expanding on the naval sequences of Assassin's Creed III, sailing the capricious seas to the sound of your crew bellowing shanties from the bottom of their gut instils a feeling of freedom and hopefulness, even in the most dire of situations. Whether an opposing fleet initiates a bout of sea warfare or Mother Nature conjures up a hellish storm, it feels like the odds of your crew not becoming shark food aren’t exactly in your favour. These unscripted circumstances are the adhesive of the package, likely to produce as many – if not more – memorable moments than the planned missions.
When first gaining control of your ship – dubbed the Jackdaw – handling navigational duties on top of giving offensive commands can feel slightly cumbersome. No matter though, as it quickly becomes second nature, with movements that mirror what we’d expect from a ship of this magnitude. It will only be a short time until you’re sinking entire brigades, attacking forts, and just travelling the massive map with relative ease. But it’s not all about water in Black Flag; there’s a lot of ground to cover, too.
The open world is, without question, the star of this package. Beyond the vast seas there are sprawling cities bursting with life and inhabitants, along with the smallest desert islands in the middle of nowhere – there’s plenty to explore and do. Accepting assassination contracts will have you stalking your target and plotting the best course of attack. Extracting treasure maps from the corpses of dead men can lead you to buried riches that you likely wouldn’t have stumbled upon otherwise. And of course there are a multitude of items to collect, liberally strewn about the world. Referring to these things as distractions wouldn’t be fair, though we did often find ourselves losing track of the next mission because of them.
Falling into the role of assassin finds you in situations that you’ll presumably be familiar with if you’ve spent any time with the Creed: sneaking about the brush and the rooftops while eavesdropping on conversations, going blade-to-blade with a cluster of enemies, and participating in those aforementioned stealthy assassinations. The majority of the on-land missions rotate between these styles of play. Most of it’s a good deal of fun, while it can also be a complete chore. This is partially because of the all-seeing eye of the enemy guards, and additionally due to the free running mechanic, that can prove to have a mind of its own.
Free running can present some problems; mostly when precision and swiftness is required. Often, with an obvious path meant to be traversed, Edward will instead cling to walls, or interact with pieces of the environment you’d least expect. It’s understandable that imperfections would be present with a dynamic mechanic like this in a massively decorated open-world environment, but when the slightest misstep can lead to exposure, resulting in failed missions, it can become quite the arrgh-ravating affair (sorry, we couldn't resist).
Occasionally button commands will prove unresponsive, as well, and the area in which you need to stand to interact with objects and fallen enemies likes to be temperamental. There were many instances where Edward was climbing a wall, and it would take multiple tries to get him to respond to our directional commands. It’s infrequent, but it does take you out of the experience when it occurs. Issues and inconsistencies such as these and the unpredictable nature of the free-running mechanic have existed previously in the series, so by now we expect fans have become used to compensating for them – though that doesn’t make it entirely forgiveable.
The story can be a mixed bag of exciting, humorous, and snooze-worthy moments as it meanders around a bit though the first half. Luckily it’s more enjoyable than it is not, and the pirate theme injects a much appreciated sense of liveliness to the escapades. Streamlining your adventure by sticking to main missions is expected to take close to 20-hours of play, but if you’re looking to see all the sights and do all that’s doable, expect to double that playtime. When it comes to absolute value, this ship has more than enough firepower to keep you battling until you're ruler of the seven seas.
Speaking of firepower, Black Flag introduces a strategy-type sub-game into its hull. When entering the captain’s quarters of the Jackdaw, you can view ship upgrades, outfits for Edward, and most notably access the fleet management mode. From here you can manage your entire fleet of ships and send them on the attack. Selecting from a list of missions shows each ships probability of success and what commodities can be attained if victorious. This all takes place on menu screens, so once you’ve put the ships into action, you’ll be free to get back to your in-game duties. Ubisoft has even released a companion app for tablet devices – which is said to allow fleet management on the go – but, unfortunately, we didn’t have the opportunity to test this out.
Now the question a lot of you may be wondering is, “how does the game look and perform on the Wii U?” It’s a mixture of great and jarring. The contrast of tropical colorus, like the bursting blues of the rocking waves against glowing greens of the vegetation, are striking and so inviting, we reckon you’ll want to plunge into the screen and string up a hammock . Outside of stiff, blocky hair and alarmingly pixelated shadows, the definition and detail is extremely impressive for a game of this size; the variation of textures – a hot topic of discussion lately – amplifies the satisfaction of aesthetic delights. When at a standstill, there’s so little to complain about.
Sadly, aggressive waters aren’t the only thing that’s choppy in Black Flag. Much like a handful of other multiplatform games that find their way to the Wii U, the frame rate often runs very low. In smaller, more contained areas, it seems to be smoothed out, but just about anywhere else it’s the opposite. Swinging the camera around with the right analogue stick is when it's heavily pronounced, which may make it hard to hold down any rum you've been sipping on to get into character. Thankfully, there aren’t many sudden drops in frame rate; it’s either consistently running low, or nearly unnoticeable. Playing on the GamePad, which softens some of the graphical rough edges, lessens its prominence not literally, but in terms of perception. This isn’t a reason to pass on the game if you’re interested, but it’s something that will unquestionably irritate some.
Assassin vs. assassin has returned for another round of online multiplayer, of course. To summarize, teams of human players will need to blend into a map filled with AI characters, and exterminate the opposition with a degree of skill and subtlety. Fair warning, there’s a bit of a learning curve when first dropping in, possibly further advanced by an intimidating interface. But if you put time in, there’s a highly rewarding and thrilling experience here. Few things can top the feeling in your chest as you cautiously travel the city streets, unable to trust whether any of the civilians around you are human or AI, harmless or lethal. It can be utterly exhilarating. It's worth mentioning that we had zero problems finding or connecting to a match. Things seem to be in top shape on the online end, extending the value of an already impressive package even further.
Whether we were exploring aimlessly, or hunting exotic animals just because we could, the world of Black Flag engaged us fully. It definitely lacks the polish to make for a masterpiece, but that doesn't mean it can't offer up one of the most memorable experiences of the year. Acquainted with the Assassin's Creed series or not, this a great addition to the Wii U lineup, and should satisfy the thirst of those seeking a little mature-themed escapism. Load the cannons, it's time to sink a couple weeks of your social life.
Black Flag is at its best when it allows the player to exist organically in its immensely beautiful and consuming open world. While the bulk of the game is exceptionally crafted, there are rough edges that keep it from reaching the masterful heights to which it aspires. Story missions that require swift execution and a careful step accentuate the clumsiness of the free-running mechanics, and can make the occasional sequence a bother to play. That, combined with low frame counts, will be sure to hinder the experience for some, but we don’t think it’s quite enough to take your sights off the captain’s deck.
The sign of a fantastic open world can be found in its ability to effortlessly suck you into even the most insignificant of activities, and Black Flag excels on that front. Wii U owners looking for an expansive, value-packed adventure should surely set their sails for the Caribbean. There's plenty of gold for the taking.