Assassin’s Creed Black Flag

How far can you stray from home before it’s impossible to ever return? That’s the question at the heart of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. It’s something that plagues Edward Kenway, the game’s roguish hero, as he explores the Caribbean in search of wealth and the dream of returning to England a more respectable man. But for as much as Kenway longs for the day he can leave the pirate life behind, the freedom of the open sea is a difficult thing to resist. And who can blame him? Because after this stunning and beautifully realized tale of adventure on the high seas, it’s hard to imagine the Assassin’s Creed series returning to its landlocked roots

The world of Black Flag is nothing short of remarkable. This is the most expansive setting in the history of the franchise, a virtual rendition of the West Indies that encompasses all manner of burgeoning colonies, Mayan ruins, and deadly jungles. Cities like Havana and Nassau reflect the series’ trademark attention to detail, from the stonework cathedrals of the former to the ramshackle taverns of the latter. Then there are the remote islands inhabited by nothing more than crabs and sea turtles, underwater shipwrecks waiting to be explored, and vast stretches of sparkling Caribbean waters that are every bit as deadly as they are gorgeous.

Indeed, what makes Black Flag so special is the way it captures the thrill of sailing the open sea. It’s more than the spectacle of a humpback whale leaping into the air and spraying the deck of your ship, or the sound of your crew breaking out into a sea shanty just as the sun is beginning to set across the horizon. It’s the feeling that there’s always something out there to be discovered, rewards waiting to be captured no matter who’s standing in your way.

Simply sailing into the sunset is a delight in Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag.
Simply sailing into the sunset is a delight in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag.

What began as a series of isolated side missions in Assassin’s Creed III has exploded into a full-fledged means of exploration, discovery, and combat. Early into Black Flag, Kenway takes the helm of the Jackdaw, a pirate ship that has clearly seen better days. From there, it’s your charge to build the Jackdaw into a vessel capable of taking on the most powerful warships in the Caribbean. After all, that Spanish gold isn’t going to plunder itself.

Taking on naval superpowers seems like a tall order early on, but pushing yourself to improve your once-rickety ship is a process that Black Flag makes incredibly rewarding. This is a game that gives you an absurd number of ways to acquire the coin and resources needed to hold your own at sea. You might run off in search of buried treasure using nothing more than a crudely drawn map, or silently infiltrate a military storehouse to collect the wood and metal needed to bolster the Jackdaw’s hull. That bit of flotsam floating in the distance might be a crate of rum you can sell to make up the difference on your new mortar upgrades, or it might be a stranded sailor you can rescue to expand the size of your crew. Black Flag doesn’t just present a beautiful world; it gives you a mountain of reasons to run off and go exploring.

Black Flag builds on ACIII's naval side missions to create an experience every bit as important as running around on dry land.
Black Flag builds on ACIII’s naval side missions to create an experience every bit as important as running around on dry land.

Upgrading your ship is critical because Black Flag places a huge emphasis on naval combat. Both the storyline and side missions are full of tense sea battles, where strategic positioning and explosive cannon fire come together in exhilarating contests of naval supremacy. It’s a system that allows for a variety of tactics while never getting bogged down in overly complex controls, whether you’re picking off enemies from afar with a well-placed mortar strike or dumping explosive barrels into the path of an unsuspecting foe. Whatever approach you take, managing sea battles is an absolute blast.

It’s not just wanton mayhem, either. Black Flag encourages you to take pause and survey the landscape before charging into a fight. With the help of your spyglass, you can scout another ship’s cargo to decide whether the resources onboard match your current needs, as well as scout out how much money you’ll be able to loot. This same tool also reveals an enemy’s overall combat level, letting you know if you should warm up against a few more level-8 schooners before taking on that level-20 frigate. All this reconnaissance makes naval combat that much more satisfying; success comes not only from how accurately you lob your cannons, but from how adeptly you measure the risk versus the reward.

These naval battles often lead directly into more traditional Assassin’s Creed swordfighting, and it’s in those seamless transitions that Black Flag fuses its two halves into one cohesive whole. Destroying a ship outright rewards you with only half its cargo, so you need to board these vessels and wear down their reluctant crews to reap the full reward. That means swinging acrobatically from one ship to another, exchanging sword strikes with enemy sailors, and watching your crew erupt in cheers once those enemies have surrendered. A similar transition occurs during the game’s numerous fort takeover missions, where you bombard the defenses of a seaside fortress by ship before charging into the ensuing chaos to assassinate its officers amid a storm of fire and smoke.

That these acts of naval piracy continue to be so exciting so deep into the game’s lengthy story campaign is a testament to just how excellent Black Flag’s progression loop is. Raid an enemy gunboat, and you can scrap it for parts or send it on trade route missions to earn more money on the side. Overtake a fort, and you’ll unlock dozens of new activities on the map, whether they’re the location of great white sharks whose skin you can turn into improved armor or an underwater shipwreck you can explore once you’ve saved up enough for that diving bell. No matter where you go or what you do, it’s virtually impossible to feel like you’re not advancing in some way.

And it’s a quick game to advance, too. Assassin’s Creed III’s crawling preamble and frequent pacing issues are nowhere to be found here, as Black Flag wastes no time throwing you into the life of a pirate. The story revolves around the aforementioned Edward Kenway, a charming troublemaker from Bristol by way of Swansea. If his name sounds familiar, it should: Edward is the grandfather of ACIII protagonist Connor Kenway. The elder Kenway’s backstory is rooted in a fairly standard trope–a peasant off in search of wealth to build a better life back home–but it’s his unique place in the series’ overarching fiction, and the universal themes the story explores, that makes the narrative shine.

Storms have a way of catching you off guard in Black Flag.
Storms have a way of catching you off guard in Black Flag.

At the game’s outset, Kenway is neither assassin nor templar. He’s a man whose only allegiance lies with his ship’s crew, playing both factions against one another for his own gain. But as the years wear on, the luster of youthful indiscretion fades away as Kenway wrestles with a desire to find some greater purpose and a longing to do right by his estranged wife back home. It’s a story that explores the human side of pirates, painting larger-than-life figures in a light that even manages to turn Blackbeard into a sympathetic character.

The narrative grows a bit unwieldy toward the end, but finds its footing just before a credit sequence that is far more touching than any story about pirates has a right to be. An eclectic cast of side characters briefly dance with but never fully tackle more powerful themes like race and gender in the age of colonialism, but such narrative flirtations are one of the few shortcomings in an otherwise terrific story. Even the modern-day chapters–brief and innocuous as they may be–manage to add a refreshing and occasionally humorous take to the Abstergo story arc.

Despite the presence of pirates and scoundrels, the world of Black Flag is a consistently gorgeous one. The Assassin’s Creed series has always had a knack for establishing an engrossing sense of place in its dense urban landscapes, and Ubisoft hasn’t missed a step in applying that same level of craftsmanship toward the islands and jungles of the Caribbean. Black Flag looks especially impressive on the PlayStation 4, where improved lighting and a greater resolution bathe the world in a terrific level of visual fidelity and artistic flourishes. You’re better able to notice the little things, like the way foliage gives way to Kenway while he sneaks through the bushes, or the realistic flutter of fabric on your sails when a strong wind sweeps across the sea. The current-generation versions of Black Flag still look terrific, but all those little details in the PlayStation 4 version draw you into the world that much more.

Cities like Havana echo the classic environments of previous games.
Cities like Havana echo the classic environments of previous games.

Kenway’s adventures on dry land don’t amount to the same wholesale reinvention of the series that his time aboard the Jackdaw does, but these portions of the game have hardly been ignored. Ubisoft has borrowed a number of concepts from Far Cry 3, and they improve the on-foot experience immensely. Crafting animal hides into better equipment is a far greater incentive to hunt wild animals than it was in ACIII, while the ability to sabotage alarm bells in an enemy base adds more flexibility to the stealth experience. But once a fight breaks out into a full-on melee, Black Flag begins to feel much more like its predecessors: swordfighting is as fluid and lively as ever, but lacks any substantial refinements over previous games.

Where that sense of deja vu hits Black Flag the hardest is in its overuse of eavesdropping missions. Throughout the main story, the game asks you time and again to tail your targets (but not too closely!) and eavesdrop on their conversations (but not too obviously!) before finally letting you decide what to do with them. These types of missions–a staple of the very first game in the series–had already begun to show their age in recent Assassin’s Creed installments, and time hasn’t done them any favors since then.

Not all treasures are above water in Black Flag.
Not all treasures are above water in Black Flag.

While less glaring, a similar lack of advancement can be found in Black Flag’s multiplayer. The cat-and-mouse nature of Wanted and the co-op chaos of Wolfpack are still tremendous fun, but outside of a new story-driven tutorial mode, there aren’t any substantial additions. Even though Assassin’s Creed multiplayer has always occupied something of an « icing on the cake » role, it’s a shame this part of the game hasn’t enjoyed the same creative renewal that its single-player portion has.

But these moments of stagnation are isolated events in what is, ultimately, a massive and highly ambitious game. Black Flag presents a world full of adventure and opportunity, where treasures scavenged in a remote jungle can be used to turn the tide in a massive naval battle against mighty Spanish warships. It’s a game where you can sail the seas for hours at a time, either hunting great white sharks or simply listening to your crew sing one infectious sea shanty after the next. There’s an incredible scope to what you can do in Black Flag, with a level of harmony between its component parts that encourages you to try it all, and a story that keeps you invested throughout the whole thing. If there was ever any question that Assassin’s Creed needed something ambitious to get the series back on track, Black Flag is that game and then some.

Just cause 3

Just cause 3 makes no apologies for its outrageous nature. It’s a power fantasy in every sense of the phrase, placing you in a world rife with destructible environments and giving you creative instruments with which to destroy them. There are intermittent technical problems, and scripted moments detract from the freedom found elsewhere, but in the end, Just Cause 3 provides a spectacular, explosive sandbox experience.

The plot revolves around returning protagonist Rico Rodriguez, who’s arrived in the fictional Republic of Medici during the height of Sebastiano Di Ravello’s military dictatorship. The story here is forgettable, but delivers an effective invitation: dozens of military installations cover the world map, and it’s your job to blow them up for the rebel forces.

Rodriguez himself is a mashup of masculine action stars and comic book characters, so it makes sense that I often felt like a superhero in his shoes. By supplying you with a wingsuit, parachute, and grappling hook, Just Cause 3 gives you an effective means of transportation, as well as a smooth, nuanced traversal system.

There is a steep learning curve, but with practice, I was leaping from helicopters, gliding through enemy bases, and floating over farmland with ease. It’s thrilling to leap from a cliff, free-fall for 10 seconds, grapple to a nearby rock, and use the momentum to launch back into the air with parachute deployed. Rico actually felt like a hero learning his new skillset. It’s as if Avalanche Studios combined Batman, Spider-Man, and The Punisher, and thrust its creation into a vivid Mediterranean landscape.

For a place soon to be covered in explosions, Medici is gorgeous.
For a place soon to be covered in explosions, Medici is gorgeous.

What follows is a collision of spectacle and scale. Helicopters dot the sky. Explosions chain across the screen. Combining a parachute and grenade launcher transforms Rodriguez into a floating artillery battery from above. In a world teetering toward total destruction, Just Cause 3 grants you the tools to push it over the edge.

The traditional grenades, remote mines, and numerous land, air, and sea vehicles are all on call in the rebel arsenal. Then there’s the tether: this grappling hook modification attaches two separate objects, and flings them toward each other, often with hilarious results. Rodriguez can reel enemies toward explosive barrels, collapse watchtowers, and pull attack helicopters into a fiery end. It’s a testament to this game’s creativity that guns were my last resort.

There’s a sequence in Just Cause 3 in which a fleet of helicopters pursue you over a mountain range. In any other game, I may have resorted to the RPG slung across my back. But in keeping with this game’s lack of convention, I grappled to the nearest attack chopper, pulled the pilot out, and assumed control in his place.

But that somehow still felt too normal. So I evacuated my helicopter mid-air, opened my wingsuit, glided toward another nearby enemy, and grappled to his chopper door. By repeating the process, I ditched helicopter after helicopter, sending both pilots and machines soaring into the mountain range below, all without firing a single shot.

The game provided no hint to this approach. I just devised a plan and watched it unfold. Just Cause 3 doesn’t nudge you in one direction or the other–it shows you the possibilities, and gets out of the way.

Like all of Just Cause 3’s best moments, the tether encourages experimentation, rather than thoughtless reaction, and as the hours passed, the destruction remained creative and unpredictable. New domino reactions and car crashes were always on the horizon. It’s a small mechanic, but its effects can be massive, and it encapsulates what makes Just Cause 3 so fun. Even now, after 30 hours in this idyllic sandbox, I’m sure I haven’t seen every use for the tether.

And just when it seems the well of experiments might be running dry, Avalanche Studios adds variety to proceedings. As you liberate new provinces from enemy hands, challenges pop up across the map, including vehicle races, machine gun score contests, and wingsuit dives. They’re fun on their own, but they’re also well worth pursuing. By completing these, you’ll unlock new gear mods, which change the functions of certain items.

Much of the action takes place mid-air.
Much of the action takes place mid-air.

While some of these are minor, such as increased grenade capacity or a nitrous boost for vehicles, others reveal dynamic new ways to experiment in Just Cause 3’s sandbox.

Take the rocket boost mines, for example. Whereas previous iterations of the device just detonated at a chosen time, this modification sends objects careening into distant structures before exploding. I used this on cars numerous times, creating two-ton bombs that flew toward enemy fuel tanks with increased velocity after I dove from the driver’s seat.

This cascading structure is what makes Just Cause 3 so great. There’s a cadence to how you approach its world: outpost liberation leads to challenges, which leads to gear mods, which leads to experimentation. And more often than not, each tier of this formula is entertaining in itself. That each flows so well into the next makes the overall experience all the more rewarding. Just Cause 3 excels because it adds variety to the equation throughout, making destruction and mayhem entertaining far past the early hours.

However, Just Cause 3 does deviate from its open-world freedom at times, and when it does, it falters. The scripted story missions progress the plot, but the actual gameplay involved is repetitive at best, and broken at worst.

The vast majority of these tasks are escort missions, in which you defend a plane, or boat, or caravan of jeeps. Protecting another character can be tiresome to begin with, and because their behavior is unpredictable and often unintelligent, I restarted checkpoints far more than felt fair. Halting progress because of my own mistakes is one thing, but when it was out of my hands, my patience grew thin.

Just Cause 3 is also filled with bugs and other rough edges. The parachute closed at random, cars disappeared while moving, and AI behavior made several story objectives impossible for a short time. One mission required me to steal a prototype combat tank from Di Ravello’s forces, and extract it by boat to the hidden rebel base. However, the boat was too far from the dock for me to board it, and I had to reload the previous checkpoint. It repeated the same mistake twice more after that.

For a game that places death front and center, it was often inconsistent with whether I should die. I’m happy Just Cause 3 is lenient with its falling damage–considering I’m in the sky more often than not–but I survived a 500-foot fall at one point, only to die from a shorter one soon thereafter. These mishaps would be easy to overlook if they didn’t disrupt an otherwise fluid experience too often.

Late-game upgrades make traversal even smoother.
Late-game upgrades make traversal even smoother.

When Just Cause 3 is consistent, however, it’s a stunning display of cause and effect, as watchtowers topple into fuel tanks, which blow up nearby helicopters, which sail into oncoming vehicles. I often spent hours setting up outlandish chain reactions, or trying new gear mods, knowing full well I wasn’t making any progress in the traditional sense. I was content to just sit back and marvel as it all happened.

But there’s a more thoughtful undercurrent as well. Despite the explosions and instant gratification throughout, Just Cause 3 also encourages experimentation and foresight, planning and careful approaches. The results are as rewarding as they are entertaining.

Assassin’s Creed 1

Assassin’s Creed will stay with you long after you finish it. Here is one of the most unique gameworlds ever created: beautiful, memorable, and alive. Every crack and crevasse is filled with gorgeous, subtle details, from astounding visual flourishes to overheard cries for help. But it’s more than just a world–it’s a fun and exciting action game with a ton of stuff to do and places to explore, rounded out with silky-smooth controls and a complex story that will slowly grab you the more you play. Make no mistake: Assassin’s Creed is one of the best efforts of the year and a must-own game for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 owners.

Not enough can be said about the living, breathing world that you’ll inhabit in Assassin’s Creed. As assassin extraordinaire Altaïr, you’ll explore three major cities of the Holy Land in the 12th century: Jerusalem, Damascus, and Acre. Each city is beautifully rendered from top to bottom and features meticulously crafted towers that reach for the sky, bustling market squares, and quiet corners where citizens converse and drunks lie in wait to accost you. As you wander the streets (and rooftops), you’ll push your way through crowds of women carrying jars on their heads, hear orators shout political and religious wisdom, and watch town guards harass innocent victims. Altaïr has a profound effect on this world, but the cities are entities all their own, with their own flows and personalities.

The visual design has a lot to do with how believably organic everything feels. The cities are absolutely huge, and though you don’t get full exploration privileges in the first few chapters, they eventually open up to let you travel seamlessly from one side to another. Everything is beautifully lit with just the right amount of bloom effect, and almost everything casts a shadow, from tall pillars to Altaïr’s cloak. In fact, sometimes the shadows get to be a bit much and may make you think for a moment that there is artifacting on your screen, when in fact it’s a character’s head casting a shadow on his or her own neck. Every object, from scaffolds to pottery, is textured so finely you feel as if you could reach out and touch it. Animations are almost as equally well done. Altaïr scales walls, leaps majestically from towers, and engages in swashbuckling swordfights that would make Errol Flynn proud. And he does it all with fluid ease, generally moving from one pose to another without a hitch. Minor characters move gracefully as well, though one of the game’s few visual drawbacks is the occasional jerky animation on the part of a citizen. However, it’s easy to forgive, considering that the cities are populated with thousands and thousands of individuals. In fact, these tiny blemishes are noticeable only because everything else looks so incredible.
What you hear is even more impressive than what you see. At the top of a temple, you hear little but the rush of wind, the twittering of birds, and the barking of a far-off dog. In the most populated areas, your ears will fill with the din of street vendors, the pleas of beggars, and the occasional humming. It’s never too much, though, and the game does a good job of making sure you hear what you need to hear (for example, the cries of citizens who need your help), without filling your ears with pointless noise. All these effects, along with the clangs of swords and groans of assassinated foes, are outstanding. The voice acting of the supporting cast is similarly remarkable. Conversations are completely believable and delivered with the perfect amount of solemn dignity. Oddly, the weakest link is Altaïr himself. Actor Philip Shahbaz does an all right job, but he isn’t up to par with the first-rate acting of his fellow troupe. Rounding it all out is a beautiful orchestral score that is most notable for its subtlety. Many of the game’s most impressive moments are accompanied by lovely musical themes that add even more threads to the game’s rich living tapestry.

Fortunately, the story that binds it all together rises to the occasion. Actually, there are two related stories in play. The unfolding drama of Crusades-era Palestine is a mere memory, forcibly pulled from a modern-day bartender named Desmond by a resolute researcher using a machine called an animus. The memories aren’t Desmond’s own–they are Altaïr’s, stored safely in the hapless subject’s genetic code. We follow Altaïr as he assassinates nine public figures at the command of his master, and as the common thread that ties these men comes into focus, so does the true identity of Desmond’s captors. There are no cutscenes in the traditional sense; every bit of story exposition and dialogue flows smoothly from the gameplay and takes place entirely within the game engine. The ending is confusing, and it blatantly leaves open the possibility of a sequel, but it’s a small blemish on an otherwise stirring tale. Altaïr’s world is not one of absolutes. His assassination targets aren’t always evil, and Altaïr isn’t always likable. As he is fond of reminding us, « Nothing is true. Everything is permitted. »
Of course, such an authentic world would be meaningless without a lot of fun things to do in it. Thankfully, Assassin’s Creed is endlessly entertaining in that it features a fine mix of stealthy exploration, tight platforming, and exciting combat. To discover the whereabouts of your assassination targets, you must first follow up on possible leads. There are several different mission types in this regard. In some cases, you sit on a bench and listen in on secret conversations. At other times, you will closely follow someone carrying an important letter that you’ll pickpocket. Alternately, you can beat the information out of your target. Most missions are relatively easy to pull off in the early stages of the game. But once the guards and townspeople start recognizing you (or you alert them to your presence too close to the scene of one of your crimes), they get a little tougher.
There are also some optional tasks, such as rescuing innocent townspeople from the clutches of guards. The reward for doing so is a group of vigilantes who will hang out in the area afterward and hinder any foes chasing you. It’s also a good way to try out Assassin’s Creed’s combat, which is surprisingly satisfying, considering the game’s focus on sneaking around. You can pounce on enemies using your hidden blade (an incredibly rewarding one-stab kill), or use throwing daggers to take enemies down from a distance. However, your sword is your melee mainstay, and though the hack-and-slash combat may seem simple at first, it gets more challenging once you unlock the various countermoves. Often, you’ll have a dozen or more attackers to fend off at once, but though these fights can be a little tricky, you’ll never feel as if you’re in over your head. In fact, the few circumstances in which you are forced into combat–such as a late-game boss fight against a seemingly endless crowd of attackers and their leering leader–are challenging and require some pitch-perfect timing to counter every strike and lunge.
Nevertheless, brute force is rarely the best way to handle a situation. You want to slink unnoticed through the crowds, but you can draw attention to yourself in a number of ways–whether it be galloping past a guard station on a horse, knocking pottery off of someone’s head, or getting so frustrated by the various beggars that you fling them away from you. (And trust us–these are the most aggressive panhandlers you’ll ever meet.) If you antagonize the guards, they’ll give chase. Yes, you can stick around and fight, and though it’s never the easiest option, breaking stealth does not damn you to death like it does in other sneaking games. But why not lure them to a rooftop? Once up there, you can grab them and fling them to the street below. Or if there are too many of them, you can jump across the rooftops gracefully until you find a hiding place, such as a nice bale of hay or a curtained garden. Once you’re hidden, they’ll break chase and you’ll be free to roam about.

You can also seek refuge in small groups of scholars who serve as mobile hiding places. It’s a bit contrived to walk into a stationary cluster of scholars and have them suddenly start moving simply because you’re there, but it gets the job done. Actually, if there’s any drawback to the usually excellent gameplay, it’s how synthetic certain elements feel. Vigilantes are always in the same spot, missions reset if you don’t get them right the first time, and those same guards will be harrassing that citizen, an hour after you pass by. It’s easy to forgive these quirks though, given the easygoing flow of the world surrounding these pockets of gameplay.
Climbing up buildings and jumping around the rooftops is fun and breezy, thanks to effortless controls that strike a great balance between ease of use and player input. You can leap across alleys and scale walls with the pull of a trigger and the press of a button, and though it’s possible to launch yourself from a wall or hurtle through a vendor’s booth by accident, these moments aren’t very common. You’d think that a city specifically designed to let you climb structures and caper about the roofs would look overly artificial, yet there’s never a moment when you will think to yourself, « Wow, that looks like a place where I’m supposed to jump. » The architecture looks completely natural, which makes Altaïr’s abilities all the more exciting to pull off. The environments don’t look as if they were created for him to climb around on; he just uses the hand he’s been dealt, as any good assassin should.
In Assassin’s Creed, the greatest joy comes from the smallest details, and for every nerve-racking battle, there’s a quiet moment that cuts to the game’s heart and soul. Climbing towers to uncover portions of the map is a simple mechanic but forever satisfying, thanks to the beautiful vistas and soft musical themes that accompany the view. Even the drunks that pester you are amusing and fun, though their constant shoving is more than annoying, especially if you are trying to pickpocket a pedestrian or eliminate a target without a fuss. It all makes your missions that much more compelling, and you’ll be inclined to explore every nook and cranny and take on every optional task, just for the fun of it. There’s a ton of stuff to do, and even when you’ve exhausted your official tasks, you can search for the collectible flags and crosses strewn around the cities and countryside. You could probably plow through the main quest in 20 hours if you’re lucky, but completists might spend close to 50 hours finishing every quest and gathering every collectible.
There are few differences between the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions. PS3 owners are blessed with a slightly more solid frame rate, although the 360 version features a little more contrast in the lighting, so it’s pretty much a wash. But regardless of which platform you go with, you’ll have an amazing and unforgettable game. Assassin’s Creed is the kind of game you tell your friends about, and one that should be in your collection.