Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed franchise is no stranger to critical praise, though it has a tendency to deceive. Of the five console games released in the series so to date, three have undergone a degree of post-launch revisionism: the first game was bold but ultimately disjointed, Revelations asked the player to revisit settings and characters one too many times, and Assassin's Creed 3 was a jumble of ideas that lacked the charm to compensate for the flaws in its execution. That's the tone of the general discussion today, but it was far rosier in the past.
Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag is the sixth game in the main series - the fifth in little more than four years - and has once again been greeted by the sort of critical reception that makes one forget that digits below 7 even exist. Much has changed since Altair first stalked Jerusalem's narrow streets, and Black Flag pushes even further into uncharted territory, swapping out the density and detail of the city to pursue Assassin's Creed 3's fondness for the great outdoors - specifically, the open sea.
"From a graphical standpoint, Black Flag's world is built to amaze regardless of which console generation you're playing it on"
And Edge can barely contain its enthusiasm for that change, proclaiming Black Flag as a new benchmark, "not only for Ubisoft's series but for open-world gaming." Partly, this is down to the novelty of being allowed to play at being a pirate in the first place - a rare setting for a game, if not entirely unheard of - but the sheer breadth and beauty of the world that Ubisoft Montreal calls to mind the huge landscapes associated with games like Oblivion and Skyrim. Black Flag is a visual feast, whatever your console.
"From a graphical standpoint, Black Flag's world is built to amaze regardless of which console generation you're playing it on," Edge's 9 out of 10 review states. "The tropical foliage in jungle environs has a more dynamic lilt and sway. Watching a cutscene of Edward [Kenway, the protagonist[ speaking to his quartermaster Adéwalé at the stern, the current-gen version assumes your eyes are focused on the conversing men and soft-focuses the background details such as water and passing land, while the PS4 version maintains distinct water surface detail and crisper wood textures on the boat. It's noticeable, but feels more like the step up we've become accustomed to between existing console and PC games."
And Black Flag's world provides more than enough excuses to explore its extremities. Assassin's Creed games are famed/reviled for the surfeit of activities/busywork they contain, but Edge notes a greater effort to make that content fit the lovingly rendered context. The series retains its sense of history and place, fully embracing the pirates life - with its attendant grizzled captains and salty seadogs - and allowing that to inform the gameplay systems and the ways they link together.
"There are echoes of Bethesda's open-world RPGs, gradually taking you from straw-chewing peasant to legendary badass, so much is there to upgrade. Use your plunder to expand Kenway's arsenal. Outfit your ship, the Jackdaw, with stronger cannons, or a fetching red-striped sail. Build taverns, brothels and beach-party bonfires in your very own hideout on the Inagua islands. Craft inventory and health upgrades out of animal pelts.
"We never felt like we had enough gold to buy everything we wanted, which seems engineered to push you out to sea to do what pirates do best: raid other ships."
"Where Edward can feel slow on land, the Jackdaw is lithe and responsive, from the simplest act of sailing to the most pitched of sea battles"
One thing is certain, a point of praise in just about every review out there: Black Flag does ships very, very well. What many saw as the single greatest feature of Assassin's Creed 3 is now the core of the entire game, allowing Ubisoft to base its world around a sprawling Caribbean archipelago and add depth to mechanics that did not even exist in the series until a year ago. For Eurogamer, this is most welcome, as it allows Black Flag to transcend those systems that have began to degrade due to age and overuse.
"If successive Assassin's Creed games have worn you down with the same ageing systems...you should know that these things are still prominent components of Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag," Eurogamer's 9 out of 10 review states. "You should also know, however, that while they may bog you down occasionally, they are pushed comprehensively into the background by the many other things that you spend your time doing in this open-world sequel."
And the most successful of these "many other things" are the naval combat and navigation. Indeed, the focus on seafaring completely alters the nature of the experience: the cities are no show-stopping, living museums, as Rome and Constantinople were; Black Flag's Kingston and Havana are admirable destinations in their own right, but they really exist as venues for moving the story along and earning gold. For Ubisoft Montreal, this time the destination is actually the journey.
"The real game is out at sea," Eurogamer notes. "Standing at the helm of the Jackdaw, the whole map is open from the start - although the southern seas are more treacherous than the north - and almost every island, peninsula and slip of land has its own combination of viewpoints to scale, treasure to dig up and secrets to reveal. What's more, the transition from ship to shore is non-existent - you just pull up wherever you like, dive overboard and walk up the nearest beach.
"There's a great balance and zip to the way you pinwheel around the game's vast oceans, stripping treasure maps from corpses and sailing to their coordinates, eyeing up schooners and frigates through your spyglass and weighing the value of their cargo against the difficulty of the fight they'll put up, diving to shipwrecks and underwater cave networks, harpooning sharks and whales to fashion new pouches and armour, and just ramming and broadsiding anyone who gets in your way. Where Edward can feel slow on land, the Jackdaw is lithe and responsive, from the simplest act of sailing to the most pitched of sea battles."
However, while Black Flag is often very entertaining, some critics have pointed out that it doesn't feel very much like Assassin's Creed. Of course, that could be argued as a good thing - originality and innovation are two of the most prized qualities in any game - but there is a growing sense that the series has strayed too far from its core ideas, and the whole construction is starting to look unstable. For Polygon, which awards Black Flag a measured 7.5, the, "the narrative and character strength that held previous Assassin's Creed titles together...are weaker than they've ever been."
"The moments that best defined the game for me existed separately from the series that came to define Ubisoft this console generation"
"Previous Assassin's Creed games - particularly the main, numbered games - have revolved around the war between Assassin and Templar, the turning points, the meaningful moments. Assassin's Creed 4 is content to sit on the edges of that greater conflict. Edward isn't the series' traditional lead, and his absence of allegiance hangs throughout the game. The inclusion of Assassin's Creed's fiction feels haphazard and often cursory; even assassination feels perfunctory. Assassin's Creed 4 is more comfortable wandering the ocean in search of one big score."
For clarity's sake, it's worth pointing out that Polygon had just as much fun on the high seas as those that scored the game a point or two higher, but the main focus of its criticism is more esoteric than the sort in which the games press generally trafficks. Indeed, the source of fun and satisfaction in Black Flag feels so distinct from previous games in the series, it is only in its niggles and blemishes that the Assassin's Creed DNA really shows,
"Aside from the brief moments outside the Animus VR construct in which Assassin's Creed 4 takes place, the moments that best defined the game for me existed separately from the series that came to define Ubisoft this console generation.
"This was my biggest problem with Assassin's Creed 4. For all of its mechanical improvements, for the wonder I felt as I sailed the ocean, orca, dolphins, even great whites breaking the surface to my port side as I outran a royal trade armada, for the excellent performances and character moments throughout ... it felt disjointed. Directionless."
And Polygon isn't alone on its introspective island. This curious sense of dislocation surfaces in a number of Black Flag's reviews, regardless of the score at the end, but none explore it in quite the same detail as Kotaku. Despite giving the game a "Yes" rating, and declaring it, "the most mechanically assured, sturdily designed game in the series," the bulk of its verbose review is dedicated to where Black Flag fits into the complicated web of mythos and mechanics Ubisoft Montreal has created - and, more pointedly, the ways in which it fails.
"Where lies the heart of this series? After six years and seven games, are we any closer to something resembling a destination? And is that destination-and the volumes of ongoing lore and backstory supporting it-even necessary, or could this game have simply been about pirates?"
Certainly, Black Flag's many distractions have a greater sense of purpose than, say, Assassin's Creed 3, and Ubisoft has used some of the knowledge accrued from Far Cry 3 to build them into a framework of mutual dependence, but the sheer volume of content remains overwhelming, and ultimately feels like a distraction. The screen is awash with information: ratings, scores, percentage tallies, information on the next meta-challenge, all in ignorance of the events in the narrative and the inner lives of its characters.
"Where lies the heart of this series? After six years and seven games, are we any closer to something resembling a destination?"
"Here I sit, playing a game until three in the morning, all because I need to get enough money to purchase a stronger rowboat. I need the stronger rowboat so that I can harpoon enough great white sharks to upgrade my armor, and I need to upgrade my armor so that I can take more damage when I try to board that Man of War. I need to board the Man of War so that I can get more metal, which I can use to reinforce my ship's hull, so I can take on a fort...
"Every time I untangle myself from Black Flag's disconcertingly absorbing scaffold of rewards and challenges, I can't help but question my motivations. Why on earth have I been doing this stuff? Was it intrinsically enjoyable, or was I simply hooked on the small rush of regularly accomplishing small goals? Why does the armor upgrade require shark bones? Didn't I just make something similar with deer hide?
"Black Flag often feels like two games: One, a pirate game in which you can ram your ship into an enemy brig before leaping onto their decks. The other, a bog-standard Assassin's Creed game, in which you follow guys on the street, decipher a novel's worth of lore and backstory, and leap off of buildings into piles of hay.
"The first game feels exciting, fresh and at times sensationally fun. The second game feels increasingly tired."