assassin's creed - black flag
It took me around a month to work my way through the islands of the Caribbean with Assassin's Creed: Black Flag.
I enjoyed my time as a swashbuckling pirate overall and it really was a great addition to the series. I don't think I've had quite as much fun running around wielding the hidden blades and diving off very high places since ACII.
Visually it's a gorgeous game... the locations are lush and beautiful to move around, particularly the jungles when the light falls just the right way. The weather effects that worked so well in ACIII work even better in Black Flag, especially when you're caught in a storm out at sea (although the water spouts/mini typhoons can bite me since they seem to achieve sentience and follow your ship around).
And speaking of sea, the water effects here are gorgeous. From the vast Caribbean Sea to waterfalls and even little puddles that you splash through, it all looks great. Instead of just slogging through murky featureless liquid, you can see yourself moving through the water. When you're in the ocean there are also occasionally little fishes and the like (although the fish AI, if there is one, isn't overly bright and they never scatter as you plough your way through them like I expected them to... but then the same can be said for the seagulls, flamingos and other bird life you encounter on various islands, you can't scare them away, and weirdly you also can't stab them which reduces them to mere set decorations, much like the beach dwelling crabs and turtles). There's also a whole underwater world you can explore, as well as a bunch of instances where you need to get to certain missions via the diving bell... which I didn't really care for... but more on that later.
The protagonist this time around is privateer turned pirate Edward Kenway (father of Haytham Kenway from ACII, and thus *spoilers* grandfather of Connor), and as a character he's everything that his descendants aren't... he's flirty, fun, passionate and every inch the pirate rogue. Unfortunately he's also NOT an assassin. Not officially anyway, and I don't think that you could really say at any point that he fully embraces the creed.
That was a downside for me, a minor one, but still a downside. While it worked for the way the story had been constructed, I did find that I really missed that sense of purpose and mission that being an assassin would have given, or if Edward had been inducted into the order during the course of the game (like both Connor and, to some degree, Ezio before him). And him having been aboard ship for two years previously doesn't really explain away him having mad assassin parkour skills.
I will also admit that he takes a little while to warm up to. Initially he's all about the doubloons (or more accurately, the reales, since a doubloon is actually 128 reales, thank you Internetz)... and that did make him slightly less likeable to start with. But once he screws up enough to kick off the major plot, he started to grow on me. That and his interactions with the first Master Assassin in Havana (the unfortunately named Rhona Dinsmore) were fun and flirty and really helped turn him into a likeable character.
And even though in ACIII I found everything about the combat and the guard AI problematic, I didn't mind it quite so much this time around. Partly because I discovered what (for me anyway) the secret is to good combat when there's more than one attacker jumping on you... namely throw a smokebomb, shiv everybody in the vicinity and repeat until everybody is dead. I made it through more than one enemy-filled island and almost every single one of the boat boarding battles that way.
I don't know if they actually balanced out the combat this time around, or if I was just more used to it, it just felt much better overall. And while I desynchronised during combat in ACIII on a regular basis, generally the only times that I did it in Black Flag were due to either a) ship battle related trauma or b) thinking I could jump further than I could (also known as the "whoops, I fell off that mast/cliff/temple ruin"). Also, the "run away and hide until you have some health bars again" technique worked out very well for me a second time around, but I felt like I had to use it much less often too.
The improved Eagle Vision which lets you track enemies through walls and out of your line of site was also incredibly useful, especially any time you're using stealth or trailing people since I only had to keep their eagle vision echo in sight, rather than the character themselves. That was always a giant bugbear for me in previous games, when it was impossible to do that without either falling off a roof or being seen or losing your quarry when they disappeared down a warren of streets.
I also found it much easier to do a lot of the additional synchronisation items within the missions... but then they were also much easier to actually remember or were pointed out clearly this time around compared with ACIII.
In fact, almost everything that I saw as a flaw in ACIII has been upgraded or fixed or otherwise improved this time around which made me happy. Most notably both the on screen prompts and clues, but also the hunting of animals, which was so much easier (specifically the fending off large predators specifically, I think I only died a handful of times as opposed to EVERY SINGLE TIME) and which led directly into the crafting of the health upgrades (which I was so glad to see again) and additional weapon/tool storage, which was also much, much easier.
One of the things I thought was very odd, and maybe I just overlooked it or didn't happen upon the right shop or something, but the throwing knives that I made great use of in previous games seemed to be strangely absent this time around. Sure I'd occasionally pickpocket one off of a dead guard's corpse, but I never found a shop that sold them outright. Not that I was short on weapons (I went through what must have been a couple of hundred insanity/poison and sleep darts taking down guards all over the place), but I did miss the knives on occasion, especially when I was going for uber stealth.
One thing that I definitely liked about Black Flag over pretty much any of the previous games in the series was the way that the game was set up across multiple islands... from well-known ones like Havana, Kingston and Nassau which were the big bustling towns, down to little islands that may only contain a chest or a glowing pyramid or a small "pirate outpost". But unlike previous games where you have a whole city to explore and then, if you're so inclined, go through and clear out all the collectibles and extra content, or just whatever segment of city that you're being allowed to access at the moment, this system allows you to go through and pick a smaller and often more manageable area completely clean, which I LOVE. And assigning the R2 button to a pop-up that tells you how much stuff you have still to clear was a great addition too, although I tended to use the map to target things individually more so than I used that. The return of the fast travel system that allows you to go to an island in general or to a specific viewpoint on that island is highly welcome, especially when you need to suddenly flick back to somewhere you've already been (plus the fact that your ship also appears in the harbour when you do that is damn useful) for some of the assassination missions.
Speaking of ships, I didn't mind the ship missions/combat in ACIII. I wasn't always great at them, and I never finished the very last one which had wave after wave of boats coming at you (from memory), but it was fun just tooling around in the ocean. And I felt the same way about Black Flag, especially in the early part of the game where everything is new and different and you're not needing to travel huge distances to get from one place to another (although they do feel that way initially).
But after a while (by about the 50% synchronisation point I think), it all became a bit repetitive. Not the story missions so much, but the fact that you need to capture other ships in order to upgrade your own ship and therefore be better at capturing ships (to then upgrade your own ship, etc, repeat until insane) and taking over the forts that control/unlock the "mystery fog" for each section of the map. That I got bored with, because it was either a giant pain in the ass, especially when confronting multiple ships, or as happened on more than one occasion, I'd attack, disable and board a ship, only to be taken down by the enemy crew (or in one spectacular case, misjudged a jump from the very top of the mast to some rigging and went kersplat on the deck of the ship with legs all akimbo). The fact that it treated both the sea battle and the ship board battle as the same event was also kind of annoying. I would have much preferred if when you desynchronised after failing the boarding part, it would take you back to the point when you're approaching the ship to board it.
The fact that you would sometimes get the "this area not available for the current memory" message while you were sailing around trying to fight was also a pain. If it's an open world/open ocean, then let me move around as much as I like during a fight (within the confines of the attack area I suppose), don't hem me in with random boundaries and punish me for straying outside of them while following enemy ships. I will say that that only happened a handful of times, and mostly when I was doing some of the earlier story missions rather than free roaming, so there may have been additional boundaries put up for those.
Also, don't get me started on the sea shanties... they were fine at certain points, but when you're supposed to be doing a silent or stealth or high tension mission... or are having to do a mission all over again because you failed at the last possible moment, you can take your cheery singing and shove it. I was very thankful that there was an option to (temporarily) silence them though.
The Black Flag version of the assassin recruitment missions from other games have been split into a couple of different tasks this time around... you can rescue pirates from attacking guards (or, like I did, just pick up every random floating sailor you see while travelling from one place to another) which then keeps your crew at full strength and makes boarding ships easier, but the "sending people on missions" portion of the game became controlling your own fleet. Not that you could ever get them to come and help you on missions (although there were some random "friendly" ships that show up out of the blue on occasion, but I never quite figured out exactly what the trigger was for their appearance), they just scuttled about in their own unique portion of the game, running trade missions to far off lands and taking down other ships to make those routes safe to sail.
I had a couple of issues with that "mini game" to be honest and it was easily my least favourite part of the entire game. The first thing was that while you do get very valuable cash from these missions, they're trading items that only exist within their own little minigame... I always desperately needed metal to upgrade Kenway's boat, the Jackdaw, but the trade missions were wine and spices and the like, which didn't do me any good and I couldn't use them in-game anyway. Secondly, you need to capture boats in the main portion of the game to add to your minigame fleet, but they in turn can't capture any of the ships they encounter, so while they fought countless ships, that didn't do me any good at all. And the mini game within the mini game where you battle other ships to clear the trade routes got really, really, really old, really fast. It just ended up feeling very much like a tacked on addition to the game rather than something I wanted to do, unlike the upgrading of assassins in Revelations, or even clearing the other American cities in ACIII. This was essentially doing the same thing over and over and over again with only the reales as reward, and unlike the cities in ACIII, the routes didn't stay clear once you cleared them... it was very annoying.
One of the other things that I gave up on at a certain point were the additional underwater missions. And that was partly because you couldn't even arm yourself. Seriously, there were sharks and moray eels just ready to take a bite out of you, and there never seemed to be a way to defend yourself, which was frankly ridiculous... I understand not being allowed to use the hidden blades or a sword or pistols, but give me a damn knife and let me be Stabby McStabbington. It was also generally annoying that while you do have additional air caches dropped around the map, it was really easy to get lost or not be sure where the hell you were going due to being able to move anywhere in three dimensional space and while I never actually ran out of air, I did get chewed up by sharks on more than one occasion. I'm also never a fan of the "timed mission" sections of the AC games, and this was a whole slew of them.
The rewards for doing those areas weren't enough to keep me going back versus the stresses of actually trying to do them, especially since they were all connected do modifying your ship, which in turn required more sea battles, etc, etc.
And the end of the game (while VASTLY superior to the end of ACIII) seemed to jump out at me from nowhere. I knew I was coming up on it, but unlike the other games which make it really damn obvious that you're on the final leg, Black Flag blindsided me. I jumped back into the Animus after doing the last of the "real world" sections, and there was one short-ish cut scene before the credits started rolling.
I know that other people have complained about this before, but seriously Ubisoft, let us have a way of skipping the bulk of the credits. Yes, there were a couple of cute sections during the credits, one where you're steering a boat while having a conversation with another character (which is actually a really sweet ending) and then another one which *slight spoilers* introduces the child version of Haytham (which also then rewards you with the brilliantly named "Saw That One Coming" trophy). But then you need to sit through at least twenty damn minutes of scrolling boredom.
Then, unlike ACIII, you aren't even rewarded with extra gameplay... I mean the game eventually reboots and the map displayed with a bunch of assassination/bureau icons on it... but they seemed to disappear as soon as I started running around and looked at the main map, which is weird and annoying. Whether they were reminders of "extra content" and I'd done most of it, I don't really know, but I was slightly confused and didn't play for very long after that point.
The portions of the game that take place in "the real world" are very different this time around. Gone is Desmond Miles and the third person perspective, this time around it's all mute first person view as YOU, the gamer, are the newest employee of the Canadian gaming company offshoot of Abstergo Industries (which I'm guessing must have been at least partially based on/inspired by Ubisoft itself and its various divisions spread around the globe).
While these sections feel very, very different (and there are only a handful of them) to the Desmond ones, they are all part of the same universe, and characters from the Desmond storyline do show up (which made me very, very happy). I may also have gotten a little glassy eyed when I hacked into one of the computers (in game, obviously) and discovered a video/report detailing exactly what happened to Desmond after the end of ACIII. Actually 90% of these real world sections are hacking minigames set in various parts of the Abstergo building. Thankfully it wasn't the same game over and over and over, there were three distinct types (although the "guide the ball through these killer lines" version was my least favourite), and the various files you uncover detail not only the development of the first Animus and the ability to dive into memories that aren't part of your genetic heritage but also various snippets "recovered" from Desmond's phone. It was interesting enough to keep me coming back, and viewing/listening to all of them and hacking every computer I could get my grubby little virtual hands on.
Again, this section of the game, although it appeared to be rolling to a close, didn't feel like it properly ended before I jumped back into the Animus for the final time. In fact it felt very much like all it was missing was "to be continued".
All in all, this game slots in as my second favourite after the ACII/Brotherhood two-parter, and I'm definitely sad to have said goodbye to Edward, his Jackdaw and the sun-drenched islands of the Caribbean.