Eschewing the standard land-focused historical settings associated with the Assassin’s Creed series, Black Flag instead visits the Caribbean Sea circa the late 17th Century (during a period commonly referred to as the Golden Age of Piracy), and follows the exploits of Edward Kenway, a privateer and impostor assassin, who is one day to become the father of Assassin’s Creed III’s Haytham Kenway.
Already earning impressive critical acclaim and proving itself to be a financially successful entity, Black Flag’s legacy is written, the future of the franchise secure – at least, for now. As we’ve already reviewed the last gen version, I’ll keep the details light, but rest assured that the next-gen upgrade is a solid improvement, even if it is only skin-deep.
Even on the PS3 and Xbox 360, Black Flag is visually dazzling. More a game about pirates than a game about Assassins and Templars and their total inability to stop squabbling and just get along, the authentic Caribbean setting steals the show out from under the colourful cast of characters time and again.
It’s also an incredibly complete experience. From the interesting opening set-up to a rather surprising finale (though I won’t say why for fear of spoiling it for those of you yet to play it), Ubisoft filled Black Flag with so much to see and do that there was never going be a real need for extra content. As with Assassin’s Creed III, DLC will be a series of standalone mini-adventures rather than anything that intrudes too rudely on Kenway’s story.
The biggest problem that this presents to a generation-spanning title like Assassin’s Creed IV is that there’s very little to actually improve for the next-gen versions, at least on the face of it. Essentially, this is exactly the same game in every single way as the one previously released on “last gen” platforms. There’s no extra content, no hidden missions or exclusive collectibles, no new characters or settings – even the multiplayer element is a pure copy.
The difference between the PS3 and PS4 versions (for example) is as extreme and significant as the change achieved by turning up the graphical settings on a decent PC from bottom end to top. Obviously, this isn’t a bad thing, it’s just not incredibly overwhelming. The frame rate is now noticeably smoother, so animation has more flow (in cutscenes and during combat or free-running), and there’s no texture pop-in whatsoever now. In addition, the textures themselves are richer, the colours more vibrant, the level of detail slightly greater.
That being said, while the lush tropical outdoor settings benefit well from the enhanced colours and detail, anything set indoors looks only marginally better, and I have noticed several brief instances of screen-tearing – although, in all fairness, I have been looking for faults and found very few.
If you had problems with the mechanics of Black Flag in the last-gen versions (and indeed there are those who consider the gameplay to be somewhat dated now), you’ll find nothing on PS4 or Xbox One to convince you that you were wrong. The platforming is still a little hit and miss, the combat is still very easy and the eavesdropping and tailing missions are still quite boring. It’s just that now it looks really, really pretty. Watching humpbacks break the surf, chasing down galleons during lashing rainstorms and fighting redcoats upon the numerous sun-blasted shores never looked better, but the rest remains the same.
On PlayStation 4, clicking the new touchpad replaces the Select button to open your world map, and you can now select destinations by thumb-swiping it. The difference is a small one, but it’s nice to have a reason to use the new controller functionality. Also, Remote Play is possible using the Vita, and Ubisoft have done well to mostly avoid having to use the dreaded rear touchpad. Hitting the on-screen mini-map activates Eagle Vision and the rear touchpad opens up the handy quick menu so you can check your progress in each area. Once you’re used to the minor changes, it’s brilliant to be able to play Black Flag on the Vita while you lay back on the couch.
VERDICT: If you’ve already played through Kenway’s story on last-gen and rinsed every last secret out of it, there’s little point buying the PS4 or Xbox One versions. However, if you were holding out for next-gen, you’ve absolutely made the right choice. The disparities may be largely cosmetic (aside the not-entirely-perfect remote play option, of course), but the PS4 iteration of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is certainly the definitive version.
SUPERB. This is the mark of greatness, only awarded to games that engage us from start to finish. Titles that score 9/10 will have very few problems or negative issues, and will deliver high quality and value for money across all aspects of their design.
Review code provided by publisher.