sunnuntai 10. marraskuuta 2013

REVIEW - Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag | Xbox 360 | 2013

GENRE(S): Action / Stealth
RELEASED: October 29, 2013
AVAILABLE ON: PC, PS3, PS4, Wii U, Xbox 360, Xbox One
DEVELOPER(S): Ubisoft Montréal, Ubisoft Annecy, Ubisoft Bucharest, Ubisoft Kiev, Ubisoft Montpellier, Ubisoft Quebec, Ubisoft Singapore, Ubisoft Sofia

Four years later, the great success of Assassin's Creed II continues to define the series. The ambitious Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag - the altogether tenth game in the franchise - is out to change that... just as its few predecessors were, but they took the easy and risky path of repeating the AC II formula. Last year's Assassin's Creed III at least tested out a new modified engine, but as many saw it, the game was just that, a mere test platform - an immensely boring one, with a main character that was, and I quote an anonymous source, "as lively as a brick". As much as I personally appreciated Ubisoft's effort to get back on track with Assassin's Creed III, I admit that the game had many flaws with just some of the most major splinters being Connor's stoic and largely unlikeable personality, and the simplicity and constant, not to mention needless step-by-step guidance of the very basic user interface ("AC for dummies"), contrasted by confusing micromanagement. Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag is supposed to take to these issues as well - it introduces a new ancestor in Connor's much, much more charismatic grandfather Edward, and is set in an extremely large, wide open world, which you're free to explore just as you please without having to wait for the game's permission to do it, where "nothing is true and everything is permitted", and micromanagement is once again one of the game's main draws and not the pointless drivel it's been since Revelations. Ubisoft guarantees at least 40-50 hours of the best Assassin's Creed schtick you've ever witnessed. You've heard their sales pitches before - you can't trust 'em. That's where people like me come in - and I am proud to announce that despite my personal expectations of the complete contrary, Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag IS the best Assassin's Creed game I've seen.............. since Assassin's Creed II. Gotcha.

Weigh-hey, up she rises!

Matt Ryan : Edward Kenway
Sarah Greene : Anne Bonny
Oliver Milburn : Bartholomew Roberts
Mark Bonnar : Edward Thatch, a.k.a. Blackbeard
Ed Stoppard : Benjamin Hornigold
O.T. Fagbenle : John Rackham, a.k.a. Calico Jack
Danny Wallace : Shaun Hastings
Eliza Schneider : Rebecca Crane
Nolan North : Desmond Miles
Nadia Verrucci : Juno

The present day - you literally are the protagonist.
11 months ago, Desmond Miles' ultimate sacrifice did save the world from solar destruction - but as a new threat originating as far back as the First Civilization emerged, the war between the Assassins and the Templars kept raging on. Now presumably in possession of the Pieces of Eden, Abstergo Industries sets its sights on something called the "Observatory". To fund their research and to cover their true motives, Abstergo branches to show business, claiming to use the Animus only to record accurate data for a series of historical adventure films. A blood sample taken from Desmond allows his Animus research to continue through the eyes of none other than... you. You play the part of an eager, new Abstergo Entertainment employee, who initially has no idea about the real story behind the production of Devils of the Caribbean, a pirate film set in the Golden Age of Piracy. This era saw the rise and fall of several fearsome pirate captains, but perhaps the most fearsome of them all - yet one that time forgot - was Edward Kenway. He bowed to no one and followed no code, the only thing he had interest in was wealth - but as most of his former allies were seduced by the Templars one by one, and the greatest treasure of them all slowly became his one true obsession in life, he ultimately found himself aligned with the Assassins.

When I say Assassin's Creed II still defines this franchise, I mean it - and in numerous ways. Although I might sound like a broken record since I've started each AC review in similar words, I'll say that first and foremost, it was such a huge upgrade from the lackluster first installment. The first game was kind of like a prototype of the then-new Anvil engine. Assassin's Creed II was the climax; Brotherhood was still very good, since it had a great story and it improved on II's few shortcomings, but Revelations was like a bundle of leftover material with very little fresh substance. The story had so much potential, but it went to waste, as the once magnificent Ezio had used up nearly all his charisma in previous games. The present day story just stood still - ironically it was the first game's quite unlikeable protagonist Altaïr who stole the show with just a few minutes of screen time. Then, came Assassin's Creed III, a game Ubisoft at least claimed they had been working on for exactly three years. New engine, new ancestor, finally some progress in the story, finally a fresh feel to Assassin's Creed. Yeah, well, all that happened, for sure - but the majority who loved Ezio's exploits hated the game. Just a few weeks after the release of Assassin's Creed III, we found out that there was another new Assassin's Creed coming. Many former fans of the series knocked these "exciting" and "surprising" news out cold, but I dunno, I was kinda torn - I liked Assassin's Creed III. I was able to turn a blind eye to its many shortcomings, just because it was such a fresh take on a formula that was all used up, and the story evolved so drastically at the end - although I kinda expected it - that to say I was intrigued of how they would be able to keep the present day story interesting from that point forward would be an understatement. Secondly, maybe this would be the huge step up, the final product, the climax of AnvilNext, just as Assassin's Creed II was years back. Thirdly, I fucking love pirates. Yarrrrr!!!

Yo-ho, yo-ho. Edward and his wheel.
You don't need more than a minute with Edward Kenway to realize that this is the Assassin's Creed protagonist/deuteragonist you've been waiting for. By his personality and motivation, this man is like a polar opposite of Ezio Auditore, as he is short on both temper and sense of morality, but he is absolutely none less charismatic. If you're like me, you probably liked his son Haytham in Assassin's Creed III more than his grandson Connor, even though he was one of the main antagonists - but I assure you, Haytham's high charisma had nothing on daddy's. Unlike every other Assassin's Creed "hero", Edward isn't on anyone's side, initially. He isn't remotely aware about the war between Assassins and Templars, he just gets dragged into it by complete chance, due to both his curiosity and greed. He spends most of the game hunting down filthy backstabbers, who just happen to be Templars - and listening to the advice of a good friend, he also feels he owes at least something to the Assassins anyway, but doesn't consider himself a part of their holy order. There's only one order Edward belongs to, and that is the order of his beloved pirate government, his little community living under the black flag.

The game is more focused on the historical side of the story than any other Assassin's Creed game. Meaning, there are far less jumps back into the present day scenario, and you don't have to do anything else during these sequences, except for the small task you're given each time, to be allowed to return to Edward. In fact, I see these sequences as follows - and yes, this should be in the tutorial of the game, I think: if you have NOT played every game in the series, you should just do what you're told and get on with Edward's story, but if you HAVE played every game in the series thus far, I strongly suggest you take your time and explore the Abstergo offices thoroughly for computers to hack and conversations to eavesdrop. The hacking puzzles are a refreshing return to the spirit of those Subject 16 puzzles we oh, so loved in Assassin's Creed II and Brotherhood. They're not worth much as actual puzzles, but the content of the numerous types of data packs found from the computers are like numerous types of love letters to long-time fans. They have that haunting atmosphere present in those true puzzles from yesteryear, and they're also there to explain a few things that have been bugging us for years, as well as explain what exactly happened to Desmond, and how we got this far: why is Abstergo suddenly ruling the world, basically, even though Assassins seemed to get the upper hand last time around? What became of the surviving Assassins? What is Juno's masterplan for world domination? Most importantly, what in the hell does "nothing is true, everything is permitted" mean? Which questions are answered, which not, you'll have to see for yourself, and I can tell you, you'll do it gladly. Not without some rain, I'm afraid, but I can almost guarantee you haven't found yourself this enthusiastic about Assassin's Creed in four years - at the very least three.

That manowar's gonna get it.
Being the first Assassin's Creed of the new generation of consoles, you can pretty much rest assured that it looks incredible - although I am sure that many future PS4 and X1 owners will criticize the game for not looking quite as incredible as it could. Its secret for being so much ahead of the already amazing Assassin's Creed III, however, is copy-paste; the level design is quite dull as most smaller categorized locations such as plantations, islands and caves are laid out almost exactly the same. As are the side missions that take place in them, I'm afraid - that's an issue for a later, more extensive look. Although the game lacks a memorable theme song unlike its numbered predecessors, Brian Tyler's soundtrack is easily the best in the series, drawing obvious influence from Pirates of the Caribbean - particularly traceable in the more heated naval battles. The best part of the soundtrack, however, is the one you can control - you can collect several sea shanties for your crew to sing while you're sailing the seven seas. Every tune you can imagine is most likely there: "Leave Her Johnny", "Coast of High Barbary", "Bully in the Alley", "Derby Ram", "Spanish Ladies", and finally, my all-time favourite, "What Will We Do with a Drunken Sailor". Yarrr!!!

The present day script starts quite silly and that leaves an early mark on the voiceover work, but it gets better. The voiceovers for the historical storyline are just amazing. Matt Ryan's Edward Kenway is truly out to outwit Roger Craig Smith's Ezio Auditore, and he succeeds for the most part, leaving players a bit confused who they should root for in the race for their favourite ancestor. (The fact we don't know Edward until he's an adult might have an ill effect on his appeal, though. Just sayin'.) If given a bit more screen time in his "Blackbeard" persona, Mark Bonnar's Edward Thatch would also be one to look out for in the race for best character of the year.

Copy-pasted or not, this is not Dragon Age II, and there are over 70 locations filled with booty, collectibles and secrets... even uncharted ones. The map is one huge platform for the biggest pirate adventure ever played, and it's the most honest open-world adventure in the series. There are still some annoying cries of "you can't access this area during the current memory sequence", but not as much as before. Most of the more difficult areas are chocked full of ships you have no chance against, instead - I think it's better to lay down an impossible challenge than just bluntly tell the player "you can't go there, keep trying and we'll desynchronize you" and still promote the game as an open-world experience.

Blackbeard, Edward's closest ally and best
friend. One hell of a temper, a knack for
theatrics. A great man.
"Impossible challenge" doesn't sound very fun, I guess. Let me rephrase that: impossible, in your current condition. Just starting with your ship - the Jackdaw - there's a whole bulk of stuff you can waste your money on in Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, and for the first time since Brotherhood, it's stuff that truly makes a difference. This game will leave you penniless several times, no matter how much of a swashbuckler you are. In addition to money to cover the labour for the Jackdaw, you also need materials: wood, metal and fabric. Just sailing around and picking up floating crates containing these materials will get you nowhere - you can't buy these materials, so your only option is to go on a plundering trip, and not plunder just any ship that floats by, but a large ship - schooner at least - which carries the materials you need. You can just try your luck with any ship, but if it's a shitload of metal you're after for example, you can check these ships' cargo from afar with your trusted spyglass without having to engage in a tough battle you're not completely sure you can win. And here we get to the naval battles, which are a huge part of the gameplay experience and not just some fun little side errand like in Assassin's Creed III. General controls are better, for starters, and there are several speed settings besides just half and full sail. Also, you have four different weapons at your disposal, activated by just turning the camera to each side of the ship. Might take some getting used to, but it works better than the menu toggling between ammo types in AC III. You won't just automatically board incapacitated ships, either. Depending on the ship type, you need to kill off a set amount of its crew and officers, destroy its flag, or dispose of their assets of gunpowder, or conquer all of these objectives at once. The ship types are still pretty much the same - gunship, schooner, frigate, brig, and manowar - but if you've got enough balls, you can take on the royal fleets and legendary warships clearly marked on the map for some challenge if you muster enough upgrades to destroy and/or board a manowar in mere seconds. After successfully boarding any ship, you can decide whether to use what's left of it to repair the Jackdaw, free its remaining crew to lower your wanted level, or send it to your own fleet which you'll gain access to in time.

Your own fleet is almost the exact same thing as the global assassination missions that have been present since Brotherhood. The main difference is, that this fleet won't help you on missions. There's no one at your back to deliver a deadly Arrow Storm if you find yourself in a pinch too hot to handle - and this is a good thing, I think. No, your fleet has even less to do with Assassins than Edward himself. Don't worry, you'll still get those side missions where you work with another Assassin, but these are not trainees, they're full-fledged Assassins that you just owe a favour or two, and who are having difficulties with particular members of the Templar order... and of course, there's a treasure at the end of the rainbow, which is the final motivation Ed needs. Going back to the fleet missions... no longer will you be able to go to a pigeon booth every ten minutes and send your henchmen on another mission for money and other assets; these missions can take as long as 24 hours in real time. Sounds heavy, I know, but usually there's a LOT of income involved with missions that long, and they don't take away anything from a comfortable gaming experience, since this is your fleet's one and only purpose, and as the global missions get tougher and more lucrative, you'll be thankful for their existence even if it's a little tedious to set up these trips, since you have to secure the routes for the ships before sending them on missions each time in a quite dumb rock-paper-scissors type of naval battle simulation.

In addition to the Jackdaw's efficiency, you can also upgrade its looks, but this is something completely extra for your leisure, and shouldn't be taken too seriously whenever there's money involved (I used free DLC that came with the Buccaneer Edition). You're going to need it for far more important things than cosmetics. Same goes for your hideout - there are shades of AC III's homestead, but there are no missions involved, just properties acquiring which grants you different, minor perks; like if you buy a whorehouse, you can hire prostitutes to blend with and to distract guards for free. You also have your own mansion, which you can upgrade with shitloads of money and different works of art which you can either buy, or get as souvenirs from the fleet missions. Crafting items receives a welcome downgrade; gone is the long, confusing list of AC III which you had to navigate for several minutes to find just _something_ useful to craft, or deploying and defending the tedious convoys to make just a little sum of money. No, these are all useful upgrades and outfits, crafted from particular animal skins and those only. Of course, some animals are hard to find, and most of the prey used for the better upgrades inhabits the more difficult areas of the game. Unfortunately, you cannot craft main weapons - knives, swords or pistols. Those you have to buy, but somewhat luckily, the best sets are unlocked quite early on, so you don't have to waste your money on countless expensive sets that are essential for perhaps just a couple of in-game hours. As tradition goes, the number 4 shows up everywhere, including your maximum amount of pistols. Edward looks quite epic with those four pistols strapped to his chest and abdomen, and the most epic thing about it is the 4x reflex shot which you can use for crowd control - one shot from each pistol, to each side. Achievement on the horizon, too. Epic.

Yep, two cutlasses. A pirate with just one is
not a pirate at all.
The missions initially feel like a refreshing throwback to the Ezio trilogy - the better two parts of it, too, but there's a hitch. About halfway through Edward's storyline, you'll start to notice that the copy-paste isn't just the scourge of level design, but of the missions as well. The cinematics keep the story fresh and going, and there are some random single missions, each of which differ from every other mission in the game, but at quite long intervals. Most of the time, both the story missions and side missions are either simple assassination missions very much like in the first game (ehh...), naval showdowns of the exact same pattern, or those fucking repetitive and lengthy tailing missions I hated in Revelations. Not as bad, but with the worst checkpoints I've seen in a long, long time - controls, which have always been an issue with this series, might pave your downfall at the end of a ten-minute tail, and send you back to the very beginning of the mission. The same dialogues and the same cinematic halts, over and over again, even if there wasn't any true challenge involved until the final key moments. For some odd reason, some particular cutscenes cannot be skipped either. If there's a concrete problem to be found within the cavalcade of enemies, it's the fucking snipers. They're everywhere, and they can spot you from the weirdest distances and positions, no matter how capable you consider yourself in stealth gameplay. They're particularly annoying when it comes to these tailing missions I already dislike. Well, luckily there's one "new" (read: a new version of an old) secondary weapon which is essential against these bastards. Ultimately, every time this game starts to bore me out of my socks with its lack of mission variety, I find myself reminiscing on how boring this series has been at its worst. Even with repetitive optional objectives ("sabotage the bells", how surprising!) and repetitive missions, Black Flag is way more exciting and surprising than either one of the first game or Revelations. I guess Grand Theft Auto V's ever-changing gameplay cast a shadow on this here sandbox, too.

There are several underwater areas, a first for Assassin's Creed although swimming's been possible since AC II. No, it's not a whole underwater map like in Grand Theft Auto V, these are limited locations, and that's fortunate, 'cause there are quite enough uncharted collectibles as it is. Underwater controls are something no one has ever really excelled at, and seeing how imperfect on-foot controls are, you can probably imagine underwater controls are more than a bit of an issue. Once you get used to the scheme, though, these are quite fun - especially those which mix together swimming for treasure and avoiding underwater dangers such as sharks, and infiltrating enemy hideouts via the surrounding waters, with realistically minimal equipment.

Finally - when it comes to Edward - hunting for animals on land is much simpler than before, and not mandatory at all beyond the skins that are needed for upgrades. The thrill of the hunt is taken to the sea in a whaling minigame. Not only are the skins of whales and sharks essential for the best upgrades in the game, but you can sell these for some ridiculous prices, and the minigame really is quite fun - assuming you're not a PETA member or just some random activist. Sorry, but if you can't take it to the cortex that this is a realistic take on pirate history, not a clean (yet great) Disney presentation, I have no sympathy or understanding for you. I have nothing against principles which I don't follow, everyone's got to have 'em, but some people have a shitty sense for relativity. Sorry for sidestepping, just needed to get that out of my system.

Straight to the cap!
Finally - when it comes to the whole game - I need to properly express my love for the present day scenario, as silly as it first seems. For the first time in... uh, actually, EVER, I found myself speeding through Edward's storyline just to get to make a proper jump to the present day after you can actually do something there, and not just walk around and listen to stupid people talk. The magic of the present day lies in the hidden secrets of the Abstergo Entertainment HQ. There are nearly 40 computers and security systems to hack in three different "puzzle" minigames, which aren't very hard, but a welcome change in pace every once in a while, and what makes them exciting is thinking what sort of a data pack awaits beyond the solution to the puzzle. It can be absolutely anything: miscellaneous types of information gathered from the Temple and Desmond after the end of the previous game, illustrated biographies of several key characters of the whole franchise, movie trailers, recordings from before the events of the whole franchise which explain Abstergo's motivations, even teasers of which historical era the franchise might go to next, and much more. In a slight addition, there are hidden notes scattered all around the office building, written by an initially unknown someone who's like Subject 16 on drugs - Twisted with a capital T. I love these sequences, and while I'm writing this, I'm still a bit shy of the final conclusions to both storylines, nailed to the seat to say the least.

How far you're willing to go for 100% synchronization determines the difficulty of the game - the legendary warships are HARD, even with the Jackdaw fully upgraded, and not only are some of the optional objectives equally hard, their repetition makes them hard to bear. Besides, the game offers you so many easy ways out of missions that look hard, the clumsy enemy A.I. included - just like the first game - that with this much repetition, you'll have to be one patient player not to take one every once in a while.

Repetition is the key flaw of Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, but after all, it truly is a fresh, new beginning for the series, an ultimately engaging open-world experience that promises great things, solid proof that Ubisoft truly can get out of the slump they've been in since Brotherhood, and that they still have surprises left when it comes to the storyline. Now if they'd only wait a couple of years before unleashing the next installment, I think it's got all the potential to be something quite awesome.

+ Beautiful graphics and highly atmospheric music
+ Greatest pirate story told in a video game since Guybrush Threepwood's early career
+ Edward's charisma equals that of Ezio's, and both characters are still completely different from each other
+ The updated naval warfare is a solid, fun part of the game
+ The present day hacking minigames offer great prizes for long-time fans
+ A whole array of welcome upgrades and downgrades to several key elements from yesteryear
+ A huge map filled with collectibles

- Cramped, often distracting HUD
- Spotty controls
- Questionable enemy A.I. - "Some guy just jumped out of the bush and killed my best friend two meters straight ahead... I'm probably seeing things. Carrying on."
- Repetitive level design and mission objectives
- On/off checkpoints, turned "off" at the worst possible times (ie. the tailing missions)

< 8.8 >

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