Review: Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag (PS4)

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Title: Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag
Format: Blu-ray Disc / PlayStation Network Download (22 GB)
Release Date: November 15, 2013
Publisher: Ubisoft
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Original MSRP: $59.99
ESRB Rating: M
Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag is also available on PlayStation 3, Xbox One, Wii U, Xbox 360 and PC.
The PlayStation 4 disc based version was used for this review.

Editor’s Note:
Portions of this review also appear in our PS3 coverage of Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag. Also, a 2 GB patch was released on February 3, 2014 which fixes the connectivity issues with the Companion App for players with Friends Lists over 100 people. Portions of this review have been edited to reflect this update.

Audio Review:
The audio review for this game is available on Episode 352 of the podcast.

Gameplay:
The latest iteration of Ubisoft’s cash cow Assassin’s Creed series puts you in the boots of Edward Kenway, a privateer turned pirate in the Caribbean of the early 1700’s. The game connects to Assassin’s Creed 3 through Edward’s son, Haytham Kenway and grandson Connor. In the real world, you’re just a guy who’s been hired by Abstergo Entertainment, a division set up to create adventure experiences based on their ability to access genetic memories through DNA sequencing. The idea is to create exciting and safe pirate adventures along the lines of a Jurassic Park, but of course there are deeper, hidden motives involved.

The game starts you out on the ocean in the middle of a battle between ships. It’s a good first taste of what will be an important part of the experience here. Back on land everything feels like a standard Assassin’s Creed game with an even better story this time around. Story missions, assassination contracts and a ton of side quests fill out the game. You’ll also be able to rescue pirates in random encounters which will then add them to your crew as well as hunt for treasure and sea shanties, the latter of which provides your crew a nice diversion while traveling by sea.

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Things really take off when you get control of your own ship, the Jackdaw. The entire Caribbean is laid out for you with no shortage of things to do. Expect a lot of hunting, crafting and raids. Money is actually not only worthwhile this time around but it’s an absolute necessity. You’ll need it to repair and upgrade your ship which is critical in taking on the bigger ships in the game. The size of your crew is also critical as your fleet of ships grows so you’ll always need to be rescuing and recruiting more pirates as you progress through the game.

Raids are pretty straightforward as you’ll make your way to Plantations on the islands in the area and quietly (or loudly, if that’s you’re thing) acquire whatever goods they have stashed away. You can then sell them directly from the Captain’s cabin on your ship and immediately purchase upgrades.

This is where the biggest difference lies between this game and all others in the series that came before it. Once things open up and you can sail the seas, attacking other ships, raiding Plantations, exploring underwater wrecks and such, it begins to feel less and less like an Assassin’s Creed game.

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Purists may hate it, but I think it breathes some much needed new life into the series. Yes, it does feel more like a pirate game with some Assassin’s Creed elements mixed in than an Assassin’s Creed game with some pirate elements, but with six games over five years (eight if you count the PSP and Vita outings), a little shake up is sorely needed.

Another amazing addition to the game is the optional (and free!) companion app available for iOS (160 MB) and Android (182 MB), though there are a number of device compatibility issues being reported with the Android app. Once up and running, you just need to log in with your uPlay account (yes, yes I know) on both devices and they sync up instantly with real-time connectivity.

There is however one very important caveat if you’re playing on the PS4 and you want to use this app. There is a critical bug in the way uPlay works, rendering it inoperable if your friends list stays above 100 people. Without that connection to uPlay, the companion app is useless as it can never find your game on the PS4.

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Unfortunately, this bug and the cause of it had to be pieced together by the community over the past few months as Ubisoft still hasn’t even officially acknowledged it. Because of this silence, coupled with the speculation that it’s inherent to the DNA of uPlay itself necessitating a massive code overhaul to fix it, I wouldn’t expect this to be corrected any time soon, if ever. It’s really a shame because it’s such a wonderful addition to the game.

** UPDATE February 5, 2014
A 2 GB patch was released on Monday, February 3, 2014 which fixes this connectivity issue on the PlayStation 4. I was able to connect immediately after patching the game and use all features just like the PS3 version. Thanks Ubisoft!
**

The app gives you a full screen map that you can zoom in and out of which removes any need to use the mini map or full map in the pause screen. You can actually turn the HUD off at this point and use the companion app to keep track of things. It’s especially useful while at sea, giving you a clear view of islands, enemies and collectibles on screen at all times.

Treasure maps, shanties, character bios and more are all available to you whether you’re connected to the game or not, allowing you to read up on the places and people you’ve come across in the story. You can even listen to the shanties themselves which was a welcome little addition.

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The piece that really makes this a killer app though is the ability to manage Kenway’s Fleet. Once you’ve captured some ships and added them to your own little fleet, you’ll unlock the ability to send them on trade routes and other missions. You can handle all of this no matter where you are, whether the game is on or off. If your fleet gets into trouble and you want to take control, you can. You’ll be dropped into a mini-game that allows you to be more in control of the fate of your ships and when you start the game up again, all the money earned is deposited into your account.

The addition of the second screen app, while not critical to completing the game, enhances the experience in ways you never would have imagined. If you happen to have less than 100 friends on the PSN, Setting it up and using it is well worth the effort. It’s really brilliant and I’d love to see similar systems implemented on other games in the future.

The PlayStation exclusive content featuring Aveline De Grandpré, the protagonist of Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation, features much of the raiding mechanic seen in the full game. You’ll essentially be moving from Plantation to Plantation looking for a potential new recruit for Connor. It’s a nice diversion, but there’s not a whole lot to it as there really aren’t any hidden items to find or even side quests. Still, it’s worth a play-through for the small story alone.

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Visuals:
Your first port of call is Havana and it’s wonderfully vibrant and alive. The colors, the lighting, it’s all gorgeous. When going from the PS3 to the PS4, there’s a noticeable jump in the graphics. Close-ups of characters show a much higher level of detail in every aspect, with hair and clothing really standing out. Suspect textures from the PS3 are completely gone and the foliage looks as real as I’ve ever seen in a video game.

The water also gets a huge upgrade from the PS3 with even more realistic motion and volume. You’ll even see water washing over the deck of your ship in rough seas. Draw distance is also amazing as you can see clear out to the horizon whether on top of the tallest building or the highest mast on a ship.

Everything just looks and feels that much more real, it’s a gorgeous game. Rain comes down heavier, lighting is better, shadows are improved and all the little nagging issues in the PS3 version have been wiped away.

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I tried to grab a few screen shots in the same places as they were in the PS3 review. If you look back at that and compare them, the lighting and shadows should jump out pretty quickly.

Audio:
The voice acting is all handled with top tier talent and it helps that the script is damn good as well. You’ll want to find those Sea Shanties mentioned earlier because every one you pick up is another song your crew will sing while out at sea. It’s a small touch, but it lends so much to the atmosphere of the game that finding them almost becomes mandatory.

Canon and gunfire as well as swordplay and fighting in general all sound as natural and real as you’d expect. Again, it’s the small details that make the biggest difference and everything comes together with a great soundtrack that helps to immerse you in the time period and action.

Online/Multiplayer:
Building off of previous efforts, the multiplayer takes a nice step forward, offering a tutorial the first time through in the guise of an Abstergo Entertainment training session to prepare you for your adventure. During this training, only the relevant bits of the world are rendered leaving the rest to look like a big futuristic holodeck.

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The gameplay itself is all land based with a lot of hunting and hiding, much like previous installments. There’s a new Capture the Flag type mode with using Artifacts. You have plenty of Perks and Abilities to upgrade with the XP you’ll be earning and the nice thing is that while Abilities require a cooldown, Perks do not. Because of this, you’ll really need to choose carefully heading into matches to give yourself a distinct advantage over your competitors.

The biggest addition this time around is the Game Lab. In it, you can create your own multiplayer mode entirely from scratch, designating everything from the gameplay type, rules, abilities, weapons available and more. It’s the single most important addition to the multiplayer and a guarantee that it’ll never go stale.

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Conclusion:
With a solid story, interesting protagonist and a wide open, almost Grand Theft Auto feel to it, what we have here is the biggest and possibly best Assassin’s Creed game to date. While it tweaks the gameplay in a number of ways and it feels like the least Assassin’s Creed-y in the franchise, it’s still the same game at heart. The changes make for a much more interesting and ultimately more satisfying experience.

If you have the choice, the PS4 version trumps the PS3 version in just about every way possible. The only thing to take into account is whether you intend to use the Companion App and how many people you have on your Friends List. If you’re over 100 it simply will not work on the PS4. Just something to keep in mind.

The story is great and the world itself is massive. There’s so much to do and see that you’ll be buried in this game for a long time to come. It’s definitely one of the best games in the series.

Score:
9.0

* All screenshots used in this review were taken directly from the game using the Share functionality on the PlayStation 4.

Companion App screenshots were taken directly from the App using the built-in iOS screen capture feature.

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Written by Josh Langford

Josh Langford

Josh has been gaming since 1977 starting with the Atari 2600.
He currently owns 25 different consoles and 6 different handhelds (all hooked up and in working condition) including all consoles from the current generation – minus the Switch.

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