What Ubisoft has done with Assassin's Creed over the past few years is nothing short of astounding. Year after year, they have released what is ostensibly a sequel to what was actually a pretty weak first game.
But in reality, each new version has been almost an entirely new video game; sharing a central story arc and basic game mechanic, but with new characters, environments and gameplay elements. None of these updates was more impressive than last years AC III
(which I reviewed here
), which introduced naval battles to the series.
There is a principle in economics called the law of diminishing returns. That law says defines that there is "a decrease in the marginal output of a production process as the amount of a single factor of production is increased".
People often quote this law when they are talking about game and movie sequels, even though it is not actually applicable. Games and movies do not become less interesting because a single aspect of the production is increased beyond optimal quantities, but because typically a single (often very good) idea is stretched too far.
In this, the fifth major release (remember Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood
in the long running Assassin's Creed
series, Ubisoft has once again avoided this pitfall.
Ubisoft has the luxury that Assassin's Creed
's over-arching plot, a complex and tedious yarn about a futuristic corporation controlled by the Knights Templar. The mega-corp’s scheming to take over the world provides a device, the Animus: a Holodeck-like virtual reality machine, that enables them to jump back and forth in time and space, setting each new game in a different historical location.
As a result, Assassin's Creed
can be "rebooted" as many times as Ubisoft wishes without causing the player any untoward concern. Each new game, set as it is in a new time and a new part of the world, and can have new game elements introduced, and old ones repurposed and tweaked. So the Assassin's Creed
team have a toybox of game elements that it can use or abandon at will.
But despite this, the lads and lasses on the team have hit something of a limit to the amount by which they can take the series forward. This is not because of any fault of Ubisoft, but because the game is now so mature, and so nuanced that any big advances will require big changes, and only a fool messes with a winning formula.
So, Ubisoft is between the rock of a huge-selling and very popular franchise, and the hard place of having to be seen to move forward by a demanding public. Black Flag
feels less of an advance from AC III
than any other game in the series has been from its predecessor.
But that's hardly a criticism. AC III
was the distillation of several years of honing and refining, and as a result, was a fabulous game. Black Flag
is, at the very least, just more of the same. But in reality it is so much more.
The game begins in the thick of the action, and as such, any newcomers to the series will face something of a steep learning curve. But all the requisite on-screen hints are there to make it a manageable one. We are immediately cast onto the decks of a ship in a naval battle in the character of Edward Kenway a ‘Privateer’.
Privateers were not enlisted to, but loosely affiliated with the Kings Fleet (the Royal Navy) and operated in a way that disrupted trade, and forced foreign powers to use military vessels to protect merchant ships - they were, to all intents and purposes, Pirates.
Edward is the antecedent of Haytham Kenway, and Connor (Ratonhnhaké:ton), who users may remember as the playable characters from Assassin's Creed III
. He is immediately shipwrecked; he kills the assassin, Duncan Walpole, and assumes his identity.
He (you) then have to complete missions on a desert island to win the trust of a merchant who gives you passage to Havana, where the game begins in earnest. These early stages act as a training ground, where Edward can learn landscape traversal, and basic hunting and combat.
As I have previously stated, Black Flag
has no real surprises. It's a different mix of familiar ingredients, and the result is a delicious new cake. The most obvious part of the new cake is the Caribbean locale. Havana is as grand as, and reminiscent of, locations in AC II
Here you'll need to loot the corpses of enemies you've killed and collect cash from hidden chests in order to earn money to upgrade your weapons.
This is a slow and tortuous process, but worth it, because the enemies in Black Flag
are much tougher than in previous games. Simply mashing X will not enable you to win battles, you'll need to block and break attacks, and a heavier sword will help a lot.