Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Game Review: Assassin's Creed Black Flag

In recent years, I have spent much of my limited time for playing video games on the 'Assassin's Creed' series.

The Monkey Buddha Archives:

I've elaborated on the overall storyline in my previous posts (linked above), but there is basically a struggle going on between 2 secret societies- the Assassins and the Templars. This struggle is based on both sides' attempts to find powerful ancient relics, from a civilization that existed on Earth before humanity. This "First Civilization" were an advanced race that actually genetically-engineered human beings, but were wiped out after a cosmic cataclysm- specifically, a massive solar flare tens of thousands of years ago. Relics of their advanced technology are scattered around the globe, and the Assassins and Templars have been in a millennia-old race to find these artifacts.

One tool that is being used to find where these artifacts have been used throughout time is called "The Animus". It is a virtual reality simulation, which reads DNA to unlock the genetic memories of one's ancestors. Essentially, in Assassin's Creed you are playing a historical simulation within the simulation of the video game itself. In the game, you can also step outside the Animus into the "modern" day, in which the Templars have established a front company for their activities, called Abstergo Industries. This global corporation has now set up Abstergo Entertainment, a video game company that brings The Animus technology to the masses. In reality, though, it is a subversive way for the Templars to get more people to scan history for the location of the Artifacts from the First Civilization.

I love how the storyline for the Assassin's Creed games works on the different levels. There is plenty of thought-provoking material about ancient mysteries, conspiracies, and puzzles in each title. At their core, though, these games are action & stealth-based historical simulations.

The last installment that I played, Assassin's Creed 3, was set in the Revolutionary War. Though it was a good American history lesson, it wasn't as fun to play as previous AC games. I was hoping that Black Flag, a pirate game set in the Caribbean before AC3, would be more enjoyable.

Thankfully, I wasn't disappointed.  If I were to describe Assassin's Creed: Black Flag in one word, it would be- EPIC.

All the AC games are huge in scope, with expansive maps full of detailed scenery. However, Black Flag might have been my favorite so far. I loved the tropical setting- full of islands, cities like Havana, and even Mayan ruins deep in the jungle. Even though I'm still playing on a PS3, the graphics look great. I always appreciate the meticulous details in the various environments throughout the game.

The most expansive environment is, of course, the ocean. In Black Flag, you get to travel over the sea with a crew aboard your ship, The Jackdaw. As you play the game, you collect sea shanties, different songs for your crew to sing as you sail from place to place. Although you can travel by ship to any location on the map, you can also use "fast travel" options as you unlock different areas. I still found myself sailing to many places, just because it's fun to control the ship & also raid merchant vessels along the way.

By building up your ship's guns & armor, you wage battle on ships from various countries also sailing the seaways. If you can overpower a ship through superior firepower and tactics, you can approach and board it. Depending on the type of vessel you are trying to take over, once you board it you may have to defeat a certain number of enemies, climb up the mast to destroy their flag, or blow up gunpowder stockpiles on the deck. Once this is accomplished, you gain whatever cargo the ship holds & either lower your wanted level or repair The Jackdaw. These battles on the high seas are exciting & really capture the feel of a pirate raid.

In addition to sailing over the water, you can explore the ocean depths in certain areas, using a diving bell. These underwater areas contain shipwrecks full of treasure, and caves with dangerous eels and jellyfish. There are also aggressive sharks patrolling, which you can evade by hiding in clumps of seaweed or the ruins of a sunken ship. The diving sequences were a great addition to the gameplay.

Another unique feature is the ability to get into a rowboat at certain places and hunt sea creatures with a harpoon, such as sharks, whales, and orcas.  These are very intense encounters, especially when you don't have your equipment upgraded.

Even when just sailing around, you are bound to see dolphins or whales jumping out of the water. There are also a wide variety of land animals that can be hunted, such as jaguars, deer, crocodiles, and monkeys. Any materials you gain from an animal can be used to craft items for your inventory. There are also domesticated animals that you can't kill, but can pet or feed, like cats, dogs, cows, and chickens. It is a vibrant virtual world that reflects the ecology of the American tropics.

Most of the gameplay should be very familiar to anyone who has played other Assassin's Creed titles. The combat and free-running controls are still very fluid. You can climb almost anywhere- on buildings, trees, walls, and up the sides of ships. I tend to want to run from place to place, but I also try to slow down & walk so I can take in the virtual scenery and people that give an accurate sense of what that time period was like.

Throughout the game, you interact with historical figures from the age of piracy, such as Calico Jack, Anne Bonny, and Blackbeard himself. This adds to the feeling of being immersed in the pirate culture of the time.

Because I play video games so sporadically & leisurely, this game took me months to finish. I completed the main story, but also have tried to finish all the side missions and find all the items located around the map. There are also treasure maps with clues to find booty hidden throughout the many islands. I'm currently at 95% completion, so I've experienced most of what the game has to offer. I can say that it offers quite a lot!

My only complaint would be the abruptness of the story's ending, although the final scene during the credits was good & ties back into AC3. This tendency to end out of nowhere seems to be the case with all AC games... all of a sudden, it's over! I also would've liked more elements about the First Civilization or the Observatory that is discovered during the game.

These minor concerns are insignificant compared to the amazing amount of work, thought, and detail that went into this title. If you enjoyed other Assassin's Creed games, are interested in experiencing history, or just think pirates are cool, you should definitely play Black Flag. As I said in the beginning of this review, it is a truly epic experience.

• Official Monkey Buddha Rating: 9.75

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