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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (477)

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Pikmin 4 4/5
No Man's Sky 4/5
Dragon Quest Monsters: ... 4/5
Assassin's Creed IV: Bl... 2.5/5
Tiny Tina's Wonderlands 3.5/5
Ratchet & Clank: Rift A... 4.5/5
Super Mario Bros. Wonder 4.5/5
The Alliance Alive 2/5
Catmaze 4.5/5
Turnip Boy Commits Tax ... 4.5/5
Seasons After Fall 3/5
Rayon Riddles - Rise of... 0.5/5
World to the West 4/5
MechWarrior 5: Mercenar... 4/5
Streets of Kamurocho 2.5/5
Aeon of Sands - The Tra... 2.5/5
Greak: Memories of Azur 3.5/5
Yaga 2.5/5
Riverbond 3/5
Bug Fables: The Everlas... 4.5/5
Front Mission 1st Remake 1.5/5
Middle-earth: Shadow of... 3.5/5
Bladed Fury 3.5/5
Ruzar - The Life Stone 3.5/5
Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin 3.5/5

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Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag   PC 

Belongs in Davey Jones’ Locker    2.5/5 stars

Back in 2013, Ubisoft was a hive of scum and villainy, pushing crappy games that never made it onto my radar… that is to say, they were effectively the same as they are now. Yes, Ubisoft did go through a bit of a Renaissance during the last decade, but after spending a few years on the top, they’re back down on the bottom. What’s even more amusing about the last decade of Ubisoft is that it has effectively been bookended by Pirate games, with the recent release of “Skull & Bones” cementing the French megapublisher’s status as ‘crap again.’

But on the front side of its Decade of Competence, we have the bookend of “Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag” (“Black Flag”), which started adding onto one of Ubisoft’s more tired and stale IPs, ‘Assassin’s Creed,’ with a variety of prototype concepts that would eventually blossom into some of the best Sandbox games ever made. “Black Flag” holds a special place in the hearts of many ‘Assassin’s Creed’ fans, as it was the first game in the series to open its world, while at the same time continuing to focus on Stealth gameplay and assassinations as an essential gameplay mechanic, and focused its narrative heavily around an unbroken line of Tinfoil Hat conspiracy nonsense and a story-within-a-story.

I am NOT a long-time ‘Assassin’s Creed’ fan, however, and in playing “Black Flag,” I am still not an ‘Assassin’s Creed’ fan. In spite of “Black Flag’s” dubious position as the ‘first’ Historical Sandbox entry in the series, I couldn’t help but be put off by all the ‘Assassin’s Creed’ that actually made its way into the fourth numbered installment in the series.

For a game that was originally released in 2013, playing it for the first time in 2024 is a definite test of how well it has ‘aged.’ And “Black Flag” has aged fairly well. Environments, ships, and the massive Open Ocean all look incredible to this day. However, there are other, more important aspects of the visuals that definitely look dated, specifically: The characters. Character textures look artificial and lifeless, pirate crew and Imperial crew both look like maybe half-a-dozen guys copy-pasta’d over and over again. Animations are particularly prone to dwelling in the Uncanny Valley, with nearly everyone’s neck being too long and weirdly articulated. Even ambient wildlife, like birds, tend to have bizarre animation glitches, where their wings elongate and distort, while sticking to the ground in surreal ways. Hunting wildlife always results in instant rigor mortis, and I took to chanting the Beastie Boy’s song every time I shot a monkey out of a tree, only instead of “Brass Monkey” it was “Stiff Monkey.” The copy-pasta of crew isn’t the extent of it, though, and I can finally see where the criticism of copy-pasta’d environments in Ubisoft games comes from: Nearly every building, piece of architecture, and tree is a copy-pasta of a handful of different variants. So while setpiece islands, ruins, and jungles still impress, the cities and towns that dot the game’s Caribbean setting feel less like actual living cities and more like movie sets or, indeed, copy-pasta’d videogame environments.

Audio is pretty good, overall. The game is fully voiced by a competent cast, though I didn’t recognize any Hollywood A-listers in there to bloat the budget – hey, it was 2013, and we weren’t into the bloated “AAA” Flopbuster era yet. The soundtrack, however, is mostly innocuous and forgettable, outside of the omnipresent sea chanties the player’s crew can sing while sailing. Unfortunately, expanding the crew’s repertoire requires hunting down and chasing pieces of windblown sheet music in one of “Black Flag’s” incredibly annoying mini-game side missions.

Technically, though, is where “Black Flag” goes from above average to just meh. Like all Ubisoft PC games, it requires the Uplay Launcher, which recently underwent a name change from Uplay to Ubisoft Connect… and also underwent a quality change from ‘annoying’ to ‘absolute trash.’ A decade after release, “Black Flag” no longer receives support for ‘community challenges.’ However, there is still one hamster-wheel-powered server running for the game, somewhere deep within the bowels of an Ubisoft data center, that… really doesn’t work very well. It takes forever to log into the game’s Live Service features at the beginning of each session, and, what’s worse, I couldn’t get one of t the key features – “Kenway’s Fleet” – to work at all, as the loading screen would just sit there, trying to connect, until I got bored and went to do something else. The ultimate insult of Ubification, though, would have to be the fact that I was forced to type my Ubisoft username and password each and every time I launched the game… from Ubisoft Connect… where I was already logged in!

Outside of the Ubification, the game does run pretty well on modern hardware. I never had any compatibility issues, and it only crashed to desktop once, which is about all once can hope for from a “AAA” outfit like Ubisoft.

“Black Flag” covers almost entirely the same ground as the 2014-2017 Starz TV series, “Black Sails.” They key difference being that, “Black Sails” was written as a prequel to the novel, “Treasure Island,” and followed the exploits of Captain Flint, whereas “Black Flag” follows the exploits of Captain Edward Kenway, who was created from whole cloth for the ‘Assassin’s Creed’ franchise. Other than the fact that the two leading men have different names… everything else is largely the same.

The player is thrust into the role of Kenway as he is shipwrecked after a battle with the Spanish navy in which his privateering crew loses. His ship was also carrying a unique passenger: A turncoat member of the secret order of Assassins who was on his way to hand over secret documents to the Assassins’ most hated enemy organization, the Templars. Edward is able to kill this trained murderer quite easily and assumes his identity, bringing the documents to Havana, Cuba, in the hopes of making enough scratch to get himself back into the privateering game.

Kenway does indeed meet up with the Templars, sells out the Assassins, and sets himself up within the Pirate Republic of Nassau, surrounded by all the usual Big Names in 18th Century Piracy, including Blackbeard, Kidd, Hornigold, and Rackham. The well-known historical events of the era play out around Kenway, all with a bunch of Tinfoil Hat conspiracy theory nonsense revolving around the Assassins and Templars threaded throughout.

Kenway eventually figures out that, in selling Assassin secrets to the Templars, he was backing he wrong team. So he sets out to right those wrongs by assassinating his way through the ranks of the Templars and their conspirators within both the Spanish and English Empires, while becoming a full-blow Pirate Lord in his own right.

However, none of the core narrative arcs in “Black Flag” are open or non-linear in any way. Indeed, several of these arcs completely lock out the Open Ocean and the prospect of doing side content until they’ve been completed. Then there are other main Story Missions that can easily overlap with and conflict with side missions, causing a great deal of confusion and frustration with what exactly the in-game waymarkers are trying to communicate.

While I loved “Assassin’s Creed Odyssey” for its non-linear story-telling and the ability for its hero/ine to suss-out the members of the Evil Organization organically and in any order, that wasn’t yet a feature in 2013. “Black Flag” is linear to a fault, and the side content feels much more like padding and fluff than it does an integral part of Kenway’s journey from privateer to pirate to Assassin.

Then there’s the Framing Narrative, which revolves around a descendent of Kenway living in the modern era. This unidentified person works for Abstergo, a videogame company and suspiciously on-the-nose parody of Ubisoft itself, whose immersive VR gaming products all rely on Genetic Memory and serve as a medium for both modern-day Assassins and modern-day Templars to hunt down lost technology from the First Civilization. Abstergo is lead by a parody of long-time Ubisoft CEO, Yves Guillemot, demonstrating some level of self-awareness on Ubisoft’s part.

Unfortunately, I can’t say with certainty how long “Black Flag” is, as neither Uplay/Ubisoft Connect nor the game itself keep track of play time. It has to be in the realm of 60-80 hours, though… and I was generally bored and underwhelmed with the experience by about the 20 hour mark.

‘Assassin’s Creed’ games can be roughly categorized into two very different styles: Old-School ‘AssCreed’ involves a lot of Stealth, assassinations, clunky controls, and following mission structures to the letter. Then there’s New-School, which involves the exploration of a massive open world, non-linear quest structures, responsive controls, open combat, and maybe some assassination if you feel like it – you do you.

“Black Flag” straddles the divide between Old and New in the series, bringing all of the baggage from Old-School ‘AssCreed’ and marrying it to a large Open-Ocean-Open-World where the player is free to fart around with milquetoast side content and procedural ship battles, before moving onto the next tightly-scripted Story Mission.

Generally, I did NOT enjoy much of ANYTHING about “Black Flag’s” gameplay. The controls, whether Kenway on foot or behind the wheel of his ship, feel incredibly clunky and unresponsive. Even just walking around feels flow and cumbersome. Simple things like climbing to the top of a building are hampered by a lack of viable handholds, while at the same time, Kenway will try to grab onto and climb every little piece of scenery he passes while attempting to chase down a fleeing mark. The Stealth that is central to the game’s conflict is entirely contextual and based on squatting in bushes, while the open combat – which can be done using either the Assassins’ guild’s hidden daggers or a pair of cutlasses – feels very clunky and finicky, like a horrible mashup of the combat from the ‘Batmak: Arkham’ games and “The Witcher 2.” Ranged combat is hampered by the fact that the early game only gives the player access to single-shot muzzle-loaded pistols, which are LOUD and SLOW, gating off stealthier ranged attacks via a blowgun behind story progress.

Instead of using a perk system and experience points like modern ‘AssCreed’ titles, “Black Flag” gates most of the upgrades for Kenway and his ship behind Main Story progress, with one of the assassination options – the Rope Dart – becoming available so late in the game I only ended up using it about twice. Other things, like the Diving Bell upgrade for the ship, also come incredibly late in the game, with players having to sail past explorable wrecks and come back later.

The think I hated the most about the linear mission structure in “Black Flag,” however, is a combination of how strict they are in their timing and how each one features semi-optional extra parameters that make them more strict. By far, I got the most Game Over screens from failing to tail a mark closely enough or getting spotted by the mark when they abruptly turn around and stare at the player when there’s no viable hiding spots at hand. Other less-than-fun happenings include blundering into Imperial soldiers while eavesdropping on a mark, since the game forces you to point the camera at the mark to avoid getting a Game Over instead of being able to listen to them while looking where you’re going. Fleeing marks feel incredibly tough to chase-down, since they literally get a head start and the button that makes Kenway run also makes him want to climb on everything in his path. Then there are the ‘optional’ parameters (that are really only there to unlock an achievement) that add extra BS to each Story Mission, like ‘Assassinate the Mark in a specific way,’ or ‘Kill X guards in a specific way in the course of the mission,’ and the like. What’s even more frustrating about these optional parameters is that the HUD doesn’t display them, forcing the player to open the pause menu to keep track of what they’re supposed to be (optionally) doing and whether they’ve done enough of it yet.

Generally, the only ‘good’ – and I hesitate to use that word – thing about the gameplay in “Black Flag” is the ship battling, which is an obvious precursor to the ship battling in “Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey.” However, there is a big difference between a Greek Trireme and an 18th Century Age of Sail Brig. Ships do not turn or corner well. The wind and waves can completely screw up things like movement and line of sight to the enemy. Unfortunately, many enemy ships simply choose to ignore these hardships that the player must deal with. I distinctly saw an enemy ship levitate above the waves in order to pivot on its central axis in order to chase me down, which is literally impossible, even with a fully upgraded ship. Firing off the ship’s weapons are almost entirely contextual activities that depend on the direction the camera is facing: A front-facing camera fires off chain shot, a side-facing camera fires with broadside cannons (if aimed they use standard cannonballs, but if ‘hipfired’ they use more damaging heavy shot at point-blank range), and a rear-facing camera drops off a handful of explosive fire barrels behind the ship. I found these contextual controls to be quite frustrating an finicky, especially when I was desperately trying to fire off one of the three attack types, but the camera decided I was facing a few degrees off of what it wanted and insisted on firing off a different attack type.

Upgrading the ship is essential, and is generally much less tied to story-progress than upgrading Kenway himself. It’s simply a matter of collecting Spanish Reales (money) and one of three resources: Wood, cloth, and metal. However, the top-tier upgrade for each of the ship’s various components is also locked behind finding an “Elite Schematic” hidden in one of the game’s other side activities.

Finally, I feel like I need to point out that, when playing other, more-recent Ubisoft Sandbox games, I never understood the criticism from other gamers of Ubisoft games as ‘a world map covered in a vomitous spray of icons,’ as both “Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey” and “Immortals: Fenyx Rising” judiciously populate the map with icons when the player actively looks for them or comes within walking distance. The answer to my conundrum is THIS GAME! The Open Ocean map is literally COVERED with icons from the very beginning of the game, showing off lost treasure chests, collectable fragments, messages in bottles, forts, ports, settlements, fishing spots… Literally EVERYTHING. Not only is the world of “Black Flag” a cluttered one, nearly all of the clutter is just that: Boring, collect-a-thon-style busywork that adds nothing positive to the overall experience.

Normally, I’d gladly say, “Yar, har, fiddle-dee-dee, being a pirate is all right with me,” but “Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag” is one of those occasions where being a pirate is definitely NOT all right with me. Between the Technical Ubification causing issues a decade after release, the tragically uninteresting narrative, the lifeless Open Ocean, the overly strict Story Missions, and the clunkiness of the controls across all aspects of gameplay, I really didn’t enjoy my time with “Black Flag.” The ultimate irony, though, is that Ubisoft could have taken its decade of experience making GREAT Sandbox games and applied that expertise to “Skull & Bones,” giving us a fresh take on “Black Flag,” not hampered by the Old-School ‘Assassin’s Creed’ guff… but, alas, it was not to be.

Presentation: 3/5
Story: 2.5/5
Gameplay: 2/5
Overall (not an average): 2.5/5



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