Game Picks

Game Picks: 'Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag'

CorrespondentDecember 5, 2013 

“AC4” is both prequel and sequel.

Veteran gamers can tell you that every so often a video game comes down the pike that hits your sweet spot. These are the titles you lock into on a level that really is sub-rational. Something in your brain hits the same frequency as the designers’ collective hive mind, and you develop a sudden, intuitive proficiency at the game.

It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it is sweet indeed. Then you just have to block out your next several weeks of discretionary time.

Such was my experience with “Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag,” (Rated M; $59.99) the latest entry in Ubisoft’s popular line of open-world stealth adventure games. The “Assassin’s Creed” games have had this effect on a whole lot of people. It’s one of the most successful franchises on the planet.

Change history

The setup: Two ancient secret societies – the Assassins and the Templars – have been warring for centuries. Each seeks access to the artifacts of a pre-human civilization that could change the course of history. Players assume the role of Desmond Miles, who can, by way of a device called the Animus, relive the ancestral memories of past Assassins.

The game’s first three installments feature Desmond traveling back to the time of the Crusades, the Renaissance and the American Revolution. As he unlocks secrets through these memories, Desmond also fights modern-day Templars in a parallel storyline.

“Assassin’s Creed 4” hits a few reset buttons and is actually both prequel and sequel. The contemporary story is resumed with a new protagonist, while the historical milieu moves to the 17th-century Caribbean Sea and the Golden Age of Piracy.

The game splits the action between land-based stealth combat missions, with some puzzle and platforming elements, and the new naval battle system introduced in “AC3.” Both feature the meticulous historical detail that has become the franchise calling card.

The stealth missions are similar to those featured in past games, but with some new twists. I particularly liked the levels in ancient Mayan ruins on the Yucatan Peninsula, which lend an old-school “Tomb Raider” flavor. New weapons and tools, like poison blow-dart guns, open up new tactical options.

Roam the world

The game’s naval battles – about a third of the game in total – exercise a whole other set of muscles. As you ply the seas, you’ll exchange cannon fire with rivals. You’ll even contend with hurricanes, waterspouts, rogue waves and breaching whales.

An in-game crafting and progression system lets you upgrade your pirate vessel as you go along. Side missions might require hopping in a rowboat to harpoon a hammerhead shark or rescuing your crew when shore leave in Jamaica gets out of hand. As it frequently does.

“AC4” improves and expands on many elements of the previous games, most impressively in the open-world design. You can roam the seas indefinitely in between advancing the main storyline. Load sequences are surprisingly few and far between given how much virtual real estate is involved.

Story and character are well-developed, too, and the plot is full of surprises. The voice acting and motion capture work here is some of the strongest I’ve ever seen.

The downside of all this rich complexity is that the game has a fairly steep learning curve. Those already proficient with stealth games like “Hitman” or the late, great “Thief” series will get the hang of combat eventually. But the central interface gets awfully crowded as you try to track current side missions, crafting, inventory and collectible quests.

Once you do lock in, though, “Assassin’s Creed” is a highly addictive game experience. I’ve spent a delirious couple of weeks now building my Caribbean privateer empire, and I’ve concluded that I was clearly born in the wrong era. It turns out I’m an excellent pirate. Plus, I’ve fulfilled my lifelong dream of becoming an infamous scourge of the British Navy. God bless technology.

New this week: More combat madness with the expansion “Battlefield 4: China Rising,” organized crime simulation with “Omerta: City of Gangsters” and virtual fitness with “Zumba Fitness World Party” and “Zumba Kids.”

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