Pirates are awesome, and don’t let anybody tell you differently. From movies to books and now to video games, pirates will forever be that representation of a free spirit taking their own lives and making something of them by any means necessary. So it’s no wonder that the Assassin’s Creed franchise wanted to make use of them and add them to their impressive repertoire of historical figures. And you know what? It actually works. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is the series fully realized. The story is grand and epic, the gameplay refined, the visuals stunning as always, and it more than makes up for the disappointments that Assassin’s Creed III, though great, suffered in its launch.
The game immediately thrusts you into the life of Edward Kenway, a privateer turned pirate around the era known as the “golden age of piracy,” specifically the third and final stretch lasting from 1716 to around 1726. He also happens to be the father of Haytham Kenway and grandfather of Connor Kenway, the main characters of Assassin’s Creed III. Edward gets shipwrecked by a member of the Assassin Order, who on his way to Havana, Cuba to meet up with some important people and collect a big reward. But Edward later kills him and goes to Havana himself to collect the late assassin’s payment. Upon reaching the city and meeting with the assassin’s contacts, he soon finds himself caught in the middle of the war between the Assassins and Templars: the main conflict within the franchise. He figures the best way to collect a fortune from these two groups is to become a pirate with no loyalties except to himself and his crew, and so begins his adventure.
As for the modern day portion of the game, which has been established since the beginning, you no longer control Desmond Miles on account of him having a severe case of death in the previous installment. Instead, you now control a nameless, faceless employee of Abstergo Entertainment, a brand of Abstergo Industries that’s focused on making virtual reality video games based on collected memories from certain individuals with interesting ancestors. This section serves more as a small continuation of the story instead of further development for main characters, who are demoted to cameos and smaller roles this time around. There is a side story involved with collecting information for the Assassins from Abstergo Entertainment, but this only feels a little arbitrary and doesn’t really add much other than some moments of background info from the time in between games, to a few chuckle-worthy instances of meta-humor, where the game makes fun of itself as well as the franchise in general. Otherwise, it is written well and does serve to keep newer players in the loop, even if some dialogue pieces keep important information in the dark a while.
Where the narrative remains strong, however, is within the memories of the ancestor you play as, and Edward Kenway makes his case as a charismatic, swashbuckling rogue with a sympathetic side in the form of protecting those he considers both friend and family. He has a wife, and leaving her to become a privateer/pirate doesn’t leave much room for them to grow in a relationship. Seeing how they both develop within small flashbacks makes you feel sorry for Edward, as every bad decision he makes drives him away from the family he could potentially have. His growth throughout the game is nothing short of impressive, and almost echoes Ezio’s story in terms of raw emotion.
This kind of development can also be seen in the side cast. And what a cast this is. Along his adventure, Edward meets up with several historical pirates, all of whom existed, even if their stories are changed to fit the fiction of the series. You meet up with notorious buccaneers like Edward Thatch A.K.A Blackbeard, the most famous and fearsome of pirates; John “Calico Jack” Rackham, the designer of the famous Jolly Roger; Anne Bonny and Mary Read, two of the most famed female pirates ever; and many more including Bartholomew “Black Bart” Roberts, Charles Vane, Ben Hornigold, and Stede Bonnet. Every pirate is as ruthless and vicious as their legends suggest, but the writers decided to show them as what they truly were: honest human beings who fell into difficult times and saw no other options besides leading a life of adventure, greed, and anarchy. They’re painted with real human emotion and motive, a far cry from the bloodthirsty demons of the sea that many portray pirates to be, and the story is all the better for it, even if individual arcs tend to be done as soon as a character reaches enlightenment.
The game takes place around parts in the Greater Antilles of the Caribbean Sea. The main cities seen are Havana, Kingston, and Nassau in the Bahamas. The landscapes in this game are nothing short of breathtaking. You see the beach coasts of most ports and the cities, and you’re treated to some of the most beautiful vistas in any video game to date. From sheer rock cliffs pouring a waterfall over a beach, to straits beset with cliffs that would be a ship’s worst nightmare, and vast rainforests within many of the islands, this game is gorgeous in every sense of the word, and everything can be accessed on a whim, as the game features no loading screens between many islands, coves, and the ocean itself apart from the major cities, and even then, there’s no framerate drops or stuttering when this occurs. This game is a great example of how to make your visuals stable while retaining some level of constant playability.
Speaking of playability, let’s finally get to the gameplay, which is the best the series has ever had. The core gameplay is still standard of the Assassin’s Creed franchise. You base your moves around two styles: low and high profile. By using the face buttons, you’re able to control parts of Edward’s body corresponding to each of his limbs. In low profile (standard movement), these are used to blend into your surroundings, jump, and occasionally pickpocket innocent civilians for a few extra coins. This is best used when you have to sneak your way around guards, as the game places a high emphasis on stealth this time around. You can whistle to attract a guard’s attention before moving somewhere else, hide behind corners, and walk among the crowds to become incognito. You can even assassinate or knock people out from these positions, and there are plenty of vantage points to be found for the best tactical advantage.
High profile moves are where you find the most actions. When you press the free-running button and keep it held, you’re given the opportunity to trek across the landscape in style, while running the risk of attracting unwanted attention. You can climb up buildings, run across them in various feats of agility and speed, and kill guards at high speeds. Climbing has been improved upon since the previous game, however, as there are more buildings, trees, cliffs, and more to climb up and create your own courses to run through. The only issue with it is one that has plagued the series since the beginning, and that’s the questionable accuracy of the climbing itself. You’ll often run into walls that you want to climb but Edward decides not to, you’ll jump off a roof to another one only to be shoved off to the right or left through no fault of your own, and often there will be moments where you become stuck on a climb even though you see more points of articulation right overhead. These happen often, but are easily overcome and are only minor annoyances to fans of the series.
Combat remains same at a core level, but has been refined to feel more fluid and aggressive, as pirates were known for their guerilla style of warfare. Emphasis has been placed on attacking your enemies first while paying attention to counter-attack indicators as in previous games. You can easily take out the normal enemies with a combo string, but not all of them go down easy. There are smaller rogue-like enemies that can catch you if you run away, and will easily block your attacks unless you break their defense first. Brutes also become a threat, as they can easily ruin your combo, and will toss grenades now and again for added damage. The best tactic against them is to either sneak up on them, or break their defense and disarm them. Enemies will still attack you one at a time, which has been both a blessing and a curse since day one of the series, as it both simplifies and reduces challenge, while also giving you a fair chance to look like a badass.
A big change in this game is the increased emphasis on the naval gameplay first introduced in Assassin’s Creed III. You take control of the Jackdaw, Edward’s ship, often throughout the game as a means of traveling through the massive overworld’s ocean. Along the way, you’ll battle against thick fogs that hinder your navigation, furious storms that threaten to tear your ship apart, and vicious gusts of wind that steer you off-course in an instant. It’s a cohesive world, where you can sail from two islands and explore them without having to worry about a loading screen, apart from entering major cities or starting various missions. The world feels alive too, since you come across numerous ships sailing, whales breeching along the waters, and birds flying around to catch some fish no matter where you go. It all goes to show how much detail went into making sure there was plenty to do without a single break in between.
Apart from the regular story missions, there are numerous side activities to partake in. The most exciting thing is taking part in naval combat, which has been fleshed out considerably while also maintaining a streamlined approach for easier access. You have numerous weapons at your disposal such as cannons, mortars, fire barrels, and chain shots to try and take an enemy ship down. Aiming can be tricky since you not only have to account for your opponent, but also the dynamic dangers present in choppy waters, waterspouts, and the occasional strong gust of wind. Thankfully, the Jackdaw controls smoothly, and never fights against you in the thick of battle.
There are numerous enemy types to fight. You have small gunboats that are easy to manage, schooners who are fast and difficult to keep track of, brigs that charge towards you, frigates that get more powerful as you progress, to giant man o’wars that carry over one-hundred cannons that can rip your ship apart in seconds. There are even pirate hunter ships that chase you when your notoriety gets too high. You can board the larger ships once you deal enough damage to them, which require you to defeat a number of the remaining crew to fully take over. You then have the option of repairing the Jackdaw, lowering your wanted level, or sending the ship to Edward’s fleet, which can be sent on missions outside the world map, not unlike the assassin missions see in previous games.
You can upgrade the Jackdaw with the various resources you collect from taking ships down. Things like sugar and rum can be sold for cash, while wood, cloth, and metal can be used to increase the number of cannons on the Jackdaw, improve the strength of the hull, add a battering ram on the front, and even create different colored sails. You can even improve the strength of your whaling boat and harpoons, as well as buy different artifacts to decorate your ship.
Aside from the combat, there are other things you can do for resources and finances. You can take up assassination contracts for extra coin. Finding a wrecked ship along the expanse of the Caribbean Sea enables you to dive underwater to collect its sunken booty while avoiding sharks, moray eels, and the chance to drown. Thankfully, the game’s underwater controls are solid, if a little jerky at times when trying to round sharp corners or enter smaller areas. You can hunt for animal skins to upgrade Edward’s armor, weapons, and the amount of guns and ammo he can carry at once. Whaling and shark-hunting provides an opportunity to collect on more skins, but require you to go to certain spots to harpoon the giant beasts, which offer some challenge, but become simple due to their predictable AI patterns. You can take down naval forts to unlock more of the map, which can be just as tough as regular naval battles due to their enhanced firepower, but thankfully remain stationary.
There are numerous collectibles as well, such as treasure chests, messages in bottles that provide more insight into the lore of the time period, treasure maps that not only have large amounts of gold, but also give customization plans that you wouldn’t otherwise acquire on your own. There are even animus fragments and challenges that can be found to unlock cheats and multiplayer options.
Wait, there’s multiplayer? It was first introduced in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, the multiplayer of the universe remains as popular and intense as ever. You enter the lobby to create a match, join one, or customize your character with unlockable perks, skins, and various other options like emblems. Once you start a match, you can choose a map to play on, and one of three modes. The first is Manhunt, which is a cat-and-mouse type of game. You play on a team of four, and are given the task of either finding members of the opposite team and killing them, or hiding from the opposite team while they search for you. You earn points from either the style of assassination, the length of time you spend hiding—either alone or with your team—somewhere, or by assisting your team either by healing or with a kill. The team with the most points after two rounds (once as predator, the other as prey), wins the match.
The second mode is called Domination, which is essentially a free-for-all mode where the player with the most points wins. In both modes, you play on large maps riddled with hiding spots, climbable buildings, and even NPCs that can either aid or hinder you. In either mode, killing a target other than your intended one will result in a five-second penalty where you cannot perform a single action. You use your boosters to either toss money into crowds, create a disguise to confuse your assailant, and many more that can be unlocked by leveling up.
The third mode is called Wolfpack: a mode introduced in Assassin’s Creed III, and it’s a checkpoint-based co-op mode where you and three other friends are tasked with taking down specific targets in a given amount of time. You all seek out your opponent amongst the crowds, and behaves much like a story assassination mission would. You scope the place out, locate your target, and find the proper means of taking them down, sometimes with added bonus objectives to challenge your skills. There are no other modes included, so multiplayer is essentially the same, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
There’s really nothing negative to say about this game, aside from the large number of gameplay and visual glitches that can easily take you out of the experience, and the same predictable and easily exploited AI that the series has been known for. Other than that, this is possibly the best game in the Assassin’s Creed franchise. The smoother controls in free-running and combat, the open-world naval experience that’s second to none, the compelling and interesting narrative with some of the most colorful characters, and a modern day story that, while not perfect, is still intriguing and at times funny in its meta-humor. This is the closest the series has gotten to achieving the balance it’s strived for since the beginning, and you’ll be hard-pressed to tell yourself that the previous games were any better as a whole than this one.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10 (numerous bugs and glitches, predictable AI patterns, modern-day story is lacking)
This is the most difficult game I’ve ever had to review. How do you classify it by genre when there’s not much to the actual “game” element? How do you classify a linear narrative that involves the input of the player in order to make difficult choices? These are the things I’m struggling with in Beyond: Two Souls, Quantic Dream’s latest gaming effort. In the traditional sense, it barely feels like a fun, entertaining game that we’re used to wanting. However, that’s not the intention the creators intended for here. What we’re given is a story where we have the power to choose the path that Jodie Holmes, the protagonist, takes in life, even if that path has been laid out for her in some ways. It’s an engaging drama, yet also a challenging puzzle at the same time. It’s a game by its very nature, and yet trying to review it only in that sense would be counterintuitive. So instead, I’m forced to review it as both a film and a game. Here goes nothing.
The story here follows the life of Jodie Holmes, played by Ellen Page. She’s a girl who was born with a strange gift: the ability to see entities and spirits from the next life. Jodie herself is tied to an entity named Aiden, a rebellious entity whom acts as a guardian to Jodie, both to her benefit and detriment. She’s looked after by Nathan Dawkins, played by Willem Defoe, a scientist who becomes like a surrogate father to Jodie while also researching how Jodie’s link to Aiden works, as well as what lies beyond in the world Aiden comes from.
The story meanders quite a bit into several different genres such as sci-fi, character study, horror, and action all in one. However, the central focus is a single character: Jodie, and her exploits on discovering why she has her gift and her struggles with Aiden’s lack of self-control. It follows her life from the age of nine to twenty-four, and right from the start, you can see in her eyes a great deal of pain brought on by her unique ability and connection. You really feel for her and the ordeal she’s going through, which is helped greatly by Ellen Page’s spellbinding performance. She gives us a look into her life without inner monologue or excessive exposition as seen with characters from Heavy Rain, the previous Quantic Dream title. Beyond: Two Souls isn’t as dialogue heavy as its predecessor, instead relying on the incredible facial and body animation and detail to have us actually see each subtle eye movement, every small shrug, and every tear shed. These things and more also add to the rest of the performances, including a powerful turn from Willem Defoe, and also to whoever plays her second guardian Cole.
The pacing of the story is difficult to pinpoint, as the plot is told in a non-linear format, something almost never seen in a video game narrative. At first glance, the structure would appear to muddle the story, blurring any sense of solid direction this game has. However, as with most non-linear plotlines in films, the events are part of a larger whole, each chapter acting as yet another puzzle piece. In this way, the chapters provide sharp contrasts, leading from intense action-driven scenarios to more subtle, emotionally driven moments between characters. As examples of this, I look to the chapters titled “Homeless” and “The Mission”. In the former, there’s a strong emphasis on developing Jodie and her relationships with the people she befriends. Listen to each word spoken, and the actions the player has a choice in making. Each emotion is captured brilliantly in every single choice, and every performance ties into the desperation that the title suggests.
As a contrast, let’s look over “The Mission” without spoiling anything. My heart raced all throughout, my actions dictating how well this particular chapter went, regardless of where the path was headed. The decision to give the player more direct control in this chapter helps with establishing the atmosphere and mood of the setting. Every action taken has consequence by the end of the chapter, where revelations reveal the fragile nature of Jodie’s relationships as well as who she is as a character. Even in the action-heavy sequences, emotions run high and the weight of choices made resonate.
The entire game is an exercise in utilizing both aesthetic and fidelity to their fullest in equal measure. No setting is the same in each chapter, save for moments where we see Jodie in her lab-made room. In her travels, Jodie suffers through an unforgiving inner-city winter with incredibly detailed snow physics, runs through a wet mucky forest with the same great rainfall effects from Heavy Rain, and the scorching heat of the desert with environments that echo Red Dead Redemption and its sweeping landscapes. Each setting is crafted with care and attention to detail, only sometimes broken by the occasional texture pop-in. Interaction with the environments is also impressive, as the improved animations on the fingers help create a more realistic look to the game, even as some of the lip movements slip into the uncanny valley from time to time.
These animations can be used by the player as well, as there is still gameplay to make it feel like…well, a video game. As most games go, however, this is as basic as you can make it. Using the analog sticks, you move the character as well as the camera. However, the right analog stick also has a higher purpose, as you use it to interact with objects that have a white dot near them. Move it in the dot’s general direction, and Jodie interacts with the object. For some, there is a quick-time event involved, a gameplay concept that’s seen its fair share of controversy and disdain from the general gaming community. Seeing as how the game is styled and built around such events like in Heavy Rain and Indigo Prophecy, it’s easy to forgive their limiting nature here. Success or failure in the event leads to the scene moving on, keeping the consequences of the actions taken in mind. Seeing as how you only control one main human character this time around, it would seem unnecessary to allow certain events to erase Jodie from existence early on in the game, so the game will move on even when Jodie suffers crushing defeats in some of the larger moments.
There’s also a combat system at play whenever Jodie needs to defend herself. Eschewing the traditional button system most other action games are accustomed to, the game uses the right analog stick in its place. Whenever something or someone is about to strike Jodie, the game will slow down and show Jodie moving in a particular direction. By moving the analog stick in that direction, Jodie performs the action successfully, resulting in a dodge or a counterattack. Most players will have an instinct to perceive the next move in a split-second and move accordingly, which can sometimes lead to a failure of that particular motion, as the game is meant to be more methodical and calculating in these sections. It can feel cumbersome due to this, and I admit to making these split-second decisions on more than one occasion as my action game senses kicked in when they weren’t supposed to. Wait for the game to slow down a few seconds, and then mimic the action seen. It requires a small amount of patience, but it also means fewer hits to the face.
In a lot of these moments, it’s Aiden coming to Jodie’s rescue. In a twist of luck, the most game-like aspects of Beyond: Two Souls come from controlling Aiden, Jodie’s entity. You hold direct control of Aiden in the first-person, as he has no true physical form, and is invisible to anyone who’s not Jodie. He maneuvers like a lost balloon in some ways, making him feel floaty and awkward to control at times. However, this doesn’t detract from the sheer amount of entertainment Aiden brings to the game. He can move objects around using a combination of the R1 and analog sticks. He can move, break, and push buttons, causing confusion and panic amongst those witnessing these objects moving seemingly without reason. Aiden can also possess other people to perform more complex actions like shooting or driving. He can even choke people to death if the situation is dire enough for this course of action. Being linked to Jodie, he feels a need to protect her when she calls for him, allowing him the chance to heal her, or create a shield around her to prevent injury. She can even call upon him to visit the memories of lost or dead souls to find clues to the next objective. Aiden is the answer to the complaints of Heavy Rain not feeling like a traditional game, and so he was made to be fun, even if his choices in entertainment result in Jodie’s day going from bad to worse.
As in any form of motion media—be it film or gaming—it becomes necessary to add in music to heighten the tension and emotion of any given scene, and thankfully Beyond: Two Souls has an expertly crafted score to assist the experience. Composed by Norman Corbeil and later by Lorne Balfe following the former’s passing, each track is unique to each chapter in the game, resulting in a diverse range of sounds that all add to the scene in different ways. Subtle strings and woodwinds accent the smaller character moments, while a heavier string and brass section demands that a scene be intense and threatening. As with most games, the music is dynamic as the scene changes, resulting in some unique twists in the overall composition and is a fine showing of how gaming music can sometimes be more impactful than of scores heard in film or television.
The ending gives you a few choices to make, each having significant emotional impact. The first ending I chose left me smiling like an idiot, and more excited about what the narrative could hold afterwards. Each ending is different, even if certain parts and events seem to lead to the same moment later on, just with a difference in context as opposed to consequence.
At the end of the day, I can only think of one question in regards to rating this game: does everything work as intended? My answer is yes. The reflex-heavy gameplay mechanics, the incredible graphical detail, the amazing and complex narrative with fantastic performances across the board, and getting to see an interpretation of the afterlife all ties together well here. Sure, the quick-time events aren’t something a lot of people like. Sure, Aiden might be a bit awkward as a ghost. Sure, the combat might be a bit unintuitive to some, requiring some re-education away from traditional systems. However, these are some of the least pressing matters when considering this game, as the whole of the product is beautiful overall.
David Cage intended this to be the story of a woman, not of the player’s increased sense of agency in how they want the story to go. Agency is left to deciding this woman’s fate and the fate of those who have deep connections to her, and the game built around this decision from the very beginning. Those who have played Indigo Prophecy and Heavy Rain will be hard-pressed not to enjoy this game and the story it presents. Those who are unsure might want to try the game out at least once before passing judgment, as most have never played a game such as this. Some will get frustrated with the limited sense of freedom, while others might find the story either confusing or scrambled due to its non-linear nature. But I assure you of this: the experience, however linear the plot, is never the same for two people, and that’s the true strength of this game.
Rating: 9 out of 10 (combat requires getting used to, Aiden feels awkward at times, quick-time events limit perceived agency)