Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag review

 

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By: Joe Lomán

So I’ve been playing some of the previous generation games that I considered really good and I just finished Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag and I suddenly remembered why back in its day, it was considered the best AC, with some even comparing it to the legendary AC 2. And it makes sense in many factors. Both games came as a sequel to games that, while being fairly praised, didn’t exactly delivered the full potential they promised, leaving their sequels to do the job. AC 1 was meant to be a test to see if people liked the idea, and AC 2 was what the real deal. AC 3, while meant to be a complete game on its own, plus featuring a new engine and a bit more technology, didn’t deliver the experience it promised. But AC 4 was the game that really took advantage of the new engine and became a great experience and seemed to be a new step forward to the right direction of the franchise.

If there’s one thing Ubisoft has done right with their AC games, it’s creating a huge and immersive world that captures the essence of the epoch the games are set in, and this time we found ourselves in the amazing Caribbean seas during the Golden Age of Piracy in the 18th century, with our protagonist being (you guessed it) a pirate named Edward Kenway, grandfather and father of Assassin’s Creed III protagonists Ratonhnhaké:ton and Haytham Kenway respectively, in his journey to discover his destiny as an Assassin that will take him to the Observatory,  a First Civilization structure.

The reason why we are now watching Edward’s story is because in the modern era, the Templars are trying to find said Observatory for their own purposes, with the help of DNA samples from Desmond Miles, main protagonist of all the previous entries of the franchise, and the last known descendant of Edward. Meanwhile, the Templars are hiding their true motives by claiming to be creating a video game based on the life of the pirates using actual historical data.

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This game has the same essence of the previous games. A parkour fan assassin with a huge talent in using the surroundings to blend and perform stealth assassinations in a big open world for you to explore and find hidden secrets. But some of the new features of this entry is that, as a story based on a pirate’s life, you get your own ship to sail across the Caribbean, looting and taking as you please from other ships in really engaging, intuitive and addictive naval combats. You can challenge basically every one of the different ships that are available, which are the Schooners, Brigs, Frigates, Man o’wars, Hunters and Legendary ships which are the closest to boss battles that I’ve seen in the franchise (and they are spectacular). After you’ve taken the ships down you can choose to either sink them right away with more cannon power or board them to take the ship as yours with the help of your crew, which I think is a really nice move.

The sea is full of different islands and early colonies with many some nice side activities, too. Assassination contracts that can be either on foot or naval contracts, with very nice rewards to improve your ship. And trust me when I say that when you see your ship getting stronger, you won’t want to stop upgrading it.

Something else that helps the atmosphere of the game feel unique is that, while sailing the seas, there’s no real background music, but rather shanties performed by the crew! It’s a really nice gesture to make you feel part of the sea. Sometimes I would just sail the seas for a while before the next mission to listen to them. Very addictive.

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The only “down side” for me would be that, as the game takes place in early settlements of the British or Spanish governments, or other uncharted islands, there are not as many things to climb as in previous entries. Instead, the game itself focuses on bringing you more freedom on the sea itself to explore it on your own. And like I said, the sea itself with the naval combats are amazing, but there’s not much to do in the islands themselves other than the assassination contracts, since finding collectibles are not very rewarding and often becomes a bit boring and repetitive in every island.

Nonetheless, there are some cool side activities on the sea itself, too. At some point of the story you’ll be able to dive and search around sunk ships to find loot and treasures to upgrade your loyal ship with dangers of its own, like sharks, eels and jellyfish guarding the place. It’s like you have to act stealthy even under the ocean itself, and with the music that is played on the background, the tense is real.

Out of the ocean, the story itself is a really refreshing change of airs as our main protagonist, Edward Kenway, grew up knowing nothing about his Assassin talents, to which he refers to as “coming natural”, and is actually on the move to his own riches and fortune and occasionally helps folks, like the Assassin’s themselves, for a price. But the great thing here is that, unlike Ezio and Connor’s reasons to join the creed, Edward will find by his own mistakes and losses a more honorable way, and there’s not a more honest story for me, than the one of wanting to do things right and redeem yourself.

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All this is also thanks to the charisma and charm of our protagonist who has a talent with words to get his adored treasure, rum and women. In addition, there are also non-playable characters in the game full of charisma, such as the grand Black Beard who likes to run shows as the Devil himself to get what he wants with the help of Edward.

However, the combat on foot itself continued to be a bit repetitive and boring. While the combo system remained after AC3, it’s still the same, unchanged mechanics where you can feel as if you were fighting against the same soldier every time, and will make you fond of using the stealth mechanic. After all, there’s always charm in being a silent assassin, and even more if the alternatives are boring.

To end with, if I had to choose a few words to sum up this game, it wouldn’t be “plot-twists” or “shocking” or “dramatic”, but rather “charismatic” and “engaging” in both the story and the naval combats. After all, even with the “finding his true self” kind of personal story of Edward’s, the real aim of this game is to portray the easy-going and free-of-rules kind of life that pirates loved to have. And that is done really nicely.

All in all, this was a game that represented a nice change of airs in the story, atmosphere and setting of the franchise, as well as a good step forward to upcoming games before they ran out of creativity. The story is engaging, the naval combats are something entirely fresh and addictive, the charisma of the pirates in the game is unique and essence of an Assassin’s Creed game was in it. If only the combat on foot would have been less repetitive, and the locations had been filled with more interesting side quests and collectibles, Black Flag would have been a master piece. But overall, it was a job well done.

8 stars

8/10

Mass Effect review

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It’s been now 2 years since the new generation of consoles arrived but there’s no denying that the previous one had many games that left their mark in the gaming industry with high honors. Some of those games were undoubtedly the Mass Effect series and today I’m going to tell you about Mass Effect 1, specifically. Bioware achieved massive recognition with its Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic in the original Xbox era, so the hype for a sci-fi RPG, third person shooter adventure was huge. Released in 2007, one year after the launch of the Xbox 360, it quickly began as one of the most revolutionary games that focused on a story that could be tailored by the players’ choices. Of course nowadays decision making in video games are not rare by any means, but Mass Effect was the pioneer of a mechanic that would become the base of the whole franchise. Instead of opting for some good and evil ending, it focused on saving the galaxy, but with the actions you thought were the best. And some of those decisions meant sacrifices. Big sacrifices that would shape the whole game in many ways.

Story

It all takes place in the year 2185 when some years have passed since humanity discovered ancient technology that allows them to make Faster Than Light (FTL) travels and now they have joined the galactic community alongside other species of aliens who live in peace… most of the times. Commander Shepard has been sent to investigate a strange archeological discovery in the human colony of Eden Prime that will end up giving humanity the respect of the whole universe. When things go awry due to an agent of the galactic Council, Saren, gone rogue, Shepard is promoted to Spectre, agents that work as the “right hand of the council”, to travel beyond the stars to find and stop Saren from the evil plans he has.

So far the premise is simple. You are the good guy who has to hunt down the bad guy. But the beauty of this game comes in the form of which path you take to achieve that goal. Since the very beginning you are given the choice to make your character male or female and give him/her a pre-service history which can be Spacer, Earthborn and Colonist. Then, you have to choose one class for your character: Soldier, Infiltrator, Adept, Vanguard, Sentinel and Engineer. And finally, you have to choose a psychological profile that can be Sole Survivor, War Hero or Ruthless. If you are familiar with Bioware games by now, you might very well know that each customization you make for your character will affect the game in several ways, even being male or female will characters react different to you.

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However, the choice that will have the biggest impact overall is the class. You’ve got many choices for it and all of them give you different combat abilities. Soldiers are specialized in all sorts of weapons Engineers have a talent for manipulating technical equipment and use it to their advantages in combat. Infiltrators have weapons and abilities to disable the enemy and find advantageous positions. Sentinels combine tech and biotic abilities to create a strong defense to the squad. Adepts are experts in biotics, which are used to manipulate objects and enemies telekinetically and create other ways of manipulating the environment. Vanguards are brutal opponents that combine weapons and biotics deliver fatal strikes to the enemy.

After your character has been created, the real thing gets serious. You just made a step into one of the probably most detailed stories in gaming history to date, and I include the new generation. Yes, being the good guy who tracks down the bad guy is far from being new, but the magic here is why everything is happening. It’s been a while since humanity found a way to explore the universe and coexist with aliens after a harsh welcome and the game has an incredible way of telling you the details that makes you stay in awe for hours. There’s a huge number of sources of background story scattered around the different places you visit but the main one is the dialogue that the characters have. They all have a unique past that it’s inevitable not to stay and listen to all they have to say. After every mission, characters will have even more to comment about their life or the mission and how everything fits into the current plot of the game.

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Almost every time you find or hear a new concept or event narrated by a character, a codex will be updated with additional background story. If you are a person who doesn’t care much about the plot, you can skip all the background story and even the conversations to go right into the action without anything stopping you. However, we strongly believe that the story of this game has enough power to cause a huge impact on every kind of gamer out there. We, who are gamers with strong love for plots, lost ourselves into the magnificent background information in both the codex and the conversations with the characters.

But that’s not all! Remember we said you could choose the path you wanted? Well, that was not joke. Virtually every conversation you have with every character will give you several options to choose what to reply. These options will appear in the answer wheel that will have different outcomes. The left side will give you the option to investigate more about the story (there is too much!) while the right side will feature the paragon, renegade or neutral answers. These are the ones that will have a huge impact on the story, as they will determine not only who likes you or dislikes you, but also who will remain by your side and who will step aside, and some of these choices are not forgotten, carrying on to Mass Effect 2 and even 3.

 Gameplay

To complete the game, a series of missions will be available to you, and how you play them will be determined by how you personalized your character. By experience, we can say that the classes we enjoyed the most were Soldier and Adepts, as weapons and biotics, which could be describe as the magic equivalent of other games, have a very strong impact in not only the gameplay, but in the story as a whole. They give a special touch to the mechanics of the game that provides a new experience to use what would be magic in fantasy games in a way that suits perfectly a sci-fi shooter. After all, both weapons and biotics complement each other to be used simultaneously, instead of being individual skills.

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Of course, not all classes have those properties, so that’s when one of the most ambitious, yet polemic, elements of the game becomes relevant. The combat mechanics are both the most interesting and weakest points of Mass Effect due to several reasons. Throughout the game you choose 2 of your squadmates to accompany you on every mission, each one being a different class to complement the strengths and weaknesses of your Commander Shepard, but what makes it more dynamic is the fact that you can command each one of them to use one of their unique skills on an enemy, if you are ok with pausing the game for a brief 3 seconds, or let them do it on their own.

However, the AI was very questionable. When you let your characters fight on their own, they won’t exactly be very bright, as we found ourselves witnessing running into enemy fire just to keep dying every time. In addition, Shepard own controls are a bit hard to get used to, especially the cover system. You need to simply run and stick to the wall so that Shepard takes cover automatically. The only (serious) problem is that very rarely will he understand that he has to take cover, resulting in several frustrating seconds of your time until you get it right. This happened to us mainly when running, as Shepard can only sprint when in combat, and when he does, it’s more difficult to direct him to the place you want to take cover on, since probably you will end up taking cover in another, much closer wall you didn’t want to or even noticed.

The combat mechanics might look outdated for today’s standards by far, but, while it’s true that you’ll need a few minutes, you might forget a little bit about the difficulties of it and even enjoy it. Undoubtedly the ability to tell your squads which power to use is a great mechanic worth trying; but we saw ourselves in need of ordering to take cover and not move so that they didn’t get killed too much

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And of course, this is an RPG game, so plenty of customization besides your character will be there. Hundreds of weapons, mods, armor and other upgrades are scattered around the whole game which will have a real impact on your own and your squad’s combat. Of course, some of these upgrades only work for specific classes, so, even if your Shepard won’t use one, your squadmates gladly will! There are, however, too many of the same objects, and, since it’s hard to keep track on them, you’ll have to be checking a lot of times your inventory to discard some of the upgrades to not reach your limit capacity.

Another questionable factor is the side quests. There are plenty of them out there, some which requires you to visit other planets. These quests are very rewarding, as you get very good upgrades or even more plot details, but the quests themselves are a somewhat repetitive to be fun.

Atmosphere

We have already mentioned the great impact the story provided by the characters and codex has on the atmosphere of the game, but Mass Effect is a sci-fi game that uses many other resources to provide an incredibly rich atmosphere. You travel to other systems of the galaxy to fulfill your missions, and once the galaxy map becomes available to you, you get another proof of why this game feels deeper than you will probably think. You can’t visit all the planets, but all of them have a unique description that gives the game a sense of depth that makes you wonder about the real diversity of outer space. And the music is another strong factor that makes the whole space traveling feel peaceful and mysterious, while pushing you to delay your mission a little while and check out the planets and their descriptions.

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While doing that, you might encounter some planets you can land on. But this is probably the only disappointing point of the atmosphere of the game because the planets you can land on, while providing some upgrades, they are very tedious to explore and repetitive, so it’s better to just forget about them and continue exploring the galaxy map.

Conclusion

The first of the Mass Effect games began as a great hit for the Xbox 360 and we can clearly see why. The story and atmosphere made this game feel extremely complete from beginning to end. Sure, there were some drawbacks, too. If you haven’t played this game yet, it’s likely that you will struggle to get used to the gameplay for a few minutes, but once you do, the reward is a wonderful experience. All the characters feel alive and the dialogues are so detailed that you can learn something new from them almost every time you interact with them and the choice-driven system makes the flow of the game feel yours. It’s a game we strongly recommend to the whole community.

Ranking: 9

9 stars