The big pirate adventure Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag is out today for PlayStation 3, Wii U and Xbox 360. But in a couple of weeks, it'll be out on next-gen consoles and PC. I played through the entire game on PlayStation 3 (and I liked it), and I also spent a good chunk of time checking out the PlayStation 4 version. How do the two stack up?
With reviews of the game hitting, I'd imagine there are three questions on people's minds:
1) How is the PS4 version different from current-gen?
2) If I'm already buying a next-gen console, should I wait two weeks to play that version of the game?
3) Is it worth buying a next-gen console just to play it?
I thought I'd do my best to answer all three questions.
A couple notes: I played the PlayStation 4 version of Black Flag, so I can't speak directly to the Xbox One version. I also can't speak to the Xbox 360 version, though after watching a few videos of it in action, it looks more or less like the PS3 version. My answers here are based on the versions I've played: PS3 and PS4. It'd be fair to assume most of the things in this post (other than the later stuff tied specifically to the PS4) will be true for the Xbox One version, but I can't say for sure until I've been able to test it.
Second note: I generally play Creed games on the PC, and if you're a PC player, there's really no reason to think that version of the game won't still be the best-looking one, as long as you've got the horsepower for it.
How is the PS4 version different?
How different is the PS4 version from current-gen? Well… it's not really all that different. Here's what I noticed:
Lots of graphics. Black Flag is a gorgeous game on PS3 and a gorgeous-er one on PS4. The enhanced lighting effects, high-res textures and near-constant weather effects combine to add a level of visual polish that isn't present in the PS3 version. Environmental effects, in particular, look much nicer — the fog in the moonlight, the god-rays of the sun, the daylight shining off of the water, that kind of thing.
Smoother performance. This is probably the biggest difference I noticed. At times, the performance in the PS3 version of ACIV dips noticeably, particularly when running across rooftops in Havana or the game's other geometrically complex areas. Swordfights in Havana can get a touch slidehshow-y, though it never really did much to diminish my enjoyment of the game. The PS4 version, by way of contrast, runs at a solid framerate (somewhere around 30, I'd say), and looks much smoother in action. That said, loading screens didn't seem to pass any more quickly, and you still have to stop to load before entering any of the game's major cities.
Animations tie together better. You know how in Assassin's Creed games, it sometimes feels like the fighting animations don't quite connect? Your character will stab a dude or slice another dude, but his sword will sort of float through the air near the guy, and it won't quite look right? That's still an issue in the PS3 version of Black Flag, but on PS4, it's much less noticeable. It's partly because the PS3 version appears to skip frames to keep combat moving at the right speed, but whatever the reason, combat and platforming look and move much more freely and convincingly on PS4.
Dat foliage. The trees, bushes and leaves all move in the next-gen version of Black Flag. It is… nice, but not really a big deal. Storms blow leaves around more realistically, when you're moving around, you won't really notice it. I did like how bushes and grass would push around when Edward was sneaking through them. It reminded me of that part in Jurassic Park 2 when the raptors are sneaking through the tall grass, and… oh, you know what, it's just cool looking. You can see some of the foliage and weather stuff in action in this Ubisoft hype-demo, which actually isn't all that hype-y and shows off a lot of the tech they're using:
The PS4 Controller. Input-nerds like me will probably be wondering, does the PS4's new DualShock 4 controller make the game play differently? The answer: Yes, actually!
Because the DS4 pushes your fingers up to the triggers, the run/aim buttons have been remapped on PS4 from L1/R1 to L2/R2. On Xbox and PC, the triggers have long controlled running, which gives players a middle option between sprinting and walking. Squeeze the trigger halfway, and your character jogs. It's a welcome degree of control, and makes a small but noticeable difference in the overall game. (On the debug PS3 version of the game I played, it's not possible to flip L1/R1 and L2/R2.) Past the triggers thing, there's the fact that I already vastly prefer the Dualshock 4 to the PS3's Dualshock 3. It's tighter, snappier, and feels better in my hands.
Now about that touchpad...
The touchpad map. The other distinctive aspect of the PS4 version of the game is the fact that you can access and manipulate the map using the touchpad. It sounded pretty cool in theory, but in practice, I found it to be more trouble than it's worth. The touchpad on the version I played was overly fiddly, and it was too difficult to zoom in on a given map icon to get more information. It may just be that I'd already gotten used to manipulating the map using the thumbsticks, but I couldn't really see a reason to use the touchpad to do it. The map in Black Flag is a substantial improvement over past Creed maps, but you can simply use the thumbsticks to access it.
Other miscellaneous PS4 stuff. The game will also come with the same new bells and whistles other PS4 games will come with: You'll theoretically be able to capture and share video with the press of a button, and if you own a Vita, you'll be able to play the game via remote-play. I haven't tested out either of those features, but given that Black Flag does tend to generate sharable moments, it'd be cool to have a recorder on hand. And I'm quite curious to see if the remote-play stuff works as well as advertised; I hope it does, because it'd be fun to play this game on a handheld.
On to the other questions...
I'm getting a next-gen console. Should I wait two weeks for the next-gen version?
I'd say yes to this one. If you're already set on getting a PS4 or Xbox One, you should probably just wait for those versions of the game. Sure, you can buy the current-gen version now and upgrade for $US10 later, but your progress won't carry over. Given how massive this game is, it'd be a shame to have to start over. Black Flag is a fun game, but it'll still be a fun game in two weeks.
Is it worth buying a next-gen console to play it?
Nah. It's easy to tell the current- and next-gen versions of this game apart, but the current-gen version is no slouch. Ubisoft has clearly gotten really good at eking performance out of the PS3, and they've managed to put together one of the best-looking console games of the year. Most of the improvements offered in the next-gen version are window dressing. For a game this good-looking, window-dressing can count for a fair amount, but the core game is solid no matter which system you play it on.
Can I just watch a comparison?
Several sites have now posted videos comparing the graphics between the current-gen and PS4 versions of ACIV. For both of the ones below, you'll want to watch in fullscreen at YouTube's highest possible resolution.
Gamesradar compares the Xbox 360 and PS4 versions:
Rev3 Games does the same thing:
Hopefully that helps offer some insight into the current- vs. next-gen versions of Assassin's Creed IV. If you've got any more questions, let me know, and I'll do my best to answer in the comments.