​Assassin's Creed III Was Disappointing. How Does Black Flag Stack Up?

 Assassin's Creed III Was Disappointing. How Does Black Flag Stack Up?

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag had a lot of making up to do. I thought the previous game in the series, Assassin's Creed III, was a resounding disappointment. I've already weighed in on the new, pirate-themed Black Flag: It's pretty good. But for those who felt burnt by the last game, a more thorough comparison may be in order.

Last year, I wrote an article titled "How Has Assassin's Creed III Disappointed Me? Let Me Count The Ways". The final tally: 10. The game disappointed me in 10 ways, though as I found while writing, its small disappointments were far more numerous. That article is below, if you'd like to relive the letdown of Connor's Big Historical Adventure.

The reasons for my disappointment with Assassin's Creed III were as follows:

  1. Nothing works all that well.
  2. It's all rough edges.
  3. The music is a drag.
  4. The intro? Also a drag.
  5. Basic interface fail.
  6. The "Gump Factor."
  7. Time for a control overhaul.
  8. For a stealth game, the stealth sure is jank.
  9. I avoid doing things.
  10. It's just not all that fun.

I thought it might be useful to re-state those 10 disappointments as questions posed to the new game, the better to get to the bottom of where Black Flag has improved, and where it still has a ways to go.

Here we go.

1. Does anything really work all that well?

Basic functionality is an ongoing problem for the Creed series, and so it was with AC III: Nothing really worked all that well. Last year, I wrote that "it's almost as though Assassin's Creed III has no core game mechanics. It's all ancillary stuff."

Black Flag does improve on a number of small mechanical things. Shooting, in particular, is much easier, mostly because aiming is finally mapped to the left trigger. Targeting has been simplified from past games, and it's no longer possible to lock onto a target. Perhaps to make up for that, the new tagging system makes it much easier to keep tabs on a given enemy. Fist-fighting isn't horrible, though it still doesn't come close to the likes of the Arkham games. And, welcomely, inventory-management has been overhauled and brought up to snuff; it's finally easy to switch between weapons mid-fight.

With all that said, I still can't quite say anything actually works all that well in the new game. It's improved, sure. A lot of the time I could pull off tricks and manoeuvres just how I'd planned, which is a nice new development. But there's still that nagging feeling that the series presents a collection of ancillary abilities in search of a primary one.

 Assassin's Creed III Was Disappointing. How Does Black Flag Stack Up?

2. Is it all rough edges?

Assassin's Creed III was buggy as a Bushwick street-mattress. Assassin's Creed IV is far from bug-free, but judging by my time with the PS3 version, it's nowhere close to the glitch-fest AC III was. I encountered nary a weird audio loop, nightmarish laughing child or hand-standing-horse glitch in my time playing the new game, and while I'm sure it's has gotten some patches since launch, they haven't felt as necessary or substantial as the patches released for III. The visuals, too, are almost as lovely as they were in Ubisoft's now-notoriously "heightened" promotional screenshots. No game will ever look as good in action as Ubisoft's promo department would have us believe, but Black Flag is a game of remarkable beauty. So, significantly fewer rough edges.

3. Is the music a drag?

It is not, blessedly. For Black Flag, Ubisoft brought a new composer to the series — Brian Tyler, fresh off his work scoring last year's dubsteppy Far Cry 3. Tyler's work on Black Flag is much like his work on the recent Marvel films Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World — serviceable, if not particularly memorable. He's a workmanlike Hollywood guy who rarely conjures a truly iconic theme, though Black Flag's main theme comes close in places:

In the game, when it came time to take on an enemy ship, Tyler's amalgamation of Hans Zimmer's Pirates of the Caribbean theme did more than enough to get me psyched for some swashbuckling. His score doesn't match the iconic beauty of Jesper Kyd's work on the first few games — particularly the series-defining music of Assassin's Creed II — but it's an improvement from Lorne Balfe's often ponderous work on Revelations and III.

4. Is the intro also a drag?

No! And hooray for that. Black Flag makes a clear improvement over its predecessor by throwing us into the action right off the bat. The game gives Edward an immediate series of quests to undertake but doesn't blow its pacing, instead building toward a terrific mini-climax as Edward liberates his crew and steals the Jackdaw. That mission was one of my favourites in Black Flag, and marked the place where the actual game — the one where you sail around and explore islands — began. A huge improvement over AC III's endless "go here, press a button" introduction. Haytham could have learned a thing or two from his old man.

 Assassin's Creed III Was Disappointing. How Does Black Flag Stack Up?

5. Does the basic interface fail?

I'm more mixed on this one. On the one hand, Black Flag's interface is an improvement on past games, certainly III. The inventory has been moved seamlessly into the game, and it's now possible to flip through your entire loadout using only the D-pad. It's almost like it's a functional action game!

On the other hand, the Creed user-interface is still a visual disaster zone. The problem seems intractable at this point — maybe these games simply have too much information to impart? When reviewing Black Flag, I wrote: "The Creed games seem addicted to UI clutter, on-screen text and icons that act as flesh-eating digital ants infesting an otherwise aesthetically wondrous game." I have no idea if there's really a solution for this problem. That said, I remain thankful that I can toggle off various aspects of the interface, and while I haven't experimented all that much with the "naked" game, I have a feeling it might work better than one might suspect.

6. How is the "Gump Factor?"

When writing about Assassin's Creed III, I worried that as the series gets closer and closer to modern times, it'll feel weirder and weirder to see its protagonists shoved into iconic historical moments. Call it the Gump Factor: Oh, sure, Connor fought at Bunker hill, Connor commanded the troops at Concord,Connor went along with Paul Revere on his famous moonlit ride. The more familiar we are with the events the games portray, the more aware we'll be of how contrived it all is.

Black Flag actually moves backward in time from AC III. It also tackles a place and time (the 18th-century West Indies) that is less familiar and less loaded with famous historical characters. Sure, Blackbeard is fairly well known. Some of us have heard of Mary Read and Anne Bonney. But for the most part, we've only a passing familiarity with these folks. That leaves the story with a lot more flexibility. It's a return to the vibe of the past games in the series: Interesting and occasionally educational without feeling Gump-y.

7. Is it still time for a control overhaul?

Yes. For all the things I like about Black Flag, the controls are still mostly a wreck. Smart level design has gone a long way toward making the controls seem better, but when it comes down to it, it's still difficult to do basic things like, say, walk through a doorway. Or manoeuvre in battle. Or jump onto this guy, but not that guy.

It's time for a crouch/take cover button. It's time for players to have more precise control while climbing. Maybe we need a grappling hook or something. Maybe some sort of time-slowing ability that lets players target more precisely. I don't know. But yes, it's still time for a control overhaul.

8. Is the stealth still jank?

Happily, stealth is one of the areas in which Black Flag has most improved over its predecessor. It is not perfect, but it is not "jank". Everything works much better, thanks largely to levels that have actually been designed to let players sneak. Bushes and hiding spots are liberally strewn around enemy compounds, and the patrol AI is less inclined to go on full alert, which lets you screw up and get spotted without feeling overly punished for it. This is nice because the controls are still a mess, so even the craftiest sneak will get spotted from time to time.

Back when I reviewed the game, I made a video to demonstrate the improved stealth:

Black Flag's stealth still doesn't come close to a dedicated stealth game, nor to Ubisoft's own Splinter Cell games or Far Cry 3. But it's getting there. In another game or two, we might finally get sneaking that matches Ubisoft's other output.

9. Do I avoid doing things?

One of the most damning things I could say about AC III was that I mostly wound up avoiding doing things. My boss Stephen has pointed out all the cool side-stuff in that game, and how rich it becomes if you take the time to dig into its nooks and crannies. But I was so bummed out by how much of a chore it was to get around, how little I liked the main character and how buggy it all was that I never really wanted to do much of anything.

I certainly want to do things in Black Flag. I plan to re-play at least a chunk of the game on either PC or next-gen systems, and am looking forward to more thoroughly upgrading the Jackdaw and maybe even taking on some of those legendary ships at the corners of the map. In short: Yes, I do want to do things in Black Flag.

10. Is it just not very fun?

If you've made it this far, you can probably guess the answer to this one. Yep, Black Flag is a lot more fun than Assassin's Creed III was. Most things work better, the setting feels more exciting, and the pirate-ship business is integrated well into the full game. It's still frustrating at times, some of the story missions are still junk, and there are way too many "follow the dude, and if you get spotted you fail" missions. But yeah, it's a lot more fun to play than its predecessor.

 Assassin's Creed III Was Disappointing. How Does Black Flag Stack Up?

So! Several steps in the right direction, and a few remaining steps still to take. If you'd like to relive the bummer that was Assassin's Creed III, you can do so below.


    Am I one of the only people who wasn't disappointed in AC3? Maybe it's because I was already disappointed in AC: Brotherhood, or maybe because since AC is a yearly release I wasn't expecting a huge leap, but for the most part I enjoyed it.

    Only real nitpick is that the ending felt like it was changed at the last second to allow more sequels.

      I wasn't disappointed by AC3 because I never played another game in the franchise after the utter agony of ACI.

        That's a shame, because every problem in AC1 was remedied in AC2 and onwards.

      It was a pretty lame followup compared to every other iteration but it was not as bad as Kirk made it out to be.

      So many people didn't like the intro but I think they've missed the point. The intro was the best part of the game for me. I think everyone was just expecting that you'd get to wear the robes for the majority of the game, but that's really not an essential aspect of the game.

        Honestly I thought the intro had a good plot twist at the end.

        I think AC2.2 and AC2.3 actually ruined AC3 in some parts. AC2 also had a very slow introduction before you got any robes too. AC3 was following in those steps since, technically, it is the sequel after like 3 years. The developers were probably treating it like a sequel and designed it to be slow to get their players accustomed to the game again due to the length in time. But since Brotherhood and Revelations kept up that feeling, many people found it extra slow.

          The plot twist was ruined for me by the game itself. I always read the animus database entries and I read Haytham's entry and it explains how he's a templar and stuff. This happened WAY before the actual plot twist. Just another of dozens of things this game got wrong.

      It was the first AC game that was full of things that made me *sigh* loudly.

      One simple example is towards the end *AC3 SPOILERS* Connor gets wounded and is bloodied and battered and limps away. In the very next cutscene Connor's clothing looks like it has been dry cleaned. During this sutscene the dialogue was so far out of synch, one character was talking while the other was moving his mouth. Then they sail somewhere and Connor's clothing is once again bloodied and battered. Then the game ends and I went about for a while doing other things (doing the homestead and crafting missions that contribute nothing to the main game).

      Then I saw a mission marker on the map and I went to it. All of a sudden Connor was bloodied and battered and limping as he watched the British sail away in defeat. I suppose I was meant to visit that mission marker straight after I killed the last main guy because Connor would still be injured. But little did the game know I had done dozens of side missions.

      It was full of similar examples of staggering inconsistency. I found myself constantly facing crap like this. When the game was good, it was amazing! But for the remaining 70% of the time is was below average.

      I played ACIII for about 50 hours to get the Platinum. I enjoyed about half of them and loathed the other half. That's a very unshaky ratio for a good game in my view.

      The homestead stuff took a very minor side part of ACII and made it a full on Farmville feature. Can't see why anyone would think that was a good idea.

    Black Flag is a lot more fun than Assassin’s Creed III was

    Yay. Seems mostly improved, fingers crossed for PC.

    Still waiting for an early PC review. Can't find one anywhere..

    This is exactly the article I was waiting for. Critically ACIII and Black Flag are doing the same (the Metacritic score is very similar) but ACIII was one of the most memorably miserable games I've played in recent history, and this comes from someone who loves the franchise. I struggle to trust the general consensus on this because it was so positive last year so it's great to hear someone say 'I hated ACIII but I like Black Flag.' PREORDER UN-CANCELLED LOL sif I'd preorder anything

    This game is amazing and fun. There are some slight annoyances but in the grand scheme of things, pirating on tje high seas has never been so good. The sea battles are where it is.

    If you loved sea dogs than this is your game.

    Few points that did disappoint are. No drop in ship battles. No online ship battles orco op assaults. Also you can upgrade your ship but you can't trade it up for a ship of the line or what not.

    And a question for anyone who is playing. On my companion app it says I have 70 000 dollars to collect. Where the hell do I collect?

      Inside your ship. You collect it when you select your fleet by using the table.

    I enjoyed AC 3 - But loved AC 4 got it for xbox 360. Will get it when i get ps4

    I didn't mind AC3 but i did skip brotherhood and bloodlines (?) due to just wanting to get to AC3. I may get AC4 after i have played a fair bit of NBA 2k14 (unless it comes out really cheap quickly) for the PS4 but i don't want to get it if it is not an improvement on AC3

    AC4 was a huge improvement over AC3

    And we say so! and we know so!

    Last edited 12/11/13 3:43 pm

      Hah! I laughed at the reference.

      I have been feverishly collecting shanties just because I'm so damn enamored of them.

    Graphics and design are a let down and exploration feels restricting. Still fun but I think Ubisoft need to do a proper sequel now. AssCreed4 still feels like an expansion game.

    'Splinter Cell's parkour still doesn’t come close to a dedicated parkour game, nor to Ubisoft’s own Assassin's Creed games or the MIrror's Edge Series. But it’s getting there. In another game or two, we might finally get roof-running and jumping that matches Ubisoft’s other output.'

      That would be a good analogy if parkour was as important to Splinter Cell as stealth is to Assassin's Creed.

    As a video-game-playing/critiquing veteran, I am well-familiar with the tropes, mechanics and devices employed by AC4 to create the impressions it does. Often, in games, this ruins it for me as I peek behind the curtains and fail to let the smoke and mirrors work their magic on me.

    In this instance, I really don't care, I'm having fun despite knowing full-well how I am being manipulated. It's limited, when you break the game up into its components, and sometimes the controls are utterly unresponsive to your intent, but for the most part it just damn works. Edward is a relatable rogue, as is his helpful, voiced crew. And I've always had a thing for sailing and the power of the ocean, so I'm probably already inclined to simply enjoy hanging out on the seas.

    My only complaint is, honestly, the time it takes and frequency of loading/saving - and that's probably a current-gen issue. Hopefully that'll be smooth and seamless on PC/next-gen and it'll turn into GOTY 2013. (Or at least be a strong contender.)

    LOVED Connor's head in the shark. Gave me a good laugh.

    Why no crouching? GTA got this function over 10 years ago. Having said that, it has been changed to an 'I've got back pain' position for V. But I guess you can say GTA still doesn't have prone position which it should definitely have gained in V...

    I actually quite liked AC III, it was better than Revelations and Brotherhood, that's for sure. There were some really terrible moments and slow missions that let it down, but it's not as bad as it's made out to be. Can't wait for my PC Copy of AC 4, got it reserved :)

      Brotherhood? Really?

        Yea actually. Rome's awesome, but it felt like the same place in Brotherhood, the story was a bit lacking too, and aside form some classics, the music wasn't as good as the other entries (City of Rome was beautiful though)

    I've only ever played brotherhood (loved the game but never did finish it I got distracted in the game going assassin missions then stopped before finishing) and I'll probably pick this up for the ps4 just for a change of my usual Fps games I've been playing for the last 2 years

    I liked connor

    I feel like this guy is just going to be an asshole...

    In preparation for IV (come on it's got PIRATES), I've been playing II, Brotherhood, Revelations and III (playing I a few years ago was fine and did not want to return to it).

    The Ezio trilogy is probably one of my favourite story archs in a game series ever and I can not honestly wait to get through III, it's just disappointing.

    I am really looking forward to playing Black Flag.

    Man, I really don't get the acIII bashing. I never had any more trouble with its interface and ai then any of the ac series, lets face it none of them are great gameplay games its more about aesthetic and story.....acIII has both in spades, if people took the time to build the valley town up by doing missions the whole game becomes amazing and is way more inspired and moving then acIV's rushed half assed bug bummer story and out of nowhere ending(plus the real world actually feeling like something's finally happening in acIII, but acIV is just feels like a lot of work with zero reward, less being bitched out and blackmailed is somehow a reward), as for characters no question acIV does a way better job but fails to really build up enough for emotional connection but in ACIII if you work on the village you really feel vested.

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