I sat down with an Xbox One copy of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag intending only to play a handful of hours in order to write a quick article about the differences between it and its Xbox 360 cousin, yet ended playing almost half way through the game, fully caught up once again in sailing the seas.
But I’ve already spent a great number of worlds describing just why Black Flag is an outstanding game in my review, so let’s get on with trying to determine whether it’s worth either jumping straight in with the Xbox One edition or upgrading from the Xbox 360/PS3 version.
The short answer is yes to the first and no to the second.
The gameplay remains completely unchanged, and that leaves just a graphical upgrade to chat about. According to Ubisoft they made the deliberate decision not to improve the visual quality too much to ensure that the Xbox One and PS4 editions of the game wouldn’t completely outclass the last-gen, and as a direct result the graphical leap between consoles isn’t as large as one would expect or hope. There’s a decent degree of extra detail present within every inch of the game, allowing you to pick out small things that you couldn’t before and therefore creating a richer overall picture, enhanced by slightly stronger colors. You can pick out the individual hairs in Kenway’s beard, for example, and the texturing on his clothing and armor looks better. Take a wander around one of the many ports and you’ll note the grain in wood and how your feet sink slightly into the mud, creating footprints that fill back in slowly. Other smaller details within the visuals like fabric moving a little more naturally are something you may not even consciously notice but contribute toward making the world of Black Flag feel more…complete.
The upgrades that I took the most notice of are how foliage now reacts to your presence, moving aside as you stride or sneak through it, unlike the Xbox 360 version where it remains static, oblivious to your presence. It just makes you feel a little more connected to the world rather than a ghost wandering through it with a vindictive attitude. Meanwhile the smoke from gun fire looks far better, behaving in a manner so realistic that I was often fooled into believing it was genuine. Pistols delivery a pop and puff of smoke, while firing a broadside looks especially awesome as a plume of smoke briefly obscures your view as it floats by. These are relatively small details, and yet they just help make the game feel a bit more alive.
Black Flag was already an amazing looking game on both Xbox 360 and PS3, so even with a minimal upgrade to new technology it stills looks supremely good, and in many ways makes me appreciate all the more just what developers were able to do with the limited specifications of the previous generation. Seriously, just look at the size of the game world – Ubisoft were able to create it with almost no loading screens on a console with 512mb of Ram.
Wandering around the tropical islands is breathtaking as the water sparkles and people go about their business. The increased draw distance opens up even more impressive vistas, and I often found myself just stopping to soak it all in. This also gave me a heightened appreciation for something I failed to mention in my review and feel embarrassed for not doing so: the marvellous score composed by Brian Tyler. I’m downright useless at describing music, despite being a musician myself, but it encapsulates the spirit of piracy brilliantly, or at least the modern take on what we associate we pirates. It enhances the game beautifully, and I can’t believe I didn’t mention it in the review.
But the true highlight remains being caught in a storm as you engage in a naval battle. Simply sailing the vast ocean in good weather is eye-candy of the highest order, but once a storm begins to rage the improved lighting greatly impresses, used to great effect as water washes across the deck. The towering waves also highlight the improved water effects, equalling an ocean that can easily rival that seen in the greatest movie CGI. As your ship is tossed around and smoke bellows forth from your glowing-hot cannons the game goes from being eye-candy to being breathtakingly beautiful. The amount of debris and splinters that erupt from the Jackdaw when you take fire from an enemy ship is impressive, and I could almost believe I was in a movie.
The draw distance has been increased by a good chunk allowing vast city vistas to spread out before you. No longer are distant buildings surrounding by a strange haze, and no longer do they pop into view as you begin to get closer. On the open sea the horizon seems to never end and ships can be spied from much further afield. This extra draw distance helps immerse in the world and keep you there.
If there’s one disappointment I have with the Xbox One version of the game it’s that the world isn’t entirely seamless. On the Xbox 360 Ubisoft pulled off an impressive technical feat by allowing you to sail the entire world with only the four major cities requiring loading screens upon entry. I had hoped that on the Xbox One version of the game that those might have been removed entirely, creating one huge world devoid of loading screens, but alas they’re still present. But having said that all loading times have been minimised and are on average a few seconds shorter, lessening the time you’ll have to sit idle.
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag looks amazing, and yet it’s hard not to feel a little sad that Ubisoft didn’t go all out on this port. If they could make Black Flag look as good as it does on the Xbox 360 just imagine what they could have done had they chosen to focus on maximizing the power of the Xbx One. They claim their choice was so that users didn’t end up with completely different versions of the game, but the cynical side of believes its far more likely that they simply didn’t want to pour the money required into the project, and to be fair I can understand that as the install base on the Xbox One isn’t nearly as large. But still, I can’t help but wonder what could have been. Had Ubisoft been willing push the envelope I firmly believe that it would have been the graphical poster-boy for both Xbox One and PS4. But still, although it’s not exclusive to the console Black Flag is one of the launch titles I’d recommend picking up, alongside Forza and Dead Rising 3.
But now we come back to the questions I posed near the start of this little article: is it worth buying Black Flag on Xbox One, and is it worth upgrading from the previous generation if you already own it? The answer to the first is a unoquivacal yes, because this is the superior version, boasting the same great gameplay and improved graphics, making it the clear choice, especially since you can pick it up in places like ASDA for just £45, only £5 more than the 360 version.
However, should you already own the Xbox 360 or PS3 version of the game then increase in detail and draw distance just aren’t enough to make shelling out extra cash for the upgrade worthwhile, which is a shame because had Ubisoft sunk more effort into crafting a heavily improved version of Black Flag which utilised all the power of the Xbox One then it would have been a great reason to experience the game for a second time. Perhaps if the sale of your existing copy would cover the vast majority of the cost of upgrading then it may be worthwhile, but otherwise don’t worry about it. The Xbox 360 version is just as fun.
If nothing else what I have learned from these hours spend exploring islands and generally swashing the buckles (Uh?) is that I still love this game, and thus the high score I slapped on the end of my review feels somewhat justified, at least in my eyes. Now if you don’t mind I have a few ships to plunder. The Assassins can wait.
Note: Hey folks, don’t forget I’m offering up a chance to win a copy of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag on PS4. Check it out.