Category: Wii U

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag

I can’t think of any developers I feel sorrier for than those of the Assassin’s Creed series. So much effort goes into their historical research, art direction, and level design, only for the big Ubisoft steamroller to come around and flatten it all into a watery paste. Fans often consider Black Flag to be the franchise’s last gasp of quality, and it’s hard to argue against a premise that’s essentially Red Dead Redemption meets The Wind Waker. But while the series’ dark age may have become overpowering with subsequent releases, it was still obviously on the rise in this installment. The new present-day framing device even comes across as a cry for help, being set in a Montreal-based game studio whose creative decisions are mandated by unseen corporate overlords.

Everything in Black Flag feels like it’s being torn apart by opposing forces. It should be both atmospheric and cinematic, but it can’t because the screen is so plastered with HUD elements.  The free-running feels amazing when it works, but there’s barely any skill to it. The combat is slightly better about the skill issue, but it also feels shallow and artificial beneath all its flair. The 18th- and 21st-century narrative threads complement each other nicely – the former is self-contained and follows a strong character arc, while the latter is an interesting continuation of the overall plot. Unfortunately, standard AC storytelling issues – arbitrary time skips, inconsistent progression, and an unsatisfying ending – still haunt the past segments, while the modern ones offer nothing to do but another timesink of asinine hacking minigames.

The expanded naval gameplay from AC3 is a well-advised focus this time. Ship combat is surprisingly deep and engaging, while harpooning and diving missions are novel additions. All of these things, along with all other things in this game, will become needlessly repetitive after only a few hours, however. I was actually astonished that there were no single-player microtransactions to be seen; the variety of grindy resource-accumulation tasks, particularly in the dreary fleet management minigame, seemed totally designed with them in mind. Bizarrely, ships are nowhere to be found in the game’s multiplayer, which is as clever a merger of stealth and deathmatch gameplay as ever, but is clearly just coasting on its predecessors’ foundations at this point.

Axiom Verge

Axiom Verge

Axiom Verge is the best type of game – one that uses a solid template as a jumping-off point for a host of crazy ideas. The template in this case is Metroid, and the crazy ideas include weaponizing in-universe glitches, phasing through walls, and exploring caves with a rifle-mounted drill. It should be an amazing nostalgic love letter, but seemingly everything that makes it awesome has a caveat attached to it. There are over a dozen weapons, but none of them are remotely balanced. The aesthetics are a nearly flawless NES recreation, but that means the environments are a pixelated jumble and the audio is unbearably screechy. The controls are excellent, except for the later movement abilities, which all handle terribly.

Much has been made of Thomas Happ’s one-man development effort, and with good reason: he clearly knows what makes this genre tick. Between the setting and the enemies, I haven’t seen a game world feel so completely alien since the last Metroid Prime. Between that and the meaty challenge (excepting some uneven boss fights), this 8-bit side-scroller can be uncommonly frightening. The one sector where Happ should definitely do some outsourcing is storytelling, however. After an intriguing first half, the plot abruptly implodes, with nonsensical twists involving every imaginable sci-fi cliché. It’s possible this was meant as another layer of homage, because it’s the kind of stream-of-consciousness schlock that informed 80s video games. In that case, mission accomplished, unfortunately.