I’m not shy about extolling the virtues of PC gaming. I own nine home consoles, but for the past couple of years, PC has just been the way I play.
There was then a conflict of emotions when I realised that the console queue for Black Flag was brimming, yet the PC versions of the exact same demo sat completely unoccupied. How frustrating that people who love games enough to pay to queue up and play them were put off by an excessive number of buttons.
Or maybe they knew something I didn’t.
The new setting certainly suits the franchise. It’s an exciting period of history with an established fan base, and room for more than a little artistic licence. And the game carries it well. Black Flag is visually sublime, your ship perfectly rendered in its various stages of disrepair, as you zoom in and out of the naval battlefield. It feels the part. It just struggles to act it.
Put it down to PC controls or the specifics of the port, but every action felt confused and sluggish. The movement of the ship is no more realistic than AC 3, but the process of steering it manually with WASD is tedious, while D seems to remove you from the wheel instead of logically slowing down. The whole approach feels out of place on the platform. Why not pan out, set waypoints, and let the crew take over while you command the offensive?
The oversimplification of ship-based combat is so jarring that it begins to impose itself on the control scheme. Press shift to fire, and a reticule appears. What do you do with this reticule? I never quite figured it out. I thought maybe I had to click to fire, or press shift again, or hold it. I would fire volleys, but it tooks a good few minutes to get them to hit anything.
Boarding is a little better, but your character reveals himself more cumbersome than the vessel. The process is exciting enough – get close to a vessel at low health, order your men to board, fire a grappling hook – but the action itself is hamstrung by poor combat. Movement appeared a binary switch between trudging shuffle and full sprint, and fighting a session of frantic clicks, in the hope that some of your sword blows will get through. That’s unless you take out your gun, which while admirably slow in reloading, seems to have less effect on an enemy from five yards than you might imagine.
At least capturing the fort is a little more spontaneous. Enemies engage is seemingly random fights with your crew as you proceed upwards, occasionally deigning to fall from high steps and tower walls. But the central conceit of the capture – find commander, kill him – is far too easy. Apparently without a sword or ammo, I managed to equip my hidden blades while running in circles, and gut him with nary a whimper.
The console versions are probably superior, then, but it needn’t have been the case. The ideas are there, as they always have been. It’s just the gameplay that keeps holding Ubisoft back.