In late 2013, when the PS4 & Xbox One launched, the first game I played on my brand new PS4 was not Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. It was the second game I played but it is the one I want to talk about for reasons which should become apparent really soon. Black Flag was the first AC title on the new consoles but it was cross-generation. So it, along with several other generation-spanning titles, became a handy benchmark to compare new and old. The PS4 and Xbox One versions looked better, ran better, loaded quicker and highlighted the early progress that the new, more powerful, machines were capable of. Now, in 2020, with the PS5 and Xbox Series X on the horizon – and the announcement of a new Assassin’s Creed game (Valhalla) which will also cross the generational divide – Black Flag can serve us in a new but equally enlightening way.
Before Origins & Odyssey came along (neither of which I’ve played much) I asserted – rightly, in my opinion – that Black Flag was the best game in the Assassin’s Creed franchise. Not because it was about Assassins & Templars, it was very much in spite of that. The Caribbean setting, the expansive map full of islands, interesting challenges and enemies to overcome surpassed the Assassin’s trappings it was couched in rather well. The ship to ship combat included boarding to cut down your enemy face to face as well as being able to blast them to kingdom come with your cannons. It was fantastic fun. A great adventure even if the larger story at play wasn’t necessarily anymore.
Now, however, going back to it it looks tired and dated. The methodology of how the open world is designed and the activities within it leaves a lot to be desired. An endless list of collect that, catch this, find those, climb them and so on. You even have to chase and catch the damn sea shanties which means a lot of players will likely have missed out on one of the best parts of the entire game! The world has moved on from that formula. It was successful, sure, but there’s a reason why Origins and Odyssey have reinvented the series and moved away from it. Though they’ve left me behind in the process, by and large the feedback and reception to the updates they’ve made has been positive. Most of which I imagine will be carried over into the new instalment.
Valhalla, from what little we know about it at the moment, shares some key similarities with Black Flag on a surface level. There will be some sort of base/settlement to upgrade and there’ll be a lot of ships with, presumably, places to sail them to. Though they’ve mentioned that the ship combat will be pared back in Valhalla I suspect that has more to do with the lack of room for a retinue of cannons on the longships. This means that not only will Valhalla serve as a good means to compare itself on the old and new consoles, it will also serve really well as a comparison to Black Flag. Illustrating how far the methodology behind the game’s design has changed and improved but also how the technical advancements have affected them too.
With the new generation of consoles, there’s a lot of hype around the changes made by Sony & Microsoft beyond the simple graphical power of the machines. That is rightly a focus but attention has also been drawn to the inclusion of SSD’s (Solid State Drives) instead of the more traditional HDD’s (Hard Disk Drives) found in the previous generations. The transformational effect this could have gets very technical and difficult for me to explain (I’m not a hardware engineer or a game developer – sorry if I fooled you) so I’ll give you the basic version. SSDs are ludicrously quick at pulling the data stored on them when asked to, compared to an HDD. That means that load times can be vastly reduced or eliminated almost entirely. That’s a quality of life improvement for players that can’t be matched in any other way.
If you go back to play Black Flag, as I did recently and mess about for a few hours you’ll notice a lot of issues. The controls are a bit shonky, obviously the graphics are a bit meh these days but mostly what you’ll notice is that you spend a lot of time looking at the load screen. You can’t just hop in your boat, sail off somewhere, land on an island or dock at port and fuck off into the town or jungle or whatever that you’ve come to visit. No, there’s a load screen between each step. Want to leave the harbour? Sorry, gotta load that in. Want to stop at that little island that your map says has a chest & a sea shanty on it? Sorry, gotta load that first. It’s frustrating but it’s entirely necessary. That’s the best the developers could do given the technology at their disposal and that’s on PS4! I hate to think what it must’ve been like on PS3 or Xbox 360. I’m really excited to see how big a difference the SSD’s in the new consoles will make. Hopefully, I won’t be left feeling disappointed.
Now, before you call me an entitled dobber and close this article never to return, I must stress that I’m not blaming anyone for that. That was the reality of the time. I loved it then and I still love it now – though I choose to love it from a safe distance from here on out. The point I’m making is, more than anything, when the next generation drops don’t forget to look past the pixel counts and pretty foliage densities. Prettier graphics are important, you’d be crazy to deny that but the quality of life improvements for players – like decreased or eliminated load times – are important too.