What I love about digital entertainment mediums is that they are malleable. Through post-processing, creators can make movies, television shows, and video games look like anything they want them to look like. It’s how so many film makers can get away with shooting nighttime scenes during the day and vice versa. With careful manipulation, you can get the exact feel you want without physically achieving it.
It’s hard, though, to get it exactly right. When you don’t get it right, you end up with a sheep in wolves clothing, someone throwing a sheet over their head and calling themselves a ghost. It makes you stop, point at that thing, and say, “Whoa, hold on, that’s not right,” before you run off to get drunk and wait for the Ghost Hunters to show up and clear things up.
Of course, missing requires ambition, which many times these endeavors lack. Consider the Assassin’s Creed series. From head to toe, they’ve all had a monotone veneer. They all look a little washed out in a digital haze. Nothing stands out in an exceptional way except for the scale of the cities you’d run amok in, though they also do have fantastical graphical fidelity.
From the Third Crusade to the Renaissance to the American Revolution, the sheen on this historical multitude of freerunning sci-fi is all just about the same. That is until Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, the latest in the franchise. Set in the Golden Age of Piracy, the temporal differentiation between it and Assassin’s Creed III is just a couple of generations (playing as the grandfather of the protagonist of ACIII), but the setting could not be more different.
Black Flag takes place all over the Caribbean and leans full-on into the pirate theme. You are surrounded by the open sea and endless swashbuckling, but it all takes a backseat to the deliciously vibrant setting of tropical foliage and rich, glowing blue-green waters. This is, without a doubt, the brightest Assassin’s Creed game so far, and it makes such an incredible difference.
Even against the gorgeous vistas of the American Colonial Frontier, the green underbrush of the Caribbean is ridiculously eye-grabbing. It looks like the source of all green Crayola crayons, trying its best to topple the jungle facade of Donkey Kong Country. And then you throw in the shimmering, deep waters, blending just right into a thick green against the shore. They threw buckets of indigo, teal, and turquoise all into a blender and tossed it onto the screen, and it looks spectacular. (It only gets better once you go underwater, too.)
But what truly stands out is the night. I don’t know what art director Raphael Lacoste studied up on to get it right, but this is such an unforgiving, upfront fantastical interpretation of the West Indies. The piercing blue of the day gives way to a slightly azure dusk before it falls away into a purple-black night.
As Kirk Hamilton points out in his review, it best captures that indescribable visual magic of The Secret of Monkey Island, which had a fairly loose grip on reality to begin with. The Assassin’s Creed series, however, has stuck pretty hard to its guns in terms of historical accuracy, but Black Flag seems to have the widest interpretation of truth so far. (Yes, that includes the absurdity of Connor essentially carrying every major American Revolution event on his back.)
This kind of inspires you to think of what would happen with an Assassin’s Creed game that gave up on history and perhaps jumped into the future. What cyber world could they conjure up? The visual veracity of the past games eventually became a droll hum you came to ignore as the years went on, but the colorful Caribbean came to match the excitement of the privateering life. It is undoubtedly a highlight of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag.