With the convergence of technologies in the living room, it was only a matter of time before games consoles and mobile devices, such as the iPad, collided. This Second screen experience has been around for a while with apps of varying degrees of quality and functionality. Wether it’s Sony’s BEYOND Touch, an app that lets you use your iOS device as a control device for Beyond: Two Souls, or Microsoft’s Halo Waypoint, that provided a real-time map of the matchmaking game you were currently playing in Halo: Reach, the purpose was always to add a new level of interaction and replay value to games, providing an enhanced experience for gamers.
With the launch of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, the latest in the long-running franchise, Ubisoft has also released Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag Companion on the iPad that offers a great experience and genuinely adds to the game, not detract from it.
It’s hard to believe that the current generation of gaming consoles, namely the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, were released almost a full year before the iPhone, and 4 years before the iPad. It comes as no surprise then that it has taken quite a few years before these second screen solutions began to materialise, though many were of questionable quality and value. Bioware’s Mass Effect 3: Datapad offered almost no gaming integration, instead just providing a basic mini-game that required you to simply launch the app every few hours and press a button.
Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag Companion app has been designed to offer a variety of different features that you would otherwise need to access various menus or areas, letting you spend more time playing the game and simply referring to your iPad as and when needed.
The app requires a Uplay account in order to connect to your progress within the game. At that point, you can almost all the features of the app using an internet connection, even when the game isn’t currently being played.
While the game displays a small mini-map at all times, you have to press the Back/Select button to view the full map, taking you temporarily out of the game to do so. Almost every game operates in this fashion and it is sometimes jarring when you’re in the middle of a fight or finding a target, to have to pause the game just to see where you need to go.
You can connect the app to either Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3, provided both are on the same local network, adding the ability to display a live map that would be otherwise accessible via the map screen within the game. The map actually works amazingly well, though as it refreshes about twice a second, it isn’t completely fluid.
The map within the companion app mirrors exactly what would be displayed on the in-game map that you’d otherwise have to open, and you can even set waypoints by tapping and holding anywhere, with the waypoint appearing immediately within the game. Having my iPad next to me whilst playing the game meant I never needed to open the full map within the game as I had full access to it at all times.
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag includes a variety of different crafting and commerce elements, meaning you’re often needing to continually check what your inventory holds. This is buried within the game’s menu system but with the companion app, it’s always at your fingertips.
The same goes to completionists wanting to know how long they’ve been playing the game, as well as progress with missions and activities, it’s all kept easily accessible.
One of the many side activities within the game is the finding of treasure maps, leading to hidden treasure and upgrades. The companion app keeps track of all the ones you have found and lets you view them at any time, even when the game isn’t running.
One of the best features of any Assassin’s Creed game has been its in-depth database, providing detailed descriptions of people, documents, locations and more. For the first time, the Animus Database is available to view on your iPad and new entries are added as soon as you find them within the game. With a backstory as extensive as Assassin’s Creed, it’s easy to get lost for hours in the finer details that make the game franchise so popular.
Even better, the app displays not only text entries but full video and audio of any of the secrets or items you may find during the modern-day story arc. As many of these are several minutes long each, being able to refer to them or catch up with the mythology makes for a much better experience on an iPad than a TV, and it’s perhaps this that is my favourite feature.
Black Flag introduces a new mini-game that is designed as part of the game’s commerce functionality. As you plunder and pillage your way through the Caribbean, ships you capture during the game can be sent to your fleet. These are then able to be used within the mini-game and sent away for anywhere between 30 minutes to 2 days (in real time), and their success will be rewarded with in-game currency for you to purchase upgrades and new weapons.
While you can access this fleet and manage it within the game, the companion app is a much more immersive way of doing it and just makes more sense. It’s much easier to navigate around and begin missions through the app, and all of it can be done without the game being played as the missions are tracked using Ubisoft’s servers.
The game consists of both naval battles to make routes “safer” and missions to other countries that last a certain amount of time. The safer the route, the quicker the ships are able to return.
Naval battles involve selecting up to three ships and you’re given information on the likelihood of you succeeding in the form of a percentage. To be honest, there’s not really any strategy or thinking required and it’s all too easy to simply select three ships and, in most cases, have a 100% chance of winning.
For missions to generate revenue, all that happens is that you select a ship and it goes off for a predefined period of time, usually a few hours, and you’re rewarded upon its return. Again, a meter shows you the chance of succession, but usually it’s 100%, unless the route is dangerous because there are battles that could be fought along them.
The mini-games are simply designed to keep you interested and help generate money for you to purchase additions within the game. They require almost no skill, but are still rather addictive and you’ll find yourself regularly in the app and sending ships across the ocean.
Ubisoft have, cleverly, included a way to increase the replay value of the mini-games by way of increasing the route threat level the longer you stay away from them. Come back to the mini-games after a few days and you’ll find all the routes are perilous and you’ll have to spend some time going through naval battles first.
If you’re a fan of the latest instalment of Assassin’s Creed, then you’ll absolutely love the app. I’m always fascinated by the story and being able to spend hours reading through the Animus Database in a much more comfortable way meant I could better understand some of the weaker plot points within the game.
The ability to have a dedicated display for your map means you can keep the iPad on your coffee table while you sail the seven seas, knowing that access to your map is at a glance rather than stopping gameplay.
Ubisoft have done a marvellous job at bridging the gap between console and iPad, and have really thought about what would be useful to have on a second screen rather than simply what could be displayed. My only complaint with the app isn’t so much the app itself but is more the reliability of Ubisoft’s servers, often unable to connect or disconnecting at random. While I would almost certainly put it down to post-launch jitters, it does sometimes prove to be the app’s undoing as it is useless without the connection.
While you don’t need to connect the app to your console to still enjoy most of its benefits, it’s well worth doing and really does compliment the gameplay.