Technical Review: Assassin’s Creed 4 Black Flag

Posted: November 26, 2013 by ryanlecocq in Reviews, Technology

xl_Assassin's-Creed-4-3-624

Clearly the activists who complained about the whaling never saw the “Edward kills some sort of now extinct leopard” part.

I almost feel bad putting this game down, because I feel like I’ve been picking on the same kid all through grade school.  The fact is that every AC game since the first one has had a godawful mess of a game engine that has run even worse when ported to the PC.  I even wrote an article specifically explaining why AC3 ran so badly.  The fact is that there are very good reasons to use quality multiplatform middleware and Ubisoft has ignored them.  Sure, Assassin’s Creed games run alright on the Xbox 360 with decent visual quality, but the problem is when high end PCs and brand new next gen consoles are struggling to keep gameplay smooth at 1080p.  When people buy a shiny new game console, they expect the games to run at the highest standards of the time, at least for the first year or so.  In this case, I have a blisteringly fast computer and I’m in the same boat with the early adopters of the PS4 and Xbox One:  My Assassin’s Creed 4 runs at like half the framerate of other comparable games.  Although all of this is basically cut and paste from my AC3 article as little improvement has been made, here we go.

Next Gen?

While the new Xbox and Playstation are light years ahead of the last generation, they’re only keeping pace with the average computer of today.  Anyone who has a computer designed for gaming is probably experiencing at least that level of visual quality right now.  The Xbox One runs AC4 at a shameful 900p and only manages semi-constant smooth framerates.  The PS4 fares better at 1080p with slightly higher performance, but is equivalent to only mid-high visual settings on a PC.  It could be because both consoles are built by AMD, and this game is “nVidia optimized.”  More on that later.

CPU Non-Dependent

EDIT:  After reading Cryio’s Qax’ comment, I decided to boot up the long dormant AC games.  Sure enough, both 3 and 4 were eventually patched with the same method as many other console ports have used to fix multi-core performance.  The load is just split evenly between all of the cores.  This is generally much less efficient than the method modern games use, which is to split the game into several processes that can bounce around different cores as needed.  So it still plays like a console port compared to other PC games, but night and day different than when I first played them.

Meant to be played… badly.

The developers made a big deal about how the game would be optimized for new nVidia cards and feature special high end options on them.  I have tried these options and I am underwhelmed.  The fancier god rays and slightly improved anti-aliasing are minimally noticeable in gameplay and have a disproportionate performance cost.  I think what they meant to say was that they found some new switches in their nVidia toolkit and decided to flick them.  There was even a developer made video displaying these added effects that showed their test system chugging when they turned them on.

In short, AC4 is a great big fun game with a not so awesome engine.  It’s not like the game looks or runs terrible, but the devs have had a lot of games now to iron out the same problems.  On a gaming PC, I’m used to cranking up the settings, sitting back and rocking out.  I don’t expect to have to minimize and start Fraps before turning settings down, like I did in my youth.  If this game was using all 4 of my i7’s cores, I wouldn’t have this problem.

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Comments
  1. Cryio's Qax says:

    Technical reviews for PC games are something that I eagerly await to read in every review. Sadly, too few sites do them. While I love that you intend to do a tech review for every new game at least I except you to get all the bases right before taking shots at consoles and engine optimizations.

    1) PS4 renders the game at 1080p with more consistent framerate than X1, that much is true. However, the PS4 is plagued with frequent fog or mist in the distance that isn’t present in the X1 or PC version. So it may render at a higher out and utilize a different (better?) form of AA, but it’s not playing completely fair. The same “misty effect” happened when Battlefield 4 first enabled the use of Mantle.

    2) PS4 renders at 1080p30 while the X1 renders at 900p30. Not 720p. Come on.

    3) There are a LOT of assumptions of how the game should perform on PC.

    Take this “My Assassin’s Creed 4 runs at like half the framerate of other comparable games. Although all of this is basically cut and paste from my AC3 article as little improvement has been made, here we go.” and this “The PS4 fares better at 1080p with slightly higher performance, but is equivalent to only mid-high visual settings on a PC”

    This needs some explaining. The PC version some effects the PS4/X1 versions don’t. Physx for smoke particles/shadows, tessellation for better God Rays than available on consoles, better AO and better shadows. These don’t heavily alter the game on PC to make the consoles look like they are being played on medium.

    “AC4 runs at half the framerate”. AC4 on PC is not what it’s AC4 on PS4/X1. AC3 on PC wasn’t what AC3 was on PS3/X360. On PC, AC3 looked substantially better, had close to zero texture and model pop-in and substantially less NPC pop-in, much larger view distances, substantially better shadows and better ambient occlusion. Also snow deformations looked better due to DirectX11 tessellation. So the PC version of AC3 was a substantial improvement in an already technical achievement. Now consider that AC4 on PC is not an improved PS3/X360 version but an improved PS4/X1 version. The assets, textures, animations, very few things are copied/imported from AC3. The is supposed to be a gigantic performance penalty going from AC3’s engine on PC to AC4’s engine.

    The PS4 renders the game at a constant 30 fps in 1080p. Good for it. My PC (560 Ti 1 GB superclocked, 8 GB DDR3 1333, FX 6300 @4.5 GHz) renders the game at 1080p30 (with a solid 28-32 fps) with higher settings than the PS4. Settings the game on the same settings as the PS4 should easily get me constant 30. My GPU is maxed at 99% while the CPU si doing 75-85% work. This also brings another question. How can you say AC4 isn’t properly optimized for PC? I ain’t even seeing excesive load on just the 1st core. Everything is spread equal.

    4) By my last statement in the above paragraph, it’s clear that the game isn’t maxing just 1 core. It’s really really spread perfectly equal on all cores. It’s really uses properly 6 cores. I tried AC3 the other day and it’s doing the same.

    Also, with my GPU doing 99% work with my AMD CPU, I don’t think even throwing an i7 would have improved my situation in any way.

  2. ryanlecocq says:

    They must have finally patched the games. It has been a while since myself and many others made a big stink over it. I’m glad to hear that they finally fixed it somewhat, sounds like now it just spreads it evenly across all cores, which is the same fix that Rockstar used for L.A. Noire. It’s not true multi-threading, but a huge improvement.

    When I originally wrote this, both AC3 and the newly released 4 would only use one core for the game engine and part of another for physics. At the time, a lot of us with really nice systems were getting single digit frames because of this. It’s a problem that often happens on multiplatform games, due to lack of optimization.

    This is the main problem with writing about technology; it’s constantly updated. A few fixes later, it seems like a lot of fuss over nothing, because now the game runs fine. At launch I was getting mid 20s framerates at times on a very decent system (i7 with GTX 780).

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