Now we’re finally at the pirate game, woo! When Black Flag first released I remember being dead excited for it; the ship sections were by far the star of the show in Assassin’s Creed III, so the prospect of more of it was definitely a point in its favour. The question here though, as ever, is whether or not it holds up over time, and whether it is still worth playing to a returning, or new, audience. So, let’s take a look!
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag (PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One [reviewed], Wii U)
Released Oct 2013 | Developed / Published: Ubisoft
The first thing that strikes me about our new protagonist, Edward Kenway, is that he is a real bastard. I mean it, he’s a complete arsehole. Sure, Altair was an arrogant git and both Connor and Ezio had the odd vicious streak but none of them quite compare to the sheer unadulterated dickishness that Edward brings to the table. I kind of like it, in all honesty; it at least means that there’s something to latch onto given the fact that the rest of the narrative around him is really rather weak.
Edward is a pirate; if that were your lot in the story I’d probably be fine, but alas, there’s a grand conspiracy plot thrown in there as is the franchise’s wont. In between bouts of naval larceny Edward is drawn in a great search for the legendary Observatory, lost somewhere amidst the islands of the Caribbean. It is frankly of mild interest compared to previous entries such as Ezio’s grand revenge quest or Altair’s journey of humility. Like Assassin’s Creed III it gets a little bogged down in making sure the main character is around for as many of the major historical beats as possible though whereas III had Connor hang around while the Founding Fathers signed Declarations and discussed taxation, Black Flag is more about Edward palling up with Blackbeard to go fire cannons at Spanish and English armadas.
Interestingly, Black Flag tries to strike a comparison point between the Assassins and Templars; Edward’s big gimmick is that for the vast majority of the story he isn’t an Assassin at all – he just fights for himself. Like many of his fellow pirates he desires a life full of riches and plunder such that he can retire and live comfortably, free of the control of crowns and men. It stands as a counterpoint to the machinations of both the Assassins and Templars; Kenway instinctively rebels against the domineering order and control that the Templars crave but equally he dismisses the Assassins as a cult, unable to understand their ethos. He represents the dangers of anarchic, hedonistic freedom and the story needs him to break down and grow up as he slowly comes to realise the damage his actions cause. It’s an attempt at a more nuanced protagonist which makes it a shame that it isn’t quite pulled off; Edward is surrounded by more interesting characters who are intended to prompt him to reevaluate his life but that means Edward himself is a bit bland, only emerging as a real character very, very late in the game.
The narrative might be a bit feeble but the gameplay is where Black Flag comes alive. It’s split between on-land and at sea. When on land, we get the usual standard Assassin’s Creed smorgasbord of free-running, stealth, and combat. All of it is adapted from III, so it’s smoothly animated and feels natural, with the occasional hiccup that by this point you regrettably come to expect from the franchise.
One of my gripes with both III and Liberation was that the main cities were all insipid boxy places that had very little to recommend in terms of interesting architecture or character. IV features a few major ports, including Havana, Kingston, and Nassau; Havana at least feels more like a city from II, with some gorgeous buildings to clamber over. The nature of the setting though means that most places are small fishing ports that are in the process of being built, which would be a shame but for one main reason: the sailing.
The sailing is the meat and bones of Black Flag and the reason that I first fell in love with it. It’s been said that this is less an “Assassin’s” Creed game and more a “Pirates” Creed game and that really is true. Edward helms the Jackdaw, and sets sail to bring terror upon the Caribbean seas; with his quartermaster Adewale and his crew beside him he plunders Spanish and English ships and settlements alike as he gathers more loot and spoils. The Caribbean is by far the most intense and impressive open world the series has seen at this point, a freely explorable and wide open sailing sandbox which allows the player to sail around, launching into both naval combat and island exploration with no break in between. The ability to simply let go of the wheel of the Jackdaw, dive over the side and swim onto a nearby island is unmatched in how immersive it feels. The lack of loading really drives home how technically incredible Black Flag feels, and the sense of freedom is immense.
Naval combat is adapted from III, but with more options available to upgrade the Jackdaw in taking on harder foes. Your ship might start as a battered hulk loaded with approximately half a rusty cannon which fires naught but wheezing puffs of air at enemies but by the end the Jackdaw can hurl barrages of flaming fireballs, launch mortar shot from hundreds of metres away, and tank hits like a waterborne fortress. Upgrading the Jackdaw is absolutely vital to your progression in the game; not only is the open world tiered so that to explore certain areas you will need to bolster your ship to survive any encounters, but you’ll also need to upgrade to take on certain story missions as well. I grumbled before about how in III there’s bugger all reason to gather money or resources as there’s nothing to spend it on but in Black Flag that simply isn’t the case, and that’s an excellent improvement. And the way you gather those resources is marvelous! Sure you can sneak around plantations and liberate materiel from their owners but who cares about that when you can spy a ship laden with goods, bear down on them with all guns blazing, and then board them and hack them into submission before nicking all their stuff. The piratical gameplay is utterly brilliant and frankly a perfect reason to play it.
As per your standard Ubisoft game world, the Caribbean is utterly littered with stuff to do – while a lot of it can be passed up as usual, this time around I found them more than worth doing. It’s helpful that most of the added distractions are related to the theme of the game, sometimes in very cheesy ways – for example, as seriously as the series takes itself, in Black Flag you can find lost treasure maps and follow them to dig up buried treasure in something almost wholly historically inaccurate but it sure does feel piratey and that’s what so enjoyable about it. Where Connor chased down pages of Ben Franklin’s almanacs for no particularly discernible reason, as Edward we chase down fluttering pages of sea shanties so that the crew has more songs to sing while sailing; you can find messages in bottles washed up on deserted island shores that tell the last tales of shipwrecked sailors, or go hunting both on land and at sea for new material to craft upgrades with. Even the series’ trademark assassination contracts are filtered through Edward’s self-centred lens, as he aids the Assassins purely to hunt down keys to a Templar treasure.
Unfortunately, tailing missions are back and are more of a ballache than ever, and worse is when the game expects you to do this at sea – whoever decided tallship-based stealth was a good idea? One small quality of life change is that now going into the series’ ubiquitous Eagle Vision allows you to tag enemies so that they are highlighted, which does take the edge off the tailing missions ever so slightly as it’s now much harder to lose sight of enemies and incur the wrath of the instant-fail countdown.
Are you a fan of endless menu screens? Well, Black Flag has you covered buddy. I remember griping about III’s pointless trading simulator, and for some reason that for the life of me I cannot fathom, Ubisoft seemed really committed to it across this trio of games. In Liberation it became a sailing based trading menu, and in Black Flag it upgrades yet again. This time it’s a little more involved – when boarding ships, you get the option to add it to Kenway’s Fleet. By cycling through a lengthy and worryingly extensive system of menus the Fleet can be deployed on missions around the globe to bring in a tiny bit of extra cash as well as some random bits and bobs. If you really like menus and trading sims, I guess that’s a draw?
The real-world stuff has been wildly pulled back since the resolution of Desmond’s story in III. In a startlingly meta turn for Ubisoft’s writing team, in Black Flag we play as some random unnamed new employee of Abstergo Entertainment, a French-Canadian videogame developer who are making games based on historical characters like Edward Kenway. Err…. well, they do say write what you know I guess! Your character is co-opted by the Assassins to hack various terminals; you don’t really need to do it but Abstergo does look really pretty and for hacking things you get some decent bits of backstory filled in but it is all for the real world plot and it does rather require you to actually give a toss about it, which is unlikely.
There are so many little details, and anyone who has read any previous reviews knows how much that pleases me – there’s something deeply satisfying about the little animations like Edward dynamically pulling his hood up or down depending on the situation, such as wandering towns where he could be wanted or when moving into stealth. It’s almost like it shows his lack of interest in the ways of the Assassins unless it suits him at that moment, which fits his character. Also, this is so utterly insignificant but I like how the subtitles mimic the style of the time with nouns capitalised.
We even get dynamic weather – the version for older consoles did this nicely but it’s outshone entirely by the release for more powerful hardware. The weather in the Caribbean can be fickle and change on a whim – there’s nothing quite like the worry that rolls in alongside a storm, knowing that the wind will soon begin howling and shifting, with great waves threatening to crash over the side of the Jackdaw and sweep away another few precious crewmen. In towns the detailing is such that the rains bring with them realistic water buildup in the streets – it might not impact gameplay but it contributes to the feel of the world and that’s as important.
IV is by no means a perfect game and in replaying it I’ve definitely found more to grumble about then when I played it on release. That said, the excellent pirate gameplay is still the big reason to recommend it and I can think of very few games that offer that kind of experience, and the Caribbean is a world that genuinely wasn’t surpassed until Origins’ Egypt. I’d still highly recommend it – it’s one of the better entries into the franchise and while it doesn’t stand on the same pedestal as II, Brotherhood, or Origins in my mind, it’s still more than worth the time to play.
6/7 – EXCELLENT. Games with a touch of brilliance. It might only just miss out on being an absolute favourite, but you should definitely play this.