After the disappointment of Assassin’s Creed III, you might be feeling a little cynical and jaded towards the latest installment of the annualized Assassins versus Templars saga. Whether it was the unlikeable protagonist, the sprawling but empty-feeling world or the slow-moving story, many people were turned off by last year’s game and it looked like the series may have run out steam.
It’s with pleasure that I can confidently report Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is an excellent return to form, the best title in the series since Assassin’s Creed II and the best game about Pirates I can remember playing since The Secret of Monkey Island.
Out is po-faced American Indian Connor Kenway, but we’re still concerned with that bloodline; here, we spend our time inhabiting the boots of Edward Kenway, Connor’s grandfather and selfish pirate, with plenty of swash in his buckle. Edward has some of the easy-to-like charm and swagger that made Ezio Auditore such a popular character, and for much of the game he isn’t even an Assassin. More Pirate’s Greed than Assassin’s Creed, Edward has his eye firmly on one thing and one thing only – riches. He isn’t even given his Assassin’s outfit; in the first half hour of the game he literally takes the clothes from someone else’s back. He may wear the uniform but as he’s reminded several times over the course of the story, he certainly didn’t earn it and for much of the story his relationship with the Assassin’s Order is decidedly bristly.
Of course, it wouldn’t be an Assassin’s Creed title if it didn’t ultimately revolve around a yarn about Assassins and Templars and there’s certainly plenty of that to be found in Black Flag, with lots of people to kill, an ancient macguffin to be found and plenty of real-world historical figures given a secret history to fit into the overarching story. It’s fairly standard stuff then, with people you’ll struggle to care about or remember the names of, and by the time the credits roll at the end you’d be forgiven if you find that you’ve already forgotten most of what happens. It’s not terrible, but it’s hardly going to win the Man Booker Prize.
One thing that a lot of people will be relieved to hear is that the modern-day sections are kept to a minimum, with only a few occasions where you are pulled out of the historical recreation and forced to spend some time in the present. Desmond Mills, of course, is gone and this time you’ll inhabit the first-person shoes of a nameless protagonist working for Abstergo Entertainment, a subsidiary of Templar-run Abstergo Industries operating under the façade of being a videogame developer and publisher. Thankfully these sections are brief and you normally needn’t spend more than 15 minutes before you can get back to sailing the high seas in the 17th Century Caribbean as Edward. There’s plenty to be found if you go looking for it though, with lots of computers to be hacked and notes to be found which help to flesh out the overarching story; it’s just welcome that Ubisoft Montreal have recognized that these breaks from the historical settings are an intrusive annoyance to many and streamlined them accordingly.
Of of the few major gameplay additions to the series that Assassin’s Creed III got right, the biggest was undoubtedly the naval sections of the game, and of course no Pirate game would be complete without plenty of sailing on the high seas battling other ships. Sailing is a huge focus in Black Flag, and you’ll likely spend as much time behind the wheel of your ship, the Jackdaw, as you do on dry land. While you can use fast travel to move between already-visited areas on the (massive) world map, sailing is such a pleasure in this game that I frequently chose to make my own way there. The attention given to the ocean is frequently stunning: Waves roll with the direction of the wind, an impressive weather system moves between clear blue skies to dangerous storms and combat is a pleasure to take part in. Your crew even sing shanties to accompany your journeys on the deep blue sea, and collecting these jaunty tunes makes up one of the many optional activities littering the map.
Ship combat works similarly to how it did in Assassin’s Creed III; your ship is outfitted with plenty of cannons on all sides and while it can look a little fiddly and complicated to start with, before long you’ll be flanking your prey, rolling up alongside them to let off a volley of fire and switching between chain and heavy shots. Once a ship has been sufficiently damaged, you can either finish it off with a final burst of cannon-fire or you can board it to take it over after a short battle that has you killing a certain number of enemy crew, their captain or igniting their gunpowder reserves until they throw down arms and surrender. You’re then given a few simple choices – you can either ransack the ship and use it to make repairs on your own, add it to your fleet or free the captured crew and lower your wanted level, which increases the more you attack other ships and will eventually see you being pursued by Hunters.
With so much of your time concerned with sailing and engaged in ship combat, you’ll be wanting to spend all those plundered riches on something and there’s a wealth of upgrades for your ship to be picked up, everything from better cannons to mortars and a selection of different mastheads, sails and steering wheels so you can customise the look of your ship to your heart’s content. The best upgrades require you to find their plans first, and these are usually hidden away in buried chests found by following the many treasure maps hidden around the world, or tucked away at the bottom of the ocean in one of the many submerged wrecks and caves that become available to explore about halfway through the game. Beyond spending money on outfitting the Jackdaw, there is the usual selection of artwork, swords and costumes to be bought for Edward, and when you take control of your own pirate hideout fairly early on, you can also spend plenty of money upgrading the town and your own mansion.
In fact, there’s so much to be found or bought in the game that you’re never in danger of running out of things to do and it’s easy to completely forget about progressing the story for hours on end. Hunting wildlife returns, but thankfully takes up less time in this game than it did in the previous series installment. Alongside slaughtering animals on dry land, there are whaling spots to be found on the ocean and a simple mini-game has you throwing harpoons from your whaling boat at a selection of different whales and sharks. Greenpeace activists might want to give this title a wide berth then, and don’t be surprised if PETA has something to say about it.
There are also the aforementioned shanties, shipwrecks and buried treasure to be found. Feathers once again lurk in hard-to-reach places waiting to be collected, Assassin contracts make a return (with your targets lurking both on dry land and at sea) and chains of side-missions have you hunting down Templars in a search for a series of keys. There’s even a series of forts to be brought under your control around the map, and doing so reveals the location of all the areas and collectibles in the immediate vicinity, similar to how synchronizing viewpoints works on dry land. Unlike Assassin’s Creed III, where the sprawling world map often felt empty and devoid of interesting things to do, here there’s an absolute wealth of activities to take part in. Throw in multiplayer, the modern-day Abstergo Entertainment building and the already sizable story campaign, and it’s unlikely that you’ll run out of things to do anytime soon, even before the planned DLC content is released. There’s even a simple fleet-management mini-game that has you sending your fleet to ferry cargo between different areas on a separate world map – an activity that can be done on a free companion app that sees your tablet acting as a second screen which connects directly to the game. Unlike many companion apps released for games the app here is actually useful, allowing you to navigate the world map, inspect your ill-gotten gains or explore entries in the sizable encyclopaedia. It’s not essential, but it’s a neat addition and releasing it for free means that it doesn’t feel exploitative.
Multiplayer remains much as it always has in the series: taking the form of various different characters and choosing from a variety of modes, there’s plenty of fun to be had in hunting down other players across a wide variety of maps. It’s well-produced and has developed into a welcome accompaniment to the main bulk of the game since its original debut in Brotherhood back in 2010. Your mileage with it will vary, but it doesn’t really feel like it’s just there for the sake of it and plenty of people will spend a lot of time stalking and stabbing their friends online.
It certainly helps that the game is frequently gorgeous to look at it, regularly presenting the player with some stunning views and a world that stretches off for miles into the distance. It’s incredibly impressive that all of this is rendered with a minimum of loading times, with the only waiting around to be had when moving into some of the larger cities or using the fast-travel option. While there’s a little slow-down to be seen in some of the busier scenes, on the whole it’s an incredibly smooth gameplay experience.
As the existing console generation bows out and gives way to the new one, a game like Assassin’s Creed IV shows that the old machines still have an awful lot of life left in them and plenty to offer. On the new consoles it certainly looks crisper, with sharper textures and an overall smoother and richer visual experience, but it’s a mark of just how far Ubisoft’s own Anvil engine has come that the game is a looker on any format.
It’s not perfect though, and couple of small niggles get in the way of the game achieving that coveted fifth star on the score. Chief among these is that eavesdropping forms of the basis of far too many missions. Missions that have you tailing targets and eavesdropping on their conversations have never been the most exciting part of the series, and it’s a little disappointing to see them take up so much time in Black Flag with little done to develop the overall variety of mission types that players have come to know over the course of what is now 6 major installments in the series.
Familiar issues with control return too, with Edward sticking to pretty much everything in his way while free-running around the cities in the game, something which at this stage is probably an inherent issue with the Anvil Engine itself. Combat also remains a simple affair, with many enemies waiting their turn to attack you and some terrible enemy AI in places that frequently means you can take down a guard right next to their friend and remain unnoticed.
Still, in the grand scheme of things these are minor issues and can be leveled at any of the games in the series. If you’ve never liked Assassin’s Creed in the past, it’s unlikely that this is the game to convert you unless you really have a thing for pirates. But if you were left unhappy with the series after Assassin’s Creed III last year, you can take heart that many of the issues with that game have been rectified here, with the best ideas given plenty of room to breathe and shine. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag gets so much right that it wouldn’t be fair to give too much focus to the few areas in which it comes up wanting.
Despite plenty of hints hidden away in the game as to where the series could be headed in the next installment, I had so much fun with Black Flag that I wouldn’t mind in the slightest if we stick with Edward Kenway for a while and continue to plunder the seven seas. I may not have enjoyed being a Child of the Revolution in Assassin’s Creed III, but I’m happy to report that with Assassin’s Creed IV, it’s definitely a case of a pirate’s life for me.