Assassin’s Creed III broke my heart, it was poorly paced, lacked satisfying content and suffered from a myriad of glitches. It marked the first time I had really felt the series lost its way, that the yearly releases had finally gotten to it after the superb Brotherhood and Revelations. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag quickly establishes that III was only a misstep. Black Flag is not only a huge leap in the right direction after III but is also the best Assassin’s Creed game since the second.
Black Flag quickly shows that Ubisoft wants to get far away from Connor and the American revolution. Opening sixty years prior and nearly all traces of Desmond Miles and his crew that had dominated the past 4 games is gone. The future plot is now very meta, looking in on an entertainment company run by Abstergo, ostensibly game developers, of which you are a nameless employee. The content for the benefit of the game is shortened and can for the most part be entirely skipped. Instead it smartly focuses the plot on Edward Kenway, a up and comer, post privateer turned pirate. Edwards lives through the entirety of the beginning and end of Piracy in the Caribbean, and him as the last bastion of a dying breed, seeking gold and glory at the expense of his friends and family makes for an interesting tale that almost eschews the Assassin’s themselves. Edward isn’t even an Assassin, he unlike all the other previous Assassin’s, steals his robes.
This change of focus helps sell Edward as a pirate and instead of only being a great Assassin’s Creed game, Black Flag is also the best pirate game that has ever been. A strange marriage of classic Assassin’s game-play with Wind Waker style sailing and island exploration makes for an addicting loop. Instead of putting money into something pointless like III’s frontier and convoy system, just to buy more furniture and more useless junk with which to fill your house, you spend money gained raiding to upgrade ships. Boarding enemies ships, destroying naval convoys and attacking forts along with collecting chests, and completing assassin’s contracts all provides money with which to upgrade your ship. Options are vast and varied, hull, cannons and all the expected upgrades can be provided, along with sails, wheels and figureheads to really give the Jackdaw a personal touch. The ship game-play is the focus and riding from island to island in massive open world sea surrounding Cuba, and Florida is a treat. Each island can be explored without a loading screen except the major cities, but even then the loading times are merciful, making the world seamless. Classic free-running and combat return but benefit from the variety naval combat provides and as such Black Flag does not suffer from the usual problems of repetitive mission structure and combat fatigue.
Boarding ships and naval combat are the highlight of the experience, providing epic clashes with seamless transitions to taking enemy ships. Animations are as fluid as ever and the naval sections retain the mechanics of III. The dual sword techniques that Edward uses, coupled with four pistols, throwing knives, rope-darts and a blowgun make for varied and brutal battles.
Visually Assassin’s Creed IV gains much from its next-gen debut, the dynamic storms are a sight to behold, covering ships, crew and every square inch of the environment in droplets. Cloth physics, tattered sails and gorgeous lighting add to an already wonderful art direction. Black Flag has the best virtual seas in a game, providing amazing waves and water effects all around.
The amount of activities and content is astounding, the main quest makes up 13 sequences each with multiple missions in it. There are as many as 50 islands to explore all filled with content. Chests to collect, animus fragments, Mayan Stelae, and a number of other collectibles along with harpooning and crafting similar to Far Cry 3’s system grace the game. In fact, Far Cry 3 is where much of Black Flag gets inspiration, hunting allows Edward to craft upgrades and even creatures like the famed White Whale can be taken out to craft new outfits and pouches.
There are still weak elements in the game, the story missions involve far too much tailing and eavesdropping although they benefit from an abundance of hiding spots and generous lines of sight. Still there is an annoying amount of getting spotted and restarting entire sections, showing the series sorely requires a dedicated crouch button or stealth mode. The story does have weak spots as well, the content involving the pirates is superb for the most part but anything involving Templars and Assassin’s feels forced by comparison, especially because Edward is not an Assassin for 95% of the game. The Observatory and the Templar content is for the most part shallow and dropped at the first chance in many sequences but ultimately adds nothing to the story. It is high time the series loses the future plot altogether, focusing on its much stronger period pieces.
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is a move to gain good faith from fans by Ubisoft. Successfully pulling from the best of their recent titles, Black Flag is a superb entry in a grand series that seemed to have for the first time, lost its way. Luckily it shows that Ubisoft isn’t keen on resting on its laurels or delivering a cash in to its loyal fans. Hopefully if they decide to release a game next year as is likely the case, it will retain the quality of its prior entry.
+Massive open world sea
+Tons of content
+Mercifully short future sequences
-Too many stealth sequences involving tailing and instant failure