Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is the series’ first foray into the land of piracy, building upon the naval sections of its predecessor. Does it manage to create an engaging and believable world that the series has previously mastered, and is it a successful route for the assassins to take?
It’s made clear from the beginning that Edward Kenway is not an Assassin. He is a pirate through and through, with his driving force throughout Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag being “an easy life” by way of piracy. How years at sea conquering ships and storms alike is easier than, say, a job in a shop is unclear, but when the captain of his ship falls in a naval battle, Kenway steps up and finishes off the opposing forces.
Edward is a stark difference to the other playable characters in the series – they all had some driving force that was personal to them. Altaïr was trying to reach his previous status in the creed after demotion, Ezio wanted vengeance for his father and brother’s death and Connor sought revenge after his mother’s murder; they had a specific cause and allegiance that put the Templars firmly in their crosshair early in the game. Edward Kenway, however, is a pirate, and he will do whatever it takes in his hunt for gold. He seems quite content with chumming about with Templars if it means a few reales at the end of it.
As you might expect, it’s this lust for gold that keeps Edward involved with the Assassins and the Templars. Edward is hunting for the Observatory, a place of legend that is supposed to give you the ability to spy on anyone you please, a bit like the NSA of the high seas. Edward wants to use this to get rich, the Templars want to use it to enforce their personal brand of justice, and the Assassins just want to keep it from the Templars.
Throughout the game you’ll encounter famous pirates, including (though certainly not limited to) Blackbeard, Calico Jack and Black Bart. In fact, a large portion of the characters Edward meets in Black Flag were real people and the game’s plot is woven through their life expertly. A little reading after you’ve finished the game helps to inform parts of the game’s story.
I won’t go into specific examples for fear of spoilers but the way the fiction of the game’s storyline is presented around the real story of these pirates and lawmen is nothing short of masterful. This is an Assassin’s Creed staple, of course, but it is of particular note here.
The opening of the game is, as with previous games in the series, a little slow. Perhaps it is the want for getting your ship and being a pirate that made it so, or maybe because you gain your weapons more slowly than expected, but the earlier sections of the game do feel like they take a little longer than is ideal.
Your arsenal of weaponry is actually smaller than it was in previous games, too. You have your trusty wrist blades, swords, pistols, smoke bombs, blow pipe, and the rope dart. The heavy weapon and dagger sheathes are gone, as are the explosives from Revelations, which is strange as enemies use grenades. As a pirate, some of these changes make sense, but as a player it feels like I have fewer options than I did before.
Combat itself is a little more challenging this time around. Enemies are less likely to take turns and wait for you to deal with everyone else, they will often attack while you are attacking others so you had better be on your toes. Your pistols are invaluable even in combat and their use has a distinctly pirate feel – Kenway pulls them out one by one and empties them into nearby enemies if you let him.
Movement has undergone some minor changes, such as the reshuffling of pickpocketing onto the B button, separate from quick walk. Unfortunately there is still a little awkwardness to the free running, such as occasionally jumping down to street level instead of the ledge you wanted, but they are relatively infrequent. Climbing has been simplified in that you can just hold the analogue stick up and you will scale most buildings, with Edward automatically jumping to the more difficult to reach hand holds.
Your arsenal can be upgraded by buying better swords and pistols from a store, where you can also buy and change outfits. As well as that, you can craft upgrades for your armour, your holsters and your pouches. This is all done by hunting animals, which you find in specific areas shown on the map on islands and around cities, or as harpooning activities when seafaring. You can actually buy the animal skins from stores however, so if you don’t feel like hunting then all you need is cash.
Once you acquire your ship, the Jackdaw, the whole game opens into something that simply has not been explored in Assassin’s Creed before. The sheer amount of things to do is just obscene, and almost intimidating, particularly the first time you open the map and zoom all the way out – it’s just huge and densely populated with activities. The really impressive thing about this, however, is not just how much content is here, but how readily available it is to you.
If you spot a ship on the horizon you can sail over, disable it with your cannons and board without a single loading screen. It’s the same for capturing forts: you destroy its defences with your weapons and dock without interruption. Such a shift in gameplay feels like it would be split by load times, yet here you are opening a chest on an island and your ship is bobbing off the coast where you left it.
That is not to say there are no loading screens, as when you approach a large city from the sea you will be asked if you want to be taken there. The cities themselves are certainly not the size of Rome but are comparable to the cities in the first game in the series, and are apparently too large – for the current generation version at least – to load seamlessly.
After an initial learning curve, traversing the world becomes second nature which is nothing short of a miracle considering the sheer amount of options while you’re on the ship. There is a wealth of weaponry from the cannons to the mortar, but since you are introduced to them gradually it is easy enough to grasp the system despite its complexities.
Much like Edward, your ship can be upgraded in many ways. Whether you are improving your weapons, your hull armour or just your cargo holds, you will need reales (that’s money) and often another resource, either cloth, wood or metal. Naturally, to find these resources you plunder them from ships. Finding these vessels is simply a matter of sailing into the ocean – it’s teeming with various flavours of ships just waiting to be liberated.
Using your spyglass, you can see information on nearby ships, which will tell you what resources the ship has on board and its level. You can then mark this ship with a press of a button so you can keep track of it as you chase it down. Your ship has three speeds, from slow but manoeuvrable to the Animus-augmented travel speed for getting around the Caribbean quickly.
Black Flag has done a very good job of making storms genuinely challenging without being unfair. You can see a storm on the horizon and avoid it if you need to, and they do not just suddenly start around you. Instead the sky gets darker and the rain intensifies, giving you plenty of warning to get as far away as possible. When in a storm, in addition to the choppier sea and reduced visibility, you will have to contend with rogue waves and water spouts, which do a good job of making you want to avoid all storms in future.
Graphically, the game is just marvellous. From the large, rolling waves of a rougher sea to the calmer, serene stillness of a clear night, the title manages to capture the mood exceptionally well. The islands look bright and vibrant in sunlight and dark and moody when the rain is beating down. Some of my favourite moments were the bits in between all the action, such as when a fog descended on the dead calm ocean and the crew began singing What Shall We Do With a Drunken Sailor? It was deeply atmospheric, like a scene from a pirate movie except it was me pulling to the left when a rock suddenly appeared out of the fog.
These shanties really provide the right atmosphere for the game when travelling just as much as the excellent background music during other scenes, which ranges from fast, swashbuckling orchestral pieces to serene acoustic guitar. Both are excellent and you’re likely to find yourself humming them hours after you have stopped playing the game.
You can unlock new shanties by collecting song sheets on foot, they are just one of the plethora of collectibles found dotted around the world, and the game gives your more help in finding them than previous entries did; holding a trigger shows a list of collectibles and wildlife in the area, while standing on a synchronised viewpoint will reveal icons showing where to find specific items. This is exceedingly helpful for finding all of the collectable items, or maybe just the chests because there’s cash in them and you’re a pirate, after all.
Of course, there are story missions. Plenty of these are focused on sailing and are great fun, while others have you sneaking your way through jungles and taking out enemies, but there are also missions that feel a little awkward. True to form, eavesdropping missions return. They have been improved by being able to mark targets with eagle vision so you don’t get a timer every time they turn a corner, but they are still a little too numerous to be entertaining and at times they are just frustrating.
Then there are the missions where you have to be stealthy in a large ship, avoiding the sight lines of other ships or avoiding watch towers. Controlling the ships is as good as I could ever imagine it being, but large floating wooden ships are not stealthy and it can feel a cumbersome at times. It’s a very odd implementation, which would be fine if it was fun, but it usually just ends up being a little annoying.
Despite these missions and a few bugs, the sheer entertainment value of the rest of the game drowns them out, helped in no small part by the ridiculous amount of activities. From hunting to capturing forts, treasure maps to naval and assassination contracts, there is just so much on offer that the less enjoyable missions barely register. You know that in a little while you will be able to swing from the masts of your ship on a rope to land on some poor captain’s face wrist blade first, and all the little niggling problems seem to just melt away.
Black Flag is more than just a return to form for Assassin’s Creed, it is an overall improvement and probably the best game in the series yet. Wherever Ubisoft take us next, it will have serious difficulty living up to this instalment. It has taken the gameplay of the previous games, refined it, and combined it with a huge open world that is packed with enough content to literally last for days. If you have ever wanted a proper pirate game, this is as good as it gets.