Written by Vaughn Highfield.
“This game was developed by a multicultural team of various faiths and beliefs,” are the opening words to every Assassin’s Creed title. It makes sense too, seeing as the vast majority of titles in the series have been cobbled together by multiple studios, Ubisoft may well want to cover its back from controversy in the narrative it weaves.
A knock-on effect of this development process is the disjointed nature that the more ambitious titles in the series seemed to have: the weak Brotherhood’s Assassin recruitment side-missions; Revelations’ – frankly awful – tower-defence sections; and the entirely tacked-on naval battles of Assassin’s Creed III. Not a single one of those felt like they merged cohesively into the overall feel of the game, switching the pace up to a point where it didn’t really feel like the Assassin’s Creed the public fell in love with when Ezio took the helm back in 2009.
Naturally you’d expect Assassin’s Creed IV to follow the same trajectory of disappointment. It was rumoured to have been developed by nearly 1000 Ubisoft employees across eight studios, so anything other than a bloated mess would be a blessing. And yet, sailing the seas as Edward Kenway has made Black Flag by far the most enjoyable entry into the series so far.
I’d even go so far to say that overall it’s my favourite yet. And by far the most well-formed and complete of the lot.
It’s safe to say that I’ve had an up and down relationship with Ubisoft’s liberal take on world history since the delights of Assassin’s Creed II, but hitting those open waters with my shanty-singing crew never fails to delight. Just how Assassin’s Creed II was an overhaul of Altaïr’s outing, Edward Kenway’s seafaring quest filters down the pure fun of the series and presses it into a mould of refined joy. It plays out just like you’d expect a pirate-themed quest would, offering you ultimate freedom.
And this is what I love the most. See that ship on the horizon? It can be yours. You can take it however you want, before taking it wherever you want across the seas. Wade in head-first with a ram, followed up by a blast from the broadside cannons, mortars, and fire barrels, all before boarding it and taking it as your own. Alternatively, and the method I quite like, you can jump in the sea and take a ship totally unaware, boarding it, killing the sailors aboard quietly, and then sailing over and quietly taking it for your own.
There’s purpose behind it all too, as doing so gives you the resources to improve your ship, the Jackdaw, and – if you decide to take it into the folds of Kenway’s fleet – you can gain money by easing trade routes and shipping goods around the Western world in an enjoyable mini-game. And it all just fits together perfectly. Even that trade-route fleet game that harks back to Brotherhood and Revelations’ silly Templar eradication strategy mini-game, feels perfectly woven into Kenway’s pirate empire.
But despite all that fun on the periphery, it’s the sailing across the Caribbean Sea around the West Indies that’s my Kryptonite; it’s far too enjoyable to be good for my health. Not only does the sea shimmer gloriously in the sun, become riddled with ripples when it rains, and engulf unskilled sailors in deadly storms, it provides more than enough distraction from the main storyline to be a game in its own right.
Just like in The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, sailing is both rewarding and relaxing.
Going out in search of the four – or in fact five if you’re counting – Legendary Ships is a test of true naval skill bundled in with exhilarating fun. It’s made all the more enjoyable going up against one of these majestic beasts when the randomly generated storms start rolling in. Rogue waves threaten to capsize you if taken any other way than head on. Water bathes the deck, soaks your crew, and obscures your vision. And, while I’m certain the weather has little to no effect on combat effectiveness, smoke clouds seem to linger for longer, obscuring your view of the action in tense situations.
It’s genuinely more enjoyable than any of the melee combat the series has used since the outset, and there are few other experiences that can be compared to owning the sea.
You really do feel like you own the sea, especially when you’ve got the joy of a fully upgraded Jackdaw to enjoy, knowing you can take on almost anyone without breaking a sweat. At the start you’ll cower at the sight of anything more than a Schooner, occasionally feeling brave enough to face a Brig. But with time you feel the power you’ve gained – mirrored slightly by Edward’s composure through the story – and it’s really felt when you can take on a Man O’ War without batting an eyelid.
It’s hard to put my finger on exactly why I’m in love with Black Flag, especially when it does so many things so well. But it really doesn’t matter, it’s been so long since an Assassin’s Creed title has enveloped me as much as this.
Be it sat in front of my television, or lying in bed playing on my PlayStation Vita via remote play, I’m always itching to get more of Black Flag’s salty sea pumped straight into my veins and the glorious sunsets right onto my retinas.