The debut trailer for Assassin’s Creed IV depicted a tipsy Blackbeard profiling the suave and stylish Edward Kenway. The famed pirate tells the stories of this elusive man and his hierarchy in the ranks of other pirates. He ends the trailer by saying, “If it’s fortune and adventure you seek, then Captain Edward Kenway is your man,” following Kenway’s subtle dispatching of a guard before walking off with a woman, a smirk on his face. Edward was portrayed as a cool, collected man and Assassin’s Creed IV an adventure heavily focused on pirate culture. As it turns out, that is not what it is.
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is a simpler outing for Ubisoft in terms of story. It is more personal, more focused, and this time around it aims at the heart. Meanwhile, it takes place in an ambitious, gorgeous world with a stunning level of atmosphere and a magnificent recreation of the Caribbean. And though this clash of lighter story and grander gameplay may seem like a detriment, however, it is actually what makes Black Flag the best entry in the franchise to date.
First and foremost, players should leave their Pirates of the Caribbean sensibility at the door. Though Black Flag stars many of the major players from the age of piracy, they are a backdrop on the story of Edward Kenway and his quest for self-fulfillment. Fortunately, unlike series predecessor Connor, Edward is a very likeable protagonist with a more relatable desire than previous assassins. Set in the 1700s, Black Flag follows Edward’s past and present course on the road of piracy. The story takes some unexpected turns, especially in regards to the creed itself.
Being an Assassin’s Creed game, players can also expect to interact with many famous icons from history along the way and the novelty of being directly involved in these historical events has not worn off one bit. The best moments of the story are when Edward conspires with pirates like Blackbeard and Anne Bonny. These moments aren’t gimmicky at all, but rather a unique treat that offers an experience that few other games can. A major reason they work so well is because the voice acting is superb, especially the performances of Edward himself and a particularly dead-on Blackbeard. It’s just unfortunate that there aren’t enough of these parts.
I would have loved to play a game all about pirating; a game about stealing, drinking, and merry times with barmaids. Instead, Black Flag dials back on the pirate atmosphere. Even the story of the Templars and assassins takes a backseat to the personal story of Kenway — though the creed is at least more pronounced than it was in Assassin’s Creed III. Players should not go in expecting some lighthearted tale about the joy of being a pirate. There are few moments in the game where I felt like a genuine pirate, but it is an Assassin’s Creed game that happens to have pirates in it.
Whether that is a positive or a negative is entirely up to the player. Fortunately, the personal focus of Black Flag’s story is handled quite well and there are some genuinely dramatic moments that tug at the heart strings. Players looking for a game that celebrates the scurvy may be disappointed, but for those who are looking for the Creed franchise to tread new ground, Black Flag is a refreshing experience and one with an especially satisfying and bittersweet ending.
That just leaves the present-day segments, which take place outside of the Animus. Gone is Desmond Miles and the heavy, if forced, story of judgment day. Black Flag features a much lighter tale in the real world; so much lighter that the real-life ending is actually very humorous and charming.
This lighter approach translates to some parts of the gameplay as well. Though naval combat is easily the star of the show, some of the action set-pieces do not resonate with the player as much as the intricacies do. Listening to your crew sing a sea shanty as you pilot your ship through the ocean on a starry night is a magical experience and one that often outweighs a moment of action. Witnessing the gorgeous and detailed foliage of each island never quite gets old, either.
Assassin’s Creed IV is an incredibly beautiful game with some of the best lighting effects ever seen to date. The combination of heavy detail and visceral weather effects make it an impressively atmospheric experience. It becomes unique when you’re sailing across the seas and see a shark leap out of the water or when the only way to combat a vessel is to bring it into the eye of a storm, evening the odds in the process. These moments are spectacular. Nearly every subtle facet of Black Flag stands out more.
Unless put against the naval combat, that is – steering your Jackdaw into a duel is intense and the battle system is intelligently designed. Combat is simple and yet incredibly fun. Players won’t find themselves lost when trying to understand each mechanic of the Jackdaw. There is nothing quite like taking on a mighty fortress with your one vessel while simultaneously trying to dodge surrounding maelstroms. Black Flag excels beyond previous outings by being so different. It’s also one of the few games that successfully tries to create an emotional bond between the player and their own vessel. (in this case, the Jackdaw).
That is only when players are piloting the ocean, however. On the ground, not much has changed. The game is divided into several missions that encompass a large portion of Edward’s life as a pirate. Unfortunately, the structure is not as well-paced as it has been in the past. You may find yourself forgetting what happened in a former cutscene from time to time. But Black Flag has a good reason for it: because the world is so vast and interesting.
The allure of finding a brand new piece of treasure, knowing that it may be a suitable upgrade for your ship or character, is too great to ignore at times. I found myself exploring the ocean for hours in-between actual story quests and, upon continuing said story, I felt disconnected at times because I had been away for so long. It hurts the flow the of the game, but it hardly matters when the side quests are such a joy. This is the first Assassin’s Creed game in which exploration and meandering from the story feels rewarding. There are dozens of upgrades available through the course of the adventure and they are necessary if anyone wishes to take on the game’s four imposing legendary ships.
The story itself is also more heavily centered on stealth segments. Players can now put guards to sleep using the new blow dart weapon and there are bushes scattered everywhere that offer stalking zones in order to keep out of sight. It’s more generous, but it is also far more well-designed than the previous Assassin’s Creed episodes. I very rarely felt that I was being spotted because the level design made it unclear of who was where or what I needed to do.
The objectives are very clearly defined and traveling from location to location is seamless. Stealth is recommended above all else because, like previous games in the series, Black Flag‘s combat can feel like an overly simplistic chore at times. Nearly every bout of combat boils down to mashing the attack button and a frequent counter. It’s disappointing to see that the series hasn\’t tried to improve direct fighting as of yet. Still, Black Flag is easily the most solid entry in the series from a mechanical standpoint.
Ubisoft just hasn’t mastered what being a pirate should feel like. For example, the game features an endless amount – if the player explores enough – of ships to encounter in naval combat. Upon severely damaging a ship, they may choose to board it and take out its crew. There are multiple methods of raiding an enemy vessel. Edward can run across a mast, swing to the opposite ship, or even use the swivel gun to level the playing field.
Executing these commands never feels quite as cool as it should, though, since the automatic platforming can often lead to mistakes or false jumps that instantly shatter the sense of style. Ubisoft continues to push the idea through marketing that being an assassin is seamless; that players should feel impossibly cool when controlling these characters, but even after four major entries, the mechanics are not smooth enough to suffice. It also becomes a tad repetitive toward the end of the game when raiding ship after ship bears a similar experience and feels routine. At the same time, there is enough variety and options to which the player can approach a scenario that it never breaks the game.
In other areas, Assassin’s Creed IV excels with variety. A player can either go in guns blazing with a handy smoke grenade at their side to blur the vision of combatants or they can choose to stay out of radar for an entire segment. I myself am fond of the smoke ball/four pistol combo, but I can’t wait to try another playthrough where the rope darts get shown more love. Black Flag offers many of these options, ensuring it is the most accessible and also densest since the series began.
In short, Assassin’s Creed IV is a surprising game, both in good and bad ways. It’s an emotional, often slow moving, game. It’s not the story of Edward Kenway, the greatest pirate to sail the seas. It is the story of Edward Kenway, the man who lived during the golden age of piracy. The story is fantastic, even if enough time is not spent with Blackbeard and other pirates. Despite its occasionally repetitive nature, everything else is stellar. It is one of the prettiest games with a realistic theme to ever grace a console and naval combat is an experience that any player must enjoy. It may not be what I was expecting, but this is still a superb product that is worth all your doubloons.