After the brilliant naval missions in Assassin’s Creed III were so well-received, the teams at Ubisoft Montreal left Boston harbor and the Revolutionary War era, and set sail for a Pirate-plagued Caribbean of 1715—a time when legends like Blackbeard gained infamy for plundering, pillaging, and littering islands with buried chests and dead bodies. Although the era and setting is fresh, the gameplay and assassin lineage is familiar, making Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag a treasure trove of both old and new.
Black Flag stars a Privateer turned Pirate, Edward Kenway—an ancestor of Connor and Hatham Kenway. Unhappy with his mundane existence, he sets sail for the allure of gold and riches, like many other men of his time. But instead of treasure, Kenway finds tyranny, and all sorts of trouble. Such is the life of a Pirate.
Rather than the dramatic bait and switch opening of Assassin’s Creed III that kept players from the massive open-world for some time, Black Flag throws Kenway right into conflict immediately. He’s also free to travel the ocean in the Jackdaw, his trusty ship, very early on. While that freedom is welcome, sailing around and attacking ships kept me from focusing on the main quest sequences.
The story itself made it even more difficult to avoid being distracted from the islands of the Caribbean. Templars are up to no good, as always. That’s to be expected. But aside from that, the characters, even Blackbeard himself and other notorious Pirates don’t leave a lasting impression. In a story-driven game, the story is by far the least interesting thing about Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. Even Kenway himself isn’t likable—he’s a drunk who leaves his wife for a life of crime. However, everything else—especially demolishing other ships with cannons and mortar to then board and plunder precious cargo—is so fantastically fun and exciting, that the story taking being sub-par in Black Flag doesn’t hurt the game. Besides, the storyline (at least for me) hit its prime with the historic events and characters found during the Revolutionary War.
Between every mission, the temptation to set sail proves to be too much, and soon hidden coves will be discovered, treasure maps will divert efforts to solitary islands, and Forts will be overtaken. All this because Captaining the Jackdaw is so darn rewarding. The Jackdaw also gives reason to actually complete the hours and hours of side-quests located in the Caribbean. Even catching those flying notes—which I always tend to skip in Assassin’s Creed titles—are worthy of the effort due to them unlocking new Pirate shanties for your crew to sing while on the high seas—shanties that you too will find yourself singing to kill time.
Other aspects like exploring for treasure, make a lot more sense when dealing with Pirates. Hunting is back, but now it’s a jungle out there. Animals are a lot more deadly and take more advanced tactics to kill for their valuable skins. Underwater dives around sunken ships and coral reef give entrance to hidden caverns, but jellyfish and reef sharks raise the stakes. But by far the most memorable moment of the entire Black Flag experience was setting out on a tiny row boat with a stockpile of harpoon to slay a Great White. That or being bowled over by a massive tidal wave while maneuvering away from a water spout. The elements are fierce out on the sea.
Being a Pirate is grand. But maybe too much so. During any of the missions where Edward Kenway pulled on his hood to become the game’s namesake assassin, it was truly lackluster compared to the firing cannons on a passerby ship or looting a downed vessel. I fear that these naval aspects of Black Flag are too good to take away from the series, which inevitably be a step back for any direction the developers eventually choose to take. This isn’t a knock to the game in any way—merely an observation made while analyzing Assassin’s Creed IV’s strongest points.
Assassin’s Creed IV can be knocked though, however, for barely evolving the multiplayer since the previous title. There are a few more ways to expose a target in competitive modes, and four-player Wolfpack is still a lot of fun, but otherwise, it’s more of the same. Ubisoft can say if it ain’t broke don’t fix it all they want, but there’s no denying that multiplayer is a far lazier effort than the single-player. The addition of the Game Lab is great for those that like to tinker and add their own flair, but sadly doesn’t add enough to the overall package.
The game is stunning, and the Caribbean makes for a gorgeous setting. The current engine was built for climbing trees, and the trade-off of the massive pine trees in New England for palm trees in Nassau works just as well, maybe even better, because the variation between sandy beaches, and dense jungles create a beautiful contrast. The way the water moves and fire crackles are as real-looking as it gets.
Seeing how great the game looks on the PS3 makes me drool for the PS4 version with anticipation. And thanks to a mere $10 to upgrade, Assassin’s Creed IV is worth playing now and later, rather than waiting and missing out on one of the best open-world titles of this generation.
Assassin’s Creed has been an annual release since the launch of the PlayStation 3. It’s evolved with immensely each iteration, though it peaked with Assassin’s Creed III in terms of story and characters. Kenway’s tale and the other Pirates of legend take a back seat to the gameplay, notably the time at sea, in Assassin’s Creed IV. The series is in its prime with Black Flag—and in it there is much treasure of hours of stellar gameplay to be found.
*Review copy provided by publisher.