In a mere seven years, there have been six Assassin’s Creed games. Though there are sports titles and multiplayer shooters that have held similar release schedules over the generation, it is a feat largely unheard of for longer, story-focused games. The potential perils of this accelerated release schedule appeared to surface in 2012 with Assassin’s Creed 3, which was met with a tepid response. Thankfully, with Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag, Ubisoft appear to have righted the course and have delivered a memorable, enjoyable, piratical experience.
The core tropes and formulas of the series remain largely unchanged in Black Flag, splitting the players’ duties across two disparate time periods. The majority of the game is spent piloting Edward Kenway, Caribbean pirate from the 1800’s around the West Indies, committing acts of piracy and butting heads with the Templars and Assassins. The other part is played as a nameless, faceless cipher in the modern day. Beginning his career in game development at Abstergo Entertainment, your cipher is tasked with creating a pirate-themed game for release by Ubisoft. It’s delightfully meta, and exploring the modern day Abstergo offices allows for more than a handful of decent gags about the past of the Assassin’s Creed franchise. Players looking for solace or closure following the events of Assassin’s Creed 3 will be disappointed, as the game successfully relegates all previous actions and themes to barely a blip on the radar: a familiar face here, a ghostly image there. Assassin’s Creed 4 appears to be a definitive cut away from the ties of the previous games.
Kenway, as a playable character is immediately more likeable than his silent, brooding equivalent from Assassin’s Creed 3. He is a charismatic, yet flawed individual, harkening back to the glory days of running around Italy as Ezio Auditore. Following an ambush from the British, Kenway stumbles onto a map and delicate trinket on the corpse of a soldier, detailing the locations of secret Assassin bases and an individual known as the Sage, who knows the location of an ancient MacGuffin temple, The Observatory. After delivering the items to a templar higher up in exchange for a small reward, Kenway sets into motion a series of events that sees both warring factions jostling for power and survival. Kenway, on the other hand, just wants to get rich.
Though it’s a tried and true pirate tale, Kenway is ultimately a good man at heart, despite his reluctance to admit it. Whilst his murderous, clandestine ways cannot be excused by any rational man, he aims to simply make enough coin to appease his wife’s father and live comfortably with her back in London. In order to make these dreams a reality, he sails the open seas on board the Jackdaw, his faithful ship, in an effort to make a big score. Kenway is led to Nassau early in the story, the pirate island of legend – no laws, no rules, just the desire of man. Here, a number of fellow pirates enlist Kenway’s help to undertake missions around the Caribbean in order to gain as much plunder as possible, or to atone for his own mistakes.
The Caribbean itself is a truly fantastic setting for a video game, and was excellently capitalised on by Ubisoft. The seas feel huge and expansive, rolling in all directions as far as the eye can see, littered with small sandy atolls and other ships. Within the seas are around two dozen unique islands, littered with tropes of the series – high viewpoints for synchronization, hidden treasures and collectibles that fill out the pirates’ view of the world from the 1800s. Each island is a small, carefully crafted experience to explore and discover, with little repetition shared amongst them. The larger islands contain small cities, allowing for classic Assassin’s Creed gameplay – stalking enemies along rooftops and from behind corners, blending into citizens to strike at the perfect moment.
Sailing the open seas is a novel experience from beginning to end. Ships handle similarly to how they did in Assassin’s Creed 3, however, they have been loosened up a tad, making them a bit easier to navigate. Just as on land, there are a number of different approaches the player can use to attack other ships or forts when at sea. From heavy and light cannons to mortar shots, rams and flaming barrels, it’s easy to create your own play style and adapt it quickly to fit the needs of an encounter. Ships range from the small gunboats to massive Man o’ Wars, so it is imperative to ensure the correct tactic is used at the right time. Aiming cannon blasts has been eased slightly since Connor’s forays into the open seas, meaning the naval combat is easy to control and satisfying to win. When an enemy ship has been bombarded to the point of near collapse, the player can choose to board this ship in order to elicit further rewards. In order to complete the boarding, a number of objectives must be completed, usually focussed around eliminating a certain number of enemy combatants or removing a key part of the ship. The difficulty of these objectives is determined by the size of the ship: A small gunboat might only require five kills to complete successfully, but boarding a frigate will result in a massive, drawn out swordfight. The loot received from the other ship can be used to upgrade a number of systems onboard the Jackdaw, making the naval skirmishes not only incredibly satisfying, but gameplay relevant as well. The ship combat is pulled off spectacularly, and it is a wonder why there haven’t been any more piracy-themed games in recent memory.
Black Flag is a stunning looking game, especially if played on the new generation of consoles. Gamers left in the past need not despair, however, as the older systems are just as capable at creating a spectacular looking title. On the 360, Black Flag is a wonderful reminder than even with lagging technology, developers can create something truly magical. The textures, lighting and facial effects are all done impeccably, with few stutters, framerate drops or slow loads. From the brilliantly bright blues of the sea to the deep, dark greens and greys of the jungle, Black Flag is a visual tour-de-force rarely seen from this generation. The dynamically changing weather is a treat on the open seas as well, with thunderstorms, twisters and turbulent seas battering ships realistically. As a purely graphical experience, Black Flag easily ranks alongside of The Last of Us or Far Cry 3. It is a spectacular visual experience.
The soundtrack is strong and fits well, a consistent trope of the series. The most enjoyable thing about the soundtrack, however, has to be the sea shanties your crew members sing when sailing around the open seas. It helps speed the travel times between portions of the map and is a humorous, light-hearted moment wonderfully juxtaposed with the impassioned screaming during naval battles. As a good soundtrack should, it adds to the overall experience and makes it that much more memorable.
It seems for all the strengths of the core game, however, the outside the Animus moments are comparatively quite weak. Played from the first person perspective, you are able to explore a small development studio and a number of other smaller locations in the Abstergo Entertainment building. There is a weak sub-plot involving hacking computers and delivering data to some familiar Assassins, however, these segments fall especially flat. With the soulless, faceless shell of your player not being able to speak, there is a definite cognitive dissonance created when characters are speaking directly to you. When the rest of the game is so packed full of personality, it is extremely unsatisfying to play as a mute cipher. The small hacking puzzles that constitute the gameplay in these sections are far from satisfying, either, consisting of a Frogger derivative; a small, Sonic 3 inspired spherical puzzle; and some maths. At least the rewards for these segments are worthwhile – videos, audio files and documents relating to the world of the Assassin’s from the Templars perspective for once. Though Desmond’s story was once the most interesting thing in the series, it is difficult not to feel as though the creative team are grasping at straws. It feels rushed, poorly put together and, perhaps most damning of all, boring. Were it not for the sometime truly fascinating rewards, it would be easy to recommend avoiding entirely.
Multiplayer makes its return once again, largely unaltered from the previous three iterations. There have been a number of smart alterations that will be noticeable to players already deeply engrossed into the gameplay, but from a layman’s perspective will be largely unseen. Players choose one of a dozen unique playable characters that then seed the world, tasked with eliminating a specific other player in a sea of similar faces. It is a game of deduction and disguise as much as it is about agility, making it enjoyable to even the worst of multiplayer gamers. Characters can be customised as they level up, adding the slightest hint of personality to a game about similarities. It’s enjoyable, easy to learn and satisfying to win – but so have been the previous three iterations.
Ultimately, Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag is a surprising, charming return to form for a seemingly lagging series. Though the additions to naval combat are highly enjoyable and the game is a graphical masterpiece, the truly amazing part of the game is how much raw personality and charisma they manage to shove into a 20-hour experience. Though the world is large and expansive, it never loses its charm and feels narratively consistent, from beginning to end. The journey of Kenway is fun, memorable and enjoyable, filled with incredible, instantly unforgettable characters.
At the conclusion of the game, there is a quiet moment that plays for but a few seconds. Kenway, sitting alone in the same tavern at Nassau that he has inhabited since the beginning of the game, has received a note that someone very important is coming to meet him at the docks. Realizing that his time as a pirate is coming to an end, he farewells the locals at the tavern and glances back at the once-empty table he sat at. He sees the friends and family he lost along the journey, who raise a glass and look back, before he turns away and leaves to start his new life. It is a short, poignant moment that took me by complete surprise. I came to the realisation that I was sad to be saying goodbye to these characters I’d gotten to know over the course of the game, a sign of truly magnificent writing and characterisation. It is emblematic of sheer amount of personality and charm that was crammed into the game; emblematic of how great the series can be. It reinforced the notion that Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag is a wonderful, astonishing title well worth picking up, and a fitting coda to the generation.