Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag is a vast, beautiful and utterly enthralling game which wisely sheds the self-seriousness and larger than life story telling of its predecessor, and in the process becomes one of the best games of the year, and probably the best Assassin’s Creed game since 2009′s Assassin’s Creed 2.
If Assassin’s Creed 3‘s Connor Kenway bored you to tears then fear not, for his grandfather Edward Kenway is a whole different barrel of sharks. Edward is all charisma: he’s brash, arrogant and stubborn, but also clever, wryly funny and hugely likable. Edward may not be the deepest character in gaming, but his arc is by no means boring. Experiencing his transformation from strong-willed, immature young Pirate into a mature and experienced Assassin is a rewarding one – even if it does follow the beat of Ezio’s character a bit too closely (from Assassin’s Creed 2). Plus, Edward can wield four guns… four guns, two hands. If that doesn’t spell B.A.D.A.S.S. then what does?
Edward finds himself in the dog-eat-dog locales of the 18th Century Caribbean. Putting aesthetic preferences aside, Black Flag‘s sunburnt, rum-soaked setting is the best in an Assassin game yet. Whatever you decide to do in Black Flag, you’re going to look good doing it. I’m not referring to Edward’s chiselled abs and Charlie Hunnam face, I’m referring to the crystal blue lagoons, lush green flora and the deep, atmospheric sunsets of the Caribbean. Assassin’s Creed 4 is a gorgeous game, even if you’re playing it on the 360 or PS3, it’s a delight to experience the stunning vistas Ubisoft have painstakingly created. The Caribbean is as much fun to see as it is to explore.
Upon land, Edward acts a lot like his grandson and other ancestors did in prior games: he stalks, eavesdrops, chases people, kills people… the standard. However this time, due to a refined arsenal and simpler controls, Black Flag plays better than it’s brethren. Additionally, land locations are always strewn with waist high brush which grants perfect invisibility to Edward, allowing you to play Assassin’s Creed stealthily if you want to – which is arguably a first for the series.
Within jungles, Edward leaps effortlessly from branch, tree and vine with as much ease he does from roof to roof within establishments. These jungle areas resemble a lot the Frontier of Assassin’s Creed 3, only in much smaller, more concisely designed areas.
At sea, Edward finds his true home. Black Flag takes the naval mechanics from Assassin’s Creed 3 and refines them to near-perfection. Edward’s Jackdaw is a well oiled rig and is a joy to command. Responsive movement and combat controls are backed up by the thrillingly unpredictable seas which can turn from beautifully peaceful to angrily violent in the blink of an eye. An intense storm at sea can be just as dangerous as the many British and Spanish warships patrolling Black Flag‘s Caribbean.
There’s lots of things to do at the helm of Edward’s Jackdaw, lots and lots of things that you’ll do many, many times. It’s thrilling to board an enemy ship, kill it’s officers, pull down it’s flag and seize it for your own, but once you’ve done this for the hundredth time it may start to grate on you as being somewhat tedious. Likewise, besieging naval forts is a blast (ahem) the first few times, after which familiarity begins setting in and you may find yourself asking ‘why am I doing this again?’. On the other hand, hunting sharks and whales is always fun – even if it does feel evil.
Whilst the story of Edward and the Assassin’s jumps along at a jolly, brisk pace, the missions themselves can be somewhat of a drag. Far too many missions revolve around tailing, and eavesdropping. Not fun. On the other side of the spectrum, a precious few of the missions are truly brilliant. These missions are the ones which entrust you with freedom and allows you full experimentation with the game’s tools, environments and mechanics. The coolest moments in Black Flag are the moments you orchestrate, not the ones Ubisoft have tailor made for you.
I love Assassin’s Creed, for all it’s hiccups and for all it’s strangeness I cannot help but adore it and it’s motley crew of hooded heroes. Likewise, I love Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag, but not for the same reasons. It’s a daring departure for the series, with the Pirate setting, Black Flag sometimes doesn’t even resemble an Assassin’s Creed game at all (Pirates Creed, anyone?). The game, like Edward, has the brain of an Assassin but the heart of a Pirate. Raise anchor, take up arms and hoist sail… but maybe a bit of rum first, aye?