I was one of (apparently) very few people who actually enjoyed Assassin’s Creed III’s American Revolution, perhaps because I played it as a standalone adventure and ignored Desmond’s modern day nonsense. But even as a fan, it was horribly draining. The learning curve took way too long and after just 12 months, the excitement had yet to swell for another Assassin’s Creed romp.
Then I played Black Flag. That's what I'm talkin' about!
In simple summary, it took the best aspect of last year’s mixed reception, refined it vigorously and crafted an absolutely stunning new world around it full of vicious pirates, hidden treasure and a massive ship to drive about.
Creed IV: Black Flag makes it crystal clear that new protagonist Edward Kenway is not an assassin, at least not in the sense introduced to us all the way back in 2007. He’s a pirate, a leader of men, and desperate to build his wealth exploring the lush Caribbean so he can return to his native England as a refined civilian. The noble personality trait is to ensure he’s conducive to being the hero, even though his actions speak of those of an outlawed pirate.
The pirate styling and naval setting are a perfect fit for the stealth meshed with free-running and pure combat.
Black Flag is such an awe inspiring adventure not because of its characters, story or even its objectives. It’s the massive world that’s mostly open for you to explore once you’ve commandeered and battled-hardened your sturdy vessel. Few games successfully keep a world this big inspiring and even less have done it spanning the open sea scattered with tiny settlements. My entire knowledge of 18th century pirating can be attributed to films like Pirates of the Caribbean and Master and Commander, and with that in mind, Black Flag absolutely nails the atmosphere. I’ve never wanted to sail around the Caribbean in a 1714 galleon more than I do right now.
It feels like there’s always something big out there to be discovered, whether it be as part of Edward’s focused journey or hidden treasure found with nothing other than a crudely drawn dated map and a keen eye.
You’ll encounter infamous real-life pirates, including Blackbeard, and like past games most of the characters intertwined in Edward’s tale are based on real people of the era. The beginning is considerably faster than its predecessor, but Black Flag still holds your hand for more than an hour as it transitions between land and sea and teaches you the ropes of tackling the big boys in naval combat.
The ship battles at the helm of the Jackdaw are a little daunting initially as you come to grips with devastating waves and dodging cannonball fire with a rigid turning circle, especially if you prematurely challenge more than one Spanish adversary.
It’s a different kettle of fish once the Captain’s Cabin plays host to an arsenal of possible upgrades to transform your decrepit ship into a naval powerhouse. Black Flag offers an abundance of options to collect the coin needed for upgrades, from wrecking opposing ships or more tactfully forcing their crews to surrender to finding forgotten treasure and dabbling in expanding businesses. You’ll also need to remember to scavenge for resources like metal, sugar and rum. Some are only good for money, while others are required as the backbone of upgrades to the Jackdaw.
It’s not all embezzled rum, dirty hulls and shanties. Black Flag encourages you to dock and explore the diverse array of islands scattered around the place. From happening strongholds like Havana to dense jungles and tiny beaches full of roaming ocelots to hunt and craft into a stylish new holster — the hunting borrowed from Far Cry 3 gives shooting wild animals a purpose.
Multiplayer is more or less the same as last year's game, applying the surprisingly entertaining cat and mouse formula. Searching for an unknown target hiding in a crowd of bots takes a keen eye and it's a welcome alternative to the 'kill everyone' multiplayer that's become standard.
Combat on land is familiar, framed by running atop trees and buildings and using the hidden blades to kill a man before you hit the ground. Other weapons have been streamlined, with swords, a pistol, smoke bombs and the rope dart rounding out Edward’s regular kit. The countering is still a little awkward with lengthy delays before most brutes bother making a move and then they all come in a big wave, but most of your time will be best spent trying to avoid a direct confrontation.
Black Flag’s stealth system is again based on using the surroundings to your advantage and hiding in plain sight amongst a crowd. Edward will automatically hide in overgrown foliage or the iconic haystack when he’s not moving and that’s normally enough to throw off the scent of easily confused guards that will slowly wander over to their inevitable death.
Along with swordplay, an over-reliance on eavesdropping is the only real flashback to the Assassin’s Creeds of the assassins and templars days (the real ones), forcing you to spend a little bit too much time hiding in shrubs and trying to run up the single wall that cannot be climbed to avoid losing the chatty target. They’re joined on the open water by a few too many pointless quests that have you implausibly try and stealthily follow a massive ship in your even bigger ship. The array of sneaky options are fantastic, but Assassin’s Creed never quite gets it right when a mission forces you to remain unseen under very specific circumstances.
Moving around the cities and mountainous terrain is just as fluid as it was last year and then some. I thought ACIII did a great job of introducing trees and natural impasses to traverse, but I was wrong. Black Flag adds the final layer of polish to make running between dangerous ridges and swinging between trees just as much fun as parkour on ancient buildings was in Assassin’s Creed II, even though you’re only really holding down the left trigger and loosely aiming. While its been fine-tuned, the free-running and climbing mechanics feel as fresh as they ever did not only because they’re a little better, but because it’s not the tunnel-vision focus anymore. With so much time spent at the helm of the Jackdaw and exploring the vast ocean, it's actually fun to start running up a tree on dry land.
The main story starts out promising, but loses its way towards the end. No matter, though, because the fun is in becoming a respectable pirate, not his end game. Once again, Edward’s story is being controlled by a modern day man replacing Desmond; this time, it’s you, and in first person. There’s some rubbish about the Animus being used as a device to collect memories and stories for entertainment purposes, but I didn’t waste my time and skipped through the brief modern day segments as quickly as possible. I didn’t care about Desmond and I sure as hell don’t care about this nobody.
Visually on Xbox 360, Black Flag looks absolutely stunning. It’s full of vibrant islands, menacing storms and devilishly handsome pirates — but it’s all a little rough around the edges. It’s hard to go back and play through a full game on a current-gen console after I’ve started to play on the next-gen machines. Black Flag is clearly a next-gen game, and we’ll have an update as soon as possible. If you’ve made it this far without partaking in a pirate’s life, do yourself a favour and wait for the even prettier Xbox One or PS4 version.
The Final Verdict
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag has little to do with assassins, but is the perfect direction for the Creed series. The pirate styling and naval setting are a perfect fit for the stealth meshed with free-running and pure combat. With an amazing world to explore, Black Flag is one game that really needs to be played on a next-gen console or PC, but even on current-gen it’s an adventure for the ages.
NOTE: This review is based on the Xbox 360 version. We’ll have an update for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 as soon as possible.