Assassin’s Creed is a rather polarizing series. With elements of historical context and modern day sci-fi wizardry, the juxtaposition can be a bit much for some. When you combine that with elements of freerunning and perhaps a bit too much intrigue for one person to handle, and you have one rather large pair of shoes to fill.
But for what they are, I heavily enjoy the Assassin’s Creed games, mostly because they offer up sprawling, interesting worlds to explore, with compelling characters to boot — the newest iteration, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is no exception. By the time I arrived at the finale I had encountered a few issues that hampered the experience, but overall I have to say, Black Flag is one of the best pirate simulators of all time.
It’s also a damn good Assassin’s Creed game.
Without skipping a beat, Black Flag jumps right into the thick of things, without a lengthy three hour tutorial to slow you down. In fact, the first mission is a free running course of sorts, showing you the ropes while simultaneously allowing Edward Kenway to begin his lengthy journey along the path of assassinhood. Edward is a pirate, and he makes his lack of allegiance to any one group known fairly early on. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t entangled with a number of groups, as Edward has a chance to join the assassins, templars, and other factions throughout the course of the journey. Who Edward chooses and how he arrives at that choice is central to the point, and interesting to watch as it unfolds over the course of the roughly 15 hour campaign.
I wouldn’t say Edward is more compelling than fan favorite Ezio Auditore, but he’s infinitely more likeable than Altair or Connor, and perhaps marginally more interesting than Aveline. Edward’s metamorphosis isn’t exactly groundbreaking storytelling, but it allows for a decent amount of character development, and Black Flag does a great job of making you actually care for the character. Along the way, you’ll meet a host of other real historical figures, like Blackbeard, the infamous Charles Vane, and the female pirate Mary Read. The entire cast is just as likeable as Kenway, and I genuinely cared for more than a few characters over the course of the narrative.
Of course, in true Assassin’s Creed fashion, the “modern day” setting is back, weaving two tales in one set to the backdrop of “accumulating data” from Kenway through the use of a high-tech DNA powered Animus machine. This time around there are no lengthy and long winded cutscenes with former protagonist Desmond Miles, as the story is told through the eyes of an innocent employee of the Abstergo corporation — otherwise known as the umbrella company for the Templars.
These portions are extremely short — I’m talking five to ten minute interludes every few hours or so, and do a great job of not force feeding you the modern aspect. While you’re venturing through these portions you can either elect to jump right back into Edward’s tale or stick around and hack some computers to learn more about Abstergo and the various assasins throughout past games. It’s your choice, and it’s a great way to compromise the creator’s vision of linking in the real world without pissing off fans who dislike the sci-fi elements.
But since the crux of the game is spent with Edward, it would be nice if he was any fun to play — and I’m pleased to say that he’s one of the most fun assassins yet. Not only does Edward have most of the skills that his predecessors sport, allowing him to effortlessly fight and flee foes, but he’s also a formidable sailor, which brings me to one of the biggest new additions to the franchise — ship roaming and naval warfare.
By way of Edward’s ship The Jackdaw, you’ll be able to cruise a true open world for the first time in the series, and engage on a myriad of activities like whaling, deep sea treasure hunting, fort sieging, the plundering and boarding of innocent (and no so innocent) ships, and a whole lot more. Your ship is fully upgradeable and can be customized to your liking, which you’ll need to do if you want to survive most of the game’s tougher sea battles.
Said battles not only have tactical depth to them, but they’re also extremely challenging, and it’s hard to describe the rush you’ll feel when boarding an enemy vessel. As you’re sailing the open sea your crew will sing actual shanty songs, which is a really nice touch. If you’re not keen on sailing around from location to location, fast travel is back and better than ever, allowing you to jump to exactly where you want to be at all times — provided you’ve earned the right.
Visually, I really do believe that Assassin’s Creed IV is one of the best looking games of the current console generation, and pushes the systems to their absolute limits. Not only is the Carribean setting absolutely jaw-dropping at times, but the draw distance and the insane amount of detail is breathtaking. You could literally sit and stare at a particular area for minutes at a time and spot tons of non-randomized, deliberate elements in the scenery. Even when sailing the ocean the waves look eerily life-like, and you’ll actually learn to fear in-game storms by way of the level of effort that’s put into them.
Like most Assassin’s Creed games the story tends to drag a bit near the finale, with a few missions that aren’t nearly as clever as the designers think they are. Although it far from falls apart, there were a few times where I found myself not having nearly as much fun as I did earlier in the game. There’s also an exorbitant amount of “tailing” missions (easily more than any other game), which force you to quietly follow a target for upwards of three to five minutes without being detected. These portions aren’t too frustrating due to the improved Eagle Vision mechanic, but that doesn’t make them any more fun.
Thankfully, multiplayer more than makes up for most of the shortcomings found in the core game, mostly because it remains relatively unchanged from prior entries. All of the polish and sheen from the games so far is present however, and the action is as fast and frantic as ever. For those who haven’t played multiplayer yet, the short of it is that Abstergo is training multiple people by way of the Animus machine, which allows them to enter the world as assassins and templars to hone their skills. Although there are a few classic FPS style modes like “capture the point,” the core multiplayer experience revolves around hunting prey, and watching your own back.
Every so often, you’ll receive a contract in-game to kill a certain player. You’ll have to make your way towards that player undetected, keeping in mind that another player is hunting for you. This isn’t new to some players, but it plays out wonderfully in Black Flag, to the point where I’d easily consider it one of the best multiplayer modes out right now. Given the amount of level variety and tools available (including the new custom games maker mechanic and the return of Assassin’s Creed III‘s brilliant co-op mode), you could be playing it for quite some time.
Assassin’s Creed IV has some trappings (particularly late in the game), but overall it’s a worthy entry for the franchise. The open world vision is finally realized with an incredibly detailed and engaging ship mechanic, and running and climbing about is as fun as it ever was. Even if you’ve never played an Assassin’s Creed game before, Black Flag is a great place to start, most notably due to its emphasis on a concise narrative with likeable and engaging characters.
This review is based on a physical copy of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag for the Xbox 360.