The Assassin’s Creed series has become something like a Highlights for Kids magazine. It’s mostly a franchise of spot-the-differences at this point but it also tells some fun little stories of Goofus and Gallant. And strangely enough, those small little changes can completely make or break the iteration they go towards. In this case, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag has taken a turn for the better.
Black Flag is the first game in the freerunning wannabe stealth franchise to actually take a step back in the flow of time by putting you in the shoes and pegleg-adjacent life of Edward Kenway, the grandfather to the protagonist Ratanhnhaké:ton of Assassin’s Creed III. Unlike stoic and honor-bound Connor, Edward is a pirate and simply falls into the Assassin-Templar feud like a found lotto ticket that wins you a bunch of stabbing.
And unlike Connor, Edward is actually a fun character. He is way more Ezio than Connor, and that’s a good thing. He’s brash, loud, and a jaunty sea fellow who loves drinking and looting. He, as a person, embodies the entire philosophical change of Black Flag by being someone we like (he’s still an affable fellow, despite his swashbuckling ways, a brush applied in broad strokes across all the pirates for some reason) and someone we want to be around.
Black Flag begins with a bang. Well, a very loud clap, let’s say, but it’s a bang in contrast to Assassin’s Creed III. Its predecessor began with a painfully slow introduction that led to a semi-worthwhile plot development (if predictable) and took hours and hours to reach anything resembling fun and the more often broken chase sequences. Within a couple of hours, you are stealing brigs, recruiting pirates, and sailing across the open Caribbean. It’s a much improved jump off the starting blocks.
However, you do still have to grind through the ever-present Assassin’s Creed mission-based tutorial structure. The game will continue to teach you new things all the way until the ninth or tenth hour, which is fair considering there are a lot of systems going on, but boy howdy does it get tiring. Half of the activities and abilities they teach you by putting objective markers over dummies to shoot and ship and character upgrades to buy will be things you’ve already done multiple times by the time they decide you’re ready for them.
Most of them are fun, though. A standout, actually, is when you first sail a ship and escape other angry ships in the midst of a storm. It’s exhilarating to say the least as you break rogue waves and dodge water spouts. But then there are the necessary ones that include hunting iguanas and eavesdropping on conversations and (ugh) tailing targets. If you were hoping those had gone the way of Altäir, then you’ll be severely disappointed, especially when you have to stealthily tail another ship with your ship. Just awful.
The majority of the missions, though, are effective at conveying both plot and pleasure to you as a player. Stealth actually works this time around with stalking zones and tagging patrolling guards, so the ones that demand you to sneak around are far less frustrating than before. Fighting, when you must do it, moves faster than before, a concession to the realization that the less of it you do, the better the game flows. Enemies seem to sometimes go down in a single hit and it’s fantastic.
And the reasons behind doing both the sneaking and the stabbing actually feel interesting. Once you involve Blackbeard and Anne Bonny, you get deep into the swarthy yet charming life of plundering booty blended together with a reluctant assassin and you just might find joy somewhere under the iterative layers of still annoying freerunning mechanics and mapping collectibles and wondering if guards can see you.
The story, though, does get a bit too big for its britches. (Or pantaloons or whatever it is pirates wear.) Even though we don’t have the Desmond half to contend with where the majority of the mishandled complications and clumsy gameplay lay in past games, we do still have to consolidate a lighthearted tale of pirates and mistaken identity in the beautiful blue sea with the sci-fi mess of the First Civilization and the forever-fight between Templars and Assassins. The seams really begin to come loose towards the end, as Assassin’s Creed games are wont to do.
If I hadn’t been keeping notes for this review, I probably would have lost the thread somewhere around the twentieth hour or so and not bothered to find it again. All I really l liked were the characters as the madcap ending comes barreling towards them and you as the curtains begin to close. And once you involve the strange Desmond replacement in the real world, feelings become a lot more mixed.
You are really a new designer hired at Abstergo Entertainment, an obvious mirror to Ubisoft in Montreal. In a first-person view, you go through the onboarding process of reading about employee benefits (which don’t seem that great) and getting an employee communicator which stores files and acts as a compass to mark objectives and interact with networked devices.
It feels a whole lot like walking through a museum, or a tribute to the studio that made Assassin’s Creed. There is concept art everywhere and little statues of past franchise characters on display in cubicles, but no one talks to you outside of the ones necessary to the real world part of the plot. They mill around the coffee stand and stare at screens and sit silently at the break areas staring off into nothing. All you do is read cryptic notes and hack computers. It feels so incredibly dead in there with an eerie sheen like a one-percenter mortician got his hands on it or something.
It’s a bit on-the-nose for me and generally feels like it’s all trying to be too cute. (Oh, an ad for Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation! How playful!) It’s all a bit lackluster as well considering how expansive and ambitious—however sloppy—Desmond’s story was. As a non-speaking character, it seems painfully obvious that the structure is still built for a speaking part, though the voice memos you unlock and find make it similarly clear that the budget for voice acting is quite ample. They are pretty great either way, though.
Perhaps more time was spent in designing the levels because this time around, the world feels much more cohesive. It was part of the problem of setting itself in a wide open city like colonial Boston, but Assassin’s Creed III was a pain to navigate, often running in the streets more than doing fun things like climbing and jumping. Black Flag actually has tiny islands that are altogether more interesting than Connor’s world.
Pirate hovels on split-level islands with tons of tropical foliage to hide in and clamber up make the largely unchanged parkour mechanics feel like they’ve evolved at least a little bit. It doesn’t quite explain how a pirate can climb as well as a lifelong Assassin despite the unconvincing explanation given in the game.
The naval combat, however, has changed into something much more robust while the navigation across an open tropical setting with the ability to stop on any number of islands gins up a great The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker feel. Now you just aim forward to fire off slowing chain shot and aim backwards to drop fire barrels before you hold and release a single button to automatically hit ship weak points or detonate said barrels. And then being able to even just manually aim and tweak cannon fire is a godsend.
As is the entire boarding process. Your crew will grapple the burning opposition and pull you two together before you grab a rope and swing across. Midair assassinations and deck blade-crossing is just the tops as you scramble to subdue the ship before you lose any of your crew. I’d often fire off a few swivel gun rounds before I’d swing across, knock down the biggest dude, and fire off all my pistols just for fun before I stab everyone and everything. (BRB, gonna go board more ships.)
The refinements do show the inherent weaknesses of the combat system, though, as you begin to dread the moment you miss a single shot and are forced to painfully and slowly come around again for another chance. And attempting to navigate the shallows around islands is an exercise in frustrating blind faith and guessing.
At least it all looks utterly fantastic. This is perhaps the best representation of the Caribbean since The Secret to Monkey Island where the idyllic and stunning blue waters wash up into turquoise shades against ports and shores. The night falls into an indigo-black across the lush green set amidst the shimmering sands is enough to make anyone long for the seafaring life.
Taking the helm boosts up the appeal as your crew welcomes you back with a jolly growl before they break out into a catchy set of sea shanties as you break out into the deep. It reminds me that despite the problems, this is the best part of the game. Sailing, discovering the unknown, and generally being a salty bastard is delectable, while wading through the murky swamps of convoluted plot developments and hereditary gameplay roughness is only marginally positive.
If that sounds familiar, then it’s because it describes both the best and worst parts of all past Assassin’s Creed titles. They are intrinsically composed of bad parts being covered up by good parts—the best gaming as to offer standing alongside the worst conventions of the medium—dressed up in varying period garb. The dressing, however, makes a world of difference as pointed out by a saucy Italian running across Renaissance rooftops and a dower stick in the mud getting lost in the endless basements of the American Revolution. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag may not be the best of them all, but it tends to get a lot more right than it does wrong.
+ Sounds fantastic and looks even better
+ The characters are salty and charming and lends import to the story
+ Ship and land combat, sneaking, and climbing is all improved across the board
– The plot in the past and in the present is mostly middling
– Tailing and eavesdropping missions still exist
Final Score: 8 out of 10
Game Review: Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag
Release: October 29, 2013
Genre: Third-person action
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Available Platforms: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Wii U
Players: singleplayer offline, multiplayer online