I have to apologise for the time it took to get this review up, but I’m sure I don’t have to tell you how long the Assassin’s Creed games are. Usually they take a few hours just to get through the prologues and into the meat of the game proper – and then they can take anything from 6-20 hours to complete depending on how fastidious you are about filling in your checklist of side quests.
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is no different, although thankfully the initial prologue/tutorial section is over much quicker than in the previous game, allowing you to get into the action sooner. And what great action it is. Sailing the open seas, engaging in tense, strategic, fast-paced naval battles, boarding and plundering enemy ships, robbing plantations, diving to recover booty from sunken wrecks – I’ve been waiting my whole life for a game that allows you to play as a pirate in such an immersive and seamless fashion.
And that’s the key word here, seamless. In my review of Assassin’s Creed III, I mentioned that I thought the newly-introduced naval combat was one of the highlights of the game. What I didn’t mention was that I wished it was more convincingly integrated into the experience. As it stood, you sort of went to the harbour master, picked your mission from a digital list – and boom, there you were in the sea, already at your destination. It didn’t seem to be entirely connected to the main story or have much impact on the main game, apart from a few mandatory ones. For the most part, it was side quest-related.
By contrast, one of the few Legend of Zelda games in which I was able to tolerate that green-pixie-hat-wearing wanker Link [Oh boy… This should be fun. – Ed.], The Wind Waker, and that’s because the seamless sailing was so much fun. It really gave you the feeling of inhabiting a physical world, being able to sail from one island to another, docking your boat and hopping onto the shore, doing whatever you came there for; then running back, hopping back onto your boat, unfurling the sails and heading for a new destination to do it again – all without ever seeing a loading screen or a menu. That’s what I wished AC III‘s sailing was like, and apparently I wasn’t the only one, because that’s exactly what AC IV offers.
I should probably explain the premise before I ramble any further. And since I’m sensing a policy of spoiler-warning on this website, I’ll save the editor some trouble and warn you myself: this part may contain spoilers if you don’t know anything about the Assassin’s Creed story, so gouge out your eyes until you hear the chime.
[Um… BEWARE: SPOILERS BELOW. – Ed.]
After Desmond Miles sacrificed himself at the end of AC III, players are put in the role of a nameless employee working at Abstergo Entertainment. Oh yes, the big, evil front for the modern-day Templars has apparently widened its net in the search for clues about the first civilisation by offering Animus technology to the general public as entertainment. In reality, what they’re doing is checking the genetic memories of people for any traces of what they need – and you are one such subject. After finding that one of your ancestors has a particularly interesting history, you are recruited and put to work on researching his life to create a “movie”. In between Animus sessions, you get to wander around the building, finding out more about Abstergo’s real agenda – as if we didn’t already know.
The genetic ancestor du jour is Edward Kenway, the grandfather of Connor in AC III. Edward is a good-for-nothing Welsh farmer who doesn’t like the idea of a lifetime of honest but low-paying serfdom, and turns to privateering to make a better life for himself and his wife. When that doesn’t work out, he turns to piracy, eventually acquiring a ship of his own, which he names the Jackdaw, and begins preying on the West Indies. Along the way, he meets many historical figures from the Golden Age of Piracy, including Calico Jack, Ben Hornigold, Blackbeard, Anne Bonny and Mary Read. Eventually, he’s introduced to the Assassin order and becomes part of the struggle that is older than mankind itself.
[And that’s that. – Ed.]
Okay, spoilers are over, you can put your eyeballs back into their sockets now
Edward Kenway is a way more interesting and likeable character than Connor was. While Connor was undoubtedly one of the biggest ass-kickers in the franchise, he was kind of boring as a person. Edward, on the other hand, is funny, interesting and flawed. He’s selfish and out for himself, sure, but you understand why he does it – he wants to give his wife the life he feels she deserves. But he also has a thread of conscience which the good characters tug at over the course of the story until he eventually wisens up.
The story in general is a lot more engaging than the previous games. I found the previous stories quite interesting, but I didn’t realise until I played Black Flag that they could be a little dry at times. That’s because Black Flag‘s story plays out a bit more like an action movie and bit less like a historical drama, and I’m pretty sure Ubisoft is starting to take bigger and bigger liberties with the historic subject matter.
Getting back to the gameplay, Edward has all of the abilities of his predecessors: the free-running, the double wrist blades for stealth kills, support items like pistols, throwing weapons and money he can use. Similarly to Far Cry 3, players can hunt various types of game found in the world to craft upgrades for Edward, like increased health, and bigger pouches for various types of ammo. Edward’s main new tool is a blowpipe, which he acquires a short while into the main story. This is a ranged stealth tool that can deliver sleep or frenzy darts, and comes in very handy when you don’t want to be detected. The melee combat is the same as in AC III. It works fine and there are no significant changes there.
While that’s still as good as ever, it’s the sailing we’re really here for. Once Edward acquires his ship, players can make him sail it wherever they please, bring it in to port, then let go of the wheel and run across the deck, jump onto the pier, or onto the beach, or into the water, run onto land, do stuff there, then run back, climb onto the ship, sail away and do it again elsewhere. And all of this happens without menus or loading screens, lending the world a great sense of solidity and legitimacy – the only exceptions being the three main towns, Havana, Kingston and Nassau, which you have to load into and out of, probably because they’re so large and usually contain story triggers – but there are dozens of smaller towns, forts, islands and ruins you can sail to seamlessly.
The naval combat has been fleshed out and expanded on to introduce more weapons, tactical options and, best of all, the ability to board and capture enemy ships. You’ll need to prey on smaller ships initially, because the Jackdaw starts out relatively weak, but as you successfully capture smaller ships and use their resources to upgrade the Jackdaw‘s armour and offensive loadout, you’ll be able to take on bigger ships for better booty. You can also take on island forts, too, and they’re quite challenging because they usually have a lot of armour and mortar cannons which wreck your ship in no time flat – so you need to make swift, precise broadside strafing runs to bring them down without taking too much damage yourself.
I find this endlessly appealing. My personal favourite approach is to charge full speed at an enemy ship, ram them, then decrease my speed as I scrape alongside them for a full broadside sweep of heavy cannon fire. It lacks subtlety, but it usually enables me to damage them enough to board them without having to circle around. Once you’ve boarded an enemy ship, you can use its parts to repair the Jackdaw, have its crew join yours (which somehow lowers your wanted level) or you can send it to join Edward’s fleet.
The fleet mini-game, which you can access from the captain’s cabin on the Jackdaw, requires you to redeem your Uplay pass online. It’s boring as all hell, requiring you to send ships to clear trade routes or carry cargo to sell. It seems that additional trade routes become available over time online or something – but I really couldn’t be bothered with it.
In addition to the naval combat, you can also harpoon various types of sea creatures, and send Edward down in a diving bell (once you acquire it in the story) to loot wrecked ships. The diving bits are particularly fun, and each wreck poses its own unique challenge, with its own sea predators you have to watch out for. This coupled with making sure Edward doesn’t run out of breath makes them quite tense and exciting.
And lastly, before I end it, I feel I have to come a little clean about something. When I played AC III for review, I was gunning it through the main quest to complete the game as quickly as possible to get the review done, so I only did enough side-questing to get the idea. When I went back and gave it the proper attention, I found that AC III is mostly side quests – boring side quests at that. I don’t know what bucket the developers had on their heads when they decided to put them in there. I still stand by what I said about the combat and sailing being awesome, but the homestead building and trading and hunting… what the hell?
Luckily, Black Flag doesn’t have that problem. All of the side activities are fun. Maybe some people might not enjoy the collectable ones – like chasing sea shanty pages and Animus fragments – but I’m sure everyone will agree that the freelance assassinations, naval missions, wreck diving and harpooning are all great fun. And that’s exactly what Assassin’s Creed should be about, so if it sounds good to you, it comes highly recommended.