Though the Assassin’s Creed series has seen its share of highs from its inauspicious debut in 2007 to the soaring highs of the Ezio trilogy, it hit an all-time low with the miserable face-plant that was Assassin’s Creed III. No doubt suffering from the apparent annualization of the franchise, Assassin’s Creed III got almost everything wrong. As such, the announcement of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag didn’t inspire much confidence in 2013. Combining the stealth and parkour-heavy gameplay the series was built on with island-hopping and naval combat in the salty seas of the Caribbean shouldn’t have made any sense; however, against all odds, it did, leading to perhaps the best game the series has delivered so far.
Series veterans will recognize new protagonist Edward Kenway’s name – he’s the grandfather of Assassin’s Creed III’s partially Native American protagonist Connor Kenway. Unlike Connor and his boring and oftentimes confusing pursuit of a free country full of people who hate him for his ancestry, Edward’s story is much more light-hearted. Edward is a loveable rogue who turns to piracy for a few years with the hopes that the treasure will help secure his family’s future, but he’s quickly ensnared in the centuries-long war between assassins and Templars. After unknowingly selling a stolen map containing assassin secrets to a group of Templars, Edward embarks on a pirating adventure to make things right.
While Assassin’s Creed III took ages before its world opened up, forcing players along its slog of a main campaign and unbearable cut-scenes before finally letting them dabble in side-quests, Black Flag opens right up – within half an hour, Edward can ditch the main story to run around the city of Havana, completing side-contracts, buying finer weapons, and finding collectibles. Havana is small compared to past Assassin’s Creed settings like Constantinople, Rome, and even Boston, but Edward soon leaves the city and the player finds out just how gigantic Black Flag’s overworld is. It’s huge. Kingston and Nassau are the other two large, explorable cities with their own distinct aesthetics, but there are hundreds of islands packed with locales to explore as well, including naval forts, Mayan temples, shipwrecks and more. Each time Edward begins exploring a new section of the overworld map, he must storm the gates of a naval fortress with his men waging an all-out assault and creating a distraction that allows him to pick off a few key guards and finally kill the camp’s leader. Doing so places the fortress and its corresponding section of the map under the control of Edward and his crew, providing hints on new locations to visit on the map and the whereabouts of the many collectibles. In addition to the treasure chests and animus fragment collectibles from previous games, Black Flag introduces an excellent new buried treasure hunting feature. Basically, Edward must bribe a barkeep for information, which usually leads to the location of a dead body on a nearby island. After looting the body, he finds a treasure map with a set of coordinates and a vague illustration, and it’s off to another island to try to put the hints together to figure out just where this treasure might be buried. In a game that so often spells out exactly where the player needs to go, hunting for buried treasure forces the player to think critically about what the map might be trying to say. The rewards for completing these side-quests are much larger than the usual treasure chests, often involving a huge cash prize or new plans for an upgrade to Edward’s pirate ship.
Players will get to know the layout of Edward’s ship the “Jackdaw” well, as the other half of the game involves riding around and looking for trouble on the high seas. In addition to breezily sailing off in search of new locales, there’s well-implemented naval combat allowing the player to live out all of their piracy dreams, attacking British and Spanish fleets unprovoked in the hopes of stealing their cargo, or maybe even stealing their entire ship and crew. After doing enough damage through flinging mortar and shooting cannons, players have the option of sinking enemy ships for a quick finish or boarding the ship and attacking its crew man-to-man for more loot and better rewards. Captured ships can be broken down for parts and used to repair the Jackdaw instantly; Edward can bribe the captured crew in order to decrease his notoriety; or the ship and its crew can be taken on as a part of Edward’s fleet, running missions for him throughout the Atlantic for a hefty profit. It’s in this last option where Black Flag has its only real stumble – previous games featured a similar meta-game where assassins could be dispatched to complete side-missions and gain experience in an almost RPG-like nature, but Black Flag’s fleet missions overcomplicate this idea, making it more frustrating than fun by randomly blocking certain missions at different times of day, or requiring the player to complete a lame “naval battle” where two cartoon ships shoot at each other for way too long, requiring no gameplay at all.
One aspect of the Assassin’s Creed series that started out important but became an overwrought hindrance was its corresponding modern-day story – the main character technically wasn’t Ezio or Altair, but a seemingly normal guy living in 2012 named Desmond, who is reliving his ancestors’ memories as a framing device for the whole story. By the time he was routinely talking to gods and trying to prevent the 2012 Mayan apocalypse (has any storyline become so instantly dated and laughable?), Desmond’s story had long since worn out its welcome. Mercifully, it wrapped up with Assassin’s Creed III. With Black Flag, Ubisoft moved in a new direction, breaking the fourth wall by showing the villainous Abstergo Industries rebranding itself as a video game company, partnering up with Ubisoft to deliver more Assassin’s Creed experiences solely for user entertainment, or so it seems. During a few brief sequences through the game, the player takes part in the daily life of a new employee at Abstergo, performing the research that will become the Edward Kenway game (so meta!), while simultaneously spying on the more senior employees and discovering clues as to Abstergo’s true intentions. It’s nothing amazing, but certainly a welcome change of pace from the continued adventures of Desmond Miles and his crew of one-note characters!
In breaking the mold and trying something completely different, Ubisoft was able to rebound from its weakest Assassin’s Creed effort and deliver its strongest one yet. Black Flag boasts strong visuals and a massive open world that’s easy to lose yourself in for hours at a time due to a less constraining story and loads of side-quests that truly enhance the piracy experience. Though Ubisoft has since ventured away from Black Flag’s era and setting, returning to Europe for 2014’s Unity and the upcoming Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, it would be nice to see a return to the Caribbean in the future. For now, anyone who wants a taste of the pirates’ life would do well to give Black Flag a shot.