Assassin’s Creed is a series I’ve always liked but never truly loved. The annualized series has always maintained a consistently interesting line-up of settings and conflicts with its historical fiction, but always seems to falter in some fundamental areas. Whether it’s an issue of pacing, or control problems, or a protagonist who is as likeable as a sack of hedge trimmings, there is always something that stopped me from fully embracing the franchise. In fact, it is because of these issues that I was counting on Black Flag to signal the series’ descent into stagnation, diluting the core gameplay in an attempt to cover up its crows feet and wrinkling skin. What happened was the exact opposite. Assassins Creed 4 Black Flag has been the most energetic installment to date, and it is a blast to play.
It is the 1710s, and piracy is rampant. Conflict between the Spaniards and the British are dying down, but their legacy of privateers are striking the West Indies hard. You are Edward Kenway, a man wishing to strike out with a band of scoundrels for his own chance at fortune and glory who ends up getting a lot more than he asked for. Killing a man in self-defense, at least that’s what he’ll tell those who ask, Kenway acquires his victim’s effects, a victim who is part of the secret society of Assassins. Using these newfound tools as his own, Kenway becomes privy to the Assassins’ conflict with their eternal rivals, the Templars, over the location of an artifact called The Observatory, which allows one to monitor everyone in the world at any time. Man of fortune that he is, Kenway proceeds to talk, cheat, stab, blackmail, and double-cross all in his way to get to the Observatory first, and then sell it to the highest bidder.
First thing’s first, I love Edward Kenway as a character. He is selfish, arrogant, flippant, exploits the uneven line between pirate and privateer for personal gain, and yet has the presence of mind to plan and scheme in addition to shoot and stab. He is an absolutely terrible person… and he is awesome. Also, the fact that he has no real stock in the conflict between the Assassins and Templars, aside from cheating them of their prize, allows for an outsider’s perspective on how these secret societies function. There are historical characters that reveal their affiliations with these organizations which do assist or deter Kenway as the story progresses, but for a game called Assassin’s Creed the Assassins sort of take a backseat.
If there is a problem with this narrative it is in pacing. While the main plot involves finding the Observatory, the Assassin/Templar conflict that drives it is pushed aside to focus on Edward Kenway building his clout as a pirate and setting the groundwork for a scoundrel’s republic. There is no real driving need other than selfish desire that compels Kenway to the prize, and as such it can make the story feel padded and uneven at times, even while it is delivered in an entertaining way. Which is a shame because the idea of the Observatory in a modern time where privacy and personal data theft is on everyone’s mind comes off as very topical on Ubisoft’s part.
The framing device for all of this swashbuckling action has also been changed. Past Assassin’s Creed games had the framing story revolve around Desmond Miles, a newfound member of the present day Assassin Order using a device called the Animus to relive the lives of his ancestors to get a crash course in Assassin skills to help them fight the Templars in control of the Abstergo Corporation. Charitably, Desmond was always the least interesting person in the series, and his own plot in the series has always been perfunctory at best and overshadowing the main story at worst. After the events of the last game, Desmond has been dropped from the series, and the replacement is a breath of fresh air.
You are the newest employee at Abstergo Entertainment, the new software branch of the Abstergo Corporation specializing in using Animus technology for interactive software. Your newest project is you researching the life of Edward Kenway for material for a pirate game. This quite meta narrative seemingly has less intrigue than the conspiracy theories upon conspiracy theories that laced Desmond’s set-up, but it works. Abstergo’s offices and workers are a well constructed parody of modern videogame development that got some chuckles out of me. There is some exploration done in first-person perspective that doesn’t detract from the main narrative. Most importantly, these sections are optional. You can just as easily skip this stuff all together and just go back to being a pirate, but long time fans will find a lot to like in what they find.
Core gameplay hasn’t changed much from previous Assassin’s Creeds. The free-running controls are still as accessible as ever, hold down a button to climb like a monkey, but are still stiff and are prone to weird hiccups. The inherent glee of sneaking up on a target, running from rooftop to rooftop, and finally running them through with a blade is still very satisfying. The combat, despite adding in chain kills with your pistols at the press of a button, can still be boiled down to countering an opponent’s attack and then responding. Hunting animals has returned from the previous installment and is necessary for crafting upgrades and is still challenging. In short, the core of Assassin’s Creed is still preserved, warts and all.
The newest addition this time around is having your own ship, the Jackdaw. The minute you get her, the game world opens up with the entire Caribbean for you to explore, a far cry from the brief and linear naval missions from Assassin’s Creed 3. From here, you can attack enemy ships, capture them, sink them, steal their cargo, blow up enemy fortresses with artillery fire, and just be an awesome pirate. It is genuinely satisfying to cripple a schooner, or take down a Man O War by the skin of your teeth, and it is addictive. This quality extends to the world as well. Exploring new islands, getting enough gold to upgrade the Jackdaw, capturing ships to add to Kenway’s pirate fleet, using the diving bell for underwater exploration, all of this and more are properly saturated in the biggest Assassin’s Creed map to date. Nothing feels pumped with too much and no one area feels like it has no purpose. Add to this a moderate amount of fast travel points to cut down on backtracking and the option to have your crew sing old sea shanties when you just feel like sailing and you have a game world that matches a perfect balance of scale and accessibility.
Black Flag’s multiplayer is still as entertaining as it was before. The modes of Assassin cat and mouse focusing on deception and planning gives the competitive mode a much more cerebral thrill than anything on the market, which is always a plus. The only problem I can find is that the competitive modes focus completely on ground combat with none of the sailing used in any way. The modes still work and are still fun, I just wished a bit more effort was put here.
Using the same engine, Assassin’s Creed 4 is exactly as you would expect. Nothing amazing graphically but serviceable. Framerate is solid, motion capture performances are great to look at, and loading screens are few and far between. Other than some assets vanishing during certain explosive set piece moments, the illusion is rarely broken
The score of Black Flag is pleasant as well. The aforementioned sea shanties feel like they were recorded from the time, the music fits with the 18th century time frame, and voice-acting performances are admirable.
Ubisoft really did their homework with Black Flag. The Assassin’s Creed series has always had a lot of detail and thought put into their narratives, mixing history and storytelling tropes in an entertaining fashion, and it’s good to know the team hasn’t lost their touch. The story mode will last you north of twenty hours, at least twice that if you go for all of the collectibles and side missions, and while there can be some frustrating moments, nothing really slows down the pace. Aside from a dry mini-game where you have to manage Kenway’s fleet, Black Flag is very straightforward when it comes to its content, something I am glad to see. Losing Desmond was another step in the right direction, giving the series to breathe and, more importantly, do whatever it wants now. I for one cannot to see what is done with this freedom.
Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag delivers an entertaining, if unfocused at times, adventure that is definitely a highlight for the series. If you like piracy, stabbing people, or sticking it to psuedo-Freemasons, then give this one a look.
AAG SCORE: 8.5/10
- Great Protagonist
- Addictive Naval Gameplay
- Core Gameplay Hasn’t Changed or Improved
- Story Feels Padded
- Lack of Naval Multiplayer