Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag is a big game with a big name. Sprawling over a huge, open-world Caribbean map, with 3 main city locations and many other smaller places to visit, the latest instalment in the Assassin's Creed franchise does away with all that bogged down Assassin's Creed III and does so, so much more. I completed the main story of the game just recently, and so here is my spoiler-free review of this swashbuckling pirate adventure.

Aaar, me harties!

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag places you in the shoes of Edward Kenway, the bold, albiet greedy, grand-daddy of Assassin's Creed III's main protagonist Ratonhnhake:ton, A.K.A. Connor Kenway, as he searches for the grandest prize of all during the golden age of piracy in the West Indies. Through this adventure, he encounters intrigue, deceit, and rum at every corner.

Assassin's Creed 4 Black Flag cover art alternate by TwoDots

Edward Kenway: the pirate assassin

Sailing through the massive West Indies map, you can rest easy in the knowledge that Black Flack sports just as impressive visuals as its predecessor, Assassin's Creed III. However, this is the Xbox 360 I'm talking about, and small glitches and framerate issues did bug me throughout, though not as often as they did in ACIII, and certainly not enough to be game-breaking. Even after 30+ hours of piracy and plunder, I am still amazed by the way the developers have pushed the current-gen to its limit to produce sprawling Caribbean vistas.

Entertaining city gameplay has returned too, after the quite honestly boring architecture of 18th Century New York and Boston. Cities are also distinguished by architecture once more, too, with Havana being a lively, colourful city with stony buildings and cobbled streets; Nassau is at times lively but at others a decrepid, hopeless outpost; and Kingston features the same, boring architecture as Boston and New York, but is saved by a multitude of tropical fauna and many, many plantations. This revamp in architecture and city design is very refreshing after not knowing the difference between Boston and New York in ACIII, and it also keeps the game from going too stale.

And then there is the open ocean. Oh, what a joy that is to navigate! Beautiful water mechanics combine with impressive graphics and huge draw distances to create a breathtaking vista that greets you every time you sail with Edward's ship, the Jackdaw. The sea is not void of things to do, either; far from it. Between missions, you are tempted by small "playas", massive whales, diving bells, and other ships. All of this content proves addictive and enjoyable, but it is the other ships on the horizon that really steal the show.

Naval battle ACIV

Naval battles are a true joy in Black Flag

Using Edward's spyglass, it is easy to identify the strength of each ship, and what it holds. Rushing in to plunder rum, sugar, or materials to upgrade the Jackdaw is just as fun as the brilliant naval contracts in ACIII and more. The controls for naval engagement have been refined so that it is easier to take down your opponents, whilst new weapons such as the mortar add variety to the mix, and it doesn't stop there. Boarding is now completely open for the player; simply weaken a ship sufficiently, and a helpful "Board" option appears when you approach the ship. This is the point where Black Flag is at its strongest, with a ship-load of pirates swinging onto a helpless vessel to create a chaotic skirmish. After boarding, all the loot is plundered, and options are given to the player to repair the Jackdaw, lower the game's new form of notoriety, or send the captured ship to Edward's "Fleet". The only downside is that each option is followed by an animation, but these are always the same; similarly, the boarding itself usually has very similar objectives. This can lead to the naval battles becoming somewhat repetetive, although it is certainly very fun.


The Jackdaw is your key to enjoying Black Flag's beautiful vistas

Land gameplay has not suffered from Edward's adventures on the high seas, either; in fact, it has probably gotten better since ACIII. The blowpipe offers a quiet alternative to Edward's guns, and the AI has been tweaked to be so much less annoying. Free running is just as easy as ever, although this is Assassin's Creed, so occasionally I would find myself jumping off a cliff rather than to the next handhold. Combat is also still very impressive, whilst stealth has become a more viable option with the re-introduction of groups for hire (similar to the courtesans and thieves from ACII and Brotherhood). The cities have been made even more immersive, with shops actually easy to find again, and with Assassin Contracts, shanties, and Templar Hunts providing a wealth of entertaining secondary activities to do.

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag certainly learns from the very slow start of Assassin's Creed III by immediately throwing you into a naval battle. From there, it is only about an hour or so of gameplay before the world is completely opened up for you; a far cry from spending several hours as Haytham, then a couple more as young Connor, before you could do what you want in ACIII. Also, it is everywhere that is opened up, all at once; no more "This area cannot be accessed at this time", with large battleships and Men of War taking up this role instead, blocking off areas by destroying the Jackdaw until you upgrade it just a little bit more. And what you can do to upgrade your ship. Mortars, fire barrels, crew's quarters, sails, figureheads, and many more can all be bought and/or upgraded, adding immense depth to Edward's ship, and forcing you to board other ships, which as already explained, is incredibly fun. All of this creates a massively enjoyable and rewarding gameplay loop that lasts throughout the game; even in my 30+ hours of gameplay, the Jackdaw had only reached 53% of total weapons and armour upgrades.

After the very quick start to the game, the player soon finds themself in Havana, and from there, they discover the Templar plot that is central to the story. Although not as mysterious as pondering about the Apple in the original Assassin's Creed, nor as morally grey as Assassin's Creed III, this main story arc is still interesting enough to keep the player hooked for the duration of the game. This is helped not in part by the strong secondary cast and sub-plots, such as the establishment of a pirate republic on Nassau. The performance from the actors is magnificent, and there are some scenes that almost reach as much impact as some of those with Vaas in Far Cry 3, which is a real testament to the strength of acting within Black Flag. However, the story is at times predictable, and suffers from a very swift penultimate sequence. Also, Edward seems almost as one-dimensional as his grandson, although not as boring in his aims (plunder and infamy certainly are more interesting than "WHERE IS CHARLES LEE"), and the support or even mention of the Assassin's is almost non-existent. Despite this, there are plenty of assassination targets, and Darby has done well to craft an intriguing story that keeps the player hooked at the same time as portraying an accurate picture of pirates at the time.

AC4-CaribbeanSea FuriousBlackbeard

Black Flag is helped by a strong cast of secondary characters, such as Blackbeard

And then there's the modern day sections, which feel like the franchise's strongest yet, despite the absence of any classic Assassin's Creed gameplay. The modern sections serve instead as a way to tie the game together and provide plenty of easter eggs and nuggets of information for dedicated fans. Indeed, outside of the compulsory missions, there is plenty to do (and computers to hack) in the fictional Abstergo Entertainment office, revealing much more about Assassin's Creed's lore. The only let-down in this regard is that there doesn't seem to be a real ending; after the last mission, the player is simply told to get back into the animus to finish off looking at Edward's memories, and it almost feels wrong to not end on a trademark mind-fucking cliff-hanger. Even so, the story behind the modern day is quite possibly the strongest yet, and at least Edward's story ends satsifacturally, being, in my opinion, almost the best ending to an Assassin's Creed game.

The open ocean of Black Flag treats you as an adult, letting you loose in a huge array of activities. Do you want to try to harpoon a killer whale? Assassinate a devious Templar? Dive underwater in search of treasure? Or just kick back in Edward's own private estate? Whatever you choose, finding your place from point A to point B is never boring, thanks in part to the great, but not perfect, soundtrack composed by Brian Tyler, as well as the numerous shanties found around the world that you can tell your crew to sing. During cutscenes, too, Tyler has managed to evoke the right emotions with some well-crafted scores. Although it is not up to Jesper Kyd's lofty standards, Tyler has done very well with the soundtrack.

The game's now signature multiplayer also returns, and the player is once again experiencing the game as themselves, playing through Abstergo's fictional commercial Animus. Again, there is the option of highly customisable characters and ability sets, and again there is the same cat-and-mouse stealthy gameplay. Though it is not perfect, it has been polished since ACIII, and it certainly provides a change of pace from the single player.

The Verdict

Assassin's Creed IV features a massively immersive world that has kept me entertained for longer than any other game in the series, simply with its depth of things to do, and the way that it teases you with gameplay oppurtunities from the moment the world opens up. The multiplayer is again enjoyable, and the story is entertining enough to keep players satisfied. However, it is also at times predictable, and minor glitches bug the game from start to finish. As well as this, the Assassins are notably absent. But it is the open ocean, and the Jackdaw to to traverse it, which really steal the show, bringing a level of fun to the franchise that I haven't felt before. So, it may not be typical Assassin's Creed, but it sure is fun, and isn't that what matters in a video game?

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