Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is the newest iteration of the AC franchise from Ubisoft Montreal. I’ve been playing these games since the original, and I’ve gotta say- this one is definitely my favorite so far. For those of you who played AC3 and thought, “Oh, how I wish there were more naval missions!”, this one is gonna be right up your alley. Grab your cutlass and wave goodbye to your land-lubbin’ ways as you delve into the world of 1700’s Caribbean pirating.
The game’s protagonist Edward Kenway is a British privateer who left his wife and home behind to seek fortune in the new world. A chance encounter with a member of the Assassin’s guild gets him drawn in to the world of Templars and Assassins, and though he is no real Assassin, he’s just about as good at free-running and murder as any of the protagonists from the earlier stories. After a bit of exposition, Kenway sets off in search of the Observatory, a mysterious location being sought by both sides of the conflict, as well as the Sage- one Bartholomew Roberts, who is said to be the key to the fabled site. He figures that if the Observatory is so important to these Templars, knowledge of its location would probably bring him a pretty penny. I can’t say he’s far off.
In your quest for the observatory, you’ll meet the customary roster of historical figures, including the infamous Blackbeard. (Spoiler alert- he’s actually a pretty nice guy.) The three main areas of the game- Kingston, Havana, and Nassau, are supplemented with a ridiculous amount of small islands a-brim with plantations, military outposts, jungles, and Mayan ruins. If you’re like me, you’ll end up exploring near every inch of the map in order to complete quests and steal from other sailors to bolster your resources and treasury so that you may buy precious upgrades for your ship, the Jackdaw.
“But how are you using the animus, since Desmond died at the end of AC3?” you might ask, spoiling the ending of that game for anyone too slow to have finished it by now. After Desmond died, Abstergo scooped out his brain and used the information held within to launch Abstergo Entertainment- their very own video game studio. You play the part of a nameless, genderless, voiceless shell being shepherded around by your higher-ups. The studio is in Quebec, and I’ve gotta think that Ubisoft Montreal was trying to give you a little nudge in the ribs, saying “Eh? EH!? You get it??” Yes, I get it Ubisoft. Now let me shoot things with my cannon.
Something that becomes immediately apparent is that the game is freakin’ beautiful. The water effects are amazing, and the cities are pretty well-detailed. I’ve gotta say- when I was in the middle of a battle between 3 ships that wayyyy outclassed me in terms of firepower while under fire from a nearby military fort as a tempest raged all around me, I just had to stop and say, “Goddamn, this game looks amazing.”
The naval battles are at the center of the game, so it’s no wonder Ubisoft seemed to focus on that aspect more than any other. The ships control very well, and battle is extremely intuitive. The one complaint I have about the naval battles is that after you fire a broadside at an enemy, your vision becomes clouded with smoke for several seconds afterwards. I realize that it’s probably more realistic that way, but when you’re engaged in battle with 3 man o’ wars and 4 frigates, it becomes extremely frustrating that you’re reduced to firing blindly into the smoke. [edit: apparently this is only when you’re standing still like a fool! Thanks for the tip bigshynepo]
Slightly less impressive than that, though, was anything that took place on land. It seems Ubisoft wanted to make the free-running more seamless, but only served to make it more frustrating as Kenway jumped in every direction except the one you wanted him to. The fighting also seemed to have been changed quite a bit. Whereas in AC3, I loved employing brutal double-takedowns in fights, they seem to be extremely rare in this game (I managed to do it one time during my whole playthrough). They’ve also made combat extremely easy. At first, I tried to be very sneaky all the time and assassinate enemies without being seen by the others.. but once I realized that it’s virtually impossible to lose in hand-to-hand combat, I began purposefully rounding up groups of 20 enemies at once to clear an area in one go. Something important was lost here, I just can’t quite put my finger on it.
The main quest will probably run you around 10-15 hours or so, but that’s if you ignore the hundreds of secrets, trophies, buried treasure, and other pick-ups along the way. Oh, there’s also a ton of sea-shanties you can unlock, which I actually really loved. You spend a lot of time roaming the seas in a windwaker-esque fashion, and your crew will sing while they work. I ended up learning the words to a handful, and would happily sing along as I scooted across the ocean. For those of you out there who are like me, I’ve got to warn you: this game is completionist porn. About halfway through the game I had to just stop hunting for collectibles in order to finish within the week so that I could write this poorly-constructed review about it.. but I plan to go back and get that 100% completion. Every inch of the map is covered in explorable islands and each has its share of treasure, and there are even a few god-like, legendary ships that you can take on to test your mettle. (I tried to take one down once. It didn’t go well at all.)
Overall, this game is fun as hell. The story is great, it’s beautiful, and the naval battles are some of the most intense experiences I’ve ever had playing an Assassin’s Creed game. The parts of the game where you’re, you know, trying to be an Assassin are much less well-done than in the last game, however. That aside, I’d say Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is definitely worth a play through. Loose all sails!