Annual franchise games rarely offer much of a surprise or a truly impressive leap forward from the year before. An extra year of development between installments might fix a glitchy component or add a new mechanic, but it’s hardly enough time to produce a massive, character focused narrative with refined gameplay and a rich, compelling world. Yet Ubisoft has managed to fix many of the issues I felt created a poor experience with Assassin’s Creed III. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag still has its shortcomings, but very clearly steers the series away from a rocky shore and avoids another catastrophe in spectacular fashion.
Gone now, is Desmond and his plight with the First Civilization. Also removed is Connor, the dull protagonist from Assassin’s Creed 3. Instead, Black Flag begins the tale of Edward Kenway, a brash, young pirate with a dream of making a fortune to prove his estranged wife and family wrong, who unknowingly steps into the secret world of Templars and Assassins by masquerading as an assassin who had planned to defect to the Templars. This masquerade acts as a nice “breaking the fourth wall” conceit as many fans of the franchise see the implications of playing for either side, while Kenway himself has no idea what he is in for. The rest of the story unfolds as Kenway attempts to beat the Templars to seeking their goal (an ancient ruin named the Observatory) with the intent of getting to it first and utilizing it to gain a fortune for his wife. Along the way Kenway realizes that his personal choices and goals are minuscule when compared to the larger battle between the Templars and Assassins. The latter half of the game deals with his struggle to choose personal gain over helping mankind.
While Assassin’s Creed 3 had a collection of side missions in which Connor captained a ship and engaged in various sea battles, Black Flag, set in the Caribbean during the Golden Age of Piracy, appropriately focuses a larger part of gameplay on open-ocean navigation and the type of encounters expected of a swashbuckling assassin. Kenway’s ship, the Jackdaw, provides a way to not only traverse the region, but also allows for a variety of missions, such as combat, stealth, and even escort. The Jackdaw has several means of attack and defense which all can be upgraded over the course of the game using collected treasure and the necessary materials. These materials are collected from naval battles, so there is plenty of incentive to engage in combat in order to increase the number and power of guns the Jackdaw possesses. Naval combat can be a total blast when an encounter includes several ships at once. Maneuvering the Jackdaw so that thecannons on either side are facing the enemy ships, while using the swivel cannon to destroy fire barrels (basically floating land mines) or strategically taking out ships from a distance with a mortar, Black Flag makes sea battles feel completely empowering and fun.
Once an enemy ship has been defeated, a choice can be made to board the ship or sink it. Sinking a ship will provide half of the amount of cargo being stored whereas boarding offers the full amount, plus some additional options. Upon boarding a ship, the crew and captain must be defeated and things like powder kegs or the ship’s flags must be destroyed. A benefit of boarding an enemy vessel is the ability to repair the Jackdaw, or reduce notoriety, or send the ship to Kenway’s Fleet (a mini-game I’ll get to in a bit). During major skirmishes (with multiple ships), boarding a ship in order to repair the Jackdaw almost feels like cheating, but it can also mean the difference between survival and loading from the last saved checkpoint.
Combat during boarding is complete chaos. Crew from both sides fill the deck of the ship and it is a miracle that Kenway doesn’t slaughter more of his own crew while attempting to take down the other. While combat is fun, there is almost too much of a wash, rinse, repeat gameplay cycle to sailing around the region and causing havoc, especially if played for a long period of time. That being said, the combat encountered on the ship is also the same on land. Several enemies require a “break defense” move which starts an animation where Kenway will cause an enemy to stumble forward and allow their back to be open. Most of the time this allows for a quick kill; however, when there is a large group of enemies all surrounding Kenway, there is more likely a chance that another enemy will step in and interrupt Kenway’s attack. Sometimes these interruptions can be countered, but often this just forces Kenway to attack another enemy instead of dispatching the first one. There is a combo system which will kick in, but the game doesn’t do a very good job of teaching it. More often, on-foot melee combat feels like a button mashing affair rather than a refined, skill-based encounter.
While the Assassin’s Creed series has always relied on the signature hidden blades as part of the iconography, they provide very little benefit during combat. Rapiers, muskets, and blow darts are a much more effective tools of death in Kenway’s arsenal. Blow darts offer two flavors of attack–sleep and berserk–where sleep darts temporarily knock a target out and berserk darts put a target into a rage, causing the enemy to attack any and all nearby. Both are effective means of thinning out groups of enemies while remaining hidden in shrubs. Muskets offer a quick and deadly (albeit noisy) means of disposing of enemies, but have a much slower reload rate.
Even though combat can feel too easy, there are other returning core franchise elements that provide a boost in challenge as well as frustration. Throughout the game, a mission may require Kenway to eavesdrop unseen by enemies. While the actual act of eavesdropping is done by simply standing within a radius of the conversation, the conversation is usually held in an area that raises immediate suspicion or alert if Kenway is seen. I can’t begin to say how frustrating it is to play through large sections of the game without any problems, only to be stonewalled by one brief interaction that causes an immediate fail state. Playing through a section multiple times to learn where to step, jump, and hide all at the exact moment is not nearly as fun as the rest of the game.
As with the previous titles, Black Flag still relies on parkour as a means of traversal through the cities and smaller towns populating the coastal regions. Adding to the mix, however, is a series of underwater sunken ships. Instead of grand parkour puzzles, Kenway must carefully swim through shark infested ship wrecks and avoid jellyfish, barracudas, and spiky sea anemones on the hunt for buried booty. More often than not, these shipwrecks provide very little in the form of reward, but offer a nice change of pace from stealth stalking on land and naval warfare.
Sailing around the region also highlights various treasure chests and Animus shards dropped randomly on small islands. Collecting these can feel a bit tedious at times, but to help break up the monotony, the crew of the Jackdaw will sing shanties, which Kenway can find floating about in many of the well-populated towns and cities. Not only is sailing around looking for scattered treasure a visual treat, but hearing the different stories told in the shanties is an experience not found in any other game. My only wish is that the shanty selection didn’t always seem to play out in the order they were collected.
Other mini-games and distractions abound in Black Flag, beyond the sunken ships and hunt for treasure. At many ports, there are board games to be played when visiting taverns. Wildlife can also be hunted and skinned to obtain the necessary materials to craft upgrades for Kenway’s outfit and bolster his gear pouches. Various sea life can also be hunted. While the whaling interludes initially felt a bit strange, there is nothing more exhilarating than controlling Kenway as he stands in a small dingy holding only a harpoon while attempting to take on enormous whales and killer sharks.
Another side activity that has captured my fancy is Kenway’s Fleet. This is a gem of a mini-game similar to the Assassin apprentice games in the previous titles. However, in Kenway’s Fleet, you manage ships traveling to various locations along the Atlantic coast on both sides of the western and eastern hemisphere. These ships carry trade goods which are collected during the combat phase of clearing out the path of these trade routes. Some trade routes require bigger cargo holds which translates to capturing larger vessels. Once a trade mission is started, friends can repair or speed up your trade vessels. The best part of this mini-game is how it can be played via the mobile app (available in both iOS and Android). The app also provides a way to review all of the data unlocked in the Animus, view treasure maps, and see in real time where Kenway’s ship is (when the console game is being played, of course). One other cool feature is the ability to listen to the sea shanties sung by the crew of the Jackdaw.
As with any major title these days, Black Flag does include a multiplayer mode. While I’m not the biggest fan of competitive multiplayer, I do have a bit of a soft spot for the way in which the Assassin’s Creed franchise handles multiplayer. Instead of rushing to kill, reward is given to the slow, meticulous stalkers. Playing the various modes is fun, but I just wish that the Abstergo storyline provided as a means to entice deep progression was somehow layered into the single player campaign instead.
Overall, I can’t say enough good things about Black Flag. While there are some frustrating moments scattered throughout, the good heavily outweighs the bad. Black Flag offers a wide range of activities to keep players busy when not wanting to attend to the next major story point, and does so with a great level of polish and care, something that could not be said of its predecessor. While there are some potential hints as to where the next chapter of the franchise may head, I’m perfectly happy with the way Kenway’s story wrapped up and I hope that the next chapter doesn’t get mired in needing to rehash everything that has been perfected in this game. Even if you gave up in disappointment halfway through Assassin’s Creed 3, Black Flag should rekindle your passion for the franchise.
+ Empowering naval combat
+ Diverse locations and scenery
+ Tons of side missions and mini-games
+ Well rounded and complete storyline
+ Sea shanties add to the storytelling in a unique way
- Melee combat still feels a bit janky
- Some missions have overly aggressive failure points
- Collectible hunting grows dull and repetitive after a while
Platform: Reviewed on PS4, also available on PC, PS3, Wii U, Xbox 360, and Xbox One
Release Date: Current Gen – 10/29/2013, PS4 – 11/15/2013, Xbox One – 11/22/2013
Genre: Open world action/adventure
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1 (8-player competitive multiplayer)
Source: Game purchased by reviewer