As some context, I’m a huge fan of the Assassin’s Creed franchise. Playing the original game was an experience I’ll never forget and each installment adds new and interesting mechanics. I enjoyed Assassin’s Creed 3 (review here) but the hype for Black Flag was off the charts.
Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag takes place in the Caribbean and you play as pirate Edward Kenway, grandfather to Connor from AC3. I played this game for the Playstation 3. The game mostly revolves around navigating your ship (the Jack Daw) throughout the Caribbean, sometimes venturing into Florida and even Africa. Edward is an interesting addition to this world because he kind of stumbles into the assassin’s world, he spends a good portion of the game only pretending to be an assassin in an effort to make money. He’s a charismatic and likeable character but has plenty of interesting flaws that make him a complicated hero.
In addition the main quests, you’re able to travel the world freely, hunt land animals for their skins, harpoon whales and sharks for meat, and collect Mayan artifacts, which can be traded in for a pretty awesome costume.
While the memory of playing the original Assassin’s Creed will forever stick with me, this might be the most polished game in the series. It has great assassination quests, that force you to think strategically about how you approach a situation. The optional quests are also impressive though, including meeting with assassins from all over the world and helping to right a wrong that Edward inadvertently caused. And even just hunting rare animals or attempting to best a great white shark are rewarding when you manage to win the battle.
The gameplay only adds to the experience, keeping the same tree-running mechanics from AC3 but also taking a few cues from the Ezio games in the series, such as the sleep and berserk darts. The berserk dart is my absolute favorite, as it is stealthy and makes your enemies attack everyone around them, giving you a perfect chance to either sneak past or clean up whoever survives. The combat system is a perfect balance, adding some mechanics that make it much more difficult to handle a large crowd (which in earlier games felt a little too easy).
And then there’s your ship: the Jack Daw, the proclaimed “second protagonist” of the game (so says developer Ubisoft). You upgrade the ship just as you can upgrade Edward and you spend a huge amount of time behind the wheel. The game is incredible in the fact that it’s a seamless transition from ship to land, so you can literally pull up to an island and dive into the water and run onto the beach. Only the biggest cities have load times, everything else is seamless. And the combat involving the Jack Daw is addictive. You can use your spyglass to look at ships in the distance and see what sort of cargo they’re carrying and then you can go pillage and plunder the ship in question. You have an impressive armory with all sorts of different tactics you can employ to take out the other ships and these battles are some of the highlights of the game for me.
And when you take down the ship, you can then board it and finish off the crew face-to-face. When you defeat enough of them, they all fall to their knees and beg for mercy, as your crowd starts cheering for you. It’s exhilarating.
Let’s talk visuals. It may not look as great as the next-generation console versions but this definitely pushes the limits of what current-gen games can do. The water effects are stellar. Having to traverse a hurricane in your ship while simultaneously fighting a crew of enemy ships… It’s spectacular and it looks amazing.
What doesn’t work?
The Assassin’s Creed games have always had one problem. Their freerunning mechanic is so good that you notice when things don’t work. This game had a surprising amount of moments that I got taken out of the game because of weird freerunning problems. For example, the camera doesn’t swing the right way and you don’t see the ledge you’re supposed to jump to or maybe you want to run up the wall but you end up sitting on a bench instead, causing you to lose the man you were chasing. It’s forgivable though because how often it works perfectly.
There’s also always been a weird contrast between the past and current-day storylines. Desmond (the hero from the past games) is gone and our new nameless hero(ine?) has a weird new storyline. It’s much more brief than Desmond’s, which is a relief, but it is still jarring and ultimately unnecessary. The game could have opened with a cinematic that sets that tone without interrupting the game. Or they could replace these scenes with multiple small cinematics. In AC4, you really only walk from your desk to another desk, it could have easily been made into an engaging video series that we could sit back and enjoy.
I clocked in about 20 hours with Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag, doing all of the main missions and a pretty solid amount of optional ones. Every minute I played, I was engrossed in this world. There aren’t many pirate video games to compare this to, but this seems like the definitive version. Stunning visually, engaging gameplay, and a world that makes you feel like you’re really sailing the seas of the Caribbean. Absolutely breathtaking and a monument in fine game design.