Ubisoft has been making good on its promise to turn the popular Assassin’s Creed series into an annual franchise and the latest entry, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, manages to deliver yet another solid adventure that blends historic fact with Animus-infused fiction. A few missteps mar the experience at times but overall Black Flag surpasses even the lofty ambition of its predecessor Assassin’s Creed III.
Unlike previous Assassin’s Creed games which followed a progressive timeline, Black Flag actually takes a step backwards from ACIII’s Revolutionary War setting and plunks players straight into the golden age of piracy. As roguish privateer-turned-Assassin Edward Kenway (grandfather to ACIII’s protagonist Connor), players must battle against the formidable Templars as they venture across the high seas of the Caribbean alongside famous pirates such as Charles Vane, Anne Bonnet, Calico Jack, and Edward Thatch a.k.a. Blackbeard.
Edward Kenway is an interesting departure from other Assassin’s Creed protagonists since, unlike Connor or Aveline or even Ezio, his chief motivation throughout most of the game is simply to get rich. Brief glimpses into his past reveal that he’s trying to provide for an estranged wife back home but sadly the large bulk of his character development doesn’t occur until the final few hours of Black Flag’s main story campaign. Fortunatly, the sheer amount of different activities and side ventures Edward and crew can partake in help to distract from his paper-thin personality.
If you’re one of those gamers who tends to buy a new game and then breeze through a large portion of it in a day or two, rest assured you won’t have that problem with Black Flag. The real genius in the game’s narrative progression is in how easy it is to get distracted with side activities while working your way through the main story. Assassination contracts, whaling, shark hunting, underwater exploration, gathering collectables such as chests and Animus fragments, random naval battles, these are just a small portion of all the activities players can partake in any time they want.
The naval elements from ACIII have been greatly expanded in Black Flag, evolving from a mere side activity into the most expansive and widespread new element Black Flag offers. Players can upgrade Edward’s ship the Jackdaw with a variety of new enhancements and weaponry by pillaging resources from enemy ships and island encampments. These upgrades in turn allow the Jackdaw to engage in tougher and tougher naval battles and are actually required in order to survive some of the game’s later story missions.
As with past Assassin’s Creed games, Black Flag features some gameplay which takes place in the modern world. However, *unlike* previous games, these segments don’t star series mainstay Desmond Miles (those who beat ACIII will understand why). This time around, players step into the role of a new employee at the fictitious Abstergo Entertainment Company (a clever Templar-run parody of Ubisoft’s Montreal studio) as they are put in charge of the “Kenway Project.” At certain intervals in the story, players can explore more and more of the virtual offices of Abstergo Entertainment and discover the sinister intentions of the studios’ parent company by hacking computers and collecting sticky notes. These activities are mostly optional so players who just want to focus on the pirating and plundering need not worry.
Even with the new historic setting, much of Black Flag’s gameplay should feel inherently familiar to those who played through ACIII. Edward can freerun, climb, eagle-dive, and air-assassinate just as well as his predecessors and the combat, while virtually identical to ACIII’s more aggressive chain-killing take, also has some added improvements like being able to free-aim with ranged weapons and break the defenses of larger foes without having to first counter their attacks. A new quick-selection menu for Edward’s various weapons and tools allows players to switch to any of their available killing methods with a quick press of the D-pad.
Despite its ambition and innovation, Black Flag does slip up at times and, unfortunately, these slip-ups are mostly gripes that we’ve seen before. While Black Flag doesn’t suffer as much from bugs and glitches as ACIII, it *does* suffer from the return of frequent and annoying “tail this person and eavesdrop on their conversation” stealth sequences that often require several retries. Also, those who were hoping to become fully immersed in the lore surrounding pirates like Blackbeard and Charles Vane will be disappointed as these famous characters don’t show up too terribly often and the sparse dialogue makes their motivations hard to follow at times.
Even without the constant presence of legendary pirate figures, it’s clear Ubisoft still wanted to maintain the social camaraderie which was inherent in pirate culture. Players who embark on Kenway’s single-player journey while connected to the internet can discover “social events” such as a treasure-laden naval convoy or a hidden chest or even a white whale sighting. Discovering these randomized events automatically “shares” the event with any other Black Flag players on the discovering player’s friends list, causing the event to show up in their single-player game as well.
Black Flag’s new pirate-themed multiplayer, which includes a revamped Wolf Pack cooperative mode, new playable characters and maps, and a new “Game Lab” feature which allows players to create and upload their own custom game modes, also helps in adding to the game’s longevity. While the core essence of the multiplayer experience remains relatively unchanged, new cosmetic tweaks and combat animations help to keep things fresh and already players have designed a number of unique new modes using the Game Lab that should keep them occupied long after they’ve beaten the single-player story.
While Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag doesn’t bring too many new gameplay-oriented features to the table and does still suffer from some of the shortcomings of previous entries, it is still yet another solid entry in the Assassin’s Creed franchise. The sheer amount of content it contains (not even counting what will eventually be added in through post-release DLC) should keep players busy for a good long while. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag may not be perfect, but it is a big step forward for the series and already I find myself excited for what comes next.
Editor’s note: This review was written for the PlayStation 3 version of the game. Stay tuned in the coming weeks for our next-gen PlayStation 4 review.