What an interesting position I'm in as I once again sit down to play the latest entry in the Assassin's Creed series; it's the same position I was in upon playing Assassin's Creed III: Liberation on the Vita last year, because both games suffer and excel in similar ways for similar reasons. The only difference is that Assasin's Creed IV: Black Flag has a more vast, beautiful world, a far more interesting and charismatic lead, and a whole bunch of little things that work together to make what is possibly the most enjoyable game in the series. It may suffer in the story department – at least concerning the modern day conspiracies – but overall this is an impressive and immersive entry in the series, even if it would be better as a side story rather than the fourth mainline chapter.
Given the events at the end of the third installment of this now-yearly franchise, I wasn't exactly sure where one could go with the series. The 2012 doomsday apocalypse came to a head, Desmond's story concluded, and almost everything tied together quite nicely, even if that perceived end was a little disappointing. Ubisoft's solution is that, much like Liberation, you play as a faceless, nameless Abstergo employee who is going through the ancestral memories of our protagonist, only this time your purpose is to capture footage so that Abstergo Entertainment can edit and make movies or games out of it. In a strange meta-narrative, one of the games that Abstergo has created (with help from Ubisoft, according to in-game email exchanges) is Assassin's Creed III: Liberation - the same game that came out last year on the Vita. According to canon, that game, which exists in the real world, was made using in-world Abstergo Entertainment technology and developed by the same company that actually created it. It boggles the mind no doubt, but it's quite amusing.
Interestingly enough, some of the details of Liberation which are revealed in Black Flag make Liberation seem more interesting. Evidently, the trick ending at the end of Liberation was just Abstergo twisting the facts to make Templars look good, while the 'real' ending was hacked and unlocked by you, the player, as you did (or did not) unlock the true ending where Aveline joined the assassins. However, since Black Flag follows many of the same narrative structures as Liberation, it also suffers many of the same issues with plot and story. Most notably, Black Flag's story is rather light on urgency and does little to advance the franchise's over-arching plotline involving the apocalypse and the civilization which came before. In fact, the modern world Abstergo stuff is so inconsequential that, like Liberation, they might as well have taken it out if not for the clever meta-narrative and hints towards future entries that it contains.
However, once you boot up the animus and go back to 1716, into the head of Edward Kenway, all of those issues are alleviated. Much to my delight, Edward Kenway is a fun, smart, charismatic leading man, and his plight is an enjoyable journey from beginning to end. On a scale of Connor to Ezio in terms of charisma, Edward is up there with the best of them, even if he's not quite as memorable as Ezio. The people he meets are enigmatic, fun, and all have their own role in the story, especially Blackbeard, the legendary pirate of the Caribbean. In his most memorable moment, he takes the time to practice his most menacing scowl - complete with burning tips – on Edward, only to be disappointed that Edward wasn't quite scared enough.
Worry not, my readers, for Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag has an amazing story, just not a very important one. Edward has an interesting character arch, there are some real emotive moments, and a few twists that I didn't see coming (most peculiar is that Edward isn't even an assassin; he's just a pirate that got in a tussle with an assassin, eventually winning out and stealing this assassin's identity so that he can make the money the assassin was contracted to make). In the end, he really is only in it for the booty, even if that greed is put to the test.
Luckily for gamers worldwide, pirating and assassinations seem to go hand in hand, since Black Flag has what is easily the best gameplay yet seen in the series, mashing together many of the best elements from all the previous games as well as its own set of original material. Much of your time will be spent tracking ships, looting caravans, and generally pirating and plundering the seas. Remember how the homestead management missions in III were fairly lackluster, but II and Brotherhood both had fantastic world building and expansion options? Same deal here - customization is key in Black Flag, from personal weapons and holsters to your ship and fleet. Combat is as fluid as it ever has been and the combination of swordplay and gunplay is the perfect way to play as a pirate. What I'm trying to say is that the building-scaling gameplay and ship-plundering go hand-in-hand. Climbing the mast to jump or swing from one ship to the next is the perfect pairing of eras and gameplay, and outside of playing as a ninja in shogunate Japan, I can't imagine a better blend of genres. It's almost a shame Edward spends most of the game caring only about his plunder, rather than the plight of the assassins.
To be honest, I just couldn't stop sailing around; the draw of the open sea was just too great for me to say no to. I wanted to get the review done in good time, but every time I turned around, there was another island to explore or hidden event to check out. I know a lot of people will complain about the amount of time you will spend just sailing from one destination to another with only the sound of your crew singing one of the few dozen songs that they learn (found as floating song pages in the cities), but I loved it. The sailing, the singing, and the constantly changing weather gives Assassin's Creed IV an atmosphere that's easy to get lost in. Sailing into danger only to have a thick fog blanket the sea upon your arrival is an omen that's hard to shake despite the fact that few dangers truly pose a threat.
On the flipside, attacking one of the game's many forts during an intense, tornado riddled storm is one of the most challenging obstacles to overcome on the seas. You will believe that it truly is 'any port in a storm'. Luckily, there are literally dozens of possible upgrades to be had. You can upgrade your armor, various weapons, increase storage space, improve your crew's quarters, and change your ship's appearance. You can also customize and improve your home base, giving yourself benefits like free 'dancers' and pirates to distract enemies in the game's many cities and villages throughout your quest. There's always plunder to be had and rewards to chase, which is key in any game as long or as vast as this.
While sailing, you can take over forts, plunder enemy ships, go whaling (an act that, even though historically accurate, still put me at unease), hunt, find new locations, explore the dozens of towns and locations, take on assassination and naval contracts, fight the four legendary ships, go searching sunken ships via a diving bell, solve the mystery of the Mayan statues, and find maps that lead to buried treasure. Every time you turn around, something is distracting you to the point where I felt it may be time to put all my peripheral exploration on hold in lieu of completing the game so I could get my review done in time. There was a brief moment where I felt like maybe there was too much to do, but then I remembered that most of this stuff is completely optional, but totally recommended – especially finding and solving every Mayan statue. Seriously, find those statues, the reward is worth it!
The single player material on its own would be sufficient, but Ubisoft has included additional material unlocked via Uplay passports (which have since been discontinued), like the multiplayer that is, like many other elements, at the top of its game, and the confusing 'Kenway's fleet' mini-game that lets you opt to send captured/plundered ships on missions around the Caribbean for cash and prizes. There's also a PlayStation exclusive mini-campaign centred on, lo and behold, Assassin's Creed III: Liberation's heroine, Aveline, which lasts about an hour. Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag may not quite match the sheer volume of content seen in games like The Elder Scrolls, Fallout, and Grand Theft Auto, but the variety and quality of said content is exactly the kind of package that could keep you busy for months.
My chief complaint, beside the story's aforementioned lack of influence on the grander scale of things, is that the game is slightly hindered by performance issues. When I first booted the game up, textures, shadows, and animations all looked terrible. The game looked absolutely hideous, but like a shy teen coming out of its shell as the hours went by the performance improved, and Black Flag showed its true colors, and became beautiful. The lush landscape is pretty to look at, the world is huge, the subtleties in animation helped make the characters pop, and I feel the character and costume designs are unparalleled in all of gaming.
The architecture and cities may not be as impressive as they were in the Ezio trilogy, but the sheer scope and natural beauty that abounds is more than enough to make up for that. While it is disappointing to discover that not every island or location is able to be explored, it's still a truly huge world, and the only loading screens are those you get upon initial boot up and when utilizing the much-needed fast travel system that lets you jump between locations and synched viewpoints. The audio is also top notch, as well, with spot-on voice acting and some truly epic score pieces.
Due to the huge amount of things to do and how fun the pirating gameplay is, I'd be happy to call this the best in the series if only the story were better. As it stands, Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag could have done without the title of IV and instead been a side game like Liberation, since that's how it feels. Regardless, Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag is worth every cent of its retail price, even more so now that Ubisoft has dropped online passports. I can't wait to play this on the PlayStation 4, where the few performance issues will hopefully be absent and the game will look even prettier.
This review is based on a retail copy of Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag for the PS3