The Assassin’s Creed franchise has become victim to repetitiveness on an annual basis, and many view it on the same level as Call of Duty. As the yearly titles roll out, many wonder if AC has lost its edge, and has fallen into the trap that annual franchises do. But that is just not the case with Black Flag, as Ubisoft delivers another astonishing addition to the AC universe. A mix of what made the original games great and the modern style of Assassin’s Creed III combine to help make AC IV one of the best games you’ll play this year.
Black Flag dumps you into the Golden Age of piracy, in the shoes of Edward Kenway, last year’s assassin Connor’s grandfather. You work as a privateer in the Caribbean, plundering ships and taking control of islands. You’ll find yourself in the company of other notorious pirates, with the likes of Blackbear, Charles Vane, and Calico Jack. Assassin’s Creed titles have always had two parallel story lines, one set in the past and one in the present. While the last game ended Desmond’s storyline, AC IV still features a modern day setting, in which you play as an intern at Abstergo Industries. These modern missions are a fun break from all the pirating you’ll be doing, and are quite a neat diversion.
The story of Assassin’s Creed IV won’t blow you away by any means. It’s more of an excuse to go and do some badass pirate stuff. There’s no problem with this, but I would have liked some more interesting supporting characters. Edward Kenway is great, however, as the central protagonist. While not as suave as Ezio, but not as dull as Connor, Edward has a charm of all his own, and is quite the jokester. You’ll quickly grow to love him and the world of the Caribbean within a few hours.
Ubisoft takes the excellent pirate gameplay from AC III, and expands that to a full-blown open world adventure in the Caribbean. Black Flag’s map is massive. The scale is impressive. Countless islands litter the map just waiting to be explored, and you’re free to do whatever the hell you like, even avoiding the main storyline as necessary. While in some games, this kind of freedom can be a hindrance, I didn’t feel that way in Black Flag. All of the side activities, from harpooning whales to assassinating targets, feels fun and unique, and doesn’t detract from the main story missions. There are possibly more side activities here than in GTA V, and these are even more fun and rewarding.
When you’re not invading fortresses, synchronizing viewpoints, or hunting animals, you’ll be sailing in the Caribbean aboard your own ship, the Jackdaw. The ship controls are excellent, and the weapons and upgrades you can equip add quite a bit of strategy and complexity to the game. When you attack a neighboring ship, you can choose to sink it to the depths or climb aboard for some plunder. A spyglass can be used to identify enemy ships and see if they contain anything worth taking. You’ll come away with some awesome rewards, that can be used to upgrade your ship. You can add new cannons, upgrade the hulls, set up a new sail, and the entire experience feels personal and fun.
That’s not to say you’ll be spending your entire time out exploring the open sea, however. You’ll also explore island villages and big sea ports like Kingston. Dense jungles also populate the region, allowing for some fun stealth sequences as you make your way through these beautiful rain forests. The main hub city, Havana, is gorgeous, full of crew members to recruit and shops to visit. The city is more detailed than AC III’s Boston, and more fun to explore using AC’s signature free running system. Even more upgraded from AC III, the free running allows Edward to perform parkour jumps and climb things like an animal. You’ll be spending quite a bit of time on the rooftops and in trees, so free running is an essential part of the experience. Sometimes it doesn’t work as well as you’d like, however, leading to some frustration as occasionally you’ll make a jump you didn’t mean to, and then get spotted by guards, ruining your entire plan. AC III was also plagued with these problems, and they are still aplenty in Black Flag, which is a shame.
The combat in Black Flag remains largely unchanged from the previous title. You can counter, disarm, and break enemy’s defenses. The enemy types you encounter mimic those that you found in AC III. There is still little variation in the combat system, unfortunately. The weapons you can use still feel fun though. You can buy new scabbards and rapiers, increasing the damage dealt, and you can also wield a wide variety of pistols. The pistols are seamlessly interjected into the combat, as you’ll be pulling off double kills and using your dual-wield pistols to great effect, chaining together spectacular kills worthy of the slow-motion finish. Stealth is also a big part of Black Flag, even more so than in previous games. You can still stalk enemies from above, eliminate them from haystacks, and silently pull them from ledges. Sometimes you’ll even need to be stealthy while aboard your ship, as you tail enemy ships in order to find out where they are headed. These missions became frustrating, as sometimes you’ll become engaged in combat with other ships, and have to restart the mission. The constant stalking missions became tiresome after a while, and some more varied mission structure would have been much appreciated.
Assassin’s Creed Black Flag is gorgeous, and made to be played on next gen systems. I played on the PS3, and the game still looked stunning. From the beautiful open sea, to the populous cities, there is no shortage of eye candy in Black Flag. Characters on the whole look solid, and the universe is very well detailed. However, at a price for such beauty are the occasional graphical glitches and texture issues. The draw distance is limited, adding some strange pop-ins when islands appear out of thin air. Cutscenes are also a mess, as character’s voices don’t match up with their lips, and the cutscenes feel more like loading screens as they are poorly rendered and look unpolished. This is a shame really. A few extra months of work would have made the game even more beautiful, but it still is an visually enjoyable experience all around. The soundtrack is great, featuring high-adventure songs reminiscent of Pirates of the Caribbean. Your crew even sings a variety of sea shanties while you sail, and these are a lot of fun.
Assassin’s Creed Black Flag is everything you would have hoped for out of a pirate game. From the expansive world map to the massive number of diversions to take part in, you’ll have no shortage of activities to do in the Caribbean. Beautiful visuals carry frequent visual glitches, and the missions still need a bit more of polish, but on the whole, Black Flag is another great addition to the Assassin’s Creed franchise.
Overall: 8.8 out of 10.0