Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag Review: A pirate's life is a life for me
The war waged between the Assassins and Templars is far from over. After saving the world in Assassin's Creed III, players must now step into the head of a new modern day protagonist and take on the Animus simulation once more, this time as Haytham Kenway's father, Edward.
Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag puts pirates in the spotlight, which for the series is a much welcome change. It's no Feudal Japan (come on Ubisoft!) but exploring the Caribbean with a crew of scurvy pirates and navigating treacherous waters on my trusty ship was one of the most exhilarating moments I've had in the series thus far.
Weigh anchor and hoist the mizzen!
An ocean of exploration
The Assassin’s Creed series has constantly tried to outdo itself through each iteration, adding a sprawling world filled with a civilization that lives within its confines. Ubisoft has managed to once again completely outdo themselves with a relatively large recreation of the West Indies.
The ocean is vast and filled with the unknown, pushing players to fly their sails high and sail out into the unknown. Your map starts out littered with question marks, begging to be explored, just to see what treasures lie ahead. Of course, it wouldn’t be a pirate game if the open seas weren’t lined with ships waiting to be plundered for their spoils and booty, and likewise, ships whose sole purpose is to hunt down pirates and anyone who aligns with them.
One might think that the Assassin's Creed series is built upon grand cities with giant towers to scale and rooftops to run across, and that Black Flag deviates from this formula too much. While I can’t deny that you’ll probably be doing the least amount of that here, it showcases the franchise's willingness to evolve past its series’ standards.
That’s not to say there aren’t cities that allow for Edward to stretch his legs and show off his free running prowess. Major cities like Havana are more than a big enough playground with buildings both short and tall, and with high viewpoints ready to be synchronized. The game is also littered with smaller islands and settlements. These are a welcome change and provide a rather bite sized chunk of exploration that’s easy to digest in such a small dose, and won’t wear out its welcome by the time you find all the hidden collectibles.
Edward Kenway, Pirate with a heart of gold
The father of Haytham, and grandfather of Connor, Edward is a conflicted soul, one that wishes for a simpler life with a wife that left him, while simultaneously being married to the open sea and adventure.
Without giving much away, Edward doesn’t start the game out as an Assassin or a Templar, nor is he even aware of their existence. Through a chance encounter, and possibly being at the right place at the right time, he dons the assassin’s robe and embarks on a journey to find out what these two factions are and why they’re fighting, but most of all, to find the greatest treasure they’re both seeking, and keep it for himself.
Edward is certainly one of the most interesting characters in the franchise so far, since pirates and assassins hold two very different ideals, and it’s interesting to see the development of his character over the course of the game.
Meet your close companion, the Jackdaw
Ubisoft’s Ashraf Ismael compared Kenway and Jackdaw’s relationship to both Han Solo and the Millennium Falcon and James Kirk and the USS Enterprise, and it’s easy to see why. Once Edward ‘acquires’ this ship through completely ‘legitimate’ means, the bond between captain and ship forms like no other.
This relationship also extends to the player, since the ship is your primary means of transport from island to island (aside from the much welcome Fast Travel system) and is also your main line of defense against enemy ships. Edward comes equipped with a Spyglass, which allows him to see the level of opposing ships, as well as their spoils, allowing players to decide whether it’s worth sinking a ship for its cargo.
Sailing it across the open waters while a humpback whale jumps above water and dolphins swim alongside it, or while your crew busts out into one of many sea shanties is a terrific experience whether you’re seeing it for the first time or near the end of the game.
Combat remains largely the same, but stealth kills are still preferred
The one thing that Ubisoft has seemed to refine to its limit is the combat. Rather perfect combat in Brotherhood, Black Flag doesn't change things up much. Your best bet is still the counter move, which has you waiting for the enemy to strike, and then allows you to choose their fate: kill, hurt, disarm or throw.
The kill animations are satisfying as ever. Seeing Kenway ram his hidden blades through an enemy's back, and then quickly taking them out to shove them through their skull is awesome. The only downside is that some of the animations are so damn long. Seriously, some of them last up to five seconds, which is a lot when you’re still surrounded by four other guys you need to take out.
As an assassin, you’ll still rely on hiding in the shadows, peeking out behind corners and stalking your prey through bushes. The latter is one of the best ways of clearing out a plot of enemies undetected. A quick whistle will also alert the guards to your location, ready to be unexpectedly dispatched by the quick work of your blade. It also helps that bodies are automatically hidden from sight assuming you’re already in cover or in shrubbery.
Finally, Ubisoft adds some color to the world
Past Assassin’s Creed titles weren’t exactly the most colorful bunch, which given their periods certainly made sense. However, it’s refreshing to see Black Flag’s vibrant world of the Caribbean in comparison.
The blue and green ocean, glistening as the sun hits it at the perfect angle, the lush colorful vegetation from palm trees to various shrubbery, even the bright sandy beaches sprinkled with small critters like crabs, occasionally hiding a wealth of treasure underneath it, all completely immerse you in a gorgeous and believable world.
The softer side of Pirates
Pirates of the Caribbean presented a merry cast of pirates who weren’t as terrifying as history made them out to be, and Black Flag seems to go the same route. I’ve already touched on Edward Kenway’s softer side, but even the supporting cast of pirates are softies.
One example early on is when you and your pirate cohorts shoot at and eventually board an enemy ship. One of the pirates states that no harm will come to them as long as they surrender their loot. At that point we learn that the crew doesn’t speak English except for one who barely understands it. The pirate repeats himself to him once again, only to learn that he also doesn’t understand. Now, if these were pirates that history has taught us were ruthless killers, all of these non-English speaking gentlemen would have been shot on sight. Instead, they are spared regardless. Don’t get me wrong, you’ll still hack your way through Templar’s skulls and shove your hidden blade in their necks. Just be ready to expect pirates more on the lines of Captain Jack Sparrow rather than Davy Jones.
A satisfying sense of progression
Hunting makes a return from Assassin’s Creed III, this time allowing you to craft upgrades for Edward’s gear, similarly to Far Cry 3. Each island is home to different animals in need of hunting if you ever hope to make Edward a more formidable warrior.
Hunting wild game isn’t only relegated to land, however. Using your harpoon boat, you’ll be able to hunt large fish like bull sharks, humpback whales and even the great white whale. These encounters are wildly entertaining, and require some precision aiming on your part.
The Jackdaw also has a completely separate upgrade system, requiring the use of money and resources plundered from enemy ships. This will be necessary since larger ships will require a tougher hull to withstand their damage, and harder hitting cannons. Thankfully, all of these upgrades can be done on the Jackdaw in the Captain’s quarters, meaning you won’t have to sail to port just to purchase a better set of cannons.
An odd yet intriguing modern day sequence
Desmond’s saga ended with Assassin’s Creed III. Modern Day levels now play out in first person view, allowing you to explore the workspaces in the Abstergo Entertainment offices. You’ll eventually gain access to hacking workstations that provide more insight on Subject 17 (Desmond). Scattered around the office building are various QR codes that you can scan with your handy new tablet, each containing cryptic messages. Don’t worry though, you’ll still see a few familiar faces.
Don't expect the same amount of innovation in multiplayer
Largely unchanged, the multiplayer modes add an element that is fun in relatively small doses. Since the game is so engrossing with its tale and setting, you might find yourself less interested in climbing the multiplayer ranks.
With that said, what's offered is still pretty fun, if not all that new. You'll have plenty of maps where you can pretend you're an NPC while others try to hunt you down, and if you want to be more of a team player, you can always join a few friends in the co-op centric Wolfpack mode.
Control issues are still present
If there is one issue that has persisted over each and every entry, it’s the controls. They’re not bad mind you, but they don’t always react how I want them to. For instance, pressing against a wall allows Edward to lean and peak around a corner, but sometimes he’ll pull himself up on the ledge, exposing himself to the enemy.
There are also times during free running sequences where Edward will hop to a platform I didn’t intend to jump to, or get stuck on a wall mid-run, even though he’s able to climb it. These hiccups disrupt the otherwise excellent flow of scaling buildings in high speed.
Even when climbing, Edward sometimes gets stuck on a ledge and refuses to climb further, until I stop holding up on the analog stick and resume again.
Black Flag is the whole package and then some
After a relatively disappointing trek to the times of the Revolutionary War, Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag is certainly a nice change of pace. With a heavier focus on ship exploration and combat, a giant map to explore full of cities, settlements, ancient ruins as well as loads and loads of hidden collectibles to find, your time spent in the West Indies is going to be largely enjoyable.