With the conclusion of Assassin’s Creed III seemingly tying up all possible loose ends, the reveal of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag was always going to conjure up new questions. Just how can Ubisoft continue the narrative without the 2012 timeline? Would the new protagonist link nicely to Desmond’s ancestral line? Where does the events of Assassins Creed III: Liberation fall into this? The wait to set sail with pirates is now over, but should it be put into the brig until it’s sober?
A Pirate’s Life Was Meant For Me…
In terms of how Ubisoft have gotten around the 2012 timeline, we’ll leave that to you to discover for yourself, but our pirate fable begins as pirates attempt to raid a large ship carrying cargo, when Edward Conway is washed overboard. Flashbacks about his life reveal how he came to the Caribbean to seek his fortune as a privateer, but his long-suffering wife was reluctant for him to leave. He is washed up on shore with a mysterious hooded man, who he kills in cold blood, only to discover that he is part of a conspiracy involving defection from the order of Assassins and an unfamiliar object. Deciding to loot the now dead defector, he dons the cowl and ventures to Havana to seek his fortune.
Some might say that the plot is a classic pirates tale of deceit mixed with the general Assassin’s Creed flair and they’d be completely right. Edward Kenway is a scallywag and a scoundrel, but he is a rather fun rogue all the same. Notable historical figures such as Blackbeard are woven into the plot elegantly, with the world building of particular note for incredible immersion.
The problems however, lie in that the beginning section still feels slow, while the Templar/Assassin conspiracy is underplayed compared to the pirate sections, only really surfacing in the last act. On the whole the narrative comes across as slightly disjointed, with some sections more dramatic than most. There are plenty of interesting self-contained side missions to partake for a bit of coin as well, so you always have the option to deviate from the plot.
Combat on land sees only minor changes to the established formula this time around, such as the ability to shoot with both barrels of your dual wielding pistols, making you feel like a swashbuckling pirate as well as an assassin. It is naval battles though that feel like they have seen the biggest change. Not only can you use your spyglass to see what other ships have in terms of cargo to plunder, but when you board their ships to defeat remaining stragglers, you can decide what to do with the ship.
Maybe they should be part of your fleet? Maybe you should let them go in exchange for reduced notoriety? Maybe you need to repair your ship and just want to rip their ship apart to do so? It is completely up to you as to the fate of their ship and that is an immensely satisfying amount of freedom. It makes you feel like a pirate, along with all the ruthlessness that comes with it.
However, start picking things apart and you’ll discover that there isn’t a lot that is really new here in terms of the core gameplay. Some side missions are different in nature, while the combat and free running are largely refined compared to Assassin’s Creed III. In a way, it makes sense for Ubisoft to flesh out the most exciting addition to the previous title, so this isn’t a huge loss unless you didn’t get on with the combat in Assassin’s Creed III.
What shall we do with the drunken sailor?
The towns and regions look incredible and certainly fit with the times, but where Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag feels most pirate-like is when you’re sailing the large expansive ocean, that for the first time in the series marks a truly open world with little transition. One minute you could be gunning down a Spanish vessel for booty, the next you could be hunting whales in the ocean, and the next you could be swigging rum in a tavern in a civilised town.
There are still some animus walls that restrict where you can go at any given time, so are only a nuisance when you’re being swept away a storm or fleeing from a gargantuan man-o-war or trying to get to a sunken ship.
Buried Treasure Cap’n!
Like any other Assassin’s Creed title, there are a bunch of collectables such as hidden fragments and loot in treasure chests, but others like Shanty song sheets can be used to teach your crew new sea shanties. In fact that is perhaps one of the games greatest strengths – the little details. Sailing across the seven seas normally would soon become a bit laborious, but when your crew are singing authentic sea shanties of the era, the time spent on water just nicely trickles away.
Authenticity has always been a strong point in favour of Assassin’s Creed in the past, but it hits the nail on the head here. Of particular note are the underwater sections and hunting, where nature suddenly becomes utterly terrifying, especially the sharks! Hunting whales, while authentic to the times, feels like a bit of a copout however as it is just throwing harpoons until they die or your boat sinks.
Incidentally, the motives for hunting are far clearer thanks to Ubisoft borrowing the crafting system from Far Cry 3, meaning that you will actively seek rare animals to slay in order to turn their hides into new gear. Other stuff includes hidden manuscripts and in the present day there are also other tasks you can do that help flesh out the experience, but serve little purpose other than as general collectables. With so much to do and a lengthy campaign, you’re bound to be playing for a good while.
A glitch in the system?
If there is one thing about the current-gen versions of Assassin’s Creed IV is that they’re showing the consoles age in terms of rendering power. Nothing is particularly game breaking, but there were isolated incidents where NPCs fly off, enemies don’t show up on the radar and don’t react to you, and not being able to scale seemingly climb able ledges. Perhaps the next-generation versions will have more polish, but certainly for now the cracks are beginning to show.
Assemble your crew
Multiplayer also sees very little in the way of updates. With both the cooperative mode Wolfpack and competitive domination and Wanted make a return, but aside from a brand new tutorial to get new players up to speed, the mode feels more like a footnote than a noteworthy addition. New maps and pirate inspired weapons are sure to please those who play, but it is difficult to see any substantial upgrades.
There is also an online only mode that appears in single player that acts in a similar fashion to Brotherhood’s assassin recruitment missions, only with vessels you’ve drafted into your fleet. These will do various tasks such as plundering towns or attacking enemy ships. It is certainly an interesting diversion, but with new ships easily captured and new captains appointed, it doesn’t have quite the same investment as the Assassins mode did.
By pandering to the notion that pirates are now cool, Ubisoft have made the series feel a lot less stagnant with Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. The times where you actually feel like a pirate are by far the most enjoyable, plundering ships for booty or drinking rum with busty bar wenches caters to the fantasy, while the truth about just how horrid pirates were is still present in the narrative.
Sure, multiplayer doesn’t do much new and the whole game loses some of the Assassin’s Creed tropes along the way by focusing more on pirates, but it is still a thoroughly enjoyable and huge stealth action-adventure all the same, as it seems pirates and assassins are a great match. “Nothing is true, everything is permitted”, especially for pirates!