Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag brings the eighth main Assassin's Creed game into the pirate era, creating a swashbuckling adventure that spans a massive fascinating Caribbean world. The sense of adventure, discovery, and debauchery produces a stark contrast to the bland, quiet atmosphere embodied in Connor's Assassin's Creed III and builds an unmissable experience that everyone should play.
The star of Black Flag is British pirate Edward Kenway, father of Haytham Kenway and grandfather of Assassin's Creed III protagonist Connor. The story in the game mostly revolves around your everyday pirate adventures, plundering ships, getting revenge on enemies and getting as much gold as possible. This is where Black Flag differs from the previous games in the franchise. Edward Kenway is not an Assassin, and he isn't a Templar either. He is just a normal pirate who becomes embroiled in the war between the two factions. This lack of allegiance creates a new and interesting perspective on the centuries old battle, providing insight from both sides of the war and gives the character more freedom from doing his Assassin duties like in the earlier games.
If you've come for a pirate adventure then Black Flag is exactly what you want. Sailing the stormy seas in chase of a valuable man-of-war while making deals with Blackbeard is truly exhilarating. However, it is when the traditional Assassin's Creed tropes appear where the game falters. Kenway's eventual search for 'The Observatory', an ancient device left over by the precursor race, gives the game an identity crisis. It quickly becomes clear that the game's dullest moments are when you are forced to take missions involving the sci-fi sections of the series rather than the new, primary focus of Black Flag.
Although the traditional Assassin's Creed elements are disappointing in Black Flag, there is one part that is fantastic and breaks the fourth wall of the series. Throughout the game you play as a person in the present day who starts working for Abstergo Entertainment. The idea here is that you are using the animus to play as Edward Kenway in order to create a game for Abstergo Entertainment and Ubisoft to release together. This is an amazing premise and I can hardly believe that they actually went with that route. The disappointing thing is that these present day parts of you working at Abstergo are very few and far between, which is a shame because it provides some of the most interesting portions of Black Flag.
If you are familiar with the previous Assassin's Creeds then you will not be surprised with how Black Flag plays. The combat is basically the same with most familiar weapons returning to the game. Most of the land missions revolve around either assassinating someone or tailing a target. The tailing sections rapidly become the most infuriating and annoying missions of all. In these missions you cannot be detected at all which means you must go from cover to cover, hiding in haystacks and bushes whilst following your target. However, if you are detected then you must start from the beginning. These missions require a lot of patience and time that the rest of the game doesn't necessitate, leading to me having to restart one mission over ten times.
Although these parts are frustrating, the general combat feels fantastic and fluid. Stealthily clearing an area without raising the alarm is very rewarding and the assassination at the end provides a satisfying finale to most missions. In addition to the fantastic combat, another focus of Black Flag is the ship gameplay. Since Black Flag is truly an massive open world, you need to use Kenway's ship the Jackdaw to get around. The ship combat is an extension of the naval battles in Assassin's Creed 3 and provides some amazing moments in Black Flag. Your ship is fully upgradable with better weapons and upgrades such as better ram power and hull strength. Boarding other ships for resources becomes a huge part of the game and is almost required in order to upgrade your ship's health for some of the later, more difficult naval missions.
The world of Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag is absolutely massive, spanning hundreds of Caribbean islands. Fortunately because the world is so big, you are able to fast travel to places you have previously explored. This is necessary as otherwise it would take a long time to sail to each destination. However, that is an option for those who wish to do so.
Although the world is huge, there are only three main cities in the game. These are relatively small compared to the cities in previous games, but since almost half of the focus on the game is at sea then this does not matter as much. If you are a fan of collectables and side missions then you will not be disappointed by Black Flag. There is seemingly endless things to collect and missions to do, from diving underground for treasure to even harpooning whales around the map. Most of the time you will ignore these things on the way to your next mission but it is always nice to have something to do if you feel like mixing it up for a while.
In the present day at Abstergo you are free to wonder the offices and explore the area. There is not much to do but it is a pleasant diversion from sailing the high seas. Eventually you can hack the other computers in the office, which provides additional back story to the game and Abstergo. While these are interesting, they are mostly not worth doing unless you are a completionist or extremely interested in the story.
Graphically the game looks fantastic. Even though I played on the current 360 version, I thought the game looked great. The detail in each city is amazing and they feel more vibrant and alive than ever before. The streets seem busier and this makes the cities more interesting than in Assassin's Creed III where the areas felt empty and shallow. Fighting a massive naval battle in the middle of a storm looks phenomenal and it's only going to look better on the PS4 and Xbox One. If you are on the fence about whether to wait until the next-gen version I would say that it is not worth the wait. The game still looks and plays fantastic and after my time with the PS4 version, I must say that the difference is minimal. The water and foliage does look better on the next-gen compared to current gen, but that doesn't make the month wait worth it. The story mode took me just over 13 hours to complete although with all the side missions and exploration the game is easily a 20+ hour experience.
The multiplayer in the game is mostly the same as the previous version. If you have been a fan of this in the past then you know what to expect. Disappointingly there is not a naval battle online mode. This would have been amazing as the naval battles are the most interesting part of Black Flag. Having a huge naval fight would have created some epic moments and it is a massive shame that this is not here. Hopefully the next game in the franchise will have naval battles, assuming it is even set in an appropriate time period at all.
Overall, I believe that Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag is a fantastic game. The naval battles and exploration bring freshness to a series that was stagnating. The new pirate setting breathes life into a story that was quickly becoming dull and repetitive. The combat is also as satisfying as ever. Unfortunately some missions are needlessly frustrating and wearisome, but altogether the brilliant highs greatly out weight the occasional lows. Black Flag begins a new era for the Assassin's Creed franchise, one that focuses on exhilarating gameplay rather than the series' cumbersome storyline.
This review was based on the Xbox 360 version of Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag.