This review covers the single-player portion of the game. Multiplayer was not played for this review and has no effect on the final score.
With the wind in your sails, and the salt air in your lungs, Ubisoft takes Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag to the high seas. With the story from the last several games being wrapped up, it was nice to see a fresh take with a new atmosphere. What better place to start than with the big blue ocean?
Like other entries in the franchise, the game still forces you through a tutorial. But it only lasts about ten to fifteen minutes, then releases you on to the larger world. For players who have been around the block with this series, this is a huge sigh of relief.
From the moment you become the main protagonist Edward Kenway, you are swept up in an adventure. At first, Edward himself didn’t seem very memorable or even likable. Leaving his wife ashore in England, Edward goes to carve out a piece of the new world for himself. Thankfully, over the course of the game his story is fleshed out.
Upon encountering the Templars, their Grand Master tempts Kenway into looking for the greatest treasure, The Observatory. This device created by the ancients allows its user to locate anyone, anytime as long as they have a vial of their blood. The Templars want to use it to of course, TAKE OVER THE WORLD, while the Assassins want no one to have such control. Kenway wants it purely because it would be the most valuable thing in the world.
Although the Observatory is the long term objective, the story takes a broader look at the pirate’s world; lawless, Kingless utopia of survival of the fittest. Or in Blackbeard’s case, the Craziest.
In Assassin’s Creed you would expect to be part of this mythical organization, but Kenway isn’t even a member. He is just some bloke from England. But with his time at sea it seems he has learned all the order usually has to offer, he is a free-runner, excellent climber and insane ease at killing. By not making he a “true” member, this allows you to be a lawless pirate and rub elbows with some of the greats, James Kidd and Edward Teach aka Blackbeard.
The world is vast, with a variety of things to keep you busy. What adventures do you want to have today? Sail across the seas to rob and plunder ships, we got you covered. Or do you feel for some treasure hunting, Indiana Jones type ancient raids? Aztec ruins are a treasure that is worth searching for. And there is so much more, this tropical open world paradise is yours for the taking.
If your sea legs aren’t up to snuff, land is a pretty familiar place. Several locations some being larger than others. This gives you even more feeling to how huge the game world really is.
From the smallest rocky alcove, to the largest cities with a populous to fill it. A staple of the series, climbing is back, giving you insight of what the area has to offer. Throughout all these places, there are things to help you along in the game. Sparkling treasure chests full of booty, shipments of sugar or rum, stores, side quests such as warehouse raids, assassination missions and best of all: shanties. In open seas your crew keeps you entertained with a song or two, that you will soon be singing along with yourself.
All this can keep you busy, always moving and searching for new ways to do things. These events closely resemble the original vision of Assassin’s Creed, but are much improved over previous installments. As in the warehouse raids, you have to scan the area for the person who has the key. You can either steal it from him dead or alive, then you must make it to the door without being killed. The controls for stealth have been perfected and it makes using Eagle vision mode (a feature that lets you track your foes through walls) during these events fun and a proper challenge. Although, having a blowpipe with sleep and/or berserk darts, does take away from some of the challenge.
Speaking of the weapons, Kenway’s arsenal has been trimmed down. Your basic guns and swords are there as well as the hidden blades. Not taking away from any of the combat, you can pickup and drop weapons and wield them. In each pirate fight from boarding ships or tracking down the next kill you feel that the combat is balanced for what you have. For a while I didn’t even upgrade the swords or guns, but as I got later in game, it was a must.
There is so much to do in Black Flag, beyond the island there is a whole ocean to claim. You will be sailing the waves on you ship called the Jackdaw. Although the ocean can seem overwhelming, the mini map will be your first mate, showing all the region has to offer. Diving, whaling, convoys, you can see all this.
This isn’t all paradise, the ship itself feels like you are riding a stiff horse. Wind really has no meaning, you can still sail the direction you want even if the wind is blowing at full speed against the direction you are going. It gives no sense of real push back. You can stop on a dime, but turning is a slow fight. During sea battles, this can cause a lot of anger and frustration. It isn’t an authentic sailing sim, even with all the orders Kenway shouts to his crew. Though this doesn’t take away from the enjoyment of sailing.
When you sail from place to place, hearing your crew sing a shanty, the camera pans back allow you to see the true beauty of this game. By doing this, you get the full immersion of the world. You will take the fast travel for ease, but you will still do the long travel to become one with the game.
Reeling you in further, you have to take your once frail beauty and upgrade her to become a beast at sea. Your ship has a wide range of weapons and defenses that allow you to progress further. Chain shot can tear down the sails of even the fastest ships, while fire-barrels from behind can become floating mines. Broadside cannons are as they sound, cannons on the side of the ship to deal some of the most damage. But how much damage you want to deal is up to you.
You can sink a ship and grab up the spoils, or take to boarding your enemies’ ship. The true pirate simulation comes into play here. Throw your grappling lines to their ship, in order to give a direct assault. Pull an Errol Flynn and land directly onto your foes taking them out in one shot. While nipping right on your heels, you crew follows you to victory.
With the spoils of your ship capture in hand, you can travel back to town and sell off your wares. Doing this will allow you to also do upgrades to yourself or the ship. Upgrading Kenway’s armor or outfits seems to have been borrowed from animal skinning mechanic of Ubisoft’s own Far Cry 3. This allows you to collect skins to upgrade your weapons or even make new outfits. This a good system that is designed to make it worth your while to use, rather than a chour.
In the end Black Flag has shown us that Ubisoft is capable of giving us a game that is a collage of events. There are strong ties to other games in their library. With all these tools at their disposal, they have brought it all together. A game with rich environments that sets you free to make your own way in the world. Follow the story as much or as little as you want. For me, the main story wasn’t the draw, the greatest reward was making my own story. Yo ho a pirate’s life for me!