Originally published on CultNoise Magazine (now closed) | January 16, 2014
Version Reviewed: Playstation 4
Also available on Playstation 3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, Wii U, PC
I spotted her in the distance as the storm rolled in, silhouetted against the flashes of lightning – a Man o’ War, the biggest vessel in the Caribbean and a force to be reckoned with. A quick look through my spyglass told me her colours were English – Royal Navy, by the looks of it, with plenty of rum and sugar for the taking. She hadn’t spotted me yet, but she was stronger than I. I needed to be careful.
I called for my crew to hoist the mainsail, and as they did, they started to sing. I planned my attack. She would never see me coming; by the time my first cannonballs hit it would already be too late, and she would never have a chance to fire back.
This, in retrospect, was the moment I fell in love with Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag, not only the best Assassin’s Creed game in years, but the best pirate game since the classic Monkey Island. It is a sprawling action-adventure I continue to be lost in.
Black Flag puts players in the role of Edward Kenway (grandfather to Assassin’s Creed 3’s Connor Kenway), taking place at the beginning of the 18th Century and the Golden Age of Piracy. At the game’s outset Edward is rough and rash, a pirate by trade and nature, the antithesis of many Assassin’s Creed protagonists. This could not work more in the game’s favour, however; he’s reminiscent of Ezio Auditore at the beginning of Assassin’s Creed 2, carefree and lighthearted. Gone is the nobility of previous protagonists; not long into the game Edward becomes only marginally embroidered in the Assassin – Templar war and decides to use both sides to his own end, a relentless pursuit of fortune that would leave most pirates in awe.
After a short opening the game world is yours to explore, a massive expanse of sun and sea; players have the entirety of the Caribbean to roam around, from Havana to Kingston and more in between, in addition to almost 50 small islets and coves to explore and plunder.
Exploration is possible thanks to the Jackdaw, an upgradable frigate customisable as you see fit with more guns, better armour, and even different coloured sails. Sailing around the Caribbean is a real joy, with plenty to see and do. Ships roam the waters, ready to take on and plunder. Storms rise out of nowhere, pelting your deck with wind and rain, adding extra difficulty to the game’s superb navigation. Naval combat is faster than you might imagine, the fluidity of Assassin’s Creed’s typical sword and gun fighting translating well, and once you bring a ship to its knees the combat opens up further.
Choose how you want to board, from the tops of the Jackdaw’s masts to the ropes and rigging, all entirely seamless from the rest of the experience. Ship Boarding is split into various changeable objectives, from killing the Captain to destroying their flag, and once these objectives are complete the ship is yours to do with as you wish. Use what’s left to repair the Jackdaw; recruit the men to lower your wanted level; the choice is open. This seamless-ness tailors the game’s exploration too; simply leave the Jackdaw’s helm at any point, jump off the edge of the boat, and swim to the nearest islet to seek its hidden fortunes.
Don’t assume, however, that this new Assassin’s Creed is without its trademark on-foot exploration and verticality. The game’s cities are rife with rooftops and landmarks, and you’ll spend a lot of time traversing these locales in search of assassin targets, coin to steal, collectibles to find. The towns and settlements are truly brimming with life, and more than once I had to stop and watch as a cat ran across a rooftop, or take in the hustle and bustle of shoppers passing me by.
Ubisoft achieves this realism in part thanks to the fantastic sound design; the game’s score is reminiscent of Hans Zimmer’s for Pirates of the Caribbean, and more than once I couldn’t help but grin as the score swelled while I swung from a rope onto a nearby galleon. The Jackdaw creaks and groans, battered by the waves; in the towns, dogs bark in the distance, birds sing, and people chatter as they go about their lives. Deep in the darkest caves, sea birds call to one another, echoing among the drips of water from stalactites. With Black Flag, Ubisoft have turned their level of immersion up to 11.
As delightful as the game world is, the main story is one of its few drawbacks. Whilst the first half was excellent, the latter half was somewhat lacking the charisma that enraptured me so in the first place. I can’t help but feel that, as good as the Assassin’s Creed series is, it doesn’t need the Assassin – Templar story with its faux sci-fi elements to be good. These elements felt tacked on more than ever, and I felt myself caring more about Edward Kenway as a character and his own troubles than those overarching themes the series is known for. The modern day elements are also back, though these are less obtrusive than before.
Still, the game is the best-looking Assassin’s Creed to date and one of the best I played last year. The lighting is especially gorgeous, sunlight streaming through the Jackdaw’s rigging and the light from braziers illuminating the dark corners of the cities. The sea and wind effects are also particularly attractive; waves roll, sending spray over the deck of your ship as you carve your way across the Caribbean. The Jackdaw’s sails ripple in the wind, the titular black flag tossed here and there by a rising squall. Half the time I found myself just staring, taking in the world and wishing I could be there to touch it, to feel the wind on my skin. This is what games should look like, and though it will look good on whatever platform you choose, this is my most played launch title for Playstation 4. I am likewise certain that the Xbox One and PC versions look just as beautiful.
I could easily write on and on about what I saw and did during my time with Assassin’s Creed 4, and what more I have still to do. It is an excellent, sprawling, monster of a game that made me feel like a pirate more than anything else I have played. Never did I find myself at a loss for something to do, and always did I find some distraction to pull me away from whatever goal I had at the time. Though it has some issues with pacing and story, I look forward to seeing what Ubisoft does next with the series.
I had a whale of a time with Assassin’s Creed 4 (you can have that one for free). After spending more than 40 hours with the game and finishing the main story, I still have a little under 50% to see and do, and I will do so gladly. Even after so long, that ‘just one more mission’ mentality keeps me up late into the night and bleary eyed in the morning. This could be the rejuvenation that the now-annualised series needs.
All images courtesy of Ubisoft.