On the high seas, remember that nothing is true and everything is permitted.
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag was released as one of the select launch titles for the Xbox One and Playstation 4 (as well as last-gen consoles). If you’re here wondering whether this game is worth your time and money, I have one thing to say to you: YES.
The first thing that stands out about Black Flag is undoubtedly its pirate and seafaring-themed world. If there’s one thing that it does incredibly well is that makes you feel like a pirate. Indeed, you go around the Caribbean drinking rum, finding treasure, and plundering booty. You sail about the seas visiting different islands and drinking at taverns, among many other things. The hallmark of Black Flag, however, is a feature introduced in Assassin’s Creed III: Naval battles. Here, however, things are much more detailed and far more realized. As you navigate the open seas, you will be attacked by enemy ships. Naturally, you have to fight back or else be sunk and suffer a big fat desynchronization of a game over.
While Edward Kenway is undoubtedly the game’s main character, there is a solid argument to be made that the game’s next main character is your ship, the Jackdaw. Its customization is deep and expansive and affects both the ship’s appearance and its combat abilities. On the high seas, battles are fun and exciting and resemble a much more entertaining version of tank warfare. Once you have done sufficient damage to an enemy ship, you and your crew have the option of boarding it by foot, plundering, pillaging, and raiding any last bit of dignity it may have had for its crew members or its resources. Indeed, this naval battle system is so great and so well-received that Ubisoft has even posed the question out to fans if they would like to see an independent game based around naval warfare.
Of course, with such a detailed system surrounding your ship, and true to Assassin’s Creed custom, there must be a large world for players to sail and explore. To satisfaction, the seafaring, Caribbean-centric world of Black Flag is large and detailed, with plenty of different cities and islands to explore, filled with people to interact with, structures to climb, and contracts to complete. Indeed, unless you’ve spent hundreds of hours on the game already, there are likely still islands and coves you have yet to explore with missions to complete and booty to plunder. Though with such a large world, navigating can become a chore. Thankfully, Ubisoft implemented a fast travel system that allows you to travel over to another city or island provided you’ve already visited it before. It’s a very appreciated feature, as otherwise, the expansiveness of this world would have become a con rather than a pro.
Even if fast travel didn’t exist, the world is still beautiful (even on last-gen consoles). As expansive as the world may be, this does not cause a decline in visual quality or detail, as even every last piece of wood looks etched to perfection. Architecture in cities looks stunning and decidedly “Caribbean” while still maintaining the worn-down and ocean-affected looks that you’d expect from these seafaring and often poverty-stricken communities. One other particularly impressive feature of this world design is how masterfully-done bodies of water are. Water tosses, ripples, and parts realistically, and rather than just looking like your boat is floating atop an awkward mass of blue blob, it really looks like you’re sailing atop a “living” mass of water, complete with violent currents, winds, and storms.
As an open world game, it’s appreciated that Black Flag offers plenty for players to do should they be done with or want to ignore the main storyline. While the main campaign offers about 30 hours of play, the game’s world offers many more hours of activity. Aside from following the story, players can sail the seas and focus on such ship-based activities as upgrading and naval combat. Moreover, players can go hunting on land for animal resources, as well as a more fully-realized sea-based hunting where you chase after and harpoon for such creatures as sharks and whales. You can even go deep-sea diving and search for ship upgrade plans while evading the fatal threats of sharks, eels, and death by drowning. As always, there are plenty of side missions and contracts for you to complete on land and on water. On land, players can, of course, enjoy their standard but always-enjoyable, parkour and assassination antics.
Piggybacking off of the great freedom of choice for players is how Black Flag allows you to carry out missions and activities however they see fit. With a variety of different weaponry, skills, and abilities at your disposal, both on land and on sea, Black Flag allows players to do things however they like without penalty, though encouraging, but not mandating, methods of execution that feel congruent with the environment or abilities immediately relevant (such as hanging an enemy once you receive the rope darts).
I found few significant flaws with Black Flag, and even then, most were largely inconsequential. Probably the most significant, however, is a delay of story. The plot follows Edward as he goes about his pirate self, looking for riches and rum, but takes quite a bit of time before the story really kicks off and finds itself with a tighter focus than simply seeking wealth. This isn’t to say that the plot was bad; the game simply takes its time in getting really interesting. There was a bit of a confusing throng of locations and characters being thrown around in the early game. Indeed, it took me quite some time to really solidify who certain characters were, whether I had seen them before, and whether they were of any consequence. Many of these things happen early enough, and it could be quite a bit to handle in such a short time. Nevertheless, by game’s end players should have a solid understanding of what is going on and how all these people fit into the puzzle.
One complaint that long-time fans of the series may have is the more-background role that Assassins and Templars seem to take in the plot. While both parties are present and relevant, they don’t become particularly important until later in the game. Ultimately, the game is more about pirates than either Assassins or Templars.
Also, I tried, but the urge is stronger than I am: I can’t complete this review without mentioning how wonderfully lively your crew is. Upon boarding your ship, your crew always chants and cheers at your return. It almost makes you feel as loved and appreciated as your dog flailing at the door once you come home after a long day gone. When at sea, your crew will sing one of many shanties (songs, for you landlubbers) that liven up the trip. Songs are incredibly fun and catchy. I often find myself just singing along to them. Throughout your travels, you can collect more and more shanties, a rewarding bit of sidequest work.
I myself am not one profoundly familiar with Assassin’s Creed, and this is the first title I’ve truly sat down with and completed. That said, I find Black Flag to be an excellent entry point for new fans of the series. And for those familiar with the franchise or pirate lore, all the more power to you. Nevertheless, fan old or new, unread or savvy, this is a title that anyone can pick up and enjoy.
[+Naval battles][+Vast world][+World design][+Plenty to do][+Freedom of player choice][+Crew members][-Story takes a bit to kick in][-Story could be confusing at first]