After Assassin’s Creed II released in 2009, we’ve seen a new entry from Ubisoft’s popular franchise every year since then for almost every major platform. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag had a lot riding on it, and even more so that could go wrong. With the series continually receiving flak for its yearly installments, and especially after the mild reception of last year’s Assassin’s Creed III not pushing the series far enough, there was plenty of room for this year’s installment to continue the downward slide into dangerous, uncharted waters.
Luckily, that fear can be put to rest–Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag’s foray into swashbuckling adventure and pirates helped steer the series of repetition and brings a refreshingly unique Assassin’s Creed experience. It may not be a whole treasure trove of change, but even with the annualization of the franchise bringing title after title each year, Black Flag proves itself as a worthy addition to a series that hasn’t had its ship set sail yet.
Following the adventures of newly-adorned pirate/assassin Edward Kenway in the early 18th century Caribbean Islands as he is drawn into the age-old conflict between the Assassins and Templars, Black Flag is surely a much “different” title than what we’ve come to expect from the series. It’s a thought that becomes apparent right from booting up the game–memories of the towering chapels of Renaissance Italy and the colonial era of New England give way to lush forests, vibrant scenery, and endless oceans. The environments of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag bring a truly “open” feel to the world, at least more than what we’ve seen in past entries of the series.
While previous installments of the series have introduced many major (and smaller) changes (Brotherhood’s introduction of multiplayer, Revelations’ unique mixture of action and tower defense elements, and ACIII’s homestead missions and ship-boarding battles) Black Flag provides some of the strongest new gameplay additions that the series has seen yet: all it takes is the first ship battle on the raging open seas to prove that. However, narratively the game feels constrained by its need to synchronize with the rest of the series’ past–ironically, it’s way stronger on its own when it isn’t trying to be an Assassin’s Creed game.
In taking the excitement of Assassin’s Creed III’s arguably best feature, the ship-boarding battles, and essentially expanding them into a whole game might at first make Black Flag seem repetitive and a one-trick pony. Luckily Ubisoft Montreal fills the world with more than just firing cannons and searching for treasure on the open seas. Rich with more meaningful collection and in-game economy through item crafting and weapon/armor upgrades, it takes advantage of its expanded locale and fills it admirably with new tasks like hunting animals in the island, or in searching for whales across the sea.
The previously underutilized in-game economy of past games brings new value in Black Flag through purchasing new weapons and swords, and especially becomes integral to upgrading the player’s primary vehicle for exploring the Caribbean, the Jackdaw–Edward’s fine sea-faring vessel–alongside collecting a variety of resources found in the world, such as wood and metal.
Rather than the tedious collectibles featured in previous games (such as the feathers of the original game, that didn’t provide additional value or meaning to the player’s efforts) Black Flag rewards exploration and going off the beaten path with its variety of resources, such as its deep collection of upgrades and additions to the player’s arsenal.
Equal to the variety and depth of the game’s upgrades and unlockables is the title’s expansion into the seas, bringing the biggest open-world environments that the series has seen yet. It’s an incredible technical achievement, especially as a title crossing the gap between current and next-gen. Even on the PS3 version, sailing across the Caribbean was nearly seamless with little to no load time, and truly makes the promise and excitement of ACIII’s naval combat even better.
Rivaling the status of a modern-day take on Sid Meier’s Pirates!, it’s the ship-combat and epic battles where Black Flag truly shines–from the introductory ship battle all the way to the game’s end, it never failed to be fun and felt completely unique, engaging, and exciting to not just the series, but to the current-gen slate of games as a whole.
Even with all of the ship battles and emphasis on exploring the open seas, Black Flag doesn’t severely stray far away from its roots, and maintains the continually solid sword and stealth combat of its predecessors, but with plenty of nice diversity and options. With the usual system of parries and counters, it still puts a great emphasis on both sword and gunplay, and (thankfully) tones down the violence a bit from some of the over-the-top gore in previous installments that often distracted more than aided the story. Its fluid combat on land works just as effectively as seen in past Assassin’s Creed titles, but it’s exactly that: serviceable, but with more refinements than any overall retuning or adjustments.
Ultimately, Black Flag is a game that proves itself far more adjusted to its sea legs than it shows its comfort out on the land. While it’s a plenty serviceable Assassin’s Creed title with its rhythmic combat and liberating free-flow climbing and scaling buildings, its primary conflict comes between its most exciting un-Assassin’s Creed attributes that feel shoe-horned against the typical expectations of the series, especially in its narrative.
Even with some very interesting commentary and incredibly meta-storytelling involving the entire series as a whole (no worries: there be no spoilers in this review!), Black Flag feels constrained and limited by its place in the franchise while clearly it has enough of its own footing for a new world, and even a new series. While the franchise has had its share of gameplay blunders that didn’t quite stick (Revelations’ tower defense elements coming to mind) each entry has remained consistent with the series’ focus: following/killing targets and acting among the established order of the Assassins. Instead, Edward’s non-chalent attitude toward the ongoing Templar/Assassins struggle often feels forced and constrained in the Assassin’s Creed mold, when the game is obviously stronger out on the sea behind a ship’s helm.
Nevertheless, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag still serves as a solid entry in the series, even when swimming with great white sharks or swashbuckling against a band of pirates might be more in the game’s favor than the usual parkour and stealth assassinations of the the series. But, Edward’s journey still brings plenty to look forward to with genuine refinements to the series’ established gameplay, exciting new prospects for the game’s story, and the ship-combat that brings some of the biggest thrills that the series has seen yet. It’s just a matter of time, but with Black Flag, hopefully the series can set its sights on more grand treasures in new, undiscovered waters.