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Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag review

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag

One of the best pirate games ever made

The Assassin’s Creed We’ve Been Waiting For


Few games make history quite as compelling as Assassin’s Creed. The franchise has always prided itself on putting players into the thick of historical events. Last year’s Assassin’s Creed 3 took on the revolutionary war, but while certainly fun to explore, it struggled under too many bugs and questionable design. Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flagis a wonderful return to form. With its rich Caribbean setting, cutthroat pirates, and high seas exploration, Black Flag is not only one of the best games in the franchise but also one of the best third-person action games this year. Gather on the foredeck, mates. Today we sail for treasure.

When I first considered reviewing Assassin’s Creed 4, it was with hesitation. As a fan of the series for some years, I never felt it reached the high water mark of Assassin’s Creed 2. Last year’s entry disappointed me, even though I completed the campaign. Did I really want to try again despite the still bitter taste in my mouth and sense that this was a series always reaching for but never quite grasping its aims? I had reservations about the sudden jump to “number four,” in what seemed like a rushed push for a holiday blockbuster. The general perception that this would be a “yarr, pirates!” adventure didn’t help either.

All that said, Assassin’s Creed offers an experience found nowhere else. These games transport you back in time. They allow you to explore lost worlds with such rich, granular detail that they seem to come to life before you. The faults I have found have never kept me from sinking dozens of hours into their campaigns and staying up far too late at night.

I took the job. I am glad I did, too, because [I]Assassin’s Creed 4 is without question one of the strongest entries in the series, easily contending with Assassin’s Creed 2 for the top spot. It packs an interesting story, improved gameplay, and some of the most beautiful visuals this side of consoles. If you were, like me, disappointed by last year’s entry, cast those fears aside, grab you cutlass, and get ready for adventure.

An Unlikely Assassin


This time around, you play the role of Edward Kenway: loveable rogue and vessel for all of your pirating daydreams. Edward is a bit of a vagabond, first leaving his wife at home for “two years at most” to join a privateer fleet and then sailing his ship, the Jackdaw, from port to port as you too become a vagabond. Privateering did not make Edward rich as he had hoped. Finding his plans and his marriage behind him, he turns to the pirate life, chasing the almighty dollar wherever it may lead.

As you might imagine, Kenway is an unlikely assassin. When his crew challenges the wrong ship, things end messily and both vessels find themselves in flaming debris. Washing ashore alongside an assassin, Duncan, Kenway discovers that the man had a delivery for the governor of Havana and a reward waiting when he arrived. In a surprising turn of events, Kenway hunts him down and kills him, but try not to feel too bad; the bloke had it coming. Naturally, Kenway takes the dead man’s garb and proceeds onward to collect the reward in his stead.

Ubisoft had to find some way to make Kenway an assassin and, all things considered, this approach worked well. My only gripe is just how video-gamey the transition seemed. When asked to prove himself at the governor’s mansion, Kenway flawlessly performs every takedown with zero explanation or backstory. And for members of a secret order vetting a possible imposter, they certainly took pains to describe his assassinations to him. These things are easily accepted as a thinly veiled tutorial but do not make much sense in the context of the fiction. This type of logical stretch happens multiple times in Black Flag but fades away before the greater experience.

Fun First, Fiction Second


One of the most endearing qualities of Black Flag is that it lives in the things Assassin’s Creed does best. Collecting, parkour, free running, climbing to sync points, completing side missions, sailing on the ocean, visiting legendary figures: these are what make the series shine. Gone are the days of being pulled from these escapades for some meta-story adventure about sun flares and the end of the world. The modern day content, as optional as it is, seems to mark a new era for Assassin’s Creed, one where the past shifts ever more over the present.

The animus and Abstergo is still there, of course, but this time around things are distinctly less serious. Abstergo has entered the video game business -- to bring history to life! -- and you are its latest developer. By living out the memories of Edward Kenway, you are researching their next hit. This new take is a delight and provides a wealth of opportunities for Ubisoft to inject humor into the game. Exploring the Abstergo office is done in first-person and is full of Easter eggs, including references to real Ubisoft games. Database entries, too, are full of notes from other developers. It pushes the fourth wall, seeing actual developers poke fun at game development. More than any entry before it, Black Flag reinforces how much fun playing with history actually is.

Playing in Assassin’s Creed 4 might emphasize fun over fiction in where it applies its time but I was delighted to find the history still taken seriously. These aren’t comic impersonations of pirates; they never fall into clichés of “matey” and “yarr.” The pirate life, in fact, is not portrayed as glorious even though its greatest advocates love to tout its freedom. The islands and cities are all rendered with the wonderful attention to detail we have come to expect and players interested in learning more can read the games many animus entries on the people and places you encounter.
Fun score 9.0

Pros

Fixes most issues of its predecessors, exceptional gathering and crafting system, joyous open world exploration and ship combat, SO MANY THINGS TO COLLECT

Cons

Combat system is basically untouched, movement still feels gross and imprecise

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag screenshots