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Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag Review | Brilliant Buccaneering

Matt Gardner
AAAARGH ME HEARTIES!, Action Games, Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, Pirates, Sandbox games, Ubisoft, Ubisoft Montreal

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag Review | Brilliant Buccaneering

Platforms: PC | PS4 (tested) | Xbox One | PS3 | Xbox 360 (tested)

Developers: Ubisoft Montreal

Publishers: Ubisoft

Apologies to those of you who've followed my writing on Assassin's Creed over the last couple of years as I'm going to repeat myself a little bit here, but for those of you coming into this review in need of a little context, here's the beef: Assassin's Creed III was a sprawling, clunky, overstretched, uneven adventure with a dull central character and too many diffuse game components that failed to come together to present an engaging, cohesive world. There was little freedom, too much linearity in a paradoxically gigantic world, a lack of verticality (the first thing anyone does in AC is climb the nearest tall steeple or spire), and an abandoning of the thing that had made the franchise great. The key has always been in the title: we want to assassinate people.

Thankfully, Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag does much to bring stalking one's prey however you like back in a big way.

We'll get to the pirate stuff itself, but let's look at how the more familiar elements to the series have been tweaked up and expanded upon for this game. The best things from Assassin's Creed III -- things like running assassinations, the wide variety of darts, and treetop parkour -- have all returned. But now there's verticality to go with that. Not on the scale of the urban hives of activity that Rome and Constantinople and the Crusader cities presented to us, but enough to warrant more than enough rooftop hopping.

Stealth, and freeform stealth at that, makes an emphatic comeback, and that's down to the design work that's gone into the game. Where its predecessor often presented singular routes through areas, Black Flag does a better job of encouraging the player to consider multiple options. The new plantation missions showcase this best, requiring the player to use Eagle Vision to locate the soldier with the key to the storeroom before they can loot the place. But the mission's difficulty is compounded by bells that will summon reinforcements when rung, and sharpshooters in guard towers who can leave you for dead in two or three shots. There are plenty of areas of long undergrowth in which to skulk, however, and you can fire darts and shots and distracting whistles from cover without standing up (finally!), which is nice. There's even a bit of a dynamic cover system that comes into play when you approach the edge of a wall and want to peer around it without being seen, which makes those traditionally hideous "tail them!" missions slightly more bearable.

Edward's toolset is by far the most extensive of any of the murderous protagonists to have graced this series, and best of all he's not really restricted when it comes to their use, apart from in delivery, as the game doles out equipment patiently across the first few clusters of memory sequences. But the point is this: Assassin's Creed IV: Black feels like a delightful union between the simple joys of infiltrating restricted areas and bumping off targets that harks back to the purity in focus of the first game, but with the design complexity and expanded instruments of murder that subsequent games have brought to the table. Mechanically, at least, it's up there with Brotherhood as one of my favourite games in the series.

That being said, when you do find yourself in open combat, the game feels much clunkier than I remember. Assassin's Creed has never enjoyed the best of counter-punching (stabbing in this case) combat as Batman has, but Ezio and Connor both had some particularly punchy takedown finishers that made us wince and kind of punch the air at the same time. The ebb and flow of the hack, slash, parry, counter system appears to be a little more haphazard and fuzzy around the edges than before, and there's a solidity to the action that's a little lacking in this title. Still, you can wield four pistols, which is nice.

So far, then, so Assassin's Creed. But Black Flag marks a fairly enormous shift for the series in terms of direction thanks to an ambitious choice for the game in terms of setting and staging, and a central character who's only out for number one.

Assassin's Creed has always depended on its game worlds and settings to deliver rich and memorable gameplay experiences, and Black Flag delivers massively on that front. Thrust into the boots of Edward Kenway, and set loose upon the hazardous seas of the Caribbean during the Golden Age of Piracy in command of your own ship, the purpose of both character and player have never been so gloriously intertwined in the series as they are here. As freemen bound by no law, the whole point of your piratical existence is to go exploring, to check out that new shiny thing you see off in the distance, to plunder and pillage whatever ships you see fit, to seek out messages in bottles that lead to buried treasure, to go hunting for prized catches that might be sold at port, to take down poorly guarded naval forts and transform them into strongholds for free men and women to lead liberated lives soaked in rum.

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag Review | Brilliant Buccaneering

And you can do all of that in Black Flag. It's a powerful thing, that unity of purpose between player and character, and Ubisoft have done a fine job of ensuring that everything little thing in this world means something. From the little, episodic, story-driven Templar Hunts you can do to unlock a sweet set of armour to the pages of sea shanties floating around the world that you can teach to your crew if you catch them, the details in this world don't just serve to fill up pages in the Animus database, but they have an impact. When you board a ship and capture the vessel, do you use it to repair Edward's ship, the Jackdaw, do you scuttle it to lower your wanted level on the high seas, or do you patch it up and deploy it to your fleet to run trade missions up and down the coasts of the Americas and out across the Atlantic? Amassing a fleet yields more opportunities for materials, money, and collectibles, taking the form of a little strategic minigame not unlike the ones used to deploy assassins throughout the world in previous games.

The Jackdaw itself provides a strong focus for progression too that roots us in the world. Just as important as upgrading Edward himself is the matter of tending to your ship. Black Flag takes the naval components from its predecessor and blows them up and out into an enormous watery sandbox, tightening up the controls for the ship-to-ship combat in the process. You can scope out other seafarers with a spyglass beforehand to see whether or not they're actually worth taking on, and there's a rich thrill to be found from going up against brigs and frigates relatively early on, attempting to best them through superior maneuverability and reaping the rewards should you prevail. But it's not just the guns and the hull integrity you can upgrade, progression means a more robust whaling boat, a diving bell to go and explore sunken wrecks, and perhaps a hefty ram for some up-close-and-personal action.

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag Review | Brilliant Buccaneering

Kenway's story meanders a fair bit, and some of the mission structuring gets a little bit wayward if you've gone off on your own and done a whole bunch of stuff without being told how to do that. It's nice that Ubisoft let you go off and do your own thing relatively early on, but then when the explanatory story mission comes around, things get a little clunky. The narrative becomes a little unstuck towards the end, but the closing scenes are some of the finest this series has seen. McDevitt has a talent for touching finales (his story for Revelations was the highlight of that game), and that's certainly evidenced here. It good to see that the story also avoids pantomime pirates, instead producing real characters with moral depth and some nuance to their motivations. Edward begins as a man dedicated only to himself and his crew, and it's interesting to see how the Templar-Assassin feud envelopes him as the game progresses.

There are a few gripes. I've already mentioned the combat, which seems to have deteriorated in quality since Ezio, to be honest, but also worthy of note is Ubisoft's insistence on retaining eavesdropping missions. They're awful, clunky, and we needed to be rid of them a long time ago. The same can be said of those exposition dump walk-and-talks. They've never been anything more than tedious, and they still disrupt and frustrate the flow of things. Visually, the current-gen versions look great thanks to the scalable opportunities provided by working with next-gen hardware, but accept nothing less than the PS4 version if you're out for the definitive version of the game. The improved resolution and hefty power bring the level of artistic detail to life in a manner that just isn't possible on current-gen systems, and the lighting effects are utterly delightful.

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag Review | Brilliant Buccaneering

Assassin's Creed II and Brotherhood are by far my favourite games in the series, but Black Flag gives them a serious run for their money. But then, this is what happens when you create a magnificently detailed, interesting world and fill it with lots of little things to do that have meaningful impacts upon the game going forward. It's the level of cohesion that has kept me coming back for more each and every evening. As a fan of Assassin's Creed, as a fan of the stories surrounding the Golden Age of Piracy, as a fan of Sid Meier's Pirates!, I'd hoped that Black Flag would deliver from the moment the whisper of pirates first escaped Ubi Montreal's vaults. I'm so enormously happy to say that it does.

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag Review | Brilliant BuccaneeringPros

  • Huge, enormously detailed world
  • Filled to the brim with things to do, see, kill, and collect
  • Stealth is back in a big way
  • Naval sandbox is fantastic
  • Freeform assassinations YAY!
  • The cohesion and progression make for a truly rewarding experience


  • Combat seems to be worse than before
  • Eavesdropping missions are still awful
  • Multiplayer not undergone any significant changes

The Short Version: Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag is a wonderfully harmonious game. It's enormous, packed with more things to see and do than ever before, but Ubisoft have managed to make every little thing mean something in tangible, impactful terms. Black Flag is a wonderful piratical romp that manages to revive the stealthy focus of earlier series instalments, whilst delivering an outstanding naval sandbox, an excellent setting and story, and lashings of swashbuckling action. Unmissable.

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag Review | Brilliant Buccaneering

Add a comment11 comments
gmdlogan  Nov. 7, 2013 at 22:22

Shiver me timbers! Tempted, tempted indeed. Great review. After 3 I said i'd give it a miss till she drops. Can see me picking up on my shiny new ps4. Roll on the 29th.

Late  Nov. 8, 2013 at 11:09

Yeah, I'm with you there gmdlogan.
I always wait until the AC games drop to about £15-£20, but the combination of great reviews and a lack of other AAA titles on the next gen consoles has me itching to get this on the 22nd...

£50 at most places (and £55 at Game, where I have a shedload of store credit), is a lot of moolah, though! :(

Shadowmancer88  Nov. 8, 2013 at 11:11

Arrrr... A great review worth waiting for it, I will be picking my copy up with my PS4 this month, I've heard that the loading times in current gen versions are long and the PS4 one is quicker is this right?

Also what is multiplayer like? I've never bothered with it in the other Assassins Creeds before tbh just curious.

wightmad  Nov. 8, 2013 at 12:28

Thanks Matt - excellent review. Was considering not buying after last game, but will give it a go now on the basis of your review.

MattGardner  Nov. 8, 2013 at 13:36

The loading times are shorter on PS4, but the ones I dealt with on 360 weren't particularly galling.

The mutliplayer is still more of a curiosity piece than anything else tbh, and hasn't received the same level of focus in terms of pushing things forward that the SP has.

CrashJones  Nov. 8, 2013 at 15:37

The 1st AC game I played was III, which I stopped after about 3-4 attempts. To much I had missed.
When I learned more about AC4(I'm a pirate's age fan), and found out AC2 was "the best", I picked it up and started playing catch up.
I burned through AC2 & Brotherhood. I was halfway through Revelations(which gets a lot of unfair scrutiny as far as I'm concerned. A beautiful game. If a player didn't like the tower defense mini-game for instance, just keep on top of the heralds with bribes), when the temptation to get Black Flag became overwhelming.
The fact that the game was exactly the same, except for "beauty", and that I could upgrade to the PS4 version for $9.99... well, I was sold.

An awesome game, and the best I have played. I have finished the main story. I am now just starting III over(which is cool, you'll understand if you've finished IV), and it's already feeling like a 100% better game then the 1st time I played it. Funny what a boatload of back story and game mechanic understanding will do for the player.

I highly recommend getting the game. It's so close to release for PS4 that I would wait if I were you... unless you are not getting a PS4. Then get it... NOW!!! ARRGGHHH!

PS... I am getting a PS4, and will bide my time, and then restart the game over, and enjoy the "beauty" of it all.

Last edited by CrashJones, Nov. 8, 2013 at 15:40
gmdlogan  Nov. 8, 2013 at 17:18

^^^^^ I loved Revelations too bud. The slower pace just seemed to fit and the previous 2. Which were just soooo, so good. I have played through AC2 so many times on 360 and ps3. Just absolutely love it.

Enjoyed the whole series (3 definitely was a chore) and just love the whole stories.

Where does you guys think the series will go next?

Also, how is current gen players finding the new protagonist?

Late  Nov. 8, 2013 at 17:50

I've seen the box set of the first five games is doing the rounds on current gen for less than £30.
If they brought that out on next gen I'd happily buy it and play them all again - remastered or not.

RiKx  Nov. 8, 2013 at 18:20

awww happy days as a big advocate of AC since the first then AC2/Brotherhood I was disheartened by ACIII and when I heard of the pirate nature of IV I was especially reticent because of my love for the lore but I think I will splash (heh) out and get the PC version for the first time rather than 360/ps3 versions as I wont be getting a next gen. Not sure i'll wait either, the ocean beckons. Great review really stirring.

CrashJones  Nov. 8, 2013 at 19:21

^^^^^ I loved Revelations too bud. The slower pace just seemed to fit and the previous 2. Which were just soooo, so good. I have played through AC2 so many times on 360 and ps3. Just absolutely love it.

Enjoyed the whole series (3 definitely was a chore) and just love the whole stories.

Where does you guys think the series will go next?

Also, how is current gen players finding the new protagonist?

For sure. I have just made it to Sequence 4 in AC3. Taking a break. Good point. What a turn of events. Wow. That was neat... anyway, now I get to be lil Connor. I'm having fun with it.
The fighting(swordplay) is actually better in AC3(now that I've tried it myself) then AC4... tighter. The PS4 version(from what I've read) supposedly tightens that up so it's really smooth(swords through the eyes, special take out etc). etc).

gmdlogan  Nov. 10, 2013 at 12:18

I've seen the box set of the first five games is doing the rounds on current gen for less than £30.
If they brought that out on next gen I'd happily buy it and play them all again - remastered or not.

A remastered Ezio trilogy would make me dribble......out of both ends!



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