Platforms: PC | PS4 (tested) | Xbox One | PS3 | Xbox 360 (tested)
Developers: Ubisoft Montreal
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.
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.
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 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.
- 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.