The final touches are being applied to our AssFlag review, but here are five reasons why Black Flag marks a return to form after the somewhat divisive AC3...
A pirate's life for me
Pirates will always be cool. The Romanticising of buccaneers and privateers-turned-pirates presents a fantastic opportunity for an open world game. When I spoke to lead writer Darby McDevitt back at Gamescom a few months ago, he'd said that this was a story he'd always wanted to write, and that the decision to tell the Kenway family saga led to a situation where the dates fell nicely into place.
It's not difficult to see why the time period and location make for a cracking setting for an open world title. For starters, the systemic nature of Ubisoft's world-building in AnvilNext makes for an ocean packed with targets, dangers, and opportunity. The Tropics make for versatile settings, with bustling ports and dense jungles often sharing a single island.
Sid Meier's Pirates! has been developed over the years, modernised and rebooted, but no other game has ever sought to even try and build upon its template to deliver an open game that offers the run of the Caribbean high seas, and the chance to pretty much do whatever you want as the captain of your own ship, flying under a flag of freedom. Until now, that is. Even without the Assassin's Creed narrative woven into things, the high concept nature of a pirate-based, open-world game is such that you can instantly identify a purpose and a focus for action without knowing anything else. And, as we'll see, there's always something to do in this game, in a world that feels much more cohesive than Revolutionary America ever did.
A stealthy return
One of the biggest bugbears I had with Assassin's Creed III was the fact that it appeared to abandon stealth and player agency in favour of more linear action (ironically enough, in the largest game world that the team had ever created). But in Assassin's Creed IV, stealth makes a big return. It's not just the tools and moves that Edward has at his disposal, though he can now put guards to sleep or send them berserk with darts, no longer has to stand-up while in cover to shoot or throw knives, and can dynamically use solid cover to his advantage.
But it's clear to see that much of the focus of level design has gone into opening up environments to a plethora of player-driven approaches. You can of course go in all guns blazing, but now there's more verticality, more bushes and undergrowth to hide in, more bales of hay and hiding doors. And not just that, in working with next-gen systems and pushing the limits of current-gen consoles, Ubisoft have packed their world with more NPCs and crowds to hide in amongst too. The missions and levels and side quests take advantage of this realigned focus on stealth. More freeform assassination missions, more stealthy sideshows such as plantation infiltrations, and more powerful enemies such as the sniper-esque sharpshooters who can take large chunks of life from you in a single shot.
It all makes for a much more challenging, satisfying experience.
What a wonderful world
If the first two points highlight the success of Assassin's Creed IV on a technical and conceptual level, then this is the bit where we get to trot out that old adage the devil is in the details. From the different cultural flavours of the game's main cities and settlements, to the raucous tones of the various sea shanties you can collect during your travels and teach to your men, to the subtle differences in accents between the main cast of pirates -- the game world is an immersive font of exceptionally-researched historical tourism.
The beauty is, that Ubisoft via Abstergo also deliver reasons for gaping historical inaccuracies, buildings being in the wrong place for example, and other such anomalies that would drive a historian insane. But the fact of the matter is, that this is a springboard into a time and place. More so than any other game in the series, and this has much to do with the excellent companion app allowing me to peruse the Animus database on the go and look into the game's context wherever I am, I found myself going beyond the game to explore the realities of the time and look beyond the fantasy so brilliantly wrought in the game.
Meet Edward Kenway
It's nice to be in the company of a relatively-nuanced character again after babysitting a plank of wood in Assassin's Creed III. I always said that I thought the story of Haytham would have provided a much better look at the conflict and comparison between the Templars and the Assassin's than might Connor's, and grandad Edward proves to be even better because he exists as a character outside of the conflict, twisting the resources, the tools and the creeds of both to suit his own ends.
His goals as a character match ours as gamers playing an open-world game: to bend and break the rules of the world to become famous and rich, to pimp out our ship and eliminate those who stand in our way, and to sail the high seas to seek out treasures and adventures. He's not as relentlessly grim as his grandson, though his occasional tendencies towards moral turpitude provide some explanation for his violent ways, and he's a more accessible character from top to bottom.
Everything's so head-scratchingly META!
As much as there's a mechanical return to the ways of the older games in the series, Black Flag also deviates from the franchise's formula pretty heavily, perhaps no more so than away from the Animus. Frankly, I'm of the opinion that it should have been us gamers plunging through history from the start. The Desmond story was awful, and thankfully he's gone. In its place is something deliciously meta in that we, us gamers, are now the ones plugged into the Animus, that Abstergo now has an entertainment division, and that the game itself is one of its products. It's enormously overblown and utterly ridiculous, and seems to involve a fair amount of Ubisoft laughing at themselves. Does it also point towards the fact that Assassin's Creed might be better off if they dropped the whole futuristic conceit? Probably. But they're also kind of stuck with it now, so we might as well have a little fun.