Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag

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Developed by: Ubisoft Montreal
Published by: Ubisoft
Platforms: PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Wii U, Nintendo Switch and PC

Despite its title, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is the sixth major installment in the Assassin’s Creed series and acts as both a prequel and sequel to Assassin’s Creed III. The modern-day story-arc continues to advance the plot of the framing sequences following the death of Desmond Miles, whilst the historical elements focus on the pirate Edward Kenway, the grand-father of Assassin’s Creed III’s protagonist, Connor. The game also picks up on some concepts first established in the spin-off title, Assassin’s Creed: Liberation, introducing a meta element to the plot as you play as a beta-tester for the latest Assassin’s Creed videogame from Abstergo Entertainment. This is a refreshing change from the denser Desmond-centric narrative seen in the previous games and I liked the added immersion that came from playing in a first-person perspective outside of the Animus. Originally released on PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and Wii U in October 2013, it was also released on the next generation of consoles (PlayStation 4, Xbox One) a month later.

Set predominately in the Caribbean during the 18th Century, Assassin’s Creed IV places a stronger emphasis on naval combat than its predecessor did, seamlessly marrying open-world sailing with traditional island exploration. Players can sail through a vast map consisting of hundreds of islands and instantly disembark to look for treasure without suffering a loading screen or some menu transition. The sheer size of the map means that there is plenty of opportunity to explore remote islands outside of the main storyline, giving the game a rich sandbox feel that transcends the usual city walls seen in Assassin’s Creed games. Playing the title on an Xbox One, I was amazed at the beauty of the graphics and how it brought the Caribbean to life with its bright sands and rich blue seas. Each of the Assassin’s Creed games have managed to convey a real sense of place and time, and this title is no different. However, with its unconventional lead character, the game moves away from its traditional Assassin formula and creates a “pirate simulator” instead. Sure, there are some of the familiar elements there (Eagle Vision, Assassin Contracts, Synchronisations) but the game feels far less Assassin-focused than any of its predecessors.

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Edward Kenway is a likeable rogue, and unlike most of the previous protagonists, he spends the majority of his time outside of the Assassin Order. As with previous games, the core plot borrows elements from real-world events, in this instance it’s the attempted establishment of a Pirate Republic and how tragedy strikes and eventually brings an end of the Golden Age of Piracy. It’s enjoyable to see an unrepentant and morally ambiguous lead character, and Kenway has all the charm and personality that his grand-son Connor lacked. While aspects of the storyline were reminiscent of past games, I found the main missions to be engaging and a strong mix of traditional stealth missions and naval battles. Progression is primarily linked to a crafting mechanic as players can upgrade both Edward and his ship, the Jackdaw, through the use of money and supplies. Costumes, items and weapons can be built and unlike Assassin’s Creed III, the system is much more streamlined and rewards players for exploring new areas to discover a different animal, or some ancient battle plans. There is also the recurring empire mini-game (Kenway’s Fleet) which rewards players for maintaining shipping lanes to different countries.

Up until now, each of the previous games I’d played were the remastered editions and therefore lacked the multi-player elements that were introduced back in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, so this was my first opportunity to play the series’ online multi-player options. Presented as a game-within-a-game, the multi-player is surprisingly detailed and boasts a wide range of customisable options. The game modes tend to involve either hunting hidden targets, or hiding from pursuers – both tasks can be made easier with a range of abilities and perks. As you complete sessions, you increase XP and earn Abstergo Credits to upgrade your avatars (both with cosmetic and practical improvements) for future games. Despite its age, there is still a small (and loyal) group of players active and I was able to attain most of the online achievements through a mix of both private and public matches. Refreshingly different from other ‘deathmatch’ online games, it’s great fun to play virtual “hide-and-seek”, although I did struggle against some of the more seasoned players.

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The game also includes a substantial single-player DLC campaign entitled “Freedom Cry”, which takes place twenty years after the events of Black Flag and follows the adventures of Kenway’s former quartermaster, Adewale, as he seeks to help slaves in Haiti. Making use of many of the same game mechanics as the core game, Freedom Cry also includes a new “Resistance” progression tree which unlocks new items and abilities for Adewale as he liberates slaves and builds an army. It’s a nice addition to the gameplay and suits the story well, reflecting Adewale’s efforts to free his people and the gradual rise of the Maroons. Sharing many of the same themes as Assassin’s Creed: Liberation, it is a nice companion piece to that title as well as the main Assassin’s Creed IV game.

While Assassin’s Creed III had flaws despite its promise, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is the very epitome of a perfect game. The smooth flow between nautical and land exploration enhances immersion significantly, enabling players to feel like actual pirates sailing the seven seas. Plenty of times I opted to delay my progression in the main story-arc to instead sail around and complete the wealth of secondary tasks available. The naval combat is much-improved from the previous game and rewards a more tactical approach compared to the more hack n’ slash mechanics that remains in the swordplay. With the familiar Assassin aspects of the gameplay pushed further into the background than ever before, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is a refreshing change to the status-quo that takes the series off in new directions.

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is a five-star masterpiece and represents yet another high point in the franchise’s history. By moving away from its roots, Ubisoft is able to reinvigorate the series and once again demonstrate the versatility that can be found within its diverse time periods.

Score – ★★★★★

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is available on PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Wii U and PC from Amazon. It is also available on the Nintendo Switch as part of the Assassin’s Creed: The Rebel Collection from Amazon.

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