From the very beginning, the promise of Assassin's Creed was that players would be able to jump throughout time and take part in historical moments you rarely see in modern video games. Unfortunately, the series got a little sidetracked as it bounced from sequel to sequel. Instead of sending us on new adventures throughout time, Assassin's Creed began to repeat characters and eras. Worst of all, it focused too much on a Desmond Miles side story that ultimately went nowhere. By the time Assassin's Creed III showed up, the weight of the past games was too much to hold and the whole thing began to topple.
Based on the short turnaround, it's easy to be skeptical about Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag. And yet, as cynical as I was going in, the game won me over by going back to the basics and giving me a compelling character to root for. This game showed me a time and place that has been all but forgotten by the video game industry, perfectly fulfilling the promise of the original Assassin's Creed.
Set a few decades before last year's Revolutionary War-themed installment, Black Flag ditches the red coats and opts for peg legs and eye patches. Instead of the snowy streets of Boston and New York, this game sets sail for burgeoning port towns like Havana, Nassau and Kingston. Perhaps the commercials are right; taking a Caribbean vacation really helped me get out of the rut left from Assassin's Creed III.
You play Edward Kenway, a privateer-turned-pirate who is on a quest for fame and riches. One day, while sailing the high seas, our hero is attacked by a man who turns out to be an Assassin. Of course, Edward doesn't know anything about this mysterious stranger. But that doesn't stop him from stealing the man's identity and inadvertently getting himself embroiled in a centuries-old battle between the Assassins and the Templars.
It doesn't take long for Edward to realize that he's gotten himself in way over his head, forcing him to flee the Templars, take a pirate ship and build up a crew of freed slaves. Along the way he learns the secrets of the Assassins and discovers men who claim to be hundreds of years old. And if that wasn't enough, he runs into the likes of Blackbeard, Benjamin Hornigold, Charlie Vane and other real life historical figures.
Of course, none of this is actually happening. If you want to get technical about it, you play a nameless employee at Abstergo Entertainment. It's your job to beta test an upcoming pirates-themed game the company is developing for UbiSoft. You do this by plugging into the animus, which is streaming samples taken from Desmond Miles' body. It's up to you to make sure the program runs smoothly and rate each memory.
Back in the animus, Edward takes command of his very own ship. This frees him to leave the large cities and explore the dangerous waters of the Caribbean. There are dozens of islands and noteworthy locations scattered around the giant map, each with their own hidden treasure chests, side-missions or bonus items. Players can also destroy and even board other ships in order to steal valuable resources. The ocean is your sandbox.
But don't get too comfortable, because sometimes the ocean can be a mean mistress. Edward will need to watch out for the occasional hurricane, water spouts, whales, and aggressive ships that don't like you sailing into restricted territory. If you can manage to overcome all that, you'll find that sailing in Black Flag is not only hugely satisfying, but it's actually freeing. There's a sense of peace when traveling long distances while listening to your crew sing sea shanties.
Everything becomes a lot more familiar when you dock in one of the large cities. Suddenly Edward is being asked to slowly follow a marked target or steal useful information from the enemy's camp. These are the types of missions we've come to expect from Assassin's Creed, and Black Flag trots out just about every variation they can think of. Thankfully, some of the more stale mission types are balanced by a new batch of boat-related memories. Just when I started to get sick of the usual Assassin's Creed nonsense, the game would change things up in new and interesting ways.
A lot of the credit needs to go to Edward, one of the franchise's most likeable characters. Even when he's at his worst, you understand his plight and want to see him make everything right. He's grounded by the memories of the life he gave up, which wraps up in an emotional and satisfying way. At the same time, Edward likes to have fun. He also has a lot of interesting insight to give and knows how to meet fascinating people. I had a great time getting to know all of the supporting characters and living in this time period we rarely see outside of the movies.
In a lot of ways, Black Flag is a much more streamlined Assassin's Creed game. Most of the extra modes and gameplay mechanics have been stripped out of this next-generation launch game. That's not to say that there aren't side missions, but most of the bonus content is new and more interesting than previous outings. I enjoyed freeing slaves, taking down enemy strongholds and doing whatever it took to upgrade my ship. On the other hand, I could have done without harpooning whales and the underwater diving sections.
I was even more surprised by how much I enjoyed the present day, first-person sections set in Abstergo Entertainment. As silly as it is, I had a lot of fun with how meta these sections were. It was fun to read internal emails discussing past games and looking towards the future. I chuckled at the way UbiSoft is represented. Hell, I even liked the all too brief (yet important) ties back to Desmond's storyline. And on top of some strong writing, these sections also offer a number of brain-teasing puzzles to solve.
Without question, Black Flag is the most colorful Assassin's Creed game yet. It doesn't hurt that this is the first game made for a next-generation console. The vibrant colors flood the senses, all while the peaceful wind blows the sand across the island beach. Yes, you're still brutally killing people, but at least it's set in one of the most beautiful settings on the planet.
Unfortunately, the game's visuals don't always hold up. That's not to say the game looks bad, because this is certainly the best looking Assassin's Creed game yet. But there are times when it's obvious it was designed for lesser machines. The game certainly looks good now, but I can only imagine how much better it will look when the sequel is designed from the ground up for the new hardware.
While UbiSoft is busy working on a proper next-generation sequel, I hope they will do more than upgrade the graphics. Some of the lingering mission types need to be retired going forward. For example, there are a few too many missions involving Edward tailing somebody. Two or three of these would be fine, but Assassin's Creed has a tendency to lean too heavily on some of the more outdated mission types. I like that it's broken up here, but it never hurts to add more variety next time around.
Beyond the weird science fiction trappings and the franchise cliches, Black Flag is a really great big-budget pirate game. And believe it or not, we don't get many of those. We're introduced to one of the most gorgeous locations in the world, with a cast of famous faces from the 18th century. Black Flag is not just a step in the right direction; it's the best installment since Assassin's Creed II.
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