For all of its mechanical improvements; for the wonder I felt as I sailed the ocean, with orca, dolphins, even great whites breaking the surface to my port side as I outran a royal trade armada; for the excellent performances and character moments throughout ... it felt disjointed. Directionless. Black Flag, like its protagonist, is constantly waiting for its dare-to-be-great moment.
Like many of the characters who populate its world, Black Flag seems keen to slough off the vestiges of its ancestry and fly free. It is a significant improvement for the Assassin's Creedseries, a gorgeous piece of digital entertainment that makes good on its outsized ambition with remarkable regularity. And yet here I am, still locked in that metaphorical loading screen, running forward while wondering if I'm getting anywhere at all.P
At least this time I'm dressed as a pirate. For now, that's enough.
But the developers have worked around the series' foibles brilliantly. The obligatory present-day sections of the game are a case in point, showing you behind the Templar curtain and telling a neat short story that ties into Edward's adventures and keeps you sated, even though it doesn't advance the meta-narrative that much. Back in the 1700s, clumsy mechanics are downplayed in favour of the thrill of the open sea, where everything feels fresh and exciting. If I ever felt down while roaming rooftops, I just answered the call of the ocean and everything was right with the world again.
The amazing world of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag has kept me gladly occupied for longer than any other game in the series, even though its story isn’t the strongest. At no point in my dozens of hours was I ever at a loss for something to do. Simply sailing wherever the wind takes me and seeing what sort of trouble I can get into is a complete joy. Beyond the underwhelming main campaign, Black Flag delivers a world brimming with gorgeous places to go, amazing secrets to discover, and nefarious pirates to stab.
Black Flag presents a world full of adventure and opportunity, where treasures scavenged in a remote jungle can be used to turn the tide in a massive naval battle against mighty Spanish warships. It's a game where you can sail the seas for hours at a time, either hunting great white sharks or simply listening to your crew sing one infectious sea shanty after the next. There's an incredible scope to what you can do in Black Flag, with a level of harmony between its component parts that encourages you to try it all, and a story that keeps you invested throughout the whole thing. If there was ever any question that Assassin's Creed needed something ambitious to get the series back on track, Black Flag is that game and then some.
The naval combat missions were the best thing about ACIII, and their foregrounding here shows that Ubisoft knows it. Plundering other ships is a multi-stage process of disabling them and then swinging aboard for a deck-based skirmish. The emergent wrinkles of dynamic weather and potential engagement from nearby ships helps to keep these battles eternally fresh. But the same freedom you enjoy while circling rivals on the ocean like a shark also extends to stealth objectives in Havana, Nassau, and other settlements. Stealth games are only as good as the flexibility of their encounters, and in that regard Black Flag is the most generous Assassin’s Creed game to date.
Beyond its present-day feature set, Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag is a vibrant historical adventure, drawn from bold characters and edge-of-your-seat sailing. It's not the proper return to form for the series, but it is a concerted acknowledgement of what that form is today, and what works for the monster of gameplay systems, stealth, ships and oceans that lurks underneath. I'm told that we might expect the mythical squat button in a sequel someday, but for now I'm happy to leap between the roles of assassin, pirate and one-time whaler wracked with guilt.
I wasn't planning to buy this after 3, but it might just be the open world pirate game I've always wanted. Too bad PC release is still weeks away.