Count me among Assassin's Creed III's passionate detractors. I realize the last entry in the Assassin's Creed franchise has its fans, but I personally found Ubisoft's wrap-up of its core Desmond-focused AC trilogy too languid in pace, and peculiarly dull for an entry in a series so thoroughly predicated upon swift and creative methods of murdering people. Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag would, at first glance, seem to be cut from similar cloth to III. Though it takes place several decades prior to the Revolutionary War events of the last release, many of the same systems from that game have found their way into this sequel. However, where Black Flag sets itself apart is where AC III fell apart for me. Taking its setting into the pirate-filled waters of the early 18th century Caribbean, Black Flag crafts a surprisingly and wonderfully vibrant world to explore, both at sea and by land. And while its story isn't all that much more interesting than anything in the last few entries in this series, Assassin's Creed IV has so much to do, and so much of it is genuinely entertaining, that you'll be far too busy to care about its periodic missteps.
It helps that Assassin's Creed IV doesn't waste much time getting you into the thick of things--or, well, comparatively speaking, anyway. As this series is often wont to do, Black Flag takes a few hours to guide you through its many systems, side-ventures, and mechanics (sometimes tutoring you on things you've already done several times.) Much of this stuff you'll probably already recognize if you're a series regular, though the ways in which Black Flag molds its existing gameplay into a heretofore unfamiliar open world design is where it's at its best.
The biggest change by far is the new open-world sailing. The boating from AC III is back in roughly the form you may remember, but now sailing the open waters has been expanded to act as your primary method of getting from place to place. The major cities of Havana, Nassau, and Kingston are joined by a large smattering of smaller isles, ports, and deserted specks of land. Even in the open waters, numerous activities will present themselves, including simple ship-to-ship combat and plunder, underwater diving missions, and enemy fort capturing.
None of this stuff would work if the ship controls weren't up to snuff. Thankfully, sailing the open seas is largely a joy. Though the boat controls certainly take a bit of getting used to--especially early on, before you've been able to upgrade your ship sufficiently to survive anything but the most basic combat scenarios--but once you manage to grasp them, the sea becomes an inviting, and even thrilling place. Ship combat can, at times, certainly be a chore, especially in zones where enemies lay claim to the territory, in which case you will often have to avoid going anywhere near them to avoid a protracted combat scenario. The game also does maybe the dumbest thing imaginable in having you engage in ship-based stealth in a couple of story missions. This is not a small, easily maneuverable boat, mind you, and trying to move it stealthily between enemies while avoiding even the slightest collision or infraction is a deeply irritating process. Fortunately, these situations only arise a couple of times, and represent just a fraction of the far more interesting endeavors you'll embark upon while on the water.
The rest of the time you'll be on land, engaging in the usual types of story-based assassination missions, while often veering off the main path to do assassination contracts, fight off random enemy encounters, chase down couriers, purchase various businesses, climb to synchronization points, hunt animals, and collect any number of different things, ranging from the usual Animus fragments to sea chanties, which your crew will immediately add to their repertoire once you climb back aboard your ship.
That last bit represents a welcome shift toward usefulness in Black Flag's side missions. Whereas AC III's side stuff often felt kind of pointless, many of Black Flag's other missions actually have a bit of impact on your main game. Apart from just those chanties, now rescuing pirates from attacks by soldiers awards you new men for your ship's crew. Synchronization points now allow you to fast travel to those locations when necessary. Hunting gives you the necessary skins required to craft upgraded pistol holsters, ammunition bags, and the like. The completionist player will opt to do as much of this stuff as they can anyway, but those less geared toward hitting 100% completion now at least have more intrinsic use for these activities.
Of course, you could skip a lot of these missions, just stick to the story stuff, and still wring quite a few good hours out of Black Flag. The historical character you play, a swashbuckling privateer named Edward Kenway (grandfather of AC III's bland protagonist Connor), is a dashing fellow more in the tradition of Ezio than any other Assassin's Creed hero. Interestingly, Edward's affiliation with the Assassins guild is far more tenuous than other characters in the series. He begins the game by assuming the identity of a traitor Assassin, whom Edward ran across during the course of a naval battle. This Assassin had been working with the Templars to try and locate the Observatory, a mysterious First Civilization structure that houses a technology both the Assassins and Templars have a particular interest in.
Unsurprisingly, Edward finds himself caught between both the Assassins and Templars as they track a sage--a reincarnated being who has specific knowledge of the Observatory and its location--and try to prevent the opposing side from getting their hands on the Observatory's revelatory technology. However, Edward's interests are far more base at the outset. Being a pirate of minimal renown early on, Edward sees this Observatory as an epic treasure to plunder. All he wants is money and status, which is certainly in keeping with the game's piratical themes. However, he seeks these riches primarily in the hopes of winning back his estranged wife, who he left back in England when he began his privateering career.
Over the course of Edward's adventure, you'll meet numerous rogues of pirate history, including the fearsome Blackbeard, the pirate-turned-pirate hunter Benjamin Hornigold, the "Gentleman Pirate" Stede Bonnet, and two of the most famous female pirates of the era in Mary Read and Anne Bonny. Each of these real historical figures brushes up against Edward's adventure in one chapter or another, and the story is filled with lots of great character moments from each. In that very Assassin's Creed way, Edward ends up acting more as a cipher to experience the camaraderies and cozenages that take place between these characters. And that ends up being just fine, honestly. Edward has enough of a character arc to keep him interesting on his own merits, and the interactions he has with those great names of the high seas--especially Blackbeard and Read--are nicely done. There are definitely moments where the script ends up leaping around in time more than you'd perhaps prefer, especially when it skips over what seems like key character moments for the sake of getting you to the next major moment in the Observatory hunt. But what is there works about as well as you could hope for.
You might be wondering at this point how Black Flag inserts itself into the modern-day element of the Assassin's Creed franchise. How it chooses to occupy the space left behind by previous present-day protagonist Desmond Miles is interesting, if a bit slight. Hilariously, you play as a sort of personality-less developer hired to work at Abstergo Entertainment, the video game development arm of the Templars' all-purpose evil corporation. Your job is to enter the Animus to plug away at Edward's memories in order to find the location of the Observatory. In between all the Animusing, you'll find yourself in the company of both an overly upbeat project manager whose niceness barely masks a total disinterest in your wellbeing, and a shady IT director who cajoles you into running illicit errands that often involve hacking various Abstergo computers. Essentially, this whole section of the game is a series of hacking minigames followed by storyline infodumps you get from the files you acquire via the aforementioned hacking. Some of the revelations that come from those files fill in a few of the blanks about what's been going on since the end of AC III, but the actual story beats of that section don't offer much beyond a moderately interesting "aha!" twist at the end. Fortunately, this stuff makes up only a small fraction of the actual time you spend playing Assassin's Creed IV, and even at their worst, these sections are just a bit dull.
Once you have finished Edward's quest, you can of course simply return to the high seas to take care of any lingering objectives, or you can delve into the multiplayer suite, which is largely what you've come to expect from an Assassin's Creed game. In fact, apart from a few variances, there isn't really too much new here beyond what was included in Assassin's Creed III. Fortunately, it all seemed to work pretty well in the matches I played. The PlayStation 4 also has an "exclusive" additional mission section (that will apparently also be released for PC) featuring Assassin's Creed III: Liberation heroine Aveline. Here, she's tasked with tracking down a captured slave in a short story that, sadly, doesn't do much of anything to further the character. I liked Aveline in Liberation, despite the fact that the game seemed to almost purposely skimp on fleshing out her backstory and motivations. Here you don't even get any significant character moments at all, and the content ends up just being a few more sneak-and-stab missions among the many you'll already play in the main game, albeit with a different character.
I played through Assassin's Creed IV entirely on the PlayStation 4, so while I can't directly compare it to the other versions out there, I can say that this version looks pretty spectacular. Both on land and at sea, the game's artists have crafted some pretty awesome looking scenery. Crashing your boat into a rogue wave and watching the water sweep over the deck of your boat, seeing ships in the distance explode after you deliver a well-placed cannon shot, and simply taking in the gorgeous vistas as you perch atop the many synch points spread throughout the game, are just a few of the many visual highlights I can recall. The animation quality is top-notch too. Occasionally you'll see the kinds of weird quirks inherent to this series, like downed enemies glitching out due to wonky ragdoll physics, or the occasional character lifting a weapon that appears not to have actually loaded in their hands. But where the most detail and work has clearly gone--namely into Edward, his cohorts, and their various combat animations--the game looks terrific. It all runs great too, with only minimal frame rate dips in rare instances.
In some respects, it's perhaps reasonable to say that Assassin's Creed IV is the game that Assassin's Creed III should have been. Which is not to say that a game set in the Revolutionary War should have featured pirates and extended sailing sequences, but rather to acknowledge that the many game systems featured in AC III feel more fleshed out here, and appear better-suited to Black Flag's campaign. Its larger open world setting certainly helps, but an open world is only as good as the stories, characters, and activities you populate it with, and Black Flag's world is one I found myself coming back to again and again not just out of editorial requirement. That Black Flag's association with the Assassin's Creed franchise at times feels kind of tangential should really only be distressing to hardcore franchise fans desperate to see where the ongoing strife between Assassins and Templars is headed. For those who just like the idea of a game in which sailing and stabbing exist in harmony across a vast ocean of entertaining objectives, Black Flag most definitely delivers the goods.