Black Flag has almost completely redeemed the series after the disappointing Revelations and Assassin’s Creed 3 entries. Just as the game was beginning to get stale and the problems were intensifying rather than being solved, Ubisoft have come out with something legitimately different while being familiar enough. This is definitely an Assassin’s Creed game, but it’s more cohesive, gives you more freedom and places the emphasis on fun. Set a hundred years before the previous game, it tells the tale of Edward Kenway as he makes a name for himself as a pirate – in the Caribbean. Along the way you come across a few famous historical figures (although less than in the other games) but really this is firmly placed within fantasy rather than history. That’s not a bad thing either as the real life of a pirate wouldn’t be fun at all. Managing scurvy, loneliness and betrayals while every fight you get into almost certainly leads to infection? No thanks.
The game is as usual framed by a present day narrative. After the events of AC3 we have a new protagonist and a radically different experience. We’re now in first person working for Abstergo on their upcoming game ‘Black Flag’. So you’re playing a game about making the game that you play during bits of the game. It’s not quite Inception but it does a good job of explaining away some of the more ridiculous elements of the plot as the staff in the office constantly talk about just wanting the excitement and the drama rather than the realism of the time. In the modern day you can wander around the office, slowly unlocking more access as you go, and you can hack computers and collect notes. All of it adds a lot to the backstory for fans of the whole story arc but if you wanted to ignore what was going on then you pretty much could. It’s much less expansive than the modern day parts of previous games, but it’s more concise and dense with new information. The hacking minigames are fairly dull but the little prizes you get for completing them are genuinely interesting, revealing what happened between AC 3 and 4.
In the main part of the game you’re a pirate and that’s that. For once you’re not really an Assassin (although they do come into the story), instead you just steal the clothes and weapons off one and somehow have the same uncanny ability to leap off high things and not die (mostly). This is a fresh perspective on the in-game world and playing a more morally dubious character is refreshing even though he rarely strays from being a hero, even when he’s robbing and plundering. Ezio, Altair and Connor all did their fair share of robbing too so it’s hard to think of Edward as much of a rogue, but he’s at least doing things off his own back and the story is personal and reasonably interesting. By the end it gets needlessly convoluted, particular due to featuring a side-cast of character who are all pretty much interchangeable but seem to be very important all of a sudden. It’s hard to remember who you’re meant to care about and at least three of the characters were basically the same person as far as I could tell. The game doesn’t do a good job of establishing who anyone is, it wants to move on with the gameplay wherever possible. This is fine for pacing but does mean that by the final mission I had no idea if this was the end of the game or not because I didn’t really understand what Edward was trying to do anymore. When it gets to the point where you feel you might as well skip cut-scenes and rush through the story has failed and it’s by far the biggest issue with what is otherwise an excellent game.
In terms of gameplay everything will feel very familiar. Combat is basically the same (although guns are more useful in close quarter now), stealth is a little bit better with more hiding places that you can move through, which is handy in the vast open plantations where a rooftop route isn’t possible. Ship-to-ship combat works in basically the same way as it does in AC3 and is just as much a joy. Upgrading your ship is expensive but comes with real tangible benefits and you move from fearing anything larger than a dinghy to being the master of a formidable vessel, taking on anything you like just for the sport of it. The ship combat if anything is underused, with precious few story missions placing you into naval warfare and none of those fights being particularly dramatic after the first hour. It’s a missed opportunity as the ship-based game is something unique to the series and a real strength. You can of course go out and find mischief for yourself, whaling or diving or simply pirating, but it’d be nice to have some more spectacular set pieces. It’s possible the engine just can’t handle that much going on so you’re often limited to four or five ships in combat at once.
There’s a whole mobile-style game to take part in where you manage your fleet but everything about it is slow and uninteresting. By the end of the game you don’t really need the rewards and the menus take so long to navigate it’s hardly worth bothering with. It’s basically the same way you managed assassin’s from the second game but with a little bit of turn-based ship combat where all you can do is use some extra items to help you your side. It’s never engaging and feels just like an added on grind. We much preferred buying business and having the cash roll in, it’d be more fun to go back to that!
Speaking of grinds, Black Flag has a ridiculous amount of content but it’s likely to last longer than your enthusiasm. There’s hundreds of collectables spread all over the giant map, and you’re unlikely to visit more than half of the islands if you’re just playing through the story. There’s animals to hunt, a town to build, Templars to kill, treasure chests to find (even on the sea bed), forts to capture and if you’ve got the special edition there’s even DLC featuring Aveline from the Vita game. While all of it is fine by itself and much more engaging than the flag hunt from the first game there’s simply too much to do. You can’t complete any of them before they start to feel like a grind so I hope you like staring at uncompleted percentages and icons. Less than 1% of players have finished all the collection challenges at the time of writing and even though we began scouring every island for everything, we lost interest after twenty hours of gameplay. We appreciate there beings lots to do in games but collectable hunts are meant to be finished – if you can’t get them all it’s simply frustrating and the rewards aren’t even that spectacular for those who do put in the hours of drudgery required.
This all sounds very negative but really the game is an absolute joy. Graphically it is beautiful, with rolling seas and lush jungles abound. The character models can appear fairly basic for NPCs and there’s plenty of entertaining animations glitches, but it adds to the charm rather than detracting from it. One time we were boarding a ship and I swung on a rope from mine to theirs (bearing in mind both ships are moving dynamically), stabbed a guy as I landed, pulled out a pistol and hit a powder keg taking out a group of soldiers, mounted a winch on the main mast pulling me to the top, kicked the scout off his perch and then fired a single shot to the other mast killing the final scout I needed to take the ship. It was glorious. The very next ship I attacked I swung majestically off the side of mine, face planted a cannon, hung onto it for about 10 seconds twitching and then jumped back towards my own ship (I wasn’t pressing anything at the this point) before smacking against the side and falling into the sea. Towards the end of the game there’s a platforming section where failing means instadeath. I did exactly the same thing ten or so times and succeeded on my last attempt, every other time Edward decided to jump in a weird direction or not grab something. I can see the benefits to a free-flowing animation system but not having a jump button really limits your control, so when the game kills you it hardly feels fair.
Overall this is probably the second best AC game to date. We adored AC2 and the story was simply better with more engaging empire-building mechanics. That being said this is by far the best pirate game we’ve played and there’s so much content you definitely get your money’s worth.