The Assassin's Creed series is back, and thar be pirates!
From its streamlined beginnings in 2007, the Assassin's Creed series has developed into quite the blockbuster event, with 2012's ACIII confirming Ubisoft's intention to release a new title every year.
It's a development cycle which makes a certain amount of sense, sharing resources across the numerous Ubisoft studios to pursue more timelines, even going so far as to create a standalone portable version with last year's Liberation.
Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag is all about pirates. The story begins in the early 18th century as a young Welshman named Edward Kenway (you may recognize the name) heads out to the Caribbean to make his fortune. He intends to return home to his wife a man of quality but a lust for power and wealth leads him down a dangerous path. And also puts him in the way of the Assassin's and the Templar order.
Black Flag kicks off in spectacular fashion, following Kenway's first interaction with the Assassin's and leading all the way up to gaining his own ship - which not only takes place in a fiery battle but also in the middle of an incredible storm. Then it's time to make your name, your fortune and maybe even find your soul along the way.
The most important information first - Edward is a lot more fun than ACIII's Connor. Our previous Native American hero was a deathly dull creation, sucking any sense of entertainment out of the sprawling story mode. Thankfully, our Ed is a pirate - which immediately makes him more engaging - and flashbacks to his old home life plus the moral conflicts of his narrative keep things moving in a much more interesting fashion.
Black Flag also has a much better cast of supporting players - from Blackbeard to Charles Vane and Irish lady pirate Anne Bonny. They're crazed and creepy, funny and fearsome and help to bring the lengthy main story to life as Edward is drawn deeper into the tumultuous times of the Golden Age of Piracy.
The second thing you really need to know about Black Flag is that it's big. Really, really big. The entire map is visible from the start and you'll travel from Nassau to Kingston and even as far as the African coast during your adventure. The 10 or so major islands can all be fully explored and the sea it littered with tiny crops of land that might house a treasure or six, not to mention enemy forts just waiting to be perforated and a surprising amount of loot and adrift sailors. It's a world both dense and massive, with something to do around every corner and many distinct areas to explore.
Numerous side activities include harpooning (the spoils of which help you upgrade Edward), diving to wrecks for goodies, tracking down Mayan artifacts and even picking up treasure maps. These will give you a grid location and a visual clue that you can dig up to gain booty or plans to improve your ship.
And what a ship it is. The Jackdaw is one of the most important elements of Black Flag, and certainly the biggest innovation since ACIII. An agile fighter, you can upgrade practically every part of it - from making the keel better for ramming to adding mortars and up to 28 cannons to tear your enemies apart. Increase the size of the crew quarters to overwhelm foes quicker while boarding and add more storage for the spoils of naval warfare. It's like travelling with your very own house, and it soon becomes a real character in the game.
And while ACIII gave you some ship-to-ship time, the new systems in place here have been vastly improved. Ubisoft has been shouting about the seamless nature of the gameplay for months and it comes to vivid life when you're playing. Set out to sea from a friendly port, use your spyglass to size up an enemy ship and head out to take them down. Lob mortars from afar, before using your chain shot to take down the mast and swarming their deck. Take part in the assault yourself and decimate the remaining sailors, then recruit the survivors or send them to the deep.
It's a remarkably slick affair, and one which presents a decent level of challenge - especially when you're up against full sized galleons. Your progress through the game will be much easier if you spend time upgrading the Jackdaw early, but sometimes it's fun just to see how you fare against the big boys.
On land, Edward still finds plenty of time for stylish murder. The main thrust of the plot sees him questing for the glory of finding The Observatory - a place said to house an incredible treasure. And he'll do this as the British plot to expunge the pirate threat from the world and more ancient powers work behind the scenes to restore their rule.
It should come as no surprise that the combat and exploration here remains robust, with the parry and perforation dance just as much fun to watch as it is to play. And some changes are welcome, particularly the ability to take out two enemies at a run and the use of not only two swords but up to four pistols. The latter can be assigned to the tool button on your controller, opening up neat gun finishers and some cool gun kata moments.
Personally, I still enjoy the feeling of running into a group of enemies and using counters and evades to kill them mercilessly but there's no denying the combat can sometimes feel less than challenging. But it's just one aspect of the game and the genuine toughness of the sea battles, plus the sheer scale of the world, makes up for this.
One element I'm less sure about is the story. In my conversation with Black Flag's lead writer Darby McDevitt, he talked about wanting to bring a more complicated narrative structure to play - less Breaking Bad and more The Wire in his words. It's a nice idea, and one that brings you to some unusual places during the campaign. But I felt that the lack of focus makes your goals a little too unsure at times. Maybe it's my failing, but I much prefer having a central villain for a tale of this length, with a major goal always on the horizon.
The other issues might be similarly subjective. For one, you'll spend a lot of time on board ship in the game. In my 18 hour playthrough (with 60% completion - to give you an idea of how much there is to do) I probably spent 2-3 hours either sailing from one place to another or sinking other ships. This map is big, and sailing is far from fast, and I can't deny that I eventually found these sections a little tiresome. The same goes for the naval battles, which are far more exciting than they have any right to be but suffer from having to listen to Edward shout 'Fire' far too many times.
There are some misjudged moments too, like when you're forced to tail a massive ship (which somehow doesn't notice you) while dodging the sightlines of other enemies. Sea stealth isn't interesting in the slightest, Ubisoft. And on land, Black Flag also makes the mistake of including far too many tailing/eavesdropping missions where a false move means desynchronization. Though the devs have enhanced eagle vision to allow you to track targets through buildings now, making them harder to lose. Which doesn't help when Edward decides to body hump an unclimbable wall in now typical AC fashion.
But the sheer amount of serious swash and buckle manages to make these lapses forgivable, especially as incredible moments like single-handedly taking down a ship are so easily accessible. And I haven't even gotten into the new modern day angle, which pits you as an Abstergo drone who gets into some deep doo doo when he starts poking around behind the scenes. The little touches in this first persona adventure element are brilliant, like the internal memos talking about marketing the game and how much of an ass Ezio was to the little figurines you earn whenever you complete a sequence.
And there are social elements too, including an expanded multiplayer that I unfortunately couldn't access in my code. You can share every aspect of your progress with friends online and do fancy things with the fleet you've built up, but these all required access to Ubisoft's servers which weren't live at the time of review.
Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag is a big, brutal slice of interactive history, taking the increasingly slick elements which have become a part of the series and slapping them into a massive seafaring adventure. It's a little rough around the edges at times but the addition of piracy to the leaping and stabbing of the franchise adds some much needed personality. So dive into this ambitious new world, just turn off those sea shanties first!