Freedom is the operative word in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag – an excellent pirate game and an even more exceptional Assassin’s Creed release – in more ways than one. The pirates you meet in the game spend a good deal of time philosophizing on why they do what they do. It’s not really money or adventure that drives them, but rather freedom, or the ability to do whatever they like. Given that this self-same liberty – for the player – is fundamental to open-world video games, it’s surprising that no one has thought to make a modern pirate-themed "sandbox" till now. The two seem to go hand in hand.
Set in the 18th century colonial West Indies, Black Flag tells the story of Edward Kenway, a privateer turned pirate. After an attack on a British ship, he finds himself marooned on an island with a member of the fabled assassin order. Being one of those pirates who is actually driven by greed rather than freedom, he dispatches the interloper, assumes his identity and journeys to Havana in search of the riches mentioned by the assassin.
The thing is, Edward – who ultimately ends up as the father and grandfather, respectively, of Haytham and Connor Kenway from last year’s Assassin’s Creed III – is mysteriously good at many assassin-y things. As we’ve seen in the five prior games in the series, this includes free running up walls and trees, killing bad guys and using “eagle vision,” or a special sense that assassins use to detect targets and enemies. It’s clear from early on that there is more to Edward than meets the eye, and that his chance encounter with a member of the secret order was perhaps pre-destined.
From here on out, buckle your swashes because Black Flag throws players into an open virtual sandbox that is populated with so many things to do and see, so many memorable characters to meet, and so much to explore that it’s easy to get lost in the world. The immersion is so deep, you may end up singing shanties and reaching for a bottle of rum.
Unlike previous Assassin’s Creed games, the story and action here aren’t really centred on a city, or even cities. The tale begins in Havana and eventually shifts to Kingston and Nassau, but these fledgling settlements are hardly the bustling metropolises of Jerusalem, Rome or even Boston of previous releases. Nassau, in fact, is almost more like a village, with a scattering of bamboo huts ringing a church.
Instead, everything in Black Flag revolves around Edward’s ship, the Jackdaw. It’s what transports him around the Caribbean; it’s his weapon for battling and plundering British and Spanish frigates; it’s his source of pride that he upgrades and decorates. As one of his crew members puts it, the Jackdaw is very much their own floating republic, a country wherein they are free to do whatever they like, which is unlike the oppression – imposed by kings in the forms of taxes and laws – found just about everywhere on land.
The Jackdaw is also the driving heart of the game itself, with almost all of the systems working in tandem with it. While freedom is the player’s prerogative, cash is in fact the main motivator since it’s needed to buy new upgrades such as better armour and cannons, which are needed to take on the tougher enemy ships and land-based forts. Defeating lightly armoured British schooners, for example, is easy going at first, but tangling with fierce Man-O’Wars later is considerably more challenging.
Deciding what to do with all the loot gained is perhaps the toughest part of the game. Spending it on the Jackdaw is necessary, but Edward also eventually inherits a port. As in previous games, he can upgrade the fledgling town with taverns, shops and other buildings. He can also improve his own lot with better clothes and weapons that aid him in combat. All of these needs means he has to explore the many little nooks and crannies scattered around the West Indies, from the Mayan ruins of Tulum and the many hidden smugglers’ coves to the smattering of tiny, unnamed islands dotting the sea.
All of the regular Assassin’s Creed fare is here, with missions ranging from execution contracts and all-out sword-to-sword fights, to eavesdropping and tailing targets. But that well-worn portion of the action takes a back seat to the spectacular naval battles that were introduced in Assassin’s Creed III and greatly expanded on here.
Managing these battles while at the helm of the Jackdaw is both exhilarating and challenging, since you have to keep one eye on your opponent – or often, opponents – and the other on where you’re going. After all, nothing ends a battle faster than crashing into a sandbar, whereupon enemies pepper you with cannon fire while you vainly try to get moving again.