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.
The roiling seas and the steady stream of barked orders and crew mate warnings – “They’re trying to ram us from starboard!” – combine into a sense of frenzied chaos. Continually moving enemy warships also heighten the disorder, necessitating the constant switching of weapons, from cannons on the side to fire barrels in the rear to mortars for long range.
When an enemy ship or fortress is finally disabled, Edward and his crew then swashbuckle aboard or on shore for some up-close-and-personal combat. It’s only after the smoke clears and the plunder has been counted that you can breath a sigh of relief.
Black Flag’s naval battles are thus like a roller-coaster ride – tense and thrilling while you’re in them, but once you’re done you can’t wait to go back for more. And that ropes you back into the core system of exploring the world for more loot, since you’re always wondering just what sorts of upgrades you’ll need to take on even more powerful ships.
The world itself is unlike any seen in any previous Assassin’s Creed game. Ubisoft Montreal recruited some developers from Far Cry 3, its hit first-person shooter from last year, to help with development – and it shows. Besides the expected urban detail and grit, Black Flag is also awash in blues and greens; harbours sparkle with turquoise waters while Edward free runs through luscious jungle foliage. It’s a fantastically bright and enticing world – I couldn’t help but start thinking ahead to winter vacation plans while journeying around it.
The developers also added one further trick from Far Cry 3, where Edward must hunt animals and use their skins to fashion holsters and pouches for additional weapons. It was fun in that game and it adds to the experience here, although I did feel bad for shooting a defenseless monkey whose only crime was taking a nap in a tree. It’s true – Black Flag lets you assassinate simians too.
It is worth mentioning that, like all previous Assassin’s Creed releases, Black Flag is also a story within a story. At periodic intervals between chapters, the player will return to controlling a modern-day character who works at Abstergo Entertainment, a game company. Edward’s story is being experienced through the Animus, or a virtual reality program that reads memories stored in ancestral DNA. Things get rather meta here, with Abstergo headquartered in Montreal and employees typically speak French. What Ubisoft Montreal is trying to say about itself through this obvious self-referencing isn’t clear, but it’s either neat or weird, or possibly both.
The franchise’s addictive and cerebral multiplayer mode returns as well, with players pitting subtlety and patience against one another in games that require hiding in plain sight. Black Flag also adds a “lab mode,” where custom games can be created and shared – just about every minor detail can be tinkered with, including whether or not players get target-revealing compasses or disguises. The co-op Wolfpack mode, where a group of up to four players perform team assassinations in a race against the clock, is also back. In both cases, Assassin’s Creed continues to be one of the few franchises that has successfully developed a solid multiplayer mode that builds on its single-player campaign, and which doesn’t feel tacked on.
All told, Ubisoft Montreal seems to have settled into a pattern with its flagship franchise. The very first Assassin’s Creed, released in 2007, was a technological accomplishment at the time, but it suffered from tedious and repetitive action. The next few games picked up that ball and ran with it, populating the technical creation with fun things to do.
The same seems to have happened with Assassin’s Creed III, which made similar technological strides, but which also came up short in the entertainment department. Black Flag capitalizes on the foundation laid by its direct predecessor and corrects almost all of its issues. Overly long and too-frequent cut scenes, for example, have been cut down into brief cinematics that don’t take players out of the action for extended periods of time. Ubisoft is also interested in hearing more from players about what works and what doesn’t with a new in-game feature that allows them to rate missions, that valuable data that will certainly shape future instalments.
Black Flag still has a few niggling problems – some long sequences require you to completely replay them if you fail, while the naval battles can turn into impossible missions if more and more enemy ships keep showing up – but otherwise it’s one of the best entries in the series. While some franchises are merely pumping out the same stuff every year with simply a new coat of paint, Black Flag is a welcome and well-done reinvention that adds new large-scale elements to an already solid base.