For the latest entry in Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed franchise, the game designers decided to take a different approach after the highly scripted feel of Assassin’s Creed III. This time around, instead of making players wade through what amounted to a ten hour tutorial to get to the meat of the game, you’re thrown right into the action, playing as new character and Connor’s grandfather, Edward Kenway. The game opens in the middle of a naval battle, a far more thrilling opening than the low key assassination mission that opened the previous installment in the series. Over the next 30+ hours, players get to experience the Golden Age of Piracy in all its glory, roaming across the Caribbean pillaging, fighting, and exploring new lands above and below the waves. It’s a game that’s bound to have you grinning for a majority of the time you play it, and if you’re looking for a game to make you feel like a pirate, then this is the game for you.
Edward Kenway longs for more in his seemingly mundane life, wanting one of adventure and great rewards. He leaves England and his wife Caroline behind and heads for the New World. It’s 1715, early in the 18th century, and both England and Spain are vying for control throughout the Caribbean region. Into this mix are a group of pirates, led by such notable historical figures as Edward Thatch (better known as Blackbeard), “Calico” Jack Rackham, Anne Bonny, and Benjamin Hornigold, who want to establish a kingdom of their own, free of both British and Spanish rule. Early on Edward becomes aware of another group, one familiar to fans of the series- the Templars, who are in search of a mysterious place called The Observatory. Naturally, along the way Edward encounters the Assassins as well, who seek to thwart the plans of the Templars through any means possible. The game doesn’t get bogged down in the greater story that was explored in the previous five games, opting instead to create its own tale, one that is much more light-hearted in tone. That shift in tone works well to the game’s advantage, making it accessible to newcomers as well as returning fans. It serves as a prequel to Assassin’s Creed III, as Edward is Haytham Kenway’s father and Connor’s grandfather, so players don’t have to be overly familiar to that previous title. The modern day story is also changed up, and that change was also for the good of the franchise.
The modern day story is a sequel, taking place after Desmond’s story. It’s played in first-person, and you play as a nameless employee who joins the ranks at Abstergo Entertainment, a branch of the Templar corporation that had created the Animus and had figured so strongly in previous installments. The Animus is being used to create realistic gaming experiences (kind of art imitating life), and you’re brought on board to explore one of Desmond’s ancestors, that one being Edward Kenway, and you’re tasked to create a pirate game based on Edward’s experiences. over the course of the game, you end up being contacted by a mysterious individual who wants you to dig into Abstergo’s affairs. Through some minigames, you’ll hack computers and break into offices as you search for clues to reveal Abstergo’s real intentions. You’ll also learn Desmond’s fate, and it’s in these interludes that a lot of the back story is filled in, so newcomers should have no trouble picking up on the main plot threads. You can explore the offices of Abstergo Entertainment at any time besides the interludes, and hacking into other employees’ computers offer some interesting insights. In a nice touch, the shelves in your cubicle become populated by statues of the characters that players will encounter during their time with the game.
Gameplay has been improved slightly from the previous games, and the designers at Ubisoft seemed to have kept the best parts of the series while discarding a majority of the bad. Gone is the tower defense game that had appeared in Revelations. Naval combat has been made smoother and even more fun. You get your own ship, the Jackdaw, and through sinking and looting other ships, as well as finding treasure and supply chests, you can upgrade the ship, in both the ability to be stronger in battle as well as customize the ship’s appearance. To do so you’ll have to make sure you have enough coin and materials, and your spyglass proves to be handy in this regard, as when you view a ship through the glass you’ll be given the rundown on what supplies the ship is carrying and what its strengths are. When you have the necessary money and material, you can do things like strengthen the hull, expand the crew’s quarters, or strengthen your whaleboat.
Yes, you have a whaleboat, and harpoons, just the tools you’ll need to bag some fierce critters from the deep. There are three types of sharks and three types of whale, including a white whale that appears during community events in various locations. You’ll need to be signed in online to trigger the white whale and other community events, such as special treasure chests or ship convoys. The white whales can be tough, as their huge size can easily reduce your little boat to splinters. Their hides are used for crafting, or they can be sold a t various shops for a hefty price. You’ll also hunt killer whales and humpback whales, and it’s an incredible sight to see these beasts burst forth from the waves and come crashing back down into the sea. Shark species include the bull shark, the hammerhead, and, of course, Jaws itself, the great white shark. Great whites will attack your boat directly, and unless you time your harpoon shot, you’ll end up fish bait rather quickly.
As you get farther in the story, you’ll also gain access to a diving bell, which you can use to take trips underwater to explore shipwrecks and find treasure on the ocean floor. Sharks will menace you here as well, forcing you to hide in the seaweed or among wreckage. These encounters can become quite tense when your air begins to run short and you’re a distance form the diving bell or any of the barrels you can find to replenish your oxygen supply. You’ll also run into poisonous jellyfish and morays eels that strike at you as you attempt to loot treasure chests. The morays are simple enough to deal with, but get stung too often by the jellyfish and you’re a drowned corpse.
The sea isn’t the only place teeming with wildlife, as you’ll find plenty on the various islands you’ll visit on your travels around the Caribbean Sea. Each one of these animals provide material for crafting supplies and outfits, giving you holsters in which to carry extra pistols or pouches to hold more ammo. The animals are quite varied, ranging from the less harmless rabbits and deer to more dangerous beasts like jaguars and crocodiles. Each animal hide can be sold as well, so even once you’ve crafted what you can, they can be an additional source of income. And if you’re just not into hunting or just don’t want to spend too much time on it, hides can be purchased at shops so you can have the materials for crafting. It gets the job done, but it is less satisfying and won’t help you if you’re going for 100% completion in the game. It’s nice to have the option though, especially since some animals are more scarce than others.
Hunting and harpooning are just a couple of the side activities that you can engage in, along with searching for treasure from maps you acquire off corpses you find littered across various locales. Other activities include both assassin and naval contracts, Templar hunts, and solving Mayan riddles. Checkers return from AC III if you’re in the mood for a bit of gambling and a relaxing board game. Instead of sending Assassins out on missions, you get choose to build a fleet from the ships you best in battle. You’ll need a Uplay Passport to engage in the fleet’s activity, however, even though it is single player content. With your fleet you can engage in battles to free up trade routes, which open missions which can net you coin, jewels, and rare pieces of art. It makes for a nice little diversion, but if you choose to ignore it that’s not going to lessen the overall experience of the game.
Lest you think the main story line is on the weak side since I mentioned a lot of the extra activities you can engage in, think again. While more light-hearted in tone from Altair, Ezio, and Connor’s stories, the story Darby McDevitt (the short animated film Assassin’s Creed: Embers and the PSP outing Assassin’s Creed: Bloodlines) penned for Edward is no less engaging, and has its share of twists and even a few emotional moments. It gives Edward a nice character arc, taking him from a brash young thrill seeker to someone who realizes there’s a bit more to the world. The missions are varied, ranging from sneaking into forts to all out naval battles, taking us through jungles and ruins as well as the cities of Havana, Kingston, and Nassau. You’ll hunt down ships, take out forts, rescue fellow pirates, and try to defeat the Templars and reach the riches of The Observatory. There are some stealth missions that will try your patience, and the tailing missions make an unwelcome return, requiring you to stay close enough to eavesdrop on conversations. There are several of these type of missions, and the tailing portions make up the low-lights of the game. Thankfully they are spaced apart, and there are checkpoint saves at decent intervals. A nice feature, though whether Ubisoft will actually use the data in crafting future games, is that you can rate each mission at its end as to how ell you liked it. It’s a way of reminding us that we are playing someone who is creating the game we’re playing a character in. If you read through the notes as you unlock new characters, locales, or animals, you can read some humorous asides from other Abstergo employees as they voice their comments, providing some nice Easter eggs for players to find.
The main story is a lengthy one, taking place over 12 sequences and five interludes into the modern day. You could probably try to rush through the main story in under 20 hours, but you’ll find yourself ill prepared for some of the tougher missions. It’s more likely going to take you over 30 hours to finish the main story line, and there’s easily another 30 hours of side content to engage in. It helps that the controls are smooth and that the environments are absolutely stunning. The waves feel like they’re rolling underneath you as you sail the Jackdaw across the sea, and the cities are filled with detailed buildings and populated with a varied amount of citizens. The ships at sea are varied as well, from smaller gunboats to massive man-o-wars. The larger ships will offer a challenging fight should you try to take them on, and if you’re not upgrading the Jackdaw you may find your head handed to you.
Aside from the single player content, there is also a robust multiplayer. The multiplayer is much as it was in Assassin’s Creed III, though there are some new additions. A Game Lab lets you create your own modifications, with the exception of the Wolfpack mode. Besides the Wolfpack (which is divided between two modes, Unleashed and Discovery), there is Manhunt, Domination, Artifact Assault, Assassinate, Deathmatch, and Wanted. There are several characters to choose from to play through these modes, with some additional maps not seen in the single player. Sadly, Ubisoft did not include naval battles in the multiplayer, stating that they felt they could not do them justice. Hopefully they will find a way down the road, but for now you’ll have to get your fix for ship-to-ship combat in the single player. There’s also a training mode, to help you hone your skills. It’s challenging to play but can also be quite a bit of fun.
All in all, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is a tremendous game, with a well written story, terrific characters and voice acting, beautiful environments and smooth controls, and plenty of things to do and loads of collectibles to find. It’s not perfect- there are the occasional glitches (no more than any other open world game) and Edward will sometimes jump in the wrong direction. There are still parts of the environment that look climbable but aren’t. Despite these flaws, the game is just plain fun to play, and there’s no other game out on consoles right now that can make you feel like a pirate like this game can.
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