Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed III was a mammoth undertaking that sadly fell victim to its own ambitions. Sprawling but bloated, Connor Kenway’s American Revolution adventure was a divisive sequel that introduced stunning naval warfare to the series, though its protagonist and repetitive mission structure ultimately bogged things down. With Black Flag, Ubisoft has made a conscious effort to trim the fat, focus on what made ACIII so great and expand upon these components to create what is unequivocally one of the best games of the year and a mighty addition to this multi-million dollar selling franchise.
Set in the early 18th century -- during an era known colloquially as the ‘Golden Age of Piracy’ -- Black Flag centers on Edward Kenway, a rambunctious privateer-turned-pirate who seeks a better life by way of plundering the riches of the Caribbean. Of course, the modern-day element still lingers, but with boring barman Desmond Miles now out of the picture, these areas become far more tolerable and unobtrusive. Furthermore, Ubisoft’s obviously had some fun with the backdrop to these sections, casting players as a tester at Abstergo Entertainment; a company that flogs genetic memory simulations to consumers, and it’s your job to test out Kenway’s antics to see if they’re suitable for public consumption.
Mechanically, Black Flag pretty much adheres to the same template as the previous titles. Free-running and stealth is as seamless and satisfying as it’s always been, with the same winning combination of hopping across rooftops, navigating precarious ledges, and ducking in the undergrowth at the nudge of the analogue stick. Combat packs the same visceral edge as its predecessors, though you still feel ridiculously overpowered at times, even if linking instant kills is immensely enjoyable to watch. With over half a dozen enemies attacking at once however, battles become a more intricate game of quick reflexes, forcing you to think outside the series’ ubiquitous wait-and-counter box. Foes prove pretty relentless too, spotting you from afar and calling for backup, while musket-toting lookouts can cause considerable headache when attacking you in the middle of a six-man brawl. Things get really interesting when you upgrade Edward's arsenal, letting you pack up to four pistols and some nifty swords.
Black Flag truly comes alive at sea, and the open world setting presented to you as you cruise crystal-clear oceans on board the Jackdaw is truly one of the most evocative and action-packed sandboxes I’ve ever played this generation. If you thought Rome or the Frontier was an eye-opening experience, you ain’t seen nothing yet, matey. Ubisoft has packed a prodigious amount of content into its Caribbean playground, and while some story progress is needed to unlock certain areas, the majority of the sprawling sea is ripe for the picking. As such, Black Flag becomes your story, played how you see fit, and the freedom is there for the taking. Aside from the three main cities - Kingston, Havana and Nassau, each of which are hubs of activity - the Caribbean is punctuated with islands ripe for the picking, with chests, treasure maps, animus fragments and supplies all up for grabs. Navigation is made all the more easier this time with the introduction of synchronization points which double as fast-travel hotspots, circumventing the need to plough through endless miles of ocean. Aside from collectibles, there are forts to capture and raid, mayan ruins and caves to explore, and of course ships to battle and plunder on the high seas.