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.
The Jackdaw is essentially Black Flag’s secondary character, and as such she must be upgraded and improved using cash and plunder that you’ve acquired throughout your nautical adventuring. Everything from crucial cannons, hull integrity, shot power, cargo space to purely aesthetic touches such as sail colour and figure heads can be pimped out, and you’ll need to use the bigger upgrades if you want to stand a chance against some of the more lethal British and Spanish ships. The Jackdaw handles like a breeze, and it’s perfectly accommodating regardless of whether you are battling out at sea or in a narrow channel.
Combat is deceptively simple, proving a tense combination of quick-thinking and strategizing as you mix up regular cannon fire, mortar shots, and fire barrels to gain the upper hand over your opponent. Taking on a lone ship is fun enough, but when your enemies attack en mass or you find yourself up against hulking Frigates and Man ‘O Wars, Black Flag’s naval warfare provides some of the most intense and compelling distractions in the entire game. The sense of accomplishment after you send a massive Frigate down to Davy Jones’ Locker is immensely palpable. Of course, you can opt to board a ship if you wish, offering a brief skirmish with the crew before being presented with three options: repair the Jackdaw, reduce your wanted level (or risk getting targeted by Hunter ships) or send it to Kenway’s fleet for a trading-style mini-game.
Kenway and crew can also take over forts, chipping away at their defenses with cannon and mortar fire before assaulting the enemy stronghold on foot. Snuff out the commander, and the pirates will control the fort entirely, unlocking Naval contracts in the process. There’s also assassination contracts to tackle via pigeon coops, which reward you with ample cash for a quick and efficient kill. Missions again have secondary objectives – usually requiring you to employ stealth rather than aggression – giving you further incentive to be creative and enjoy a cash bonus. Of course, the meat-and-potatoes of these tasks usually involve stalking your quarry inconspicuously before striking or eavesdropping on a conversation for a lengthy period of time. Sadly, it’s on land that Black Flag falters, as there’s little innovation to be had over previous entries; especially in the main campaign, where the game puts you firmly on a leash with little in the way of freedom.
The plot itself isn’t weighed down by some of the self-indulgent exposition of past games, and Kenway himself makes for a likable, if initially selfish protagonist that lacks the spark of Ezio Auditore, but he has more charisma than his stoic grandson, Connor. Still, it’s the side missions and high-sea excursions where Black Flag is at its best. Everything you do in the game has its place, whether you are diving for lost treasures while evading sharks, harpooning whales to use their skin for upgrading Edward, or simply the thrill of taking on an armed-to-the-teeth Man ‘O War and coming out on top. You are a pirate, and this is what pirates do. Ubisoft has made sure that Kenway’s adventure feels authentic, and there’s nothing incongruous about his plundering exploits; this is in direct contrast to previous games, where beating up a cheating love rat or hunting down Bigfoot came at a detriment to player immersion.
Elsewhere, Ubisoft has done a smashing job in creating a believable 18th Century Caribbean setting, thanks in no small part to Black Flag’s gorgeous visuals. Whether it’s the sun-kissed beaches, the blue spray of the ocean or the rickety huts and wooden towers that popular settlements, the Golden Age of Piracy has been meticulously crafted. And while lacking some of subtle nuances of the PS4 release, the game still looks fantastic on current-generation systems. Furthermore, the developers have gone through Black Flag with a fine tooth comb, as I encountered very few hiccups when compared to last year’s bug fest.
Those I did find were pretty innocuous – floating bottles, twitching bodies – though one forced me to restart as I got stuck on the scenery, proving frustrating to say the least. Still, overall, the game plays smooth as silk, with the frame rate only stuttering slightly during the massive brawls when boarding a ship. Sound also comes up trumps, with solid performances from the main cast and a suitable bombastic soundtrack accompanying the action; the sea shanties belted out by your crew while on the Jackdaw are a real highlight and further accentuate the game’s nautical theme.
Multiplayer also returns, though it is somewhat disappointing to see that the attention to naval warfare in the campaign hasn’t made the transition to the online component. Here, it’s business as usual on land, though the same cat-and-mouse antics that have you blending in with the crowd before striking your victim is as satisfying as it’s ever been. Boasting a colourful new set of avatars, Black Flag’s multiplayer is now equipped with a Game Lab letting you tweak various options, and the Caribbean setting lends itself well to the hide-’n-seek shenanigans that unfold. You can also now go up against the AI with a group of mates, putting your assassin skills to good use outside of stabbing your friends in the back for a nice change of pace. So, not a paradigm-shifting experience, but it’s a solid distraction, nonetheless.
Annualizing a franchise brings with it inherent side effects, chiefly among which is undoubtedly brand fatigue. As such, I have to admit that despite being a huge fan of the series, I’ve had my concerns whether or not Ubisoft could deliver the goods after a bit of a misstep last year. Fortunately, I’m happy to report that not only is Black Flag the best Assassin’s Creed game since Brotherhood, it’s also one of the greatest games I’ve played this generation.
This review was completed after spending 30+ hours on a retail copy of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. PSU.com aims to provide details on the PS4 release after launch.