Ahoy me Hearties! It’s not very often that I get to write anything concerning pirates. Given that it is such a rarity you’ll forgive me for attempting to use every single piece of pirate slang I can muster in my next 1000 words or so. Sit back and relax ya scurvy dogs as I tell you all about Captain Edward Kenway and his exploits on the high seas in what equates to being the single best Assassin’s Creed experience we’ve seen to date. Savvy?
I clearly remember the very first time I got my hands on Assassin’s Creed. While it certainly had a few minor hiccups the promise it showed was undeniable and here we are now at the sixth game in the successful series. Despite ups and downs as the series has progressed the team at Ubisoft has seemingly managed to take everything that’s worked in the past and add to it to create the ultimate Assassin’s Creed experience. You couldn’t ask for a more vibrant setting than the Golden Age of Pirates with its tropical locales, colourful characters and hulking ships equipped for war in the open water. The team at Ubisoft takes full advantage of this to give you a sprawling and gorgeous sandbox to play in like no other you’ve ever experienced.
In its opening moments you take control of Edward Kenway, a sea faring pirate trying to make his way in the world to impress the love he’s left back home. Through a turn of events Edward quite literally stumbles his way into the world of the Assassins vs the Templars and while the story very much follows the familiar battle of the franchise you’ll find quite quickly that Kenway’s only real concern is booty (you can take that any way you like). This indifference and swagger makes for a very enjoyable character and the lack of commitment to being an assassin is something we’ve yet to see. It’s a refreshing change to see this much more light hearted approach.
Throughout Kenway’s rise to swashbuckling infamy you’ll encounter many of the pirates you’ve heard of in stories and movies. There’s Blackbeard, Calico Jack and more and each adds their own flair to the game. Using familiar characters based on real history adds a feeling of authenticity to the game and is something that this franchise is no stranger to. That being said they obviously stray in the name of creative license but that just makes it more engaging.
Black Flag’s true strength lies in the world available to you when you decide to waver off the main story line and explore the world that has been created. Never in this series has there been such an abundance of things to keep you occupied. You can go diving for treasure while fending off sharks and if they really get bothersome you can harpoon the bilgesuckers! You can waste some time collecting animus fragments and tracking down loot chests. My personal favourite time waster is chasing down new shanties for your ever expanding crew of scallywags and hornswagglers to sing onboard the Jackdaw. There’s obviously the assassinations, there’s hunting, naval battles, Mayan puzzles, upgrading… you get the picture. This game is massive in scope and while some of the aforementioned activities can get a little bit repetitive I’ve never once found myself bored.
Outside of the Animus you find yourself in the shoes of an employee at Abstergo Entertainment helping to piece together the life of Edward Kenway for an interactive sort of gaming experience. That’s right, you work for a video game company. While there are some fun characters and some enjoyable interactions I found it forced and not even close to the same caliber as the Desmond Miles narrative. Hunting for QR code sticky notes in an office building just isn’t the same as bringing down a modern day Templar organization. This is such a small part of the game as a whole that while it doesn’t quite stack up to past iterations it doesn’t detract from this one either.
Some of the core gameplay elements that the Assassin’s Creed franchise is best known for are certainly starting to show their wear. The free running, while always fun to watch can glitch a little bit with Edward randomly jumping off rooftops to his untimely demise or repeatedly attempting to climb something he can’t but for the most part he controls well. I really only found myself losing control when frantically chasing down a courier or a mark. Hand-to-hand combat is a delight as always with the familiar mix of parries, disarms, throws and stabs although in most situations I chose to implement striking from cover and operating in stealth. In truth, if I had the option I’d probably try to air assassinate every single person I came across because it’s the most badass way to dispatch of somebody, well, EVER. In more chaotic encounters with multiple enemies there were some minor issues of collision detection that I noticed but nothing to the point where I felt that it damaged my experience.
Black Flag really shines with the naval combat which makes perfect sense considering the subject material. Battle on the high seas is absolutely exhilarating and once you get accustomed to the controls remarkably satisfying as well. After incapacitating your target you can scuttle up alongside and board as well which results in more loot than just sinking them and is also a hell of a lot of fun. Various challenges such as the changing weather and rogue waves really help to keep the player on their toes as well. A key element in the game is upgrading the Jackdaw to become a powerhouse war ship but you’ll find that once you’re fully upgraded that you’re borderline unstoppable. This reduces the challenge but oddly enough doesn’t reduce the fun factor.
Gameplay and mechanics aside both the sound and the visuals really do their part in tying everything in the game together. As I mentioned earlier Black Flag is stunning in its presentation and is without a doubt one of the best looking titles to grace consoles this generation. Each city be it Nassau, Kingston or Havana has a unique feel and its own distinct look. They’re brought to life with interesting characters and true to period architecture. While in Nassau I actually caught myself standing motionless at a tavern listening to a make shift band and leading lady perform for a stretch. That immersiveness is something I can really appreciate. I often found myself roaming jungles or searching for random islands just to be able to take it all in. Another one of my favourite activities was taking the Jackdaw to travel speed and watching the waves churn as they lapped up against her hull. Overall there is a lot to just sit back and appreciate. You’d think that these types of visuals would be pushing the console hardware to its limits but I didn’t notice any lag or framerate slowdowns except in the most busy of scenarios. I can only imagine how Black Flag is going to look with the processing power upgrades of the next gen consoles.
Not to be outdone by the visuals the sound is as top notch as it gets in every aspect. Characters are so well acted that I often found myself drawn in as if watching a movie and not playing a game. Edward Kenway himself is portrayed to perfection. Listening to your crew sing their sea shanties is particularly enjoyable. Less direct you have all sorts of background sounds such as crashing waves, murmuring crowds and squawking seagulls (or shithawks as I so lovingly refer to them) all designed to pull you further in to the game world and it works.
In a time where sandbox style games are becoming more and more prevalent Black Flag stands on top of the pile with its own unique and thoroughly enjoyable experience. Ubisoft Montreal has crafted a vibrant world and the strangely endearing Captain Kenway will also likely be your favourite assassin yet. Engage your inner swashbuckler and become the most feared pirate to ever sail the seven seas. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is an experience not to be missed.