Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is the 2013 release of Ubisoft’s action-adventure series, Assassin’s Creed. Although it is a numbered release, Black Flag is a prequel to Assassin’s Creed III, following the story of the pirate Edward Kenway, the grandfather to the protagonist of AC 3‘s Ratonhnhaké:ton, or Connor when he wants to blend in with white people. The Assassin’s Creed series is known for following two separate but connected storylines in each game, both focusing on the history of the Assassins vs the Templars. The main story in Black Flag follows Edward Kenway’s adventures in the Caribbean during the later portion of the Golden Age of Piracy. The other story in Black Flag takes place in modern-day Montréal, and focuses on an unnamed employee at Abstergo Entertainment, a company that is run by the Templars. Since the modern-day story is terrible, it will get the initial focus to quickly get it out of the way.
Abstergo Entertainment is focused on recovering the genetic memories of Desmond Miles, a descendant of the protagonists of each game in the series. Desmond died at the end of AC 3, but his memories were stored in “the cloud”, and now this unnamed employee at Abstergo is tasked with sifting through Desmond’s genetic memories of Edward to help develop a game and provide the Templars with the location of the Observatory. If that sounds incredibly stupid there is a good reason, it is. This modern-day story is the main arc in the series, but it jumped the shark way back in Assassin’s Creed II and was fucking terrible even before that. The gameplay during this section does not involve any combat, just some puzzle solving (hacking) and eavesdropping. Without a doubt, these are the worst parts of the game, and disrupt any momentum that the main story builds. One thing that Ubisoft got right this time is that these sections are not nearly as prevalent as they have been in previous entries.
Edward’s story begins with him killing an assassin who was on the way to Havana to sell information. Edward, being a money-hungry pirate, dons the fallen assassin’s clothes and sets sail to complete the transaction. Edward is unaware that the assassin was a traitor to the Creed, and that the people in Havana are Templars in search of the Observatory, an important location for the Creed. This sets up a story that bounces between Edward’s life as a pirate, and his quest to prevent the Templars from using the Observatory to eradicate the Assassins. Edward’s journey crosses paths with many notable people like Blackbeard, Anne Bonny, Calico Jack, and Mary Read. This story is told through a series of missions that become a bit repetitive as the twenty-hour story unfolds. The repetitiveness is not terrible, except in the case of the missions when Edward has to tail and/or eavesdrop on an enemy. Those missions are an abomination in the eyes of God and should be burned in fire.
Anybody that is excited to see how the Golden Age of Piracy would alter the skills of an assassin will be sorely disappointed to discover that the gameplay has pretty much been lifted straight out of AC 3, including the sailing controls. What is especially aggravating is that AC 3 introduced simplified controls to make the parkour sections easier, but this simplified control scheme leads to many moments of frustration when Edward climbs a wall during a chase sequence or climbs a treasure chest instead of opening it. Fights in Black Flag are well done, although a bit simple, which is fortunate due to missteps with the parkour skills resulting in more battles than the player may desire. The sailing controls are solid and straight forward, but controls for naval combat can be a bit wonky. Different weapons on the ship are selected by swinging the camera around, which takes a bit of getting used to but works well enough. Once the controls become familiar, the naval battles provide some of the best moments in the game. The sea’s waves affect the aim of the cannons, and engaging other ships during a violent storm is as exciting as it is difficult.
Apart from the parkour, sailing, and combat, Black Flag has quite a bit of other content for players to take a stab at. The West Indies is a vast area for players to explore, and it has a lot of collectibles. Animals to hunt, treasure maps leading to buried treasure, upgrade plans, and manuscripts are some of the things Edward can find as he sails the West Indies. To make things a bit easier, locations of most collectibles are labeled on the in-game map, and each area tracks its collectibles separately, so completionists will know when an area does not hold any more secrets. Plundering other ships and hunting animals provide the money and supplies to upgrade Edward’s weapons, armor, and ship, but it was a bit disappointing to learn that every area pays the same price for items. Any dreams of striking it rich by buying low and selling high will still have to be lived out on Sid Meier’s Pirates! or Uncharted Waters.
On the surface, Black Flag is a good-looking game. The major cities, the ocean and its landscape, and the ships all look great, but after the first impression wears off, it becomes clear that corners were cut with the visuals. Clipping is quite common, from sails clipping through the mast of a ship to Edward’s hands going right through the animal that he is skinning. While the main cities look and feel different from one another, the rest of the fifty locations fall into one of three categories, and there is not much deviation within the categories. The music is pretty much standard fare for the setting and era, but the shanties that the crew sings while sailing are a nice touch. The voice acting is by and large mediocre, with Edward and a few of the other main characters being voiced quite well, but everybody else being somewhere between alright and awful.
With more development time, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag could have been a great title, but it comes off as feeling like every other game in the series with a pirate theme painted over the top. Fans of the era will enjoy the exploration and the ship battles but may be disappointed that the Templar story overtakes real historical story. People that enjoyed previous entries in the series will find the experience they have known now for over four years. Black Flag does not do anything especially groundbreaking, it just kind of melts away into the porridge that the series is. It is a decent game, worth a rental for anybody interested in the series or pirates, but that is about it.