What a difference a year can make eh? Time changes everything, and after the shockingly bad AC3, Ubisoft returns to form, creating a brilliant character, a large world teeming with things to do and places to go, and an interesting story.
The biggest problem with the previous game was that Connor, while cool because he is an Assassin and that is inherently cool, was just plain boring. He was not a good character and lacked almost any kind of personality. A year on, and you take control of Connor’s grandfather, Edward Kenway, a man with more charisma and charm in his pinky that his grandson has in his whole body.
Edward starts off simply wanting to make a better life for himself and his wife. So he sets off for the caribbean, intent on making it rich and returning with enough coin to set them up for life. Telling his wife it will be for around two years, he disappears into the open sea and thus his adventure begins.
The great thing here is that Edward is NOT an Assassin, nor is he a Templar. The war between those two factions only intersects with Edwards path at certain times, because Edward kills an Assassin who attacks him and steals his clothes. So he looks the part, but will he become a Templar or join the ranks of the clothes on his back?
The answer is both. Edward plays both sides, and is only really in it for the money. Both sides are looking for something called the Observatory and while Edward is looking for the same thing, he is looking for it so he can plunder its riches and return home. It’s this that makes him such a good character, that this ancient war is of no mind to him, he just wants the coin.
Edward is also joined by a great cast of supporting characters, some of which you may recognise from history, such as the infamous Blackbeard. Each character is interesting and has their own agenda, frequently at odds with what Edward wants to achieve in life. It makes for a some great dialog and makes you want to see what happens to each of them.
After a couple of hours, you receive your ship, the Jackdaw, and can start exploring the open seas. Its here that the game truly becomes something special. Edward is a pirate after all, so having his own ship means he can actually pirate other ships and this is one of the best aspects of the game.
The ship combat in AC3 was probably one of the best aspects of that game too, but it was woefully underutilized. Here it is one of the main ways to enter combat, and after getting a ship down to a certain threshold, you can board it and take the ship. This has a few requirements, usually killing so many of the enemy crew, but it could also be destroying gunpowder barrels or killing specific people, and even all three.
There is a problem with the ship combat though. Until you upgrade the Jackdaw and get some better guns and more armour, it can be a bit of a slog to get through the early encounters. As you progress though, it becomes easier to fight using the ship, and those upgrades do make a difference, allowing you to take on bigger and bigger ships until you can hit the powerful Man o war’s, and there is nothing more satisfying than taking down a ship twice your size.
Sailing the seas is incredibly fun, and you can waste hours (and I did) just pirating every ship you see, collecting random chests and animus fragments and fighting forts. As the map expands though, I quickly realised that there was so much to do and see, and so many collectables, that I just didn't have time to do it all. I had a good go, and after forty plus hours I finished the game at about 60% completion, but I still had tons to do.
Collectibles are everywhere, and while a lot of them provide no actual benefit, the number of markers on the map kicks in your completionist side and you just want to get everything. I had to fight that a lot to get through the game in a reasonable amount of time, but what I did find was fun to chase down. This is the second biggest difference from the last game, the collectibles do not feel like a slog to track down, and you collect tons just by playing the story.
Another big difference, is the fact that skinning animals and upgrading your gear actually feels like it has a point. In AC3 you had goods you can send out for money and equipment, but after a couple of hours it just felt massively pointless. Here, everything has a point. You can hunt animals both on foot and in the Jackdaw, and only require a couple of each animal to get the upgrade associated with that creature. You can even bypass certain upgrades for the next one up, so for example, you can get the dart pouch 2 before you get the dart pouch 1.
On a side note, hunting sea creature from the Jackdaw involves harpooning. Basically, you get in a row boat and throw spears at whales and sharks until they die. While this fits with the time period and attitude to conservation, it can be a little uncomfortable to play, especially when you know you are killing currently endangered species. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, just something some people might take umbrage with.
Mechanically, the game is just as good as it ever was. You can rip through a crowd of guys with little effort, and running around on rooftops feels just a slick as ever. Not everything has been fixed, but at this point the few problems with movement and combat have been in the series for years so until there is a massive shift in the way everything is made, you will probably just have to put with them.
At certain times during the game, you will be pulled out of the animus and into a first person view. This will show you that in the real world, you are playing as a researcher at Abstergo Entertainment, amusingly a video games developer. It is an off shoot of the Abstergo Industries, the modern incarnation of the Templar order. Some old faces return here, but there isn’t much to these sections. You can hack computers and collection QR codes to reveal bits and pieces of the Abstergo’s history and future plans. It is actually kinda fun, especially all the Templar versions of character Bio’s from past games. So the bad guy from AC2 because a stoic hero and one of the greatest Popes of all time, while each of the main characters from the previous games has a section where Abstergo decides they are not good characters and are unsellable to the mass market. That is actually pretty fun, and I appreciate Ubisoft allowing the developers to poke fun at the series.
Overall, Assassins Creed IV: Black Flag is a return to form for the series. It’s vibrant, filled to the brim world, excellent ship combat and great characters mean that the many hours you will spend with it are fun, and while it doesn’t have the best story in the series, it still adds to the universe in meaningful ways. A truly excellent title.