On the fascinating pirate universe, the Assassin’s Creed franchise finds fertile waters for rehabilitation
For a franchise that is so overwhelmingly popular, it is easy to forget how Assassin's Creed awkwardly stepped into the gaming world. The original game did show a lot of promise, but its bright spots were obscured by the dark clouds of its repetitive gameplay. Fortunately, Ubisoft was able to turn the ship around in a fantastic way, not only pushing the series towards recovery, but also producing an epic masterpiece in the sequel. Just as it seemed the company had found the perfect recipe for success, Assassin's Creed III came to prove that whatever lessons were learned via the negative reactions the original game got had been promptly forgotten. For a franchise that thrived on freedom and exploration, Assassin's Creed III was sluggish and restrictive, and its blind focus on plot development completely destroyed any chance the game had of creating a constant flow of enjoyment.
And so, we arrive at Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag. It once more acknowledges the faults of its predecessor, and in order to sink them down to the bottom of the ocean it bets on the drunken, glorious and free pirate universe. It is a concept that immediately does away with some of the issues of its prequel. Where there were dull and frustrating boundaries now there is an absolutely enormous ocean to be charted and explored at will. Where there were boring and overly serious demeanors now there is the unpredictable and careless pirate way of life. And, finally, missions that seemed to play themselves have been replaced by naval quests and city-centered assassinations. And, suddenly, the franchise is looking very healthy once more.
In spite of the drastic thematic change and heavy infusion of naval combat, Black Flag remains an Assassin's Creed game at heart. Within the game's vast Caribbean waters, there is a huge world to discover with incredibly diverse locations. There are three big cities in which most of the game's plot and central missions take place (Havana, Kingston and Nassau), a handful of small fishing villages, many tropical jungles, numerous enemy forts to be invaded, ship wreckages that serve as grounds for underwater journeys, plantations, and smugglers' hideouts. The main quest does not touch upon one-fifth of the full extent of what the game offers, leaving dozens of hours of gameplay to be tackled to one's heart's content.
Freedom by itself does not make an Assassin's Creed game, but Black Flag brings along an extremely well-built world that invites players to explore it. Never has the series built such a compelling setting, and even if the game's major cities are not up-to-par with the architectural beauties of Italy that appeared in Assassin's Creed II, the sheer extent of the ocean easily compensates for that. As the game begins, players will be treated to a vast murky chart of Caribbean waters filled with question marks hiding mysterious locations. As forts are taken over, those question marks reveal numerous places that are filled with collectibles like treasure chests, treasure maps or sea shanties, and side missions like naval contracts, assassination requests and viewpoints.
As a consequence, the game's incredibly huge world does not feel one tiny bit empty. There is a secret or new location to be discovered for every few navigable miles, and because of either a strong urge to collect everything or a boundless curiosity to see every beautiful site, most players will likely gladly sail through the entire sea. Assassin's Creed IV is, therefore, a game that takes advantage of its open-ended nature to allow players to take on the adventure at their own pace, and everything about its setting is so well-done that you can't help but indulge it.
Edward Kenway, the game's starring assassin, was once a privateer. Married to the wealthy Caroline Scott, Edward is not satisfied with the life his current position provides to his new family. Therefore, turning into heavy drinking for solace and dreaming of the riches that could be achieved by living a free pirate life, he leaves his wife and promises to one day return with fame and fortune.
Within just one hour of the game's start, a turn of events will have given Edward a ship of his own to sail the seas and a mysterious letter that will put him on course to get caught in the endless battle between assassins and templars. The story, however, wisely mixes and ties together the series' main long-going conflict with the life of Edward, his crew, and all his pirate friends, alternating light-hearted feel-good moments with events of a more serious undertone and moving the story along at an excellent pace.
The rhythm of both the story development and gameplay is, unfortunately, occasionally disrupted by the return of the modern-time storyline. Interrupting the gameplay a few times during the course of the adventure, the extremely unexciting modern world gameplay and plot seem even more pointless this time around given the fact that, differently from the first three games, the story here does not really go anywhere. After all, the original modern tale reached its conclusion on Assassin's Creed III. It feels as though Ubisoft quickly put together a flat modern setting and filled it up with boring missions because there is an unwritten rule somewhere that says Assassin's Creed games must have modern-time intermissions for every few historical chapters.
Fortunately, 99% of the game does not take place in the modern days, and a large number of the missions that are a part of the game's core historical storyline are fantastic, for they involve sneaking around regions crowded with guards and slowly finding ways to kill them one by one until your main target is reached. The locations and the setup of the guards require the use of a diverse array of skills if Edward is to achieve his goal quietly and without raising any alarms, making the gameplay on those missions feel like a sandbox spy game on which pretty much every technique is at your disposal. On some missions, not being seen is absolutely mandatory; but most of them do not feature such requirement. Still, even if the punishment for being noticed is just having to fight through an army of guards, the stealth gameplay is so much more enjoyable and rewarding than combat that players will want to stay away from enemy's sight at all costs.
Some other missions, though, either fail to be engaging or are simply too frustrating. Those usually involve tailing an ally to a certain location or eavesdropping on enemies' conversation. It is certainly commendable that those missions try to move the story forward through dialogue while allowing players to actually play the game as opposed to punctuating gameplay - hence ruining its flow - with cutscenes every ten minutes. Unfortunately, simply tailing people around feels scripted and dull, and eavesdropping missions sometimes fall into a trial-and-error pattern that forces you to restart the quest until you learn all the nuances and hiding spots that are on the path of the NPCs. Gladly, though, those missions, as frequent as they are, are far outnumbered by stealth segments.
When Edward is not on land going after his next victim, he will be at sea. Naval missions are plentiful both as sidequest and as part of the main storyline, and maritime combats are easily one of the game's highlights. The sea is filled with different varieties of ships, each one having a specific difficulty level and carrying a load of materials. Ships can either be sunk, on which case only a tenth of their loot will be recovered, or boarded so that Edward and his crew can battle the enemies in epic fashion and recover the entirety of the resources. The loot, according to its nature, can either be sold for cash - in the case of rum and sugar - or be used to upgrade your ship, which is vital when tackling some of the game's more difficult missions.
The ship battles are Black Flag's most epic moments, and they reveal how wise Ubisoft's decision to take the Assassin's Creed franchise and put it right in the middle of the pirate universe was. It rehabilitates the series in a very effective way by making it more light-hearted, adding variety to its missions, creating opportunities for sidequests, and - more importantly - providing developers the opportunity to set players free on an absolutely enchanting world that is full of adventure.
Black Flag may present some of the issues that have hindered past Assassin's Creed games, such as missions that feel scripted, minor glitches, a not-so-compelling and disruptive modern storyline, and a few control issues - which are especially clear on this game's underwater segments. But whatever shortcomings it may present, they are all forgivable and forgettable due to the sheer size and sense of adventure brought up by Black Flag's astonishing setting, characters and extras. It is a journey through the rabbit hole into the eyes of a pirate and, as long as its hours of gameplay may be, it is impossible to feel like you have spent enough hours sailing the seas, plundering ships, and visiting exotic locations. One can never be tired of being a pirate on such a fascinating world.