When you think about it, it could be said the Assassin's Creed franchise gets more credit than it deserves. It is one of the most popular and well-known series in modern gaming, yet its main line of titles is awfully uneven. The first part of the trilogy was overwhelmingly daring in its scope, and it would be no exaggeration to call it one of the most ambitious games of all time. All that greed, though, translated into a title whose gameplay crumbled under the sheer weight of the game's size; often falling into repetitive, predictable, and bland patterns.
After the disappointment, came the triumph. Assassin's Creed II was so successful that it span a large number of spin-offs that dove even further into its amazing setting. Ubisoft showed its willingness to correct the flaws of the original by listening to fans' complaints, and the result was an epic. The intriguing Renaissance period and the wonderful Italian architecture were a pleasant invitation to exploration, and if players accepted it, they would encounter a world full of great missions, secrets, content and characters.
After striking pure gold, the natural assumption was Ubisoft would stick to that smooth formula and craft sequels whose quality would be comparable to that of the franchise's magnum opus. However, what separates great games from merely good ones are the little things, and Assassin's Creed III went ahead and did all of them criminally wrong. Although Boston and New York were also alluring, the franchise's soul was not there.
Where Assassin's Creed II thrived upon freedom, the third installment was too restrictive. Its gameplay centered around awfully scripted missions, and players were kept in bounding chains until well after the game's halfway mark. Assassin's Creed II was a masterpiece because the world belonged to you, but on Assassin's Creed III your character belonged to the world. Games that have all the cinematics and restrictions of a movie have become more prominent, but while that gameplay style is a nice alternative, after all there is beauty in variety, things take a wrong turn when some of those elements spill over a franchise to which they do not belong.
Assassin's Creed IV arrives in the midst of that context. As of today, the main line of games of the franchise had brought us one universally acclaimed title, and two that rightfully caused very mixed reactions. In a way, Black Flag is the game that could define the series as either some sort of one-hit wonder that is yearly milked to no grand effects, or a generally successful brand.
There is no single magical recipe to do so, but recovering the thrilling sense of freedom of Assassin's Creed II seems to be a core issue. The choice of a pirate setting is a good step towards the addressing of that problem. There is no pirate lifestyle without an awesome ship full of cannons and the main character behind the wheel steering the beast through the dangerous Caribbean waters and finding trouble at every port and island. If Ubisoft decides to go that way from the game's very start, and given the series' ability to build impressive believable locations, then chances are Black Flag will be an absolute blast to explore.
If done right, the setting can probably do to the franchise what The King of Red Lions did to Zelda on Wind Waker, which is providing an unique and unparalleled sense of freedom. At the same time, the wild piracy can solve another one of the previous game's many small issues, which is its overly serious tone. The franchise has a strong love for some historical accuracy, so its safe to say Black Flag will not venture into cartoonish territory. However, the pirate universe and the reckless drunkenness of it all might lead to some missions and situations that are more free-spirited and fun, which would be a true blessing.
As history has shown so well, Ubisoft was able to learn from their faults after the first game's reception, and that awareness brought us to the wonderful Assassin's Creed II. Assassin's Creed III, though a mistake in many areas, can be positively seen as another learning opportunity for the company. Fortunately, the superficial design choices made by Ubisoft, and now the generally positive reviews indicate that the company was once again able to analyze and gain knowledge from their miscues.
In the end, it is hard not to root for Black Flag's success. After all, the gaming universe is full of incredible sensations and remarkable experiences, and - as shown by its second installment - the Assassin's Creed franchise, when done absolutely right, has a power to overwhelm and amaze that cannot be matched by most games out there.