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Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag Review

  • First Released Oct 29, 2013
  • Reviewed Oct 29, 2013
  • X360
  • PS3
  • XONE
  • PS4

Call me Edward.

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We've now had the opportunity to play the Xbox One version of Assassin's Creed IV, and there are no way ways around it: this version just doesn't look as nice as it does on PlayStation 4. The differences, however are slight. The PlayStation 4 version boasts a higher resolution, making detailed edges--like the leaves of a palm tree, or the rope nets on a ship--smoother and less jagged. But taken on its own, the Xbox One version still looks fantastic, with the impressive lighting and water effects that make sailing the Caribbean in this game such a joy. While the PS4 version does look better, you won't be disappointed by Assassin's Creed IV on Xbox One. - SM, 11/21/2013, 09:00 PST

How far can you stray from home before it's impossible to ever return? That's the question at the heart of Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag. It's something that plagues Edward Kenway, the game's roguish hero, as he explores the Caribbean in search of wealth and the dream of returning to England a more respectable man. But for as much as Kenway longs for the day he can leave the pirate life behind, the freedom of the open sea is a difficult thing to resist. And who can blame him? Because after this stunning and beautifully realized tale of adventure on the high seas, it's hard to imagine the Assassin's Creed series returning to its landlocked roots

The world of Black Flag is nothing short of remarkable. This is the most expansive setting in the history of the franchise, a virtual rendition of the West Indies that encompasses all manner of burgeoning colonies, Mayan ruins, and deadly jungles. Cities like Havana and Nassau reflect the series' trademark attention to detail, from the stonework cathedrals of the former to the ramshackle taverns of the latter. Then there are the remote islands inhabited by nothing more than crabs and sea turtles, underwater shipwrecks waiting to be explored, and vast stretches of sparkling Caribbean waters that are every bit as deadly as they are gorgeous.

Indeed, what makes Black Flag so special is the way it captures the thrill of sailing the open sea. It's more than the spectacle of a humpback whale leaping into the air and spraying the deck of your ship, or the sound of your crew breaking out into a sea shanty just as the sun is beginning to set across the horizon. It's the feeling that there's always something out there to be discovered, rewards waiting to be captured no matter who's standing in your way.

Simply sailing into the sunset is a delight in Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag.
Simply sailing into the sunset is a delight in Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag.

What began as a series of isolated side missions in Assassin's Creed III has exploded into a full-fledged means of exploration, discovery, and combat. Early into Black Flag, Kenway takes the helm of the Jackdaw, a pirate ship that has clearly seen better days. From there, it's your charge to build the Jackdaw into a vessel capable of taking on the most powerful warships in the Caribbean. After all, that Spanish gold isn't going to plunder itself.

Taking on naval superpowers seems like a tall order early on, but pushing yourself to improve your once-rickety ship is a process that Black Flag makes incredibly rewarding. This is a game that gives you an absurd number of ways to acquire the coin and resources needed to hold your own at sea. You might run off in search of buried treasure using nothing more than a crudely drawn map, or silently infiltrate a military storehouse to collect the wood and metal needed to bolster the Jackdaw's hull. That bit of flotsam floating in the distance might be a crate of rum you can sell to make up the difference on your new mortar upgrades, or it might be a stranded sailor you can rescue to expand the size of your crew. Black Flag doesn't just present a beautiful world; it gives you a mountain of reasons to run off and go exploring.

Black Flag builds on ACIII's naval side missions to create an experience every bit as important as running around on dry land.
Black Flag builds on ACIII's naval side missions to create an experience every bit as important as running around on dry land.

Upgrading your ship is critical because Black Flag places a huge emphasis on naval combat. Both the storyline and side missions are full of tense sea battles, where strategic positioning and explosive cannon fire come together in exhilarating contests of naval supremacy. It's a system that allows for a variety of tactics while never getting bogged down in overly complex controls, whether you're picking off enemies from afar with a well-placed mortar strike or dumping explosive barrels into the path of an unsuspecting foe. Whatever approach you take, managing sea battles is an absolute blast.

It's not just wanton mayhem, either. Black Flag encourages you to take pause and survey the landscape before charging into a fight. With the help of your spyglass, you can scout another ship's cargo to decide whether the resources onboard match your current needs, as well as scout out how much money you'll be able to loot. This same tool also reveals an enemy's overall combat level, letting you know if you should warm up against a few more level-8 schooners before taking on that level-20 frigate. All this reconnaissance makes naval combat that much more satisfying; success comes not only from how accurately you lob your cannons, but from how adeptly you measure the risk versus the reward.

These naval battles often lead directly into more traditional Assassin's Creed swordfighting, and it's in those seamless transitions that Black Flag fuses its two halves into one cohesive whole. Destroying a ship outright rewards you with only half its cargo, so you need to board these vessels and wear down their reluctant crews to reap the full reward. That means swinging acrobatically from one ship to another, exchanging sword strikes with enemy sailors, and watching your crew erupt in cheers once those enemies have surrendered. A similar transition occurs during the game's numerous fort takeover missions, where you bombard the defenses of a seaside fortress by ship before charging into the ensuing chaos to assassinate its officers amid a storm of fire and smoke.

Black Flag doesn't just present a beautiful world; it gives you a mountain of reasons to run off and go exploring.

That these acts of naval piracy continue to be so exciting so deep into the game's lengthy story campaign is a testament to just how excellent Black Flag's progression loop is. Raid an enemy gunboat, and you can scrap it for parts or send it on trade route missions to earn more money on the side. Overtake a fort, and you'll unlock dozens of new activities on the map, whether they're the location of great white sharks whose skin you can turn into improved armor or an underwater shipwreck you can explore once you've saved up enough for that diving bell. No matter where you go or what you do, it's virtually impossible to feel like you're not advancing in some way.

And it's a quick game to advance, too. Assassin's Creed III's crawling preamble and frequent pacing issues are nowhere to be found here, as Black Flag wastes no time throwing you into the life of a pirate. The story revolves around the aforementioned Edward Kenway, a charming troublemaker from Bristol by way of Swansea. If his name sounds familiar, it should: Edward is the grandfather of ACIII protagonist Connor Kenway. The elder Kenway's backstory is rooted in a fairly standard trope--a peasant off in search of wealth to build a better life back home--but it's his unique place in the series' overarching fiction, and the universal themes the story explores, that makes the narrative shine.

Storms have a way of catching you off guard in Black Flag.
Storms have a way of catching you off guard in Black Flag.

At the game's outset, Kenway is neither assassin nor templar. He's a man whose only allegiance lies with his ship's crew, playing both factions against one another for his own gain. But as the years wear on, the luster of youthful indiscretion fades away as Kenway wrestles with a desire to find some greater purpose and a longing to do right by his estranged wife back home. It's a story that explores the human side of pirates, painting larger-than-life figures in a light that even manages to turn Blackbeard into a sympathetic character.

The narrative grows a bit unwieldy toward the end, but finds its footing just before a credit sequence that is far more touching than any story about pirates has a right to be. An eclectic cast of side characters briefly dance with but never fully tackle more powerful themes like race and gender in the age of colonialism, but such narrative flirtations are one of the few shortcomings in an otherwise terrific story. Even the modern-day chapters--brief and innocuous as they may be--manage to add a refreshing and occasionally humorous take to the Abstergo story arc.

Despite the presence of pirates and scoundrels, the world of Black Flag is a consistently gorgeous one. The Assassin's Creed series has always had a knack for establishing an engrossing sense of place in its dense urban landscapes, and Ubisoft hasn't missed a step in applying that same level of craftsmanship toward the islands and jungles of the Caribbean. Black Flag looks especially impressive on the PlayStation 4, where improved lighting and a greater resolution bathe the world in a terrific level of visual fidelity and artistic flourishes. You're better able to notice the little things, like the way foliage gives way to Kenway while he sneaks through the bushes, or the realistic flutter of fabric on your sails when a strong wind sweeps across the sea. The current-generation versions of Black Flag still look terrific, but all those little details in the PlayStation 4 version draw you into the world that much more.

Cities like Havana echo the classic environments of previous games.
Cities like Havana echo the classic environments of previous games.

Kenway's adventures on dry land don't amount to the same wholesale reinvention of the series that his time aboard the Jackdaw does, but these portions of the game have hardly been ignored. Ubisoft has borrowed a number of concepts from Far Cry 3, and they improve the on-foot experience immensely. Crafting animal hides into better equipment is a far greater incentive to hunt wild animals than it was in ACIII, while the ability to sabotage alarm bells in an enemy base adds more flexibility to the stealth experience. But once a fight breaks out into a full-on melee, Black Flag begins to feel much more like its predecessors: swordfighting is as fluid and lively as ever, but lacks any substantial refinements over previous games.

Where that sense of deja vu hits Black Flag the hardest is in its overuse of eavesdropping missions. Throughout the main story, the game asks you time and again to tail your targets (but not too closely!) and eavesdrop on their conversations (but not too obviously!) before finally letting you decide what to do with them. These types of missions--a staple of the very first game in the series--had already begun to show their age in recent Assassin's Creed installments, and time hasn't done them any favors since then.

Not all treasures are above water in Black Flag.
Not all treasures are above water in Black Flag.

While less glaring, a similar lack of advancement can be found in Black Flag's multiplayer. The cat-and-mouse nature of Wanted and the co-op chaos of Wolfpack are still tremendous fun, but outside of a new story-driven tutorial mode, there aren't any substantial additions. Even though Assassin's Creed multiplayer has always occupied something of an "icing on the cake" role, it's a shame this part of the game hasn't enjoyed the same creative renewal that its single-player portion has.

But these moments of stagnation are isolated events in what is, ultimately, a massive and highly ambitious game. Black Flag presents a world full of adventure and opportunity, where treasures scavenged in a remote jungle can be used to turn the tide in a massive naval battle against mighty Spanish warships. It's a game where you can sail the seas for hours at a time, either hunting great white sharks or simply listening to your crew sing one infectious sea shanty after the next. There's an incredible scope to what you can do in Black Flag, with a level of harmony between its component parts that encourages you to try it all, and a story that keeps you invested throughout the whole thing. If there was ever any question that Assassin's Creed needed something ambitious to get the series back on track, Black Flag is that game and then some.

Back To Top
The Good
A gorgeous, vibrant world full of reasons to go exploring
Outstanding naval combat
Progression systems are profoundly rewarding
Terrific story that paints pirates in a human light
Seafaring and on-foot exploration complement each other wonderfully
The Bad
No substantial additions to multiplayer
A few too many eavesdropping missions
About GameSpot's Reviews
Other Platform Reviews for Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag

About the Author

Shaun McInnis can spend hours explaining why Assassin's Creed II is his favorite game in the series, but Black Flag gives it a real run for its money. He played the PlayStation 4 version to completion over a period of several days at Ubisoft's San Francisco office. Current-gen versions were later played in GameSpot's office.
2101 Comments  RefreshSorted By 
GameSpot has a zero tolerance policy when it comes to toxic conduct in comments. Any abusive, racist, sexist, threatening, bullying, vulgar, and otherwise objectionable behavior will result in moderation and/or account termination. Please keep your discussion civil.

Avatar image for young_nasa87

Why people always trying to recruit people to PC? I have a PC I spent 600 bucks on and it can play the game, but not better than the PS4.

Telling somebody to buy a PC is misleading, as they would have to spend double than the cost of a PS4 for it to look better than the ps4 version.

Avatar image for wristbreaker

@young_nasa87 Exactly my point... though pc exclusives are good, console exclusives are just as good... PC gamers that say otherwise are just bullies and what other people to feel bad about their decisions so they can feel good about themselves...

Avatar image for Dexyu

@wristbreaker id love to play many games on ps and xbox but i dont have the cash to buy 2 consoles i stick with pc its my main squeze skype friends internet all i need

Avatar image for Cowbie

@young_nasa87 :Meh - if you're smart you can build a decent computer for less than that. And computer games can be more fun, ever hear of modding? Try Skryim on a console, then try it on a computer. Way more freedom to be had on the PC.

Avatar image for evil_snuggles

PC gamer are lonely attention looking for acknowledgement. game devlopers make all AAA games for console because make the money OC gets ports if there lucky month later.PC gaming is a niche hobby uncool and not mainstream . there i said it

Avatar image for Cowbie

@evil_snuggles You're an idiot. There, I said it.

Avatar image for kamikazeespleen

@evil_snuggles Well your second to last sentence just shows you are just anti-PC for no legitimate reason, therefore I can't take your argument seriously.

Avatar image for andr31coco

This isn't assassin's creed. It's a game about pirates that uses the assassin's creed name to sell. A very good game about pirates, but nothing more. They massacred the story line (90% pirate, 10% assassin), which is all there is about this series. This series died with Desmond. Huge disappointment story-wise for me.

We can only hope for a better one next year, right?

Avatar image for CatAtomic999

Oh c'mon-- the convoluted, nonsensical Desmond storyline has been weighing this series down from the beginning. I say good on Ubisoft for FINALLY cutting that tangled mess loose.

This game is as entertaining as it is largely because it keeps that repetitive 'Templar vs. Assassin' theme in the background, and instead focuses on a main character who has his own motivations.

Avatar image for Dexyu

@andr31coco Dude did you even play the f game?

Avatar image for DAP2010

@andr31coco wrong.

Avatar image for wa128

If you want good graphics, just buy a PC. It is graphically superior in every possible way.

Real gamers use a PC, casual gamers use a ps4 or xbone...It is more expensive to get a pc in the first place, but the games are cheaper so in the long run it evens out. (You can get most triple A games for under 10 dollars after a while)

In the end you just get a better experience on PC for the same money....

(You can even use your console controller on PC and connect is to a tv)

Avatar image for Samslayer

@wa128 I hate this crap, but I guess for each their own. I'm glad you think you're a real gamer. I guess I just play video games.

Avatar image for AllHailTheSith

@wa128 As a general rule... yes, PC gaming is better. My PC is awesome, and I prefer to use it most of the time. At the middle or end of a console's life, this is apparent. Competing against a new system, like the PS4/Xbox one, there is very little difference. There is a difference, yes. But nothing to get on a high horse about or go out and buy $800 worth of gear. And any "real gamer", as my fellow PC gamers like to call themselves, will admit this, or they are trolling. The only difference is the frame rate, which is usually capped on consoles, and AA. PS4 looks great on this game, and PC would truly be not much better. At least not for anyone but someone running SLI 780 GTX's or better. I chose PS4 over PC for this game, and I would again. This game looks great, and plays great, on next gen or PC.

Avatar image for Uangry

@wa128 "real gamer". haha it always makes me laugh.

Avatar image for wa128

@Uangry @wa128 for example someone who has a passion for gaming and doesn't settle for 1080p and 30/60fps

Avatar image for mista911

@fast2ghl @wa128 @Uangry thats funny because all the PS4 fanboys seem to be doing is screaming 1080p vs 720p. PS4 fanboys truly do care about visual fidelity, if not then both xb1 and ps4 are the same machine.

Avatar image for fast2ghl

@wa128 @Uangry that'd be called a passion for visual fidelity, not gaming on its own.....

Avatar image for themc_7

nice. I've been waiting for this review. My AC blackflag on 360 has been kept unopened. I will now trade in for the xbox one version :)

Avatar image for pyro1245

Anyone play the PC version? How's the Ass Creed running there?

Avatar image for franu


Avatar image for evil_snuggles

Why does the xbone get the same score as the PS4 . The ps4 is the superior version .Gamespot had two different scores for ps3 and 360 . This is bull sh!t.

Avatar image for zinten

@evil_snuggles The gfx may not be as sharp as on ps4 but that probably doesn't deserve a full point removal since gamespot use wholenumbers now.

Avatar image for Smosh150

@evil_snuggles I could say the same about the PC version, but the game will still be the same whatever I were to play it on, a few nice touches with no real advantage that should affect the "fun" of the game imo.

Avatar image for evil_snuggles

Lower res was a big deal when it was the PS3 and 360 . Now PS4 have double the res it's not a big deal gamespot is full of hypocrites!

Avatar image for golden1elite

@evil_snuggles You do understand that it is only a few games on the XBOX ONE that are not in 1080P? COD and Dead rising. And the developers said it had nothing to do with the system, but with optimization. This is why the PS4 could not run it at 1080P correctly until they figured out a fix to the problem half a month ago. Stop being such a fan boy, both systems look damn amazing!

Avatar image for billzihang

@evil_snuggles The difference is minimul. Stop being a Sony fanboy.

Avatar image for evil_snuggles

720p is the new 1080p just ask the xbots

Avatar image for Uangry

@evil_snuggles One fanboy insulting another. You drones are hilarious! xD

Avatar image for billzihang

Shame there aren't any horses. I mean it isn't if they didn't use them for land transportation.

Avatar image for franu

But for compensate this, now the viewpoints are quicktravel (Sorry about my poor english)

Avatar image for wristbreaker

@franu wait... what???

Avatar image for speedfreak48t5p

@jimdove2 Yes it is.

Avatar image for spikepigeo

@speedfreak48t5p @jimdove2 debatable

Avatar image for TheShadow153

All AC have been good, I've played every one of them.

And I can say with the AC1 AC2 and its predecessors were historically good, but the time to explore every corner of the world was boring.

AC3 other hand, made interesting exploration appending the hunts, for me both history and exploration were very good, but they still leave something to be desired about using the boat

I've been playing the AC4, for me is the best of all good story and everything new that makes it fun brings its exploration. What I value most is that it keeps the same scheme in the previous AC ground. But at the same time expanding the horizons in his new scheme sea

Avatar image for Gamer3344

"A massive list of empty tick boxes which you've been told to complete one after another"

- Danny O'Dwyer

That's what this game is.

Avatar image for Dexyu

@Gamer3344 That can be said about any game smart ass

Avatar image for Uangry

So this game is about pirating. Interesting....

Avatar image for Gamer3344

This game is 7 at best, you do the same shit again, again and again.

Avatar image for Dexyu

@Gamer3344 why fix what aint brok bub

Avatar image for deactivated-5b81a16c86248

This game is really amazing, if they got rid of the AC story line and made this a pirate game it would have been a lot better. I wasn't expecting much going in but wow is it good.

Avatar image for Dexyu

@Williams0907 i enjoyed future bits. and the assasin moves

Avatar image for Uangry

@Williams0907 Good idea except it wouldn't have sold very well without the AC title. Ubisoft want your money, bro :)

Avatar image for Dexyu

@Uangry @Williams0907 well ass much as any other company + the game was awesome and it had assasins story in there + you wen to the future to so i dont get why people think it should not be called assassin?
Etzio was no assasin day one. Think of the ship as a horse if you like

Avatar image for skipper847

Glad I waited for PC version. Should be here now though but delivery not been yet arghhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.

Avatar image for franu

Steam bro, Steam!

Avatar image for DaRq_MiNoS

I'm so happy I saved this game for next gen as the launch line-ups didn't have many of the type of games I like. This game looks fantastic on PS4, and it is as addictive as crack. Twice this week I've stayed up all night playing it. There are so many fun things to do on the side apart from the main story.

The only complaint I have is the controls. I wish there was a regular run button (R1?) as well as the free run button. Too many times I just want to run from point A to point B, and it keeps making me jump into bushes or onto the sides of buildings. I've gotten better at avoiding these things, but it still happens occasionally and can be a little frustrating. If the controls were silky smooth, I'd easily give this game a 9.5 or 10. As it stands, it's one of the very best games of the year IMO.

Avatar image for mkeezay22

@DaRq_MiNoS The two run buttons is a great idea, I agree you often start climbing when all you wanna do is run.

I'm playing on PC on with the settings maxed and it looks great, is GS gonna completely ignore the PC version or are they gonna update, the update on the PC version should be up with this.

Avatar image for Dark-Exsphere

again xbox one gets the more crap version... seriously man why is microsoft's console doing worse performance wise????


Avatar image for Geardudu

@Dark-Exsphere I'm an Xbox fan, but the thing is: PS4 is superior, we all know that. It is a fact. BUT that doesn't mean the Xbox One is weak. It is just weaker, and I see no problem there at all.

But still, developers don't know how to properly use both consoles, as in any generation. The ESRAM memory combined with the DDR3 goes at 204GB/s, while the PS4 goes at 176GB/s. We may see this gap getting smaller on the next years.

Avatar image for billzihang

@Geardudu @Dark-Exsphere I too will expect the gap to narrow or even vanish. It must be that developers are still very new and unfamiliar with this ESRAM thing. For PS4 it's probably exactly like optimising the PC version; which is also good for my platform, PC.

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag More Info

  • First Released Oct 29, 2013
    • Nintendo Switch
    • PC
    • + 5 more
    • PlayStation 3
    • PlayStation 4
    • Wii U
    • Xbox 360
    • Xbox One
    Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag is a free-roaming action adventure game for both current gen and next gen consoles. Players will take the role of young captain Edward Kenway whose exploits earn the respect of pirate legends like Blackbeard, but draw him into an ancient war that may destroy everything the pirates have built.
    Average Rating2202 Rating(s)
    Please Sign In to rate Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag
    Developed by:
    Ubisoft, Ubisoft Montreal
    Published by:
    Action, Adventure
    Content is generally suitable for ages 17 and up. May contain intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content and/or strong language.
    Blood, Sexual Themes, Strong Language, Use of Alcohol, Violence