The pirate’s life for you. That’s what Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag promises, and the fantasy it delivers sets new benchmarks not only for Ubisoft’s series but for open-world gaming. You are Edward Kenway, a privateer-turned-pirate seeking riches and renown on the high seas in the years prior to the events of ACIII. That game, of course, drew criticism for its gratingly earnest protagonist – Edward’s grandson, Connor – and for the sly edutainment of toggling between historical settings and cameos of important figures. Black Flag hasn’t abandoned the series’ love of history, but Ubisoft Montreal lightens proceedings with bawdy humour and lovable seafaring drunkards aplenty. The recipe that makes Caribbean cruises such a popular holiday – sunshine, open water, gorgeous beaches – is the same one that makes Black Flag’s virtual world so enticing.
From a graphical standpoint, Black Flag’s world is built to amaze regardless of which console generation you’re playing it on. The fact that it was developed for the current generation and ported to PS4 and Xbox One means we’re talking about marginal sweeteners, not a generational leap. The tropical foliage in jungle environs has a more dynamic lilt and sway. Watching a cutscene of Edward speaking to his quartermaster Adéwalé at the stern, the current-gen version assumes your eyes are focused on the conversing men and soft-focuses the background details such as water and passing land, while the PS4 version maintains distinct water surface detail and crisper wood textures on the boat. It’s noticeable, but feels more like the step up we’ve become accustomed to between existing console and PC games.
It wouldn’t be an Assassin’s Creed game if the main quest thread didn’t eventually veer into the fantastical, and so it’s with little surprise that we discover that Black Flag’s plot hinges on a crystal cube containing human blood. The series’ affection for Lost-style sci-fi inscrutability has been dialed back considerably, however. At its core, Black Flag wants to be an old-fashioned pirate yarn of the kind that packed out cinema matinees a few decades ago.
Sadly, a number of the mission varieties used to unpack this tale cause the game to intermittently take on water. Cumbersome tail-and-eavesdrop exercises make an encore appearance, but at least checkpoints are more liberally apportioned than ever. Worst of all is naval stealth. Who thought it would be a good idea to have us navigate a claustrophobic waterway dotted with watchtowers trying to evade notice while piloting a giant barge? Cover of darkness only goes so far.
Still, the choppy waters of the campaign never stick around for long. Infiltrating outposts to reclaim treasure or kill a target is a sneaky thrill. The influence of Far Cry 3’s outpost design looms large, too, with the freedom to approach targets from a full 360 degrees. Unless you have a superhuman resistance to Black Flag’s bountiful distractions and barrel straight through the main quest line, your buzz won’t be remotely threatened. After all, isn’t freedom really what the pirate fantasy is all about?
Black Flag periodically jars you awake from the pirate simulation and into the game’s ‘real world’, where you play as a new employee at Abstergo Entertainment, which seeks to commercialise genetic-memory tech in a fashion similar to Total Recall. Some shady character from the IT department gets in contact and coerces you into hacking coworkers’ terminals. (The hacking minigames are short and sweet, not at all like the pipe-matching clumsiness of BioShock.) The story’s attempt to draw together two distinctly disparate strands of piracy isn’t exactly subtle, but you’ll want to figure out the endgame here before the game’s end.
Back in the Animus, there are echoes of Bethesda’s open-world RPGs, gradually taking you from straw-chewing peasant to legendary badass, so much is there to upgrade. Use your plunder to expand Kenway’s arsenal. Outfit your ship, the Jackdaw, with stronger cannons, or a fetching red-striped sail. Build taverns, brothels and beach-party bonfires in your very own hideout on the Inagua islands. Craft inventory and health upgrades out of animal pelts. The UI has been streamlined since ACIII, so you’ll spend less time flitting through menus and more time puffing blow darts at howler monkeys or harpooning whales.
We never felt like we had enough gold to buy everything we wanted, which seems engineered to push you out to sea to do what pirates do best: raid other ships. You peer through your spyglass to see what cargo they are carrying, then decide whether to engage in naval combat. The choice can be a fraught one. A high-level ship might be carrying a huge supply of metal that you need to upgrade your hull, but you know she’ll be a beast to subdue and neighbouring vessels will quickly set their sights on you. There’s enough skill to naval warfare to make shrewd risks profitable, though. While certain missions would warn us the Jackdaw wasn’t sufficiently upgraded, that just made it all the more satisfying to emerge victorious anyway.
The naval combat missions were the best thing about ACIII, and their foregrounding here shows that Ubisoft knows it. Plundering other ships is a multi-stage process of disabling them and then swinging aboard for a deck-based skirmish. The emergent wrinkles of dynamic weather and potential engagement from nearby ships helps to keep these battles eternally fresh. But the same freedom you enjoy while circling rivals on the ocean like a shark also extends to stealth objectives in Havana, Nassau, and other settlements. Stealth games are only as good as the flexibility of their encounters, and in that regard Black Flag is the most generous Assassin’s Creed game to date.
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is out now on Xbox 360 and PS3. It will be released on PC, Xbox One, PS4 and Wii U on November 22. PS4 version tested.