When you’re not exploring cities, searching for Sea Shanties (hard fact, you haven’t experienced the full majesty of Black Flag until you’ve heard every shanty) and looting chests, you spend around 40 percent of the game at sea, in the Jackdaw. The balance feels spot-on. There’s a wide variety of interesting naval activities to complete too, the highlight of which are the naval fortresses. These are like boss battles--you pound them from sea with your cannons and mortars before swimming ashore to kill the fort captain and claim the place as your own. This then unfogs areas of the map for you to explore. Each fort has a unique ‘defence mechanism’ (one is constantly buffeted by rogue waves, that damage your ship), so working out how to smash them is a welcome test of skill.
I played through AC4 on PS4, but had a chance to try the final PS3/360 versions. On current-gen the game looks beautiful, and even the amazing wave effects are comparable across formats. There’s a loss of vibrancy in the textures, so PS3’s lush jungles and azure seas aren’t quite as deep and colourful, and the environments don’t feel as alive because the detailed foliage effects are exclusive to next-gen. So, the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions are technically fantastic--they push the respective hardware to their limits. But they do lack detail and polish.
Most of the other collectables just appear on your map, which means that finding them requires time, rather than actual skill or smarts. Love a good grind? You’ll find it here. Again, though, because the world is such a pleasant, yet unpredictable place to be thanks to random weather changes, getting to these collectables is half the fun. I feel a definite sense of serenity as I chop across the ocean with my crew singing sea shanties, and pointing out areas of interest. Oh, have you stopped singing? I didn’t tell you to stop did I? No. THEN START SINGING AGAIN.
Side missions themselves are a mixed bags of quality. While grabbing all the Animus shards is a teeth-grinding exercise in compulsive ‘stuff collection’, the Assassin contracts and Templar hunts offer refreshingly creative breaks from the core story. Even the shark / whale hunting is feels different and satisfying every time you climb into the Jackdaw’s fishing boat.
Sadly, the game does fall apart during some of the main missions, which rely too heavily on repetition of systems that have barely evolved since the original game. Tailing targets, eavesdropping on conversations, even following ships in the Jackdaw--they’re great the first few times you do them, but Black Flag just repeats the same mission types over and over. It’s a stark contrast to GTA 5’s smart, original mission design, and something that needs examining before the next game. Tellingly, I only recall one assassination mission, near the end, which captures the creative magic that made AC2 such a runaway success. Made me feel warm and cosy, a dark glimpse into my own psyche that I’ll ignore for now. So, yeah, for a game called ‘Assassin’s Creed’ there’s very little actual assassination.
Aaaand… it’s here where Assassin’s Creed 4 is going to split opinion. As I said at the start: Black Flag is a fantastic piracy sim with some well rounded, well voiced supporting characters, but the latter parts of the story are still in thrall to mystical, beard-stroking cod-philosophy that muddied AC3. It’s at these moments when Black Flag is weakest. Characters are killed off too quickly, plot threads are too hastily tied off, and the final confrontation is one of the least satisfying in any Assassin’s Creed game to date: all concessions to the game’s labyrinthine lore.
Following Desmond’s death, Black Flag was a perfect chance to break away from all the mystical guff that has held back the series, but the appearance of ‘returning characters’ feels like a lead weight dragging Edward Kenway to the depths of ridiculousness. Shame, because the original way this game handles the relationship between the historical segments and the modern day story is superb.
You play as a random Abstergo employee, who dips into the Animus as part of research for a pirate game. Essentially, the game is about Abstergo making the latest Assassin’s Creed game, yeah? It’s very, very self-referential, but handled superbly well. This alone ensures that there’s enough in-jokes and fan pleasing stuff in the out-of-Animus world to satisfy long term fans. Ubisoft even trolls players at one point, letting players access a leaked document that discusses possible future locations for the AC series. Few games treat fans with such playful respect. I certainly felt special.
Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag is an imperfect game, for sure, but I found the overall experience immensely enjoyable. Accept that it’s really a game about pirates, not assassins, and you’ll love filling the boots of Edward Kenway for 30-40 hours. The fact that it regularly departs so markedly from the core series is--bizarrely--Black Flag’s greatest strength, and it’s only when concessions are made to the origins of Assassin’s Creed that the quality drops. A brilliant pirate game, then, but not a vintage Assassin’s Creed.