Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag

PS3, Xbox 360, PC, Wii U
Developed by: Ubisoft Montreal
Pillage to your heart's content in 'Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag'
By Matt Ross
Nov 05, 2013

What sets the Assassin’s Creed franchise apart is the willingness of series developer Ubisoft to undergo a very public, very obvious learning process. It’s possible – and surprisingly enjoyable – to chart the progression from 2007’s Assassin’s Creed, via the spectacular success of 2009’s AC II and its spin-offs, to last year’s entertaining (albeit, on occasion, a little disjointed) AC III. Each title marked a step up from the last, further refining the artful blend of stealthy action, shadowy conspiracies and historical grandstanding. And when a new gameplay element or mechanic didn’t work, it was inevitably dropped for the next installment. But when a new addition proved successful, it was given pride of place in whatever followed. Assassin’s Creed has grown up, and gamers have been given a front row seat.

While many thought that the culmination of the present-day subplot at the end of Assassin’s Creed III (spoiler: Desmond died) would lead Ubisoft to begin a new series of games, perhaps even shifting the gameplay to a new historical setting and introducing a new modern protagonist, the developers have instead looked backwards. Further mining Desmond’s memories, Black Flag sees players take on the role of Edward Kenway, grandfather to AC III’s Ratonhnhaké:ton. A privateer-turned-pirate, Kenway is a far more likeable lead than players were lumbered with in the previous game. Moreover, his transformation into a member of the titular band of contract killers is given less screen time, with far more focus given over to implementing the now-familiar assassin’s skill set, rather than re-learning it.

At the heart of Black Flag is Ubisoft’s aforementioned learning process. Naval missions, a mere interlude in AC III, now form the backbone of this game. As the various teaser trailers and leaked concept art promised, this game is about living a pirate’s lifestyle – albeit a pirate with an exceptional penchant for sneaky murder. Aboard your ship, The Jackdaw, you’ll roam the seas, stopping off at a variety of locations to advance the single-player plot, attacking and boarding other vessels to collect loot with which to upgrade your skills, exploring abandoned islands in search of treasure, and building up a fleet of followers to further extend your influence. Historical accuracy might not be Black Flag’s strong point – the game paints piracy as a rather noble profession, and there’s not a hint of scurvy in sight – but in terms of making marauding a fun and engaging undertaking, the game is a masterpiece. There’s also a more irreverent tone. The single player storyline takes itself far less seriously than previous AC titles, and the modern-day counter-narrative has a delightfully meta feel to it. Players take a job as a researcher at videogame designer Abstergo (the sinister, world-dominating modern incarnation of The Knights Templar), essentially testing content for the very game they’re playing. It’s corny, sure, and the gameplay sections that take place in the modern world lift you out of the period setting somewhat. But, in keeping with everything else in this game, Ubisoft have learned that it’s the business of assassination (and sinking enemy boats) that gamers are interested in, and time spent away from these ignoble pursuits is kept to a minimum.

Black Flag is the best-looking and best-constructed Assassin’s Creed to date. But most importantly, and thanks to Ubisoft’s willingness to hold onto the finest aspects of each of its forebears, it’s also the most fun. There are a few graphical missteps – disappearing NPCs and textures that pop in and out. But while they stop Black Flag from being perfect, they do little to detract from a gaming experience that has only ever gotten better. It’s gaming Darwinism at work. 

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