Assassins, Templars and… Pirates? Yep, those are all the components of the new Assassin’s Creed game Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. When Ubisoft Montreal first revealed the most recent addition to the AC franchise, I, and many others, felt that Black Flag was more of an expansion rather than a stand-alone title. It ran on the same engine as Asssassin’s Creed III and even re-purposed many of the systems and mechanics from the previous title. After playing through AC IV a substantial amount, however, it is quite apparent that Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is more than capable of being considered a main Assassin’s Creed entry.
Aesthetics (Story, Graphics, Sound)
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag follows Edward Kenway, a privateer turned pirate during the Golden Age of Piracy, on a mission to earn fame and wealth aplenty. First off, the pirate setting for the game is such a refreshing, welcome period to receive the Assassin’s Creed treatment. You’ll meet a myriad of famous pirates along the somewhat lukewarm plot who really brighten up the game. Ubisoft Montreal has done an excellent job at bringing these pirate legends to life, giving them enough character and motivation to really become invested in their cause. The story seems a bit rushed at some points though and really cut down on the amount of time spent with your pirate compatriots, but other than that the pacing finds a nice balance. However, the game’s sub-plot that occurs outside the Animus is another, very unorthodox story. I won’t spoil it, but it becomes so ridiculously meta at some points that it becomes laughable, like the developers are telling a joke that doesn’t seem appropriate given the series’ tone.
In terms of graphics, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is spectacular. Environments are crisp, crackle with life and capture the look and feel of being on a Caribbean island or a port-side town. It’s a gorgeous game in its own right, yet the jump in graphical definition to the next-gen consoles is not as impressive as it could be. I don’t see too much of a difference between the versions, but it’s to be expected when dealing with a third-party multi-platform title. Other than that, the game is a beautiful iteration of the Assassin’s Creed series.
Gameplay (Combat, Systems, Mechanics)
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag doesn’t stray too far from its cousin, Assassin’s Creed III, in terms of gameplay, especially when exploring land environments. As per the AC formula, you’ll travel from settlement to settlement completing assassin missions, collecting various (and many) collectibles to unlock special content and upgrading Edward and the Jackdaw, his ship. As a long time Assassin’s Creed fan, I was hoping for just a bit more innovation in this installation, something to really shake up the gameplay experience even if it is just for experimentation’s sake. Actually, I was a bit disappointed that the Assassin’s Guild, an interesting system that introduced multiple assassins to help your cause, was missing from AC IV. Instead, Ubisoft Montreal has replaced it with some sort of weird system called Kenway’s Fleet that requires online functionality. That disappointment aside, however, AC IV is still a fantastic game that delivers more of what makes Assassin’s Creed so phenomenal.
Now specifically in regards to the control scheme and handling in AC IV, I must profess there is a love-hate relationship. On one hand, the free-run mechanic present in the Assassin’s Creed games is, in so few words, thrilling. The ability to leap and dodge through the environment as an agile assassin gives credence to the experience of being an assassin. Yet on so many instances, the game is unable to interpret the direction I wish to move Kenway and will run him through these random patterns or will just abruptly halt his flow all together. This might be a sub-product of the sheer difficulty it is to seamlessly interact the character model with the environment, but it’s been in every AC title so far. And Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is no exception. The free-run mechanic both enhances and stifles the immersion and though it’s not game-breaking, it really must be improved.
Where Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag really shines is in its naval exploration and combat. The game has you sail around the Caribbean Islands engaging in treasure hunts and battles alike, creating a thrilling experience that really captures the essence of being at sea. Small details like the ocean spray hitting the deck and multiple mannerisms of your crew (such as singing a sea shanty now and again) make ocean travel feel refreshing and really immerses in the world. On the mechanics side of naval gameplay, controls and features have been updated and upgraded since the system’s first use in AC III. The Jackdaw sails like a charm with a simple sailing interface, allowing easy but tactful use of the mechanic. Combat still feels invigorating as you assail foes with a barrage of cannons, mortars and fire barrels. As most of AC IV takes place on the ocean, it’s a relief to see that Ubisoft Montreal has created an enjoyable, stimulating naval system that could have easily become tedious.
The main issue with Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag that keeps it from being a spectacular game are the amount of glitches and bugs that occur constantly. These errors, now infamously associated with AC IV, are no exaggeration from what you may have read in other reviews or impressions. Multiple clipping errors through buildings and the ground happen too frequently and cause game crashes. Textures will flicker, Kenway will become stuck, mass irregular changes to the landscape will appear — these are just to name a few. It’s not exactly to the point where it’s game-breaking, but as a AAA professional title, these are just laughably unacceptable.
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is, without a doubt, the best Assassin’s Creed game to date and possibly the best pirate game I’ve ever played (with the exception of Monkey Island). The story is an enchanting look into the Golden Age of Piracy with a cast of impressively portrayed real-life pirates. Graphics are spectacular albeit not as remarkable as one would expect on the next-gen consoles as compared to their previous counterparts. AC IV provides an exhilarating experience in terms of its gameplay with both land and ocean settings becoming enjoyable playgrounds for assassin shenanigans. Yet the lack of polish on the controls and especially on the technical aspects of the game weigh it down like an anchor, mooring it just out of reach of becoming a truly spectacular title. I’d recommend this game wholly to anyone looking for a great time as you embrace the pirate’s life.
Final Score: 8.5 / 10
Written and edited by Tim Atwood
Chief Editor at The Pixel Pen Review