Beyond its first impressions, Assassin’s Creed III was a bit of a dud. What was supposed to be the grand finale to Desmond Miles’ journey ultimately bottomed out for two reasons: the conclusion was weak and unsatisfying and the gameplay felt dated, ignoring many of the improvements the series made over the course of the Ezio Trilogy. There was a notable takeaway however. Piloting the Aquila across the British controlled sea showed promise and ended up being the most talked portion of the game. Ubisoft Montreal must have recognized the praise and popularity of the navy sequences, designing Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag around it. Set before the birth of Haythem Kenway, the game puts the player in the sea worn boots of a pirate in the rough and tumble playground that is the West Indies.
The game opens an indeterminable amount of time after Desmond met his fate in a temple built for Those Who Came Before. As the latest employee for Abstergo Entertainment, an unsubtle blend of Google and the Globex Corporation, you, the player, has been assigned to a project that uses the Animus to access Desmond’s recovered genetic memory in order to develop a video game using scenes from his ancestral history. The concept is silly and the game is completely aware of it. It services as a not so subtle wink to the audience and ends being far more interesting than the previous iterations of the present day struggle between Assassins and Templars.
The historical character that you’ll be “researching” is Edward Kenway (father to Haythem Kenway and grandfather to Ratonhnhaké:ton), a privateer who pillages, plunders, rifles and loots. An unsuspecting scallywag, his life takes an interesting turn when he encounters a dying Assassin and absconds with his gear leading him into an encounter with a quartet of prominent Templars seeking an artifact called the Observatory. It wouldn’t be an Assassin’s Creed game without getting to see famous historical faces and Edward does just that. Throughout this journey, expect to rub elbows with notable pirates including Captain Kidd, Calico Jack, Anne Bonny, and Blackbeard.
With the ocean serving as your primary playground, its hard to shake the game’s Wind Waker vibe. About an hour in Edward will have access to a ship called the Jackdaw and is allowed to sail all over the map, visiting island towns to complete main mission objectives or partake in a dearth of side activities. The main story of Assassin’s Creed IV plays just as one would expect. You’ll engage in stealth-ish gameplay in the quest for the Observatory, infiltrating jungle hideouts and bustling towns in the quest for the mysterious object. Each mission contains a series of bonus objectives that must be met in order to achieve 100% synchronization. These range from the mundane (don’t get spotted) to complex (kill a guard while he triggers an alarm). The Assassin’s standard weaponry returns, with two concealed blades making short work of enemies from above and inside cover. The newly added blowdart will put guards to sleep or into berserk mode from a comfortable distance. Equipment and gear can be upgraded via a crafting system lifted directly from Far Cry 3 with items requiring X number of animal skins, bones and other useful elements to craft better armor, additional ammo pouches and new outfits. When forced into engagements, Edward can fight his way through a crowd in a system that favors countering Arkham Asylum-style. Combat in general feels simplified and takes a fair bit of challenge and penalty away from the player. In other words, it just stays out of the way.
Where the game really shines is on the high seas. The Jackdaw serves as the primary means to move around the West Indies, traipsing across smaller islands in search for treasures and other loot. There is much to do at sea apart from acquiring collectibles. British and Spanish ships dot the landscape, all going about their business. As a pirate, you are free to attack these ships in order to acquire their cargo. Your selection of weapons includes cannons, a chain shot (useful for taking ships head on), swivel cannons for precision shots, mortars for long distance and fire barrels to keep tailing ships at bay. Going toe to toe with vessels involves hammering your opponent until their ships are disabled. Boarding the enemy vessel and taking out a specified number of her crew will give Edward the option to salvage the ship to repair the Jackdaw, add it to his personal fleet or decrease his notoriety. Attacking ships will add to Edwards notoriety at sea, leading to his pursuit by increasingly powerful “hunter” ships. Notoriety can be lowered by bribing dock officials or letting captured ships go. Edward’s pirate fleet works the same way as Assassin’s Creed II’s contract minigame. Capturing ships allows them to be used in various uncontrolled missions throughout the Atlantic, delivering cargo for rewards and engaging enemy ships to make trade and mission routes safer.
The map of the West Indies is divided into quadrants, each with their own level of difficulty. The northern sections of the map are home to low level ships while the southern reaches team with sailed beasts armed to the teeth. Apart from hunting ships, Edward can take down Templar fortresses with the benefit obtaining additional fast travel waypoints and will clear restricted zones, making travel safer. Captured forts will even fire upon nearby enemy ships. Think of them as the Borgia towers from Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. Taking a fortress will reveal all collectible locations in that quadrant along with the presence of Legendary ships. You’ll want to make sure your ship is upgraded well enough before even thinking about taking on these warships. Upgrades fall within two categories, functional and cosmetic. Cosmetic upgrades include sail, wheel and figureheads designs that offer no advantages but will help to make the Jackdaw unique to you. Functional upgrades offer more powerful cannon shot, increased hull armor, additional mortar ammo and a reinforced ram.
What makes Assassin’s Creed IV such an entertaining experience, apart from living the joyous life of a pirate, is its level of detail. The wooden hull of the Jackdaw groans and creaks as it passes over large waves, gulls screech in the air, the crew will sing shanties, and larger waves will spill water across the deck of the boat. I can’t say how the game looks on the PlayStation 3, but the game is gorgeous on the PlayStation 4. Draw distances are amazing, shadows are impressive and lack noticeable jaggines. The water is clear, crisp and incredibly inviting. During fierce engagements, your vision of the battle is obscured by billowing clouds of smoke from gunpowder and cannon fire. There’s also a storybook sensibility to the overall art style. Dark lightning clouds hover off in the distance threatening to turn the calm ocean into chaos without a moment’s notice, the moon glows high in the clear night sky and an eerie fog permeates through the remnants of Mayan ruins. This is a game that, much like The Secret of Monkey Island, The Goonies and the Pirates of Caribbean Disneyland ride, rromanticizesthe world of rascals, scoundrels, villains and knaves.
Beyond the graphics and fun of being a pirate, there is something special about Assassin’s Creed IV that allows it to stand shoulders above the other games. Edward Kenway (and by extension, the player) has no real allegiances and exists outside of Assassin/Templar conflict. Previous Assassin’s Creed adventures featured a protagonist that suffered a loss at the hands of the Templars at the beginning of the adventure, using Assassins to seek revenge against those that wronged them while growing to understand how dangerously misguided the Templars have been. Edward’s introduction to the Assassins and Templars is the result of stealing someone else’s clothes. He does ally himself with the order but, for the most part, he doesn’t let it rule his life. It also does not stop him from seeking joy in ransacking enemy targets for booty.
There is also a stronger emphasis placed on what it means to be free. In the early portions of the game, when the player is put through a tutorial explaining how ship combat and navigation works, the comments made by the pirates brought to mind an episode of the TV series Firefly called “Out of Gas.” When Malcolm Reynolds introduces Serenity to Zoe, his friend and second in command, the pair have the following exchange:
“Try to see past what she is, and on to what she can be.”
“What’s that sir?”
“Freedom, is what. Take jobs as they come – and we’ll never be under the heel of nobody ever again. No matter how long the arm of the Alliance might get, we’ll just get ourselves a little further.”
The Jackdaw is Edward’s Serenity. No Assassin’s Creed game before has done such a great job conveying the stakes the hero – and, by extension, the world – risks losing should the Templars succeed. This sense of freedom also applies to the player. While portions of the map are initially blocked off, the West Indies is a pretty big map and you’re welcome to go where you please for a good while before encountering a barrier.
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is a game I enjoyed immensely. It controls and plays better than Assassin’s Creed III and its hard not to enjoy causing all sorts of mayhem on land and sea. Its not perfect, combat is over simplified, but the pure joy I experienced sinking ships and hunting sharks overshadows the niggling issues I encountered. There’s a multiplayer component that is sorely lacking player versus player ship combat. Let’s hope that gets patched in sooner rather than later! Lush scenery, great characters, costumes and a wonderfully realized naval element are woven into a beautiful, playable vision of the golden age of piracy.