If I’d been playing attention I probably would have a much better opening here, but as it is all I know is that Ubisoft were giving away ‘Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag’ for PC during December because…of something… could have been an anniversary, or because ‘Origins’ was released. Reasoning aside, ‘Black Flag’ is a game that I grudgingly missed the first time around when it was released in 2013; my wife did pick it up for PS3, but our PS3 stopped working shortly after so we didn’t get much of a chance to try out our best shanty-voices and cutlass mastery. Around the time of release a solid handful of reviews that had praised it as being one of the best pirate-themed games going and, although 2013 sat solidly on the falling edge of the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ hype-wave, I nonetheless do enjoy the pirate setting so snapped up the chance a few weeks ago to pick it up and play for free.
In contrast, ‘Assassin’s Creed’ games are not something I’ve ever delved that far in to. I played the original close to its release and aside from being taken with the ability to freely run, leap, and climb across an entire city, found the game became a little tedious and repetitive quite quickly. I know that fans will be quick to point out how each sequel improved things and I want to be clear that I’m not critisising the series here. I see the attraction, both visually and in gameplay, but for whatever reason they just don’t appeal to me. Some eagle-eyed readers may notice that I just prepped the ground for some heavy kickback about what I’m going to say next: I really enjoyed ‘Assassin’s Creed VI Black Flag’, but the bits that I didn’t like can be summed up with those first two words ‘Assassin’s Creed’.
I’m guessing that much of this was said around the time of release. Ubisoft made a solid pirate themed game, but decided to shoehorn it in to the Assassin’s Creed universe in order to capture an existing market; a braver publisher would have just released it as ‘Black Flag’. Again I need to repeat, this isn’t a criticism of the series or core-concept but, in this game, the inclusion of the ‘Assassin’s Creed’ element not only makes little sense but detracts from the game at times.
Most noticeably are the sections that take place in a modern day office. For the uninitiated, the Assassin’s Creed games involve a modern day person sitting in an office reliving their ancestral memories through some high-tech doohickey. The people orchestrating all this are Templars… or Assassins… or… well, I don’t really know because I’m not into the overall plot arc. In Black Flag this manifests at moments where the immersion is broken spectacularly and the player is pulled from an intricately detailed pirate world to do some first person walking around an office, listening silently to some dull conversations, and partaking in nonsensical hacking mini-games. I’m fairly sure that most, if not all, of the people who have ever played this game did so to be a troublesome pirate scamp rather than a post-it collecting office worker. I would be better if these sections made some sense to players who hadn’t seen the progression through games I-III, but it’s almost entirely unskippable nonsense to players like myself who’ve just shown up somewhere in the middle. It wouldn’t be so bad if the game had cleverly tied together the two worlds, but the game’s attempt at a shock reveal link between worlds is both obvious and has little bearing on the player’s sea-fairing alter ego.
Setting aside the office setting, the Assassins themselves don’t add a great deal to the plot. The game features an interesting and flawed protagonist, Edward Kenway, fighting to create a free pirate republic outside of the oppression of the British or Spanish. There are compelling characters including pirate legends Blackbeard, Hornigold, and Bonnet in a plot that includes conflict, success, failure, and betrayal. It’s a story that examines the different ideologies and motivations of the large factions at play as well as looking at Kenway’s personal development from selfish to more altruistic attitude. Unfortunately these threads are hidden behind the slightly hazy motivations of the Assassins and Templars. Kenway himself isn’t even an Assassin, he simply steals one of their outfits near the beginning and,through the magic of clothing, is instantly able to perform all of their signature moves. It would have been very easy to make the entire game about his personal development, the characters in that world, and pitch him as an agile and acrobatic pirate without turning to the Assasins as a plot device. Even the ‘supernatural’ and ‘ancient technology’ aspects could walk next to pirates as complimentary themes.
Luckily none of this is game breaking so, I’m going to ignore those first two words of the title and simply assume I played a game called ‘Black Flag’.
‘Black Flag’ is good fun and worth the time. The player follows Kenway through a whole range of piracy staples: looting, stealing, nautical combat, sword fighting, gathering a crew, drinking rum… it’s all there. The character movement around, over, and through obstacles is as smooth as you might imagine, although there is a tendency for Kenway to jump on to obstacles when you’re tying to direct him past them. This often seems to happen when there is some time limit to the mission and tempting him off the barrel he’s perched upon always seems to be trickier than it was getting him up there in the first place. That being said the freerunning is satisfying and, despite the detailed world, the player quickly learns the telltale indicators that suggest fast routes; for example being able to hop across posts in the water or swing from beams between buildings. The towns and cities of this mythical Caribbean showcase what Ubisoft do well and the synchronisations from elevated vantage points serve to neatly highlight the attention to detail in creating these engrossing settings.
Combat is simple, but allows for variety in the different abilities and weapon types the player acquires throughout the story. At its core is sword play which adds countering & defense breaking to good old fashioned button mashing to form something fluid. There are distinct enemy types which each require slightly different tactics to defeat, but most importantly none of these present anything too frustrating or flow breaking; in short, the player always feels like they’re kicking-ass. Likewise stealthing is occasionally required (as opposed to being a choice), but the frequency of progress checkpoints and the ability with which Kenway can mysteriously blend in with passing strangers gives the player the sense of being a ninja without demanding too much or becoming frustrating.
Outside of land based activities is the sea-fairing side of the game. Early on players acquire a ship and from then on the game really opens up. Sailing across the sea to a new location is a liberating experience and watching as new shorelines, forming storm-clouds, or enemy ships loom over the horizon, all to the soundtrack of splashing waves and the soulful shanties being sung by your crew, provides a good serving of that open-world freedom that I find so appealing. Naval combat can be a little tricky to get to grips with, but understanding how to out-maneuver your opponents and best position the Jackdaw for maximum advantage is both challenging and, once again, provides some visually spectacular moments as cannonballs send splinters of the enemy’s hull flying.
‘Black flag’ peppers these core ideas with extra elements like brawling in bars, gambling, hunting, whaling, and diving for treasure to complete the buccaneer experience. In essence it’s a game that builds on the ‘collect-a-thon’ style of some of the early 3D platformers, much of the game is simply ‘find this thing‘ or ‘go here and kill this person‘, but the presentation and expansiveness of the world come together to make it a rewarding experience… also you get to be a pirate! YAARRRRRR!!!!