Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag feels like a reboot, but in the best possible way
The Assassin’s Creed games use history as a playground, and they tend to take place during romanticized times of human history. There is some education offered, but these times and places are great excuses for murder, intrigue, and conspiracy. If you’re going to tell an epic story, why not bring in names with which everyone is familiar?
Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag almost feels like a reboot of the series, and first-time players will have no trouble jumping in and enjoying the scenery. Hell, the hero of the story barely fits into the multi-century struggle between the Assassins and the Templars; he’s introduced to this world because he stole some clothes and tried to make a quick buck.
It often feels like the stakes are oddly low for an Assassin’s Creed game, especially since the entirety of the world hinged on the events of the last game. Edward Kenway is a man who is unhappy with a workaday life, and wants to strike out on his own to find fortune and maybe a bit of fame. He’s not interested in an honest day's work and a simple life with his lady and this, as it often does, leads to piracy.
Wait, so what’s going on in the real world?
The modern day setting takes place inside a subsidiary of the Templar-owned Abstergo that is using the Animus to explore the history of certain “genetic samples” in order to use the footage for entertainment purposes. Who would be satisfied with going to see Pirates of the Caribbean when a company can offer you the ability to actually become Jack Sparrow?
The modern day sections of the game, which are blissfully short and help to nudge the larger meta-story forward, take place in first person, and you slowly learn that the secret societies and struggle for control that you experience inside the Animus may still be going on. This conceit removes often cumbersome Desmond sections from past games, and instead helps to put you into the story itself. You’re actually playing someone who is basically playing a game, and slowly figuring out that the oceans may be much deeper than they first appear.
There is even some fun commentary about the game industry itself when you read certain internal memos from Abstergo that talk about the sort of experiences they need to find in employee bloodlines in order to make some money. Sure, your grandmother may have had an interesting life, but they need action, and bloodshed! There should be sex! No one wants to learn, they want to fight and screw! One employee even expresses regret that zombies aren’t real. They are, as he puts it, “ahistorical.”
This is yet another way the game helps new players get into the series, and explain a few things about what’s going on and why you should care. Later games are set up well, and fat is cut from the larger narrative in order to keep things running smoothly. These short, infrequent sections of the game are handled much better than they were in Assassin’s Creed 3, and thank God for that.
Back to piracy!
The world of Edward Kenway is a large one, and I spent roughly 30 hours on the main story and some of the side content. I also felt like I barely scratched the surface of the game. You’ll be taking over forts, hunting, harassing ships for the raw materials and cash to upgrade your own vessel, taking contracts to earn money by killing others, and all sorts of other fun stuff.
You’ll bump into other pirates, and explore what it means to create a “society” where all men are free, but no one really has much of a need to pick up after themselves.
There is always something to do, and some way to explore a bit more of the map to collect an item or earn an upgrade for your character or ship. The story itself concerns an object that seems nearly supernatural, and that allows you to view the world through the eyes of any target. This object would make its owner very rich, or very powerful, or both. In the wrong hands it could sway the course of human history.
Kenway doesn’t really care about the larger picture of what’s going on around him, he simply wants to get paid and make a name for himself. He’s not an Assassin, nor does he care overmuch about the mission of the Templars.
As things move on, he’ll bounce between the two groups and their goals, and slowly but surely he’ll wake up to the impact his actions have the greater world. Some mornings you wake up, put on the hood of a dead man, try to sell a bit of plunder, and suddenly find yourself the fulcrum of human history. It happens.
The game’s massive scope often comes at the expense of the characters, who often feel like cardboard cutouts of vaguely historical figures. Edward Kenway himself gains some depth as he goes, but you can move over the top of the major story beats like a skipping stone on the water if you so choose. One of the reveals that might have been shocking is so immediately obvious that it becomes almost silly when Kenway learns what’s really going on.
I won't even get into the final fate of two of the female characters in the game. Those storylines feel deeply strange, and handled poorly. This is a topic I may revisit when people have had time to finish the game.
The overall story is interesting, but the way it’s told often feels rote. That would be a larger problem if the game itself wasn’t such a joy to play. The combat still enjoys that flowing, rhythmic nature of Assassin’s Creed 3, and stealth remains a more challenging option if you’d like to feel like more of a badass.
You’ll spend hours sailing across the ocean, using the many different weapons on your ship to methodically destroy the ships you find before boarding them with your men to plunder their holds and keep your crew well staffed. You’ll need to learn how to use each weapon well, how to avoid enemy fire while landing your own shots and also making your ship as small a target as possible. This is a simplified look at ship-to-ship combat, but it handles the balance between being accessible while offering a wealth of strategic options very well.
I plowed through the main story in order to write this review, but even after the wealth of hours I put into the game, I'm looking forward to going back once the Xbox One or PlayStation 4 versions are released to do more of the side missions and to enjoy the improved visuals.
I have yet to see the game running on next-generation systems, but it already looks stunning on the PlayStation 3, with few of the rough edges of Assassin's Creed 3. This is a game that you'll be able to pick up and enjoy for weeks, if not months, depending on the length of your gaming sessions.
An Assassin's Creed…. game?
It's hard to know how the fans will react to how the Assassins and Templars are handled in the game, and there are some aspects of the early part of the story that make little sense… unless Kenway is able to intuit some basic Assassin training simply due to wearing the hood. For newcomers to the series, however, this is a good way to get in and see what everyone has been talking about.
Outside of some baffling character decisions and a story that can feel a bit thin, the game does exactly what you want it to do: The main game is a fun pseudo-serious pirate simulator while the modern day missions are added with grace and a light touch. Kenway's story comes to a satisfying end, and in fact the game features one of the more charming credit sequences of this generation.
Black Flag has that spark that was missing in the latest Batman game; this entry in the Assassin's Creed series keeps everything you love, fixes a number of weak points, and offers a grand vision of privateering that has a way of sucking up hours of time. It's easy to be washed away by the visuals and the large world to explore, and often I'd spend more time than I'm comfortable admitting at the wheel of my ship, enjoying the rolling waves while listening to the singing voices of my bloodthirsty crew.
This is a good one.