Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag Review – Yo ho ho, and a bottle of fun

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The Assassin’s Creed series has come a long way from it’s beginnings running around the rooftops of 12th century Palestine. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, which is actually the sixth (or maybe seventh, depending on how you count) game in the series keeps the core mechanics the same – but takes the series in a more swashbuckling direction. Should you be settling down for a TV Party tonight with the game? Read on to find out.

The plot

The game is set during the Golden Age of Piracy in the 18th century – a couple of generations before the events of Assassin’s Creed 3. You play as Edward Kenway – the father of Haytham Kenway and grandfather of Conor, who are the playable characters in the previous game.

Kenway is a privateer, who heads to the Caribbean to make his fortune, but on the way gets mixed up in piracy, and after a fatal encounter with an Assassin is embroiled in the war with the Templars, and their quest to find the ‘Observatory’ that would grant them some severely draconian magical powers. What’s particularly apparent about Kenway is that unlike his grandson, he seems like less of a personality vacuum – and like Ezio from AC2, is a more engaging character.

So far, so Assassin’s Creed – and this is a good thing. I was a bit nervous when the game was first announced it would be pirate based. “What a bunch of sell-outs”, I thought – clearly pirates are too commercial and they’re just trying to cash-in on Pirates of the Caribbean? I prefer my pseudo-historical adventure games to be based on more obscure time periods, like, say, Renaissance Italy.

Anyway – it turns out my fears were unfounded. Luckily the game retains the same sort of tone as the earlier games, and a sense of history in keeping with the historical time period. Though there’s many of the standard pirate tropes – hell, even Blackbeard makes an appearance – it still feels ‘real’ rather than ‘panto’ (umm, relatively speaking).

In terms of jolliness, the pirates in the game are about mid-way between Captain Pugwash and Captain Phillips.

The traditional game

So what of the gameplay? Well – if you haven’t liked the Assassin’s Creed series until now, this probably isn’t going to change your mind. Though why fix what isn’t broken?

Apart from the significant sailing sections (more on those in a bit), when you’re on land, it’ll all feel very familiar. Air assassinations, hiding in bushes to kill targets, tailing moving targets to listen into conversations – it’s all pretty much the same as before.

One nice improvement is the adoption of the “standard” style of how guns should work – rather than just have the Y button assigned to fire a gun at, er, pretty much the person nearest to you, you can instead freely aim with the left trigger and shoot with the right trigger – just like GTA5, Max Payne 3, and pretty much every other game involving a gun in the last two years. Maddeningly though, gun/non-blade selection is still done through an awful D-Pad selection, rather than the more modern “L-button-and-a-wheel” type weapon select we’ve seen most recently in GTA5.

Don’t worry though – guns aren’t too pivotal – back in the Golden Age guns were just about crappy enough to not have a huge impact, so you’ll still be using your hidden blades to a satisfyingly stealthy extent.

As ever with AC, there’s a large emphasis on side-missions and collecting things – so if you don’t want to race through, you can spend hours searching out every last bonus assassination mission and treasure box. One nice addition is finding buried treasure maps on corpses – which give you a rough location and an illustration of roughly where the treasure is.

Hunting also makes a return – with different materials able to be crafted together to make better kit and ammunition. My favourite new crafting addition is the berserk darts. You can sit in a bush and shoot someone with it, and they’ll proceed to start a fight with the people around them. It’s immensely satisfying to watch.

Perhaps the most ridiculous thing to collect though is sea shanties. If you don’t like sea shanties, you’re going to have a bad time with this game. In the previous game you may remember you’d occasionally see letters drifting through the air and you’d have to chase after them before they flew away – in this game, you’ll collecting shanties. Why? So when you’re sailing the high seas, the men on your ship as you’ll be ready for a Nervous Breakdown as they head into another chorus of Old Billy Reilly

With all of this to do though, it can often feel like a collecting game and something that’s not driven by the plot. In fact, at one point one of these missions Kenway himself says “It feels like I’m running errands, not living my life”. I’m not sure if this was a meta-criticism from the developers but it made me laugh as I ran around chasing after yet another bloody sea shanty.

Don’t get me wrong though – this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If you’re the sort of person who enjoys exploring every aspect of a richly designed world then there’s many, many hours of gameplay here.

Assassin’s at sea

The big new thing gameplay mechanic in the game is sailing. Assassin’s Creed 3 had a few sailing missions – but this has now been developed into the major way of traversing the overworld. It’s like Zelda: Wind Waker with more gruesome deaths.

The sailing – the handling of the boat, the naval combat and and all that is surprisingly accomplished. It’s fun to sail around and behave like a pirate. Fire on ships, loot their cargo, even sale up close and jump aboard and start a swordfight. Great.

It’s not just used to get from city to city either – there’s naval assassination missions, and every area has a fort that must be assaulted by sea first, to break it’s defences, before going in on foot once it is sufficiently Damaged.

So fair play to the developers for building what would be – without Assassin’s Creed – on it’s own a very accomplished naval warfare game. The thing is though… well… it’s not really Assassin’s Creed, is it? Obviously games must evolve to stay fresh – but at the same time, what happened to running about on tightly-packed European (or Middle Eastern) rooftops and sneaking about? It’s surely quite hard to be stealthy in a pirate ship?

I guess the game is suffering from the Tomb Raider problem. Whilst the first game was about raiding tombs – as the series went on it really should have been called “Lara Croft”. Whilst this is no bad thing if it’s fun to play, it’s definitely different from the core experience. In AC4, there’s a whole whale-hunting mini-game which whilst it is assassinating whales, it’s not quite as rewarding as knifing a templar in the back.

But hey – maybe the sea stuff will grow on me? I suspect I’m just bitter about having better ideas about where the game should be set.

The outer-world

So what of the story in the outside world? We all know that Assassin’s Creed takes place in a ‘simulation’ run by modern day Templar-front Abstergo . In this latest game, following the, er, end of Desmond’s story, the game picks up in the offices of “Abstergo Entertainment”, who use the Animus to make historical simulation games. You play these sections (in the first person) on an initially unexplained mission to gain as much intelligence on what they’re up to as possible – all whilst working there investigating Kenway’s history.

For all of the flaws of Desmond’s plot (especially the end), the new outside world hasn’t really grabbed me. It all seems like an excuse for the AC4 developers to make some too-clever-by-half jokes about games development (at one point it shows a clip of the first game, and complains it’s not a commercial enough setting). But I’m sure it sounded like a great idea on paper.


Multiplayer also makes a return from AC3. The premise of the main multiplayer game is that you and the other players must hide amongst a bustling scene, stake out your designated target player and kill them – with penalties for killing civilians.

It’s fun to play too – the trick is to be sneaky as running about will not only show the others that you are in fact a human-controlled character, but also the whispering noises your target will hear when you’re close will get louder. There’s various different configurations for it – including time limits and the like. It’s a nice change of pace from the likes of Call of Duty – especially if, like me, you’re a bit crap and tend to get killed every 10 seconds on shooting games.

There’s also a fairly extensive custom rules modes – so, for example, you can have only gunshot kills win points. In my experience, this tends to make the game more frantic – as running around with a gun suddenly seems like a sensible thing to do.

The Verdict

So does Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag Rise Above the earlier games in the series? Or is it a Wasted opportunity?

As I said earlier – if you didn’t like the AC series before, this isn’t going to change your mind – though if you’re a fan, then it is definitely worth checking in with the latest in the series. Despite all of the sometimes unnecessary bells and whistles, the core gameplay is still great – and the pseudo-historical narrative is enjoyable for history junkies and people looking for something a bit different alike.

So yes – I think we can safely say that it’s yo ho ho and a bottle of fun indeed.

Now can we please have Assassin’s Creed 5 set in revolutionary Paris?

James O’Malley
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