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How many of us have dreamed of being a pirate? Sailing the open seas, singing shanties with a motley crew, all in the search of the ‘X’ marked on your map. The pirate world itself seems ripe for the creating, with plenty of notable names and locations to choose from. However, there have been relatively few pirate games that really capture the essence of what it means to be a pirate. Sure, games have had pirates in them or players have assumed the role of one, but when was the last time you played a game that made you feel like an actual pirate? Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag has exactly that feel. Unfortunately, it’s held back by the problems that have plagued the series since the beginning. I remember sitting in this exact spot last year, writing my review of Assassin’s Creed III and wondering if the Assassin’s Creed series had gone stale. It might not be time to hang up the hidden blade, but it feels like Ubisoft is stepping further and further away from the franchise’s roots.
Black Flag is set in the early 18th century in the Caribbean isles. You fill the boots of Edward Kenway, a privateer turned pirate. If that name sounds familiar, Kenway is the father and grandfather of Haytham Kenway and Connor, respectively, from Assassin’s Creed III. He is a much more intriguing character than both Haytham and Connor; he’s smart, cunning, quick witted, essentially everything you’d imagine a pirate would be. Kenway finds himself shipwrecked on a deserted island and steals the robes of an assassin that washed up with him. This sets him on a journey that falls into typical Assassin’s Creed territory, one that is pretty hard to follow. Much of the political intrigue that carried the previous games is gone, as well as the darker themes. In its place is a much lighter hearted story, similar to the Pirates of the Caribbean, with a lot less wackiness. Outside of the Animus, you’ll find optional missions as a member of the Abstergo Entertainment development team, who’s using the Animus to create video games. It is all very meta, and optional, but fans of the series will love being able to dig more into the mysteries unanswered by the previous game and the hints at the future of the franchise.
Inside the game, freedom is wonderful. Once you’re set free to do as you please, which doesn't take more than 30 minutes, sailing the ocean blue is exhilarating. Once Kenway secures a ship of his own, you’re free to sail almost anywhere and do anything. It is this freedom that allows Black Flag to shine. Taking cues from Assassin’s Creed III, the sailing portions of Black Flag have been greatly improved. Handling a ship is a real treat, and building your vessel to be the most vicious on the seven seas occupied a lot of my time and resources. Combat has been greatly improved and hunting down enemy ships to plunder is a thrill. It is safe to say that Ubisoft has crafted one of the best sea-faring games of all time.
On land, Black Flag is a different story. Actually, it is the same story as all the other Assassin’s Creed games, which is something that I found to be disappointing. When you hop of your ship, Black Flag thrusts you into the same, monotonous missions that plagued previous games. Follow and eavesdrop is the same nuisance it was in Assassin’s Creed III. Freerunning is as fluid as ever, but Kenway can still get caught doing things you’d rather not have him do. And for a series that is called Assassin’s Creed there were very few memorable assassination sequences. The combat is the same parry and attack dance that veterans will know and love, but no attacking enemies have icons over their heads, alerting you to parry, ala the Arkham games. It is sad to see so little improvements in combat, a place where it was needed the most. Shooting has been improved, though, and since Kenway can hold up to eight guns at a time, fights can be over in the blink of an eye.
Activities are strewn about the islands of the Caribbean, some good, others not so much. Replacing the pages of Ben Franklin’s almanac are shanties, or songs that your pirate crew can sing while sailing. Shanties are one of my favorite things about Black Flag, especially since you can order your men to sing them. Treasure is littered in nearly every imaginable area, as well as Mayan trinkets that lead to a great treasure. Thanks to Far Cry 3, Kenway can now hunt wild animals to upgrade his own equipment. Upgrades themselves can sometimes be hard to come by, because, even though you’re a money-hungry pirate, you’re usually strapped for cash. Earning extra coin comes in the form of Kenway’s fleet, which replaces the team of assassin’s you could recruit from previous games. While sailing, players can capture ships and have them join their fleet to go on missions. Each brings back a certain amount of coin and the risk of failure. When the game first launched, players were given an UPlay pass to access Kenway’s fleet, if you bought the game new. If you got it used or borrowed it from a friend, you had to pay for it. Thankfully, Ubisoft took the negative feedback from the community and nixed the pass, allowing all players access to Kenway’s fleet.
Multiplayer makes its return, again dealing with the tense cat and mouse matches from Assassin’s Creed III. It is fun to stalk an enemy before plunging a hidden blade into him unseen but the whole premise can be muddled if you play with the wrong people. While the multiplayer aspect of Black Flag is a good time, I can’t see myself getting pulled away from the single player experience by it.
There are a lot of good things in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. Sailing the open seas and the freedom provided makes for an impressive open world. There’s nearly an endless amount of things to do and see and I've yet to be bored when I’m at the helm of the Jackdaw. The same sadly can’t be said for the rest of the game, which felt like just another Assassin’s Creed title. That's not entirely a bad thing, just after six years, it would be nice for a change. If only Ubisoft would fine tune the combat, enhance the freerunning and vary the mission structure to create new experiences, I would have had a better time than I did with the game. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, and the Assassin’s Creed franchise as a whole, finds itself at a crossroad. Black Flag is a very solid and enjoyable pirate game but it’s not called Pirates Creed. The assassin aspect of the series needs to be front and center with the next installment. The stalking of targets, the strategic assassinations, the actual battle between the Assassins and the Templars, these are the things that need to be at the forefront or I’ll be sitting here next year, thinking that this was another great game, but it took another step away from being Assassin’s Creed.