There’s more treasure to plunder in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag than in an entire sunken Spanish fleet. Ubisoft’s seafaring sequel represents another colossal endeavour for the ambitious organisation, leaving you free to sail the colourful Caribbean Sea in search of fame, fortune, and more grog than an honest mariner should be able to afford. But with the critical thermometer cooling on the French publisher’s flagship franchise, does the tropical excursion steer the series back toward more humid climes?
It still bears the imperfections of a pockmarked pirate’s face, but this is definitely a return to form for the pseudo-historical stealth series. Charting the grand adventures of Swansea-born privateer Edward Kenway – the grandfather of Assassin’s Creed III’s dour Ratonhnhaké:ton – the game depicts the Golden Age of Pirates, as legendary figures such as Edward ‘Blackbeard’ Thatch, Benjamin Hornigold, and Charles Vane partake in a particularly potent sea shanty regarding the labours of a life spent on the ocean.
It’s these enormous expanses of water that represent the biggest addition to the open world opus. Equipped with the rustic Jackdaw galleon, you’re pretty much free to explore the entirety of the title’s condensed Caribbean from an early point in the campaign. You will be restricted by some high-powered boats and fortresses – areas which you can return to once you’ve augmented your own warship with appropriate upgrades – but the sea is very much your oyster, and there’s plenty to explore once you catch the wind.
In fact, it’s staggering just how much there is to do in the sandbox sequel. Idyllic islands bask in the exotic sunlight, bulging with secret maps for you to uncover. Elsewhere, bustling cities such as Havana and Kingston lay littered with songbooks, fragments, and contracts for you to carry out, while ancient Mayan structures hide secrets for your Eagle Eye to uncover. The game boasts a checklist of side activities longer than most titles’ credits – and that’s before you factor in the wealth of on water activities, too.
Much like Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto V, reaching your destination is as much a part of the fun as your chosen activity here. The vibrant waves of the tropical setting are teeming with enemy galleons for you to takedown, which you can board in realtime in order to procure supplies. These enormous tussles would represent a sizeable set piece in other games, but here it’s merely a natural occurrence during navigation. If it wasn’t so exhilarating, it would almost feel effortless.
Indeed, the naval combat is undeniably the highlight of Edward Kenway’s maiden voyage. The developer has managed to cleverly blend the spectacle of the activity with simplistic controls, ensuring that toggling between mortars, cannons, and explosive barrels is more straightforward than losing your consciousness in a tavern’s cellar. Damaging a ship allows you to follow up with a targeted button press, bringing down hulls and masts with carefully coordinated swivel shots.
Once incapacitated, you can pull in opposing boats for invasion. Here you relinquish your captain duties in favour of traditional third-person controls, allowing you to clamber onto antagonistic vessels in cinematic Jack Sparrow fashion. Fighting a few of the schrooner’s crew will force them to surrender, allowing you to sail away with any onboard spoils.
There are a number of materials that you can pillage while on the high seas, which can then be invested into upgrading your own boat. Rum and sugar can be sold to the nearest harbour master for a cash injection, while the likes of wood and metal can be used to enhance your defences, purchase new weapons, and overhaul the appearance of your craft. You’ll need to invest a lot of time into the game to attain the most capable cruiser in the Caribbean – but it’s largely rewarding work.
Of course, that’s not all you’ll have to do when you up anchor and ride the waves. Sunken ships can be explored – and looted – once you’ve purchased a diving bell, with enormous financial incentives luring you under the water. The game adapts the series’ customary stealth system in new and interesting ways, forcing you to conceal yourself among seaweed in order to avoid roaming sharks when you sink to the depths of the ocean.
While this is an inoffensive example of the game maintaining its heritage, others are less successful. Some sections will find you steering your gigantic craft through tight, waterlogged corridors, desperately attempting to stay out of the radius of infuriatingly anchored frigates. These periods of on water espionage represent the most frustrating moments in the game, and rear their ugly head far too often. It’s much more fun using your buccaneering abilities for bedlam rather than clandestine infiltration.
Still, the land-based covert operations have been given a lift. With all of the pirate window dressing, it can be easy to forget that this is still an Assassin’s Creed game beneath the surface, and it’s a strong one at that. There are much more of the original elimination contracts than recent entries, forcing you to flit through bushes and hedges in order to pick off key targets. And even with all of the oceanic action, this remains the throbbing centre of the alcohol addled adventure.
The pace of these scenarios feels much faster than Ezio’s renaissance endeavours, too, allowing you to sprint between sprigs of cultivation and pockets of townspeople in order to get the jump on guards. The artificial intelligence is still blinder than a boatsman wearing two eyepatches, but this works to the game’s advantage as you hastily moonlight between areas of cover in order to pick off your next target. If you’ve never felt empowered in this property before, then this instalment will change that.
The blowpipe from PlayStation Vita spin-off Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation definitely helps in this department. You can knock out overlooking watch tower guards with a sleep dart, and then create a distraction with a berserk dart. It’s fast and well integrated into the control scheme, allowing you to hurry forward and reach your desired destination without falling into the ‘become anonymous’ loop that has hindered previous entries.
When you do get detected, you’ll often be given the opportunity to fight your way out of the predicament, but the combat still feels clunky in contrast to the rest of the game. Armed with dual cutlasses – which can be upgraded as you progress – you’ll find yourself waiting for guards to attack you before you land a counter and kill them off. Bigger brutes are quite adept at reacting to these tactics, but once you break their defences, they don’t really represent much of a challenge either.
Improvements to the way that firearms handle mean that you have more legitimate options in combat – especially when you’re invading an enemy boat – but given the fluidity of the rest of the game, it feels a bit imprecise. Granted, you’ll still find yourself leaping towards ledges and struggling to latch onto surfaces at times, but these issues have been largely irradiated over the years, resulting in a nimble if imperfect platforming mechanic.
The biggest issue, then, still sits with some of the mission design. While there are some outrageously enjoyable encounters throughout the campaign – sprinting through an exploding harbour is an undeniable highlight – the release still relies far too often on drab tailing objectives and hokey eavesdropping sessions. While we appreciate that these are the crux of the series, they drag on and often feel like a cheap way to increase the length of the narrative.
It seems strange that a game bulging with more contents than a downed royal vessel should opt to artificially extend its core plotline, but Black Flag is definitely guilty of that. There are entire sequences throughout the seafaring story that are needlessly included in order to show you a new mechanic or simply drag out the escapade for a couple of hours. These are particularly noticeable towards the end of the main adventure, but also crop up during the tedious present day parts.
With last year’s entry more or less wrapping up the story of Desmond Miles, the developer has opted to reinvent the way in which it contextualises the historical action. Essentially, you find yourself working for Abstergo Entertainment, examining the life of the piratical protagonist in the hope that the Canadian company can release an interactive virtual reality product based on the confident character.
You essentially get the feeling that Ubisoft Montreal wished that this was what it was doing rather than actually making games, and everything about the serene offices that you get to investigate – in first-person, we hasten to add – is unadulterated wish fulfilment. Even the characters that you meet during these sections – the overenthusiastic Olivier Gerneau and the tablet computer touting Melanie Lemay – feel like the archetypes that you’d expect to find in a game developer’s office.
There’s still the nonsensical sci-fi mumbo-jumbo anchoring these aspects, of course, but that more or less takes a backseat while you engage in monotonous mathematics-based hacking minigames and search for QR code-branded sticky notes. At least there are a few standout visual spectacles during these sections, one coming as you take an elevator to the CEO’s office and get a full view of a stretching city skyline while you wait.
Granted, the game looks exceptional throughout. The tropical environments in Kenway’s adventure are the perfect antidote to the encroaching winter months, and there’s an agonising amount of attention to detail poured into each city establishment. The draw distance in particular – as has always been the case for this series – is particularly impressive, allowing you to look on for miles as you traverse watchtowers, windmills, and other tall structures.
There are hiccups that can largely be attributed to the ageing hardware, however. The framerate in busy locations definitely begins to chug, while aliasing issues detract from the natural beauty of the foliage in some of the more overgrown areas. This is something that the PlayStation 4 will no doubt solve, so if you want to enjoy the game with the very best image quality, it might be worth waiting for the next generation version to release.
Don’t worry if you’re sticking with the PlayStation 3, though, because this is still a good looking game. The way in which the title shows your crew rushing about your ship as you navigate crashing waves is spectacular, and some of the weather effects are particularly impressive. At times you’ll be forced to sail through torrential rain, with heavy winds and lightning sending dangerous waterspouts in your direction.
Perhaps most importantly is the fact that every inch of the colossal sandbox feels alive. Crabs will scuttle about the golden sands of islands, while whales will occasionally leap out of the ocean as you pass them. You can hunt many of the animals in the game, with their pelts allowing you to construct new costumes and upgrade the number of bullets that you can carry. It’s undoubtedly contrived, but it gives you something else to do.
You’ll want to explore every nook and cranny, too, because it feels like something that the protagonist would do. Kenway is an excellent character, and is brilliantly acted throughout. While this isn’t true of the entire cast – one in particular sounds horrendously out of place – it’s a step up from the franchise’s previous instalment. The star doesn’t quite topple the brilliance of Ezio Auditore, but the contrasting portions of his personality – spanning ruthlessness and tenderness – give him an interesting arc, which comes to a natural and poignant conclusion.
In fact, there are a few tear-jerking moments throughout the campaign, which, despite being a little heavy handed, evidence what a good job the developer’s done of building up the cast. These sequences are undeniably accentuated by the excellent orchestral score, which manages to meander between driving drumbeats and heartbreaking string-led swells on the flip of a Reale. You will tire of your crew’s constant desire to sing sea shanties, but fortunately these can be thwarted with a tap of the d-pad.
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag lacks the spit and polish of prize plunder, but it certainly doesn’t deserve to be cast back into the ocean. This is as much an enjoyable on water excursion as it as an exceptional stealth game, and while not every mission in its protracted campaign will leave you as buoyant as the Jolly Roger, you’ll find more than enough riches here to keep you coming back for more.