Ubisoft has outdone itself with Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, as there’s more to see and do than ever in this exciting world of pirates. As you sail the open seas, you really do get the feeling that anything is possible, with the far-away horizon filled to the brim with treasure, assassination targets, and dark secrets. This is not only an outstanding entry in the French publisher’s popular series, but also a lengthy swashbuckling excursion to boot.
Beneath the seafaring and grog, though, this is still a stealth title at its core, with your objective to infiltrate enemy strongholds. The simplicity of previous titles remains, but the pacey nature of the action makes it enjoyable all the same. A lack of precision in the control scheme – where R2 is used for virtually everything – can make the overemphasis on eavesdropping and chase missions a little frustrating at times, especially when you latch onto objects that you intended to sprint around. Combat, when you’re exposed, is irritating, too, as you button bash your way through skirmishes, rather than fight with finesse. Still, these irritations are mere imperfections on an otherwise fine catch.
New protagonist Edward Kenway, for example, is a remarkable snapshot of the piratical time period that the open world adventure depicts. The character’s unquenchable thirst for success and his level of ambition make the hero both relatable and a surprisingly strong representation of the Golden Age of Piracy. The developer didn’t slack on recreating the world that he lives in, either, as the architecture, dress style, and nautical vessels glimpsed throughout the on water outing are reminiscent of the era and demonstrate some impressive production values.
Throughout the game, you’ll find yourself slipping through the streets of Havana, Kingston, and several other tropical hot spots. Pick-pocketing the population’s possessions is one of the title’s standout activities, as you blend into crowds and attempt to deflect attention to your unsavoury behaviour. This is a common theme in the title’s online multiplayer suite too, as you work to blend in with non-playable characters in order to throw your pursuers off the scent. Slay a computer controlled civilian as a hunter, and you’ll be penalised for your actions.
It’s the title’s co-operative mode, however, that’s the real star of the show – and arguably one of the best online experiences you’ll find among the PlayStation 4’s launch titles. As part of a team, you’re given different objectives to complete within a certain timeframe. These tasks range from assassinating multiple targets at once in synchronisation with your allies, to defending treasure chests from shrouded thieves and eliminating poor souls who are infected with a deadly disease. Pairing up with the right people is essential as many of these goals are team-based, and require a line of communication between you and your comrades.
A hearty set of upgrades means that there’s plenty to plunder, and you’ll find a similar amount of riches when you sail the seven seas in single player, too. A pirate game wouldn’t be much without a sailing component, and fortunately its fun taking the helm as Edward Kenway. Your ship controls well and you can adjust the speed at which you travel, so setting out for your destination makes for an enjoyable journey. The most fun to be had on your vessel, though, is getting your crew to sing lovely sea shanties. These represent one of the many collectible items in the game, as you can also nab Animus fragments, treasure chests, and more. As you move around the waters, you’ll encounter other boats that you can attack, and you can opt to pillage these for resources or add them to your fleet in an addictive strategy micro-game once you’ve forced them to surrender.
Sadly, the excursion does come unstuck somewhat when it cuts to bland modern day sequences where there’s very little going on. With former present protagonist Desmond Miles out of the picture, the futuristic plot parodies a modern day game developer, as you fill a position at Abstergo Entertainment and interact with a slew of bland software developer stereotypes. There’s a cute idea here – and some stunning vistas – but ultimately you’ll find yourself longing for the virtual shoes of Kenway as you strut around hip office corridors collecting QR code-branded post-it notes.
Incidentally, the visuals are what make the PS4 version of this title worth your time. The frame-rate is as smooth as butter, and it shows serious promise for the future of open world games. Furthermore, the textures and all around image quality – a rich 1080p if you install the title’s latest patch – make this a significant step forward from its current generation counterpart. It’s genuinely a beautiful game too, as whales leap majestically out of the water and immensely detailed waterspouts threaten to wreck your ship. It’s an outstanding artistic achievement, and when you consider the size of the world – packed with deep-sea diving missions, hideouts to loot, and animals to hunt – you can really appreciate the scale of the endeavour.
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag doesn’t always sail a straight course, but this is still an excellent entry in an occasionally choppy property. Clumsy traversal mechanics and some dire mission types prevent the release from reaching legendary status, but the slick naval combat, luxurious landscapes, and surprisingly compelling online suite make this a package worth plundering. If the series continues in this entry’s direction, then there’ll be no reason for Ubisoft to drop the anchor on its alternate history escapades just yet.