Last year’s Assassin’s Creed III forced fans of Ubisoft’s throat-slitting series to slog through several hours of tutorial-heavy handholding before they could dig their blades into the best parts of the game. Within seconds of firing up Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, those same fans will pilot a pirate ship through a wicked storm while unleashing broadsides and exploding barrels at swarms of enemy craft; moments after surviving this cinema-rivaling opening, they’ll swim through its fiery aftermath, engage in a free-running foot chase through a breathtaking Caribbean jungle, and filet a foe from behind dual swords. Spoiler alert: Black Flag is a better game than Assassin’s Creed III.
While last year’s entry was by no means bad, its many ambitious parts — from the appealing American Revolution setting to the innovative naval combat — ultimately amounted to an unsatisfying sum. Black Flag doesn’t trump its predecessor in terms of introducing fresh features, but it easily upstages Connor Kenway’s chapter by forgoing over-reaching ambitions in favor of setting its spyglass on unbridled, swashbuckling fun.
As Edward Kenway — Connor’s pillaging and plundering grandpa — players are let loose in a sprawling world brimming with pirate-y possibilities, from cities to explore and treasures to unearth to goons to gut and dangerous seas to sail. That latter element is especially significant, as armchair adventurers will spend a good portion of their playtime on the deck of the upgradeable Jackdaw; whether navigating her through Mother Nature’s worst moods, unleashing her hull-demolishing broadsides, or recruiting crew members to keep her running, the ship’s role is important to both Black Flag’s story and gameplay.
While naval combat made an impressive debut in ACIII, it lacked polish and felt tacked on to the franchise’s more familiar elements. In Black Flag, your boat’s not only as integral as your fleet-footed acrobatics and sword-swinging skills, it’s organically woven into the more traditional action. On top of sporting much smoother mechanics — for both sailing and sinking enemies — Black Flag’s seaworthy play allows gamepad buccaneers to seamlessly board incapacitated craft, utilize a diving bell for underwater exploration, and even harpoon some of the ocean’s more menacing finned foes.
If reducing enemy ships to kindling or skewering sharks isn’t your cup of rum, however, Black Flag also offers all the free-running, baddie-stabbing, and secret-discovering of previous games. In fact, while the Caribbean setting alters the parkour-encouraging landscape — Havana features more vertical architecture, while Kingston’s dotted by smaller structures — Black Flag’s land-based environments yield an experience that’ll be comfortably familiar to anyone who’s ever scampered across rooftops, synchronized maps from towering perches, or took a header into a bale of hay.
When not treating the tropics like your personal playground, you can open adversaries from belly to brain with a variety of sharp, pointy things. In addition to the satisfying swordplay, which retains the reliable rhythm — blocking, countering, power attacks — of passed entries, Black Flag equips players with four pistols; firing off four slugs in quick succession, before reducing remaining threats to sirloin tips from behind Edward’s sharp steel, is especially rewarding.
Given the game’s Golden Age of Piracy inspiration and the franchise’s penchant for allowing players to reshape history from behind a wrist-mounted blade, fans will expect to loot doubloons and lay waste to scallywags alongside some legends. Thankfully, Black Flag doesn’t disappoint in this regard, not only featuring the likes of Charles Vane, Blackbeard, and Anne Bonny, but fleshing them out and coloring their personalities in a way that makes ACIII’s Founding Fathers look like patriotic robots.
Black Flag’s story similarly benefits from having fun with its themes and inspirations rather than stubbornly subjecting players to tedious exposition for the sake of supporting the series’ ongoing narrative. Sure, the core Assassins versus Templars thread is still significant, as is the present-day Abstergo storyline, but both generally take a backseat to Edward’s personal journey. In this way, Black Flag refreshingly feels less like another annual Assassin’s Creed entry and more like the best pirate game the medium’s ever seen. The AC-specific stuff is certainly there for fans who wish to digest Black Flag like another piece of the series’ larger narrative puzzle; those who felt the franchise began taking itself too seriously with Connor’s entry, however, are welcome to swill rum, sing chanteys, and sail the high seas with little concern for the bigger picture.
Black Flag’s biggest innovation isn’t a new gameplay mechanic or visual tech — though it is top-to-bottom gorgeous — but its ability to trim the fat from the franchise’s reliable, but increasingly bloated formula. From its more fluid and faster naval combat and streamlined crafting system to its lighter story and personality-packed pirate cast, it retains, but polishes its predecessors’ best elements. More than just delivering a leaner and meaner Assassin’s Creed, though, this fourth entry manages to get all its moving parts working in harmony, something the disjointed ACIII often struggled with.
As a game critic, I could certainly nitpick at everything from Black Flag’s gameplay to its polygon counts — yes, there are some tedious missions, occasional technical bugs, and other minor annoyances. But as a gamer looking for a taste of the pirate’s life — without the risk of scurvy — it’s difficult to find much fault with this swashbuckling romp.