The wind sweeps past your hair as the sun shines down on you, the subtle crash of the royal blue surf lapping against the sides of your softly creaking ship. The sun shines as you lick some salty water from your lips. The ocean extends to the horizon all around you. Another ship floats lazily in the distance. Nothing is true, and everything is permitted. The world is ripe for your adventure.
There’s a reason why pirates are so popular in pop culture, and why every kid wants to grow up to be one (if they don’t want to be an astronaut, of course). Pirates convey freedom, adventure, and the promise for riches, wonder, and excitement. Assassin’s Creed has always been a franchise of dichotomy—Assassin’s/Templars, Past/Future, Stealth/Combat. When Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag leans on its existence as a pirate game, it soars to some of the series’ highest heights. Unfortunately, when the game emulates past Assassin’s Creed titles, the recurring errors and frustrations of the series hamper what could have been a truly special title.
Black Flag’s setting is a fantastic choice. Your character, Edward Kenway, is a mere privateer whose main goal is becoming filthy rich to build a better life for him and his estranged wife. As the game is titled ‘Assassin’s Creed’ and not ‘Pirates Creed, Matey!”, Kenway gets caught up in standard-issue Assassin v. Templars shenanigans.
Kenway’s approach to the epic conflict is not standard-issue, though, and is a fresh take: he just does not care in the slightest. Pillaging and booty (both kinds) are his goals, and his role in the conflict is mostly accidental. He happens to fight with the Assassins, though more due to ‘enemy of my enemy is my friend’ circumstances than actual philosophical alignment.
Yet as so often happens in Assassin’s Creed games, this strength is accompanied by a related weakness. Kenway’s plight and character development remain stinted for a long, long time; though developer Ubisoft tries to make Kenway a multi-faceted character, his single-minded search for riches doesn’t make for a very captivating narrative. Piecemeal flashbacks to Kenway and his wife mostly fail to form a grounding for character building or plot development, though it could have and is probably the biggest missed narrative opportunity.
But, lest you forget that Kenway is a pirate, let me repeat: he’s a pirate. And Black Flag nails the Being A Pirate thing so extraordinarily well. In the course of the story, Kenway gets access to his own personal cove that you can upgrade to build structures, shops, and services. Kenway meets pirates along the way, including Edward Thatch—more famously known as Blackbeard.
You can’t be a pirate without your own ship, though, and ship combat and traversal is what truly makes being a pirate fun. Kenway’s ship, the Jackdaw, very quickly becomes a favorite place in the game (and arguably its own character). Black Flag’s locations are spread out in the Caribbean, and you must traverse to these locations with the Jackdaw before establishing fast travel points. Roaming the high sea is a blast, as your shipmates sing shanties, it’s never far to an interesting location, and enemy ships are plentiful.
At sea on the Jackdaw
Ship combat is every bit as exciting, jarring, and terrifying as you might think. The ocean is filled with all kinds of vessels; some are teeny-weeny gunships you can destroy in one or two volleys, and others will eat you alive by themselves. Unlike in hand-to-hand combat, where a quick finger on the counter button can almost lend invincibility, choosing what battles in which to engage is a part of ship combat that is refreshing and challenging. At first, I found myself charging into a small group of ships, valiantly attempting (and failing) to strong-arm a trio of larger frigates into submission before the game forced me to take a more holistic approach: ship combat encourages using your entire arsenal and to heavily prioritize targets.
Importantly, defeating ships gives very real benefits. Defeated ships can either be captured or destroyed, and each ship contains varying supplies that can be sold or used in upgrading your own ship. Upgrades are varied, and each upgrade changes you how play in meaningful ways. In addition to your own ship, you can add captured ships to your fleet, which you can use to send on battles and trade routes of their own. Battles for your captured ships are bare-bones turn based strategy minigames, requiring minimal input but some forethought.
Since this is an Assassin’s Creed game, the majority of it is spent on foot. This isn’t automatically a bad thing; the core parts of traversing, exploring, and assassinating are as fun as ever, and the beautiful setting makes it feel quite different from the sprawling cities of earlier games in the franchise. But frustratingly, the same kinds of mistakes that have been plaguing the series for years are still here. When going quickly, Kenway has a propensity for leaping to random areas, which can be fatal. Tailing missions are still boring and feel like attempts to game-ify plot. The stealth system is spotty and the AI ranges from idiotic to genius. Curiously, Black Flag doesn’t even explain the stealth system at all, assuming you know what a yellow sign over an enemy means as opposed to a red one and how to escape and become incognito. Thankfully, the graphics, music, and sound effect are all very good and help with immersion. You can’t help but be joyful and invested when your crew sings your favorite shanty on the high seas in preparation for an epic battle with a Man O’ War.
Black Flag truly shines when it melds its two main gameplay elements. In order to capture a ship, you need to swing over to the opposing vessel and accomplish a set of objectives on foot. In order to take down a fort, you must destroy its various battlements with your ship and then dock to assassinate the fort’s captain. There’s a brilliant mission halfway through the game that involves tailing an enemy ship through a river, making stops every so often to leave the Jackdaw and take out the watchmen, culminating in an Uncharted-esque setpiece to make an assassination.
The 18th century story, unfortunately, is framed by a 21st century story. After Assassin’s Creed III, Ubisoft could have taken a different path, framing the story better or making the overall story more minimalist. Not so. Though you are given free reign for a significant portion of the early game, you are soon (and often) yanked out to present day, your character a voiceless and nameless protagonist in a world full of voiced and named people. Whereas the Desmond Miles story at its best helped to give your explorations of the past additional weight as well as a reason to enjoy when you’re pulled out of the animus, the modern-day story here doesn’t serve much of a purpose, and I spent my time in present day just wanting to be left alone as a pirate.
Ultimately, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag makes meaningful strides in the Assassin’s Creed universe. It fills a grand open sea with places to explore, from a treasure island to underwater excursions to bustling towns like Havana or Kingston. It successfully uses the Assassin’s Creed action as a fantastic base to make a great pirate game. The converse though, is not true: a great pirate game doesn’t fix the Assassin’s Creed series’ problems. Still, it’s a fantastic example of a game taking a core idea, making it a blast, and giving you the freedom to do with it what you will. It’s a pirate’s life for me.