There are few more compelling metaphors for freedom than the vast expanse of a seaward horizon. For centuries it beckoned the bold to gamble everything in exchange for adventure, fortune, and fame – or infamy – and it’s a promise that Ubisoft has expertly distilled and fulfilled in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, a swashbuckling open-world adventure set in the sun drenched Caribbean at the apex of piracy’s golden age.
It is the early 18th century, and Edward Kenway is a newlywed lowborn lad ambitious for advancement. With few prospects available to him in Bristol, Kenway sets out for the West Indies, a new frontier where a man is free to make or take his fortune outside rigid strictures of English society. But privateering soon turns to piracy as Kenway throws his tricorne in with a gallery of famous seafaring rogues from the pages of history.
Inevitably and quite by accident, he strays into the conspiratorial world occupied by the Templars and the Assassins, and into the middle of their unending conflict over the fate of mankind. But rather than becoming initiate, Kenway is only in it for the grift. It’s a set-up that provides the player with the perfect narrative conceit to do and behave exactly as they please in a vast open-world archipelago dotted with colonial towns and sparkling ports, vine-strangled jungles and ancient Mayan ruins, rum-soaked pirate coves, and reefs pocked with shipwrecks.
The world of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is immense and detailed. It is by far the game’s greatest asset. The map teems with markers each overlapping one another and each denoting still more activities to engage in, from hunting cougars and bull sharks, to assassinating Templars and digging up buried treasure. Pelts and skins must be acquired to upgrade Edward’s armour, for example.
The Jackdaw – Edward’s ship and an extension of himself in the world – can only be upgraded with a mix of cash and materials such as steel and wood, both of which will be accumulated by taking down coastal forts and besting imperial ships on the high seas.
Whereas Assassin’s Creed III offered mere distractions and money sinks bound to an entirely superfluous economy, almost every activity in Assassin’s Creed IV is meaningful and increasingly necessary in order to advance through the game. Happily, the design of each is also scrupulous enough that they never err into tedium.
Sailing the Jackdaw and commanding her crew in naval warfare is an essential and enormously enjoyable pillar of the experience. The fundamentals here are arcadey and basic.
Nuisances such as prevailing wind and bearing rarely have any consequential impact, a welcome fact that leaves the player free to focus on more entertaining activities such as navigating deck-clearing rogue waves, or lining up the perfect broadside.
Commanding a ship was also an activity in Assassin’s Creed III, but one that was partitioned off from the core on-foot experience by a load screen, and one that didn’t loop back strongly enough to the game’s other systems. In Black Flag, Edward can transition freely from land to ship to sea, and the world is much more immersive for it.
The Jackdaw must be outfitted before it’s more than a mere gadfly to the mighty Spanish and English armadas, and so Edward and his crew must prey on smaller schooners and gunboats before daring to tangle with brigs and frigates, let alone the mighty man ‘o’ wars and their three deadly tiers of cannon.
Before engaging a ship, Edward is able to size up his quarry through his spyglass to learn it’s level and what it’s transporting. Sinking a ship will net Kenway half the goods and munitions stored in its hold. More profitable and only slightly more risky is opting to board a ship and going cutlass to cutlass with its crew until they submit.
Doing so will accrue to Edward all the ship’s cargo, and provide him with three additional options – to scuttle it and repair the Jackdaw, to lower his notoriety and ease his passage across the Caribbean, or to add it to his fleet and send it forth to pillage and add to Kenway’s slowly growing wealth. It’s another carefully balanced system that feeds back into the core fantasy.
The primacy of sailing alleviates some of the burden from the on-foot experience, and that’s no bad thing as the core mechanics of Assassin’s Creed have hardly evolved since Altair walked the narrow streets of medieval Jerusalem. Players will still surreptitiously shadow their targets and eavesdrop on their conversations. They’ll chase acrobats across rooftops, and accidentally scramble up the wrong wall or jump into plain sight.
Stealth makes a most welcome return as the preferred – and sometimes only – method of approaching and dispatching targets, but often the repercussions for going loud are a mere percentage deficit in the post-mission summary.
It hardly seems to matter. Assassin’s Creed IV isn’t a stealth game as much as it is a grand adventure title with some stealth elements. Much as Red Dead Redemption encapsulated the spaghetti Western and brought it to consoles, Black Flag delivers to us the swaggering pirate fantasy on a scope and scale never before attempted. It’s a game that atones for the last two flatter entries in the Assassin’s Creed series and outlays an exciting new template for the future of the franchise.