UBISOFT has unsheathed its sharpest Assassin’s Creed yet with Black Flag.
The pirate theme may be a departure from previous historical settings but it’s this very setting that makes Black Flag the most enjoyable Assassin’s Creed yet.
Playing as Edward Kennedy, a pirate washed ashore after a battle at sea, you quickly hunt down and eliminate a wounded assassin, steal his identity, and embark upon a quest to be rewarded with riches that are promised to him in a letter.
Black Flag retains much of the gameplay formula found in AC3 but adds sea exploration as a means of transport between locations as well as additional discovery.
And when at sea, there’s only one way to upgrade your ship: find and battle others.
Each enemy ship has its own rating and promised cargo haul, and you’ll need to make sure you have enough crew members – recruited from island taverns or saved from execution – to help you damage and then board vessels to capture them and their hauls.
Engaging in sea battles is addictive stuff. At times you’ll have to account for stormy weather, high seas, multiple enemy ships, and as your notoriety grows, hunters who pursue you across the seas.
You can stop off along the way to your destination at various small islands to collect animus shards and other collectibles, discover and slay new animals in order to craft new items, and simply explore the virtual Caribbean.
In town, quests are reasonably varied, although it’s the core gameplay that hosts most of the gameplay’s issues.
Despite a strong control set, I still found Black Flag to carry the legacy of AC games in being quite finicky with its contextual actions.
For example, at times I’d run at an enemy to tackle them, tap Circle on the PS3 controller, and continue running past them. What made it a glitch rather than human error was when the guy had stopped, and I still couldn’t tackle him until a third attempt.
I also spotted a courier stuck under a set of stairs with no way of being reached, and I truly lamented the lack of manual stealth maneuvers.
Regarding the latter, it was terribly frustrating to have Kennedy automatically crouch in foliage, then stand up and walk a metre to the next patch of foliage, only to be discovered.
Despite these challenges, I still really enjoyed Black Flag. Each island has a stack of collectibles and side quests, and in Black Flag you can rescue pirates from the clutches of British troops and they’ll join your ship’s crew.
The living world isn’t as relevant this time around, however, and while the theme and sea battles make this the most enjoyable AC title yet, I’m hoping that in DLC or potentially another release, Ubisoft refines the formula even further.
We reviewed Black Flag on PlayStation 3 and I’d describe the visuals as acceptable, but often noticed poor textures, jagged edges and visual pop-up, especially on panning cinematics.
I fired up a high-res video of Black Flag running on next-gen as a comparison, and it might be worth waiting if you’d prefer to play it in its intended glory.
Still, there’s nothing you can’t do in AC4 on current gen that you can on next-gen. It’s purely eye-candy only, and for that I believe Ubisoft deserves a stack of credit.
When synchronising at the peak of lookouts, island towns still look amazing. Water glistens in the sunlight, waves roll realistically when on the high seas, and the frame rate is generally fluid.
Assassin’s Creed 4 is the most enjoyable title in the series thus far, but it also doesn’t stray too far from its roots.
While ship battles are indulgently fun, and the pirate theme a welcome retreat from previous settings, some of the same gameplay issues remain.
Still, if you’re up for an adventure, have always wanted to be a pirate, or enjoyed the type of sea and island exploration in Wind Waker HD on Wii U, then you may also enjoy Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag.
ASSASSIN’S CREED IV: BLACK FLAG HAS EARNED: