The biggest praise we can heap onto Assassin's Creed IV is that pieces of its breathtaking oceanic playground remain with you long after you put the pad down.
As your mind drifts on the commute home you'll find yourself humming favourite sea shanties. Walk down your local high street and instead of the usual array of familiar shop frontages you'll see potential handholds.
On rainy days you'll stare out of the window and remember that time you were braced against the starboard breeze under a blistering Caribbean sun. Assassin's Creed IV, while by no means perfect, is video game escapism at its finest.
Edward Kenway is your piratical guide through the Golden age of Piracy, and he makes for a much more palatable protagonist than ACIII's Connor. It's clear, right from the explosive beginning, that Edward has but one doubloon-flavoured aim in life. Much like eternal crowd-pleaser Ezio, he's fleshed out with character flaws to go with the bad-assery. There's more to Ed than grog-guzzling and wench wrangling. One of Edward's key characterisations is that he's a pirate first and foremost.
He might wear Assassin robes and wield the iconic wrist blades, but for a hefty chunk of the game Edward is unfettered by character breaking philosophies and cringe-worthy creed adherence. In fact, it's only when these familiar series tropes infringe that his otherwise winning personality takes a musketball to the gut. An early indicator that Black Flag is a better pirate game than it is an assassin game.
Edward's is the behooded face on the box but for the first time in AC there's more than one main character. She may be made of timber and barnacles, but Edward's ship, the Jackdaw, is every bit as integral a part of the Black Flag experience.
Her briny decks are your access point to the many sultry shores of the Caribbean. Though historical cities like Kingston, Nassau and Havana provide ample playgrounds for land-lubbing action, the Jackdaw allows for a wider variety of wildernesses and seascapes to explore.
New experiences aren't relegated to side-quests. Many are placed front and centre, with all the explosive bluster and memorable potency that you could want. Prime examples - without sailing into spoiler infested waters - include dunking down into the deeps with a diving bell to recover sunken medicine for your hygienically challenged piratey brethren.
The Jackdaw also acts as a content gate-keeper. Each section of the map contains so many treasures to seek out, sea beasties to harpoon, sunken wrecks to loot and uncharted islands to comb that it's easy to get distracted. In fact you're supposed to get distracted. There's a right way to play through Black Flag and that is to let its world draw you in.
"Edward Kenway makes for a much more palatable protagonist than ACIII's Connor."
Each chunk of the map can be unveiled fully by taking out land-based forts. These grand undertakings often require the Jackdaw to be upgraded with stronger cannons, armour and weaponry the further into the game you get. As such you are actively encouraged to pillage your way to power. It's essential to spend some time drinking in the world before you plough into the occasionally over-cooked Assassins/pirates/Templar plot bloat.
The story, however improved over ACIII, is front heavy with quality. The first 15 hours or so are mind-blowing. As each facet of the world unlocks you're treated to a narrative focused on the era, the personalities and the intrigue of the age. The modern day barely infringes at all, and when it does it is mysterious enough, brief enough and focused enough, to actually benefit the over-arcing plot.
The cracks start to show come hour 20. Suddenly Ubisoft forgets to frame its narrative experiences. Characters come and go too quickly for you to get a sense of who they are. As a result, it's hard to really care for them when the grog turns sour and the blood starts spilling.
There are too many moments of brilliance sprinkled throughout for this occasional saltiness to spoil the overall flavour, however. Boarding is seamless and wickedly fun. The atmosphere during these flowing sequences is hectic, as multiple ships weave in and out of range looking for the perfect broadside firing opportunities.
Get an enemy ship's health low enough via cannonade and mortar fire, and you can board her quickly and without so much as a cutscene. Like the best AC slices, these situations host tasty free-form player choices. Will you climb up the masting to air assassinate the opposing captain? Dive into the drink for a stealthy approach? Or perhaps swing right in via handily placed ropes? The choice is always yours, though is incentivised by ship class-based objectives. Bigger ships will need their flags destroying before the crew loses their thirst for battle. Others will submit once cargo has been suitably exploderised.
It's clear that Ubisoft heard fans' cries of woe as they played through criminally guided portions of ACIII. Many of the stealth sections of Black Flag are satisfyingly open-ended. You're often given an area full of guards, with nothing but your skills to guide you to your goals. It's a shame there are no palpable rewards for those of us that prefer going unseen/unheard, as it's a tad too easy to win in open combat. The fact that more often than not you're given the option to run away and hide rather than suffer instant desynchronisation (and failure) is a good thing, however.
Not so good are the jarring and constantly recurring chunks of archaic AC that should be long buried with Alta´r and Ezio. Eavesdropping and tailing missions can do one. Instant fail states during chase missions are equally frustrating, though thankfully rarely take more than three or four trial and error attempts to get past.With so much game on offer it's not surprising that certain elements take a quality hit. Even finishing the story after around 30 hours you'll find your total synchronisation sits around the 50% mark. Assassin contracts, naval contracts and crafting distractions right out of Far Cry 3 fill out the experience.
There are both good and bad types of collectibles on offer, mind you. Shiny amber Animus Fragments litter every map and gleam at you relentlessly. Collecting them all feels like a grind. Treasure Maps on the other hand are superb excuses to tear your eyes away from the mini map. Each parchment gives you vague clues as to a buried treasure's whereabouts forcing you to explore the stupefyingly beautiful surroundings around you.
And the world really is beautiful. Sweeping vistas maintain every ounce of minute detail and quality, making the series trope of sync point 360 degree camera pans worthy rewards. Tiny details consistently thrill at their discovery. Sneaking into a fort during a squall, we were treated to individual droplets of water rippling on the cobblestones underfoot. We can't remember the last time we spent so long just watching foliage rustle in the breeze.
"The fact that ACIV is so good was by no means a foregone conclusion."
Black Flag contains some of the best instances of pathetic fallacy we've yet seen in a game. When the proverbial poop hits the propeller, cyclones and rogue waves batter at the Jackdaw. In other emotive instances, ominous fog or dull twilight lends the Caribbean suitably disturbing hues. This visual resplendence makes us wonder: if the devs weren't keeping one eye on the current gen version's scalability, just how much more could they be capable of?
The fact that ACIV is so good was by no means a foregone conclusion. There was a sense that, as the dust settled after ACIII, Ubisoft had missed a beat. Brows rightly furrowed as commentators pondered whether the series had already overshot its zenith. Much like the first Assassin's Creed, Black Flag isn't perfect. But the treasure trove of memorable experiences on offer here put all but the very best open worlds to shame.
Beautiful, expansive and rewarding. Fresh experiences mark a return to form for the franchise.
- Fresh gameplay revitalises the series
- A gorgeous world to escape to
- Ridiculous amount of content
- Latter half of the story is weaker
- Occasionally archaic mission structures