At last, Ubisoft has embraced the benefits of piracy on the PC. Sorry, I’ve been waiting a while to make that joke. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag was delayed on our platform to give it a release date more in-line with the Xbox One and PS4 launches; which means you’ve probably already had wind that this is Rather A Decent One in the Assassin’s Creed series.
I’m not prepared to unequivocally state that it’s the best entry (as some have,) but if people ask me which is the ideal one to play first, I’m now going to be dithering between this and Brotherhood. Perhaps leaning towards Black Flag because it’s Edward Kenway’s debut outing, rather than Ezio’s second.
Kenway is a great character, and perfect avatar-like stand-in for any players (like myself) who’ve become jaded with the series’ convoluted narrative. He largely gives no fucks for the eternal scheming of the Templars or the philosophy of the Creed. His first act of the game is to kill an Assassin, steal his clothes and deliver some sensitive information to dangerous men in return for a meager bag of coin. When the same men are stood around a table discussing their villainous master plan, Kenway’s priorities are to ignore all of that and pickpocket the lot of them.
Videogaming’s first ever Welsh cover star (okay, besides Gareth Bale on FIFA 14) is surrounded by an equally enjoyable cast of rogues, misfits and outright dickheads. For those who found Assassin’s Creed III to be devoid of personality, Black Flag should go a fair way to making amends. The only problem is, in their eagerness to squeeze in as many recognisable pirates as possible, Ubisoft has created a rather sizeable cast list. Most are welcome (though Calico Jack’s weird reverse-tribute to Jack Sparrow grates alongside much better portrayals,) but there are so many supporting actors that each only gets a fraction of Edward’s total screen time.
That means we’re never as invested in the characters as the game’s narrative believes, so when Emotional Moments of Gravitas™ roll around they fall a bit flat. A fact not helped by the main plot’s habit of hopping around through lengthy periods of time, when to the player it’s been mere minutes. “Edward! It’s been two years since we last met.” Really? All I did was unlock a couple more viewpoints and then head straight for the next mission marker. A tighter cast might have solved this pacing issue, though Black Flag’s desire to provide a who’s-who of 1700s Caribbean piracy is an understandable one.
It’s also not at all bad at providing a what’s-what of high seas thievery. The Assassin’s Creed obsession with protracted tutorials has not exactly been put to rest by Black Flag (I boggled at the insanity of receiving a new weapon during sequence 11 of 13,) but it’s smart enough to make sure you’re inside the bustling Spanish port of Havana after an hour and in command of your own ship within a couple more.
Certain areas and activities remain gated by the story, but at the point where you pick up Edward’s Jackdaw you’re fairly free to roam around and engage in open world activities as you please. This can have the rather odd side-effect of, say, having done a load of Assassin Contract missions or captured a fort before the game ‘teaches’ you how to. But that’s preferable to having those actions barred until the game feels like allowing them.
And what a vast set of actions there are on offer. For all its efforts to escape some of the series bloat, Black Flag is still an Assassin’s Creed title in terms of the plethora of side-activities spread throughout the world. The last time I saw this many icons in one place was the Vatican gallery.
Not all of these collectathon projects are worth pursuing (screw you, worthless animus fragments,) but Black Flag does manage to inject most of them with enough meaning to give them value. Why would you chase floating song sheets across the rooftops? To give your pirate crew more sea shanties to belt out as you cruise across the wonderfully modelled ocean, of course. It’s also well worth seeing the ‘Templar Hunt’ quests through to see how many times Kenway rolls his eyes at the Assassin bullshit he’s having to put up with.
In order to maintain your pirate lifestyle, it’s necessary to use the Jackdaw for more than just sailing around the place ogling at whales, storms and pretty island shorelines. Ship-to-ship plundering is a matter of making the best use of your selection of nautical weapons (from broadsides, to chain shot and mortars) or hanging around as the Spanish and British navies go at it, then swooping in to pick up the pieces. Once you’ve got a ship dead in the water, it’s time to host the best type of party: a boarding party.
Combat mechanics in the Assassin’s Creed series have never really evolved much beyond basic chaining of attacks and timing-based button presses to make the protagonist do something cool, and Black Flag does little to change that. But it’s difficult to stay too mad at a game that allows you to rope-swing across to a ship, hang the captain from his own rigging, dive onto an unsuspecting sailor below and then unleash four pistols in succession at hapless bystanders. Capturing ships for cargo and resources can get repetitive if you attempt to grind through it for every last upgrade, but boarding is a marvellous activity.
The number of missions on both sea and land where the objective is simply “tail this guy,” are rather less welcome. Somebody at Ubisoft either has a fetish for stalking, or just really loved playing Musical Statues as a kid because the flabby mid-section of Black Flag’s main story is littered with this type of mission. They’re not terribly fun, and, prior to getting the tools necessary to open up alternative pathways, often feel very restrictive. Players, do your duty and rate these missions at one star with Ubisoft’s curious in-game feedback system. It’s the only way they’ll learn.