Assassin’s Creed is one of the most successful and popular franchises in the history of video games. In this latest installment, Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag jumps away from the events of Assassin’s Creed 3 (which told the story of Connor Kenway and his noble part in the American revolution) to tell the tale of the less noble 18th century privateer-turned-pirate Edward Kenway.
The characters in Assassin’s Creed 4 differ in some ways from those of its forerunners. Assassin’s Creed 3 (AC 3) for instance had transparent good and bad guys, with the evil English representing the fascistic Templars and the freedom fighting Yankees representing the good-guy Assassins. Unlike its predecessor however, Assassin’s Creed 4 has a variety of political players that are not necessarily good or bad. This morally grey nature is further reflected in Edward, who is often shown to have a far more ruthless side than many of the series’ previous protagonists.
The one thing worth praising about Assassin’s Creed 4 is that it’s much more action-oriented this time around. The game’s developer, Ubisoft Montreal, must have listened to many gamers’ complaints about the boring gameplay and terrible nothingness that dominate the first 10 hours of Assassin’s Creed 3 because in this latest installment, the game throws you into the action almost immediately. After an exhilarating opening mission that places you in the blood-soaked boots of Connor’s much livelier and more likeable grandfather Edward Kenway, the world becomes yours to explore in all of its nooks and crannies as you steer your ship along the uncharted waters of the unknown sea. The size of the world is staggering, and the fact that it’s absolutely full of rewarding activities only makes the adventure more exciting.
The new game repeats much of the land-based play seen in preceding installments but is less successful as an assassin’s adventure. Assassin’s Creed 4 gives players the appropriate means to hide and track enemies stealthily while minimizing the disturbances of the civilian population. You will spend part of the game stalking corrupt politicians and enemy agents on the streets of old Havana, but it is on the sea that the game truly sparkles. There, Kenway is in command of an upgradeable two-masted pirate ship called Jackdaw. No moment in this huge game is more satisfying than the successful sinking of a convoy led by a massive British vessel called Man-of-War.
Assassin’s Creed 4 continues to offer the same level of excitement and intrigue that provides gamers the momentum needed to maintain interest in the game. Edward still occasionally jumps off rooftops and climbs up walls that one would never want to scale in the first place. But this is the franchises’ signature move where gamers get to run around on rooftops, hop between buildings, and attempt that ultimate death-defying leap to the ground or sea below. The world of Assassin’s Creed 4 is massive with jungles, forts, ruins and villages waiting for you to explore by way of its gigantic open world environment. The hunting system has also been retained from Assassin’s Creed 3, allowing you to hunt wild animals on land and harpoon sharks and whales in the sea.
As fun as Assassin’s Creed 4 is, it’s not perfect and does have its fair share of hiccups. For starters, it suffers from bugs and poor AI. For instance, the body of a guard who possesses an important key that you need in order to advance through the game may all of a sudden disappear when you leave the area which means that you’ll need to restart the mission if you want to see him again. Black Flag is full of this sort of annoyances, and although they certainly aren’t deal-breakers, these things tend to pull you out of your gaming experience. The AI, on the other hand, can be a little too smart for its own good. As you play through this game, it would seem as though the guards would inexplicably develop super sight and could spot you from miles away. The irony is that the guards that are much closer to you would instead remained oblivious to your presence even though you are clearly more closer to their field of vision. This poor demonstration of the game’s unremarkable AI does make playing some sections of the game fairly frustrating, as it makes it impossible to travel through certain areas undetected.
Black Flag surprisingly feels less violent than its predecessors. Death animations are relatively short and sweet, with a surprising lack of blood for a game that revolves around stabbing people. This game also has a tendency to repeat some of the Assassin’s Creed series’ favorite mistakes, like forcing you to follow a target at a safe distance for what feels like minutes on end. It’s just annoying that I had to spend 10 minutes listening to crappy dialogues before I could make the kill.
The most surprising aspect of this game, however, is the involvement of Ubisoft in the game. Ubisoft itself is presented in Assassin’s Creed 4 mostly in the form of self-parody as a fictional video game company called Abstergo Entertainment. You can play as a developer in Abstergo’s Montreal headquarters. Your job is to help turn Kenway’s life into a mass-market appeal in the form of a video game adventure. The team that you work with debates whether games of this type could sell well if they focused more on peaceful, uplifting moments of humanity. In the end though, the team decides that conflict is needed because, ultimately, violence sells. As it turns out, Abstergo is a front for the villainous Templars, who’s been searching for history’s secrets when not creating entertainment to numb the population. So in this game, Ubisoft essentially plays itself as one of the bad guys who secretly plan its violent movement in an attempt to make a mark for itself in world history.
With the addition of more developed sailing gameplay and a more morally questionable protagonist, Assassin’s Creed 4 is one of the most interesting and ambitious entries into the series so far. However, while it’s still entertaining, its sneak and combat dynamics are beginning to feel a little stale and its story is rather dull. Hopefully, with the new console generation now upon us, Ubisoft will take the time to improve the gameplay mechanics and come up with a more engaging storyline for its next game in the series.