Assassin's Creed 4 Black Flag review

Assassin’s Creed 4 Black Flag packs more fun than its predecessors

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Assassin's Creed 4 review
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Assassin's Creed 4 Black Flag review
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Assassin's Creed 4 Black Flag review
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Assassin's Creed 4 Black Flag review

For

  • Pirates!
  • Naval battles
  • Satisfying stories

Against

  • Repetitive missions
  • Outrunning the law
  • Shaun Hastings

Assassin’s Creed 4 Black Flag is a welcome jolt for Ubisoft’s historic open-world series, adding new mechanics and characters that remain fun throughout

Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag is the most fun we’ve had with an Assassin’s Creed game since Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood (released back in 2010). It really is that good.

The ambition of the game is stunning. Ubisoft has expanded the core experience of free-running, stealth and swordplay to include naval battles, increased the size and scope of the world players have to explore and, best of all, placed a charismatic and fun protagonist at the game’s centre.

Assassin’s Creed 4 Black Flag: Characters

This last aspect can’t be praised enough. While Black Flag’s predecessor Assassin’s Creed 3 introduced interesting new mechanics and weapons, it suffered somewhat because its central character wasn’t much fun to be around.

After the series’ flamboyant lead Ezio Auditore da Firenze shuffled off at the end of Assassin's Creed Revelations, the young Native American Connor Kenway proved too po-faced and earnest for most players. This probably explains why he’s been summarily jettisoned for Black Flag.

In AC4, players take on the role of Connor’s granddad, Edward Kenway, privateer, swordsman and roguish ne’er-do-well.

As one of the many figureheads in the Republic Of Pirates, Edward is both a lot more fun than his grandson – as are the characters that surround him, which include legendary pirates such as Anne Bonney, James Kidd and Blackbeard.

There’s an easy camaraderie Kenway has with the blackguards of the Caribbean and his loose, rakish manner makes him good company for the 20-30 hours players will spend with him.

Assassin’s Creed 4 Black Flag: Plot

The story of Black Flag covers the usual ‘secret war’ nonsense that fuels the Assassin’s Creed franchise and, as usual, long-term resolutions aren’t even on the table. The adventure begins with Kenway impersonating a dead man in order to pick up a cash reward, and before too long he finds himself a player in the war between the Assassins and the Templars.

It seems the latter are after some device that’ll grant them formidable powers and are using Imperial efforts to drive pirates out of the Caribbean as cover.

Kenway decides finding the location of said device could be worth some money, but it’s not long before some earnest killers wearing cowls try to enlist him for the greater good.

There’s a story set in the present day too, which involves an employee of the Abstergo Entertainment Corporation sourcing memories for a pirate film.

Without going into too much detail, they’re quickly tapped up by some neurotic twit in IT and made to hack a few of their workmate’s terminals. They’re also made aware that Abstergo’s upper management is engaged in something rather shady.

The present day Assassin’s Creed story has always been the weakest element of this series and Black Flag doesn’t buck that trend. It does, however, edit it down to mercifully short levels – even if it doesn’t reward long-time fans of the series by getting rid of its most irritating character, Shaun Hastings (voiced by Danny Wallace).

Thankfully, the lion’s share of player’s time is spent tooling about the game with Ed Kenway. Black Flag takes place during The Golden Age of Piracy and is set on sprawling map divided between landmasses and acres of ocean.

There are three large cities – Kingston, Havana and the pirate isle of Nassau – that offer the traditional Assassin’s Creed experience (free running, contracts, side-missions, collectibles and opening viewpoints).

It’s in these sections that Black Flag stagnates a little. The cities look wonderfully rustic and there are oodles of activities, but a lot of them are built on an overly familiar rubric.

Black Flag doesn’t really push the envelope in its city-based mission structure and some of the kinks in the game’s parkour gameplay persist.

Things get really interesting when players set to sea in Kenway’s ship, The Jackdaw. The Jackdaw is both the player’s main mode of transport as well as their second avatar.

Players have four speed gradients to choose from, and the turning arch of their vessel decreases the faster they move. The Jackdaw is a pretty nimble ship, which can switch from full sail to turning on its anchor in a few short moments and this comes in especially handy during naval combat.

Assassin’s Creed 4 Black Flag: Features

Thankfully, the lion’s share of player’s time is spent tooling about the game with Ed Kenway. Black Flag takes place during The Golden Age of Piracy and is set on sprawling map divided between landmasses and acres of ocean.

There are three large cities – Kingston, Havana and the pirate isle of Nassau – that offer the traditional Assassin’s Creed experience (free running, contracts, side-missions, collectibles and opening viewpoints).

It’s in these sections that Black Flag stagnates a little. The cities look wonderfully rustic and there are oodles of activities, but a lot of them are built on an overly familiar rubric.

Black Flag doesn’t really push the envelope in its city-based mission structure and some of the kinks in the game’s parkour gameplay persist.

Things get really interesting when players set to sea in Kenway’s ship, The Jackdaw.
The Jackdaw is both the player’s main mode of transport as well as their second avatar.

Players have four speed gradients to choose from, and the turning arch of their vessel decreases the faster they move. The Jackdaw is a pretty nimble ship, which can switch from full sail to turning on its anchor in a few short moments and this comes in especially handy during naval combat.

Assassin’s Creed 4 Black Flag: Naval Combat

As they sail the seven seas (okay, actually the one sea), the player will encounter numerous vessels from different countries and they have the opportunity to nick their cargo. This usually involves pulling alongside their target, battering them with cannon fire until they’re incapacitated and then either boarding them or sinking them.

If they opt for the latter, they pick up half the amount of loot. If they decide to board, they’ll need to kill a certain number of the crew until surrender is offered.

They can then use the ship for spare parts for the Jackdaw or recruit the crew and lower Kenway’s wanted level. The latter here is useful since, if the player sinks too many vessels from a particular country, they’ll send out a warship in pursuit of the Jackdaw.

Whatever they decide, players will usually collect loot – rum, cloth, metals and so on – that they can sell to purchase upgrades for the Jackdaw. These include items such as reinforced armour, more powerful guns, mortars, bigger battering rams and more effective ammunition. They can also buy cosmetic upgrades such as a new masthead or really ugly sails.

What sells the experience is the fact that Ubisoft has done a sterling job of making the Jackdaw both fun and easy to sail. Controls are mapped intuitively and naval battles are always heaps of fun to play through. Just be wary that in order to tackle war galleons and Legendary Ships in the game, the Jackdaw will need some pretty heavy upgrades.

Assassin’s Creed 4 Black Flag: Environments

The game’s other main draw is the huge map it contains and the myriad activities it offers. It’s true some collectibles – viewpoints and chests – feel recycled, but players can also explore hidden coves, hunt for buried treasure, chase down sea shanties, and complete Bureau side quests.

They can take a diving bell to the bottom of the ocean or hunt land and aquatic animals and sell their meat and pelts. There’s even a series of statue puzzles to solve that yield studs that open a door to… well, we didn’t get that far.

Black Flag also looks absolutely swoon-worthy in its presentation. We’ve yet to play it on current gen but we can report the PS4 ups the ante on this already visually impressive series.

Every environment – be it the ramshackle streets of Havannah or a lush jungle on a tropical island – is meticulously detailed and in-game environmental have a realistic physical affect on foliage and cloth.

Assassin’s Creed 4 Black Flag: Multiplayer

It’ll probably take players around 26 or so hours to complete Black Flag if they ignore most activities other than the main story missions. God alone knows how long 100 per cent completion in story mode will take, and then there’s always multiplayer.

Online mode is essentially the violent game of hide and seek that reached its apex in Assassin’s Creed 3 last year. Wolfpack mode is back, although this time it’s been kinked a little – players need to defend chests that pop up occasionally as well as coordinate timed attacks on groups of enemies.

Assassin’s Creed 4 Black Flag: Verdict

Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag is a remarkable piece of work and represents something of a return to form for the series. It’s sure to delight fans and it should prompt anyone who was put off by Connor Kenway to give the series another try. It's the best entry in this series for the last three years and easily one of 2013’s essential titles – on whichever gaming platform you own.

The new content is well-implemented, fun to use and remains compelling throughout. Now, all they need to do is set the next game in Victorian London. Are you listening, Ubisoft? Are you listening?

Assassin’s Creed 4 Black Flag release date: 29 October 2013 on Xbox 360 and PS3. 22 November 2013 on Wii U, Xbox One, PS4 and PC.

Assassin’s Creed 4 Black Flag price: £49.99 on PS4