I absolutely adore the Ubisoft's Assassins Creed franchise. The way in which it captures sections of History has captivated me since its inception. But after the dull and utterly bland immersion that was attempted in the third instalment, coupled with a poor narrative, I was left feeling a bit saddened. Perhaps the yearly cycle in which they were being shipped out was actually harming the games. I wasn't feeling the connection with Connor as I was Ezio or Altiar in my past ventures, and I thought the series had hit its peak, and was now tumbling to the bottom of the cesspool of ruined franchises to wear away until some ambitious chap wants a reboot. (See Tomb Raider)
But when I loaded up Assassins Creed: Black Flag, I truly realized how painstakingly wrong I was.
Black flag has everything you need in an adventure game. Now, I may perhaps be a little biased. I adore pirate mythos, I study it, and in gaming terms, I certainly know my Guybrush Threepwood's from my Jack Sparrow's, so I knew immediately that this game was going to quench my thirst for a true open world pirate experience that no game has seemed to master yet.
But I’d be damned if Ubisoft hasn't gone and done it.
The first incredible, and absolutely crucial, Assassins Creed: Black Flag feature is the range of weapons which truly make you feel like a notorious pirate. There is obviously the series trademark hidden blade, which makes a triumphant return on both wrists, satisfaction guaranteed every time whether it’s a head Templar or just some petty thief running amuck. This is a quality the series has failed to mess up so far and it holds true.
However, the rest of the arsenal is just as important in making this game fantastic. Sticking to the pirate ethos, Edward sports 4 (yes, you heard me correctly) flintlock pistols, which he fires in a unique combo sequence. The brute force takes away from the usual stealth aspect, but the satisfaction is just as great. Rope Darts also return, with which you can suffocate your opponents from the shadows, or pull them from their ships so you can rob them of their livelihood (which is bloody hilarious, by the way!).
No pirate game would be complete without a trusty cutlass to slice through your foes, and our hero Ed sports two which he can whip out in the heat of the moment to turn groups of foes into mincemeat.
The parkour we all love returns in style, this time incorporating the rough islands that line the Bahamas, and of course the naval combat infuses the movement perfectly. After smashing through the initial defences of a British warship, you can cut a rope and swing over, sometimes choosing to air assassinate the poor sap who is obviously taking up your landing space.
Both horizontal and vertical movement styles are crisp and fluid in control and feel fantastic. Finding forgotten islands and traversing every nook and cranny is highly gratifying, as you swing across crags and clamber through foliage up above the briny deep.
Even scaling ships is rewarding, with nigh on every part available to climb across, tempting you to eventually dive deep into the water where you can find huge squids and loot shipwrecks. The animations are perfectly crafted, and every single movement feels constructed to have its own personal purpose to immerse you as the pirate captain you have always wanted to be.
Another crucial Assassins Creed: Black Flag feature which entangles you in the life of a pirate is, of course, Edward’s ship, The Jackdaw. It starts off a lowly brig, but after you earn your black flag and hoist it high, it is yours to cruise around in. The movement across the sea is fine-tuned and there are plenty of activities to keep you occupied. You can obviously ransack other ships and add them to your trading routes, so you can operate an elevated pirate business where you can trade goods for money or vice versa. This, in turn, earns you a pretty penny with which you can upgrade everything about your ship. This includes the cannons, the hull armour, mortar capabilities, and even the force at which you can ram other ships into oblivion.
Hell, even if you just care about the cosmetics, you can fine tune those too to ensure you abide to 1700’s pirate chic. The weapons are all equally fun to use, and they all hold their own unique purpose in battle, like the mortars distinct ability to shell forts from far away, which you can then raid on foot. Finally, the ship is also equipped with a diving bell, as well as a rowboat and harpoon’s, so you can hunt for rare sea life or find buried treasure in forgotten shipwrecks.
The last few games in the series were certainly lacking in variation and interesting characters, but Black Flag ticks both of these boxes perfectly. The story is riddled with intriguing plot twists, pirate betrayal and mysterious conflicts, accompanied with a dash of the usual conspiracy jargon that has infused prior games. Most importantly though, it’s the characters that make this game truly fantastic.
Edward himself is lovable, and as a change from the other games, the titular character isn’t sworn into the assassins by oath or partaking in it for revenge purposes. The guy just wants to go out and make a fortune as a landlubber, and he won’t let anyone get in his way (including pesky Templars, of course). The side characters also make the game’s cut scenes highly enjoyable, as they all have interesting back stories which you can probe via extra missions to learn all of the well written and interesting lore
These range from Adewale, a slave turned pirate who acts as Edwards’s right hand man. James Kidd, a mysterious young pirate who joins Edwards crew, and of course the famous pirates themselves, featuring the likes of Blackbeard and Jack Rackham, who all mingle with the cast and mould the story into an action packed adventure to get lost in.
Assassins Creed: Black Flag features an enormous map. It takes roughly half an hour to traverse across it, and there are over 50 incredibly unique locations, teaming with collectibles and a lively atmosphere that changes each time you visit. Whether you want to go and beat up heathens in a tavern in Kingston, do some dodgy trading in Nassau, or hunt Templars in Havana, you decide. Whatever floats your boat, quite literally,
But the fun doesn't stop there. Out on the seven seas, the world is your oyster. I've often found myself at 2am just shooting at innocents in my warship, singing along to the shanties of my tireless crew as we gallivant unto the resurrection hour with rum in our bellies, and blurry visions of gold. Excuse me for getting a touch lost in my pirate fantasy there, but that is the entire point. You will lose yourself out there, and then find yourself in the best way possible, hunting down legendary ghost ships, or even killer whales, and always giving yourself a mediocre excuse as to why you should anchor up and check in at some tiny island, just in case you didn't loot every last penny.