the artistry and psychology of gaming


Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag

Review in Brief
Game: An open-world sandbox game with stealth elements set in the Golden Age of Piracy in the Caribbean.
Good: A fantastic open world in every possible way; several strong, well-balanced, and well-varied gameplay modes; streamlined information and user interfaces; avoids the franchise’s most common pitfalls; an improved frame story.
Bad: A mundane, unmemorable story; missed opportunities to faithfully develop the franchise-long plot; a handful of small interface problems.
Verdict: The franchise’s best title, with gameplay so good you don’t even mourn the lack of story.
Rating: 9/10
Recommendation: The seventh generation’s last, and the eighth generation’s first, must-play game.

“The seventh generation’s last, and the eighth generation’s first, must-play game.”

I’ve always had something of a love-hate relationship with the Assassin’s Creed series. My reviews for Assassin’s Creed 2 and Assassin’s Creed 3 remain the two longest ones I’ve ever written because while there’s a lot to love about the franchise, there’s also always been a lot to hate about it. Since the original game gave us a lot of spectacularly unique ideas held back by an overly formulaic game structure, the franchise has been making strides forward in its mechanics and strides backward in its plot and themes, while simultaneously committing some of the silliest and most egregious fouls of any big-budget game I can recall in the past several years. Assassin’s Creed 3 in particular was an absolute mess, a glitchy, poorly-designed engine with an underwhelming, meandering plot that strays miles away from the series’ original appeal. I contemplated skipping Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag altogether based on the assumption that it would be little more than an iterative improvement on Assassin’s Creed 3, given the shared setting and time period.

I’m glad I didn’t. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is hands-down, without a doubt the best Assassin’s Creed game to date. The game makes enormous strides to get out of its own way and avoid the downright stupid problems that plagued the series’ predecessors, streamlining the gameplay and interface. The world it provides the player is absolutely massive, competing against even the recent behemoth provided by Grand Theft Auto V, and for the first time in the franchise’s long history the game actually feels like it should be an open-world sandbox game. There’s a downright amazing amount of content in the game, with several different sidequests and optional activities; many of these boil down to the classic, lazy “assassin flag” collection sidequests, but many are more compelling as well. The naval gameplay is especially brilliantly executed, and fortunately has been elevated to the point where it’s mandatory rather than optional, allowing the game to take many more liberties in working it into the plot and gameplay otherwise.

All that said, however, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag does perpetuate the series’ long history of distancing itself from much of the original story appeal of the first couple games. The Assassin-Templar rivalry has been relegated to little more than an afterthought or backdrop, with the protagonists labeled “Assassins” and the antagonists labeled “Templars” with little more than token attention paid to the actual different agendas. Instead, the game remains more focused on the “First Civilization” plot line, which may appeal to some players but never resonated with me. The original game world has enormous potential to play with all of actual history and apply the Assassin-Templar war onto real historical events; it never needed to introduce the First Civilization to make the plot compelling. The franchise has also basically abandoned any claim to promoting stealth – in almost every case, head-to-head combat is easier and more efficient, with stealth rarely incentivized or mandated by the game at all.

But ultimately, those criticisms don’t matter all that much. They are not flaws in the game, but rather just missed opportunities: fixing those issues would have made the game better, but the presence of those issues does not make the game worse. What makes the game excellent is the best game world, combat system, and sidequests in the franchise, along with the removal of many of the elements that held the earlier games back. Every game has to have something that drives the player to keep playing. In the first couple Assassin’s Creed games, in my opinion, it was the plot. In the middle couple, there was no sufficient driving motivation to keep playing. In Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, for the first time, the driving force behind the game is the gameplay itself.

The Game
In the latest installment of the Assassin’s Creed franchise, you take the role of Edward Kenway, the father and grandfather of the antagonist and protagonist of Assassin’s Creed III. Like most protagonists in the franchise, Edward is not an assassin at the start, but rather is just a pirate trying to make his way around the Caribbean to fame and fortune. Early on, he stumbles into the conflict between the Assassins and the Templars, and seeing the opportunity to find the treasure they both seek and turn it for a large fortune, he raises a crew and starts after it. His efforts increasingly put him into the path of both the Assassins and Templars, and as he proceeds, he finds himself having to decide on an allegiance to something more than just wealth and booty.

In terms of gameplay, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag continues most of the conventions established earlier in the franchise. Armed with two hidden blades, two swords, and a pistol (or four), Edward primarily fights hand-to-hand with enemies or runs around on rooftops and walls to stay unnoticed by enemies. The game provides lots of capability for a stealth approach to most missions, but Edward is still plenty strong head-to-head against his foes. Several of the traditional functions of the franchise, such as notoriety, high-profile/low-profile actions, and mandatory stealth have been either removed or heavily altered, and on the whole, the standard melee portion of the game has been made significantly simpler than the previous iterations.

For the first time in the franchise’s history, the game also features a significant second gameplay style in the form of a naval mode. Ship-to-ship combat was featured as a sidequest in Assassin’s Creed III, but in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, it is thrust to center stage, commanding as much attention as the game’s traditional melee combat elements. Edward’s ship, the Jackdaw, is the primary means of transportation around the Caribbean, and at any time it can attack Spanish, English, or Portuguese ships to rob them of their resources. Just as Edward’s armor and weapons can be upgraded, so also can the Jackdaw be outfitted with more powerful armor, stronger cannons, and more storage space for the unique weapons. The Jackdaw is more than just a gameplay mode as sailing around the Caribbean is the primary way of exploring the massive game world. Overall, the gameplay of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag can be thought of as a streamlined version of the combat seen in earlier games combined with an entire new gameplay mode.

The Good
Nearly everything that Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag sets out to do, it does well. Earlier iterations of the franchise were plagued by several recurring problems, including some glitches, some downright frustrating gameplay mechanics, and some non-intuitive or overly complex dialogs and control schemes. In Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, however, the game does a phenomenal job of getting out of its own way and providing the player a straightforward, engaging, and natural experience.

Enormous Game World
Back in October, I played and reviewed Grand Theft Auto V, one of the year’s biggest releases. One of my praises for that game was the sheer immensity of the game world, a massive, dynamic, vibrant, and varied world that loaded seamlessly and continuously to create a truly realistic experience. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag may have known it was going to be up against Grand Theft Auto V this year because it provides a game world that can give Los Santos a run for its money.

In terms of sheer size, the game world of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is certainly larger than that of Grand Theft Auto V, although the comparison is not all that fair given that the Caribbean is far more sparsely populated than the fictitious take on Los Angeles; the majority of the game world is uninhabited island landscapes dotted by a couple dozen cities, outposts, plantations, and caves. The positive effects of that size are the same for both games, however. First, the immense size of the game world lends a perception of realism to the game’s events. Given the size of the world, it actually feels like the actions of the player have an effect on a larger world than just the simple sequence of delineated American or Italian cities shown in earlier games. The world feels legitimately open in a way that even other large games have trouble realizing.

What makes this effect possible in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is that the cities themselves actually scale with the game world as a whole. To illustrate this, let’s taken Assassin’s Creed III for example. In the previous installment, there were four main areas of the game: the wilderness, two cities, and Connor’s frontier area. All these areas were delineated within themselves, and there was nothing perceived to be outside the game world. In Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, the player is given access to the entire Caribbean, with cities scattered amongst the islands. Going to the cities, however, is not like teleporting into a different areas altogether, but rather the cities themselves fit within the overall game world. You can sail all the way around the island that contains Kingston, for instance, and Kingston itself is the same size when sailing around it on the Jackdaw as it is when walking through it by foot. As in Grand Theft Auto V, the entire game world is one cohesive whole, not a world map with teleport markers to the individual cities.

That should not imply that the individual cities are squeezed into the game world to preserve that scalability. Rather, the individual cities are remarkably large as well. Kingston is as large as any city in the franchise has been with the possible exception of Rome in Assassin’s Creed II: Brotherhood, and in that game that city was the only location. Several other cities are comparably large and varied, with a diverse set of activities available within the cities as well as outside. One minor criticism that doesn’t even warrant inclusion in the second half of this review is that relatively little action actually happens inside the cities compared to outside on the high seas in the game world, but ultimately that is only a problem because the cities and towns themselves are so remarkably well-constructed and detailed. It would have been nice for more to happen within them, but that is simply a testament to how well they were designed in the first place.

The massive game world serves a number of functions in the context of the game, but not least of these is to spread out and disguise the game’s sidequests. In the next section I’ll detail the remarkable variety of activities available in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, but one of the reasons these are possible is because of the immensity of the game world. In previous games, sidequests like collecting the Assassin Flags or finding the hidden dungeons were a little artificial because there just were not that many places to search for these things; significant amounts of content felt a little crammed into relatively small game areas. In Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, the game world is so large that these sidequests and activities actually feel somewhat naturally spread out among the islands. There are shipwrecks, hidden chests, enemy plantations, and several other sidequests that never feel crowded together because of the size of the game world.

All the size in the world, however, is not inherently good if the game still feels stagnant and dead away from the player. A good game world must also feel dynamic: the player must feel not only as if the world is bigger than their character, but also that the world is moving along without their character. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag executes this marvelously as well. The game never feels scripted around the player’s individual actions, but rather feels like the player is participating in a world guided by its own separate mechanics. For example, while sailing around on the high seas, you will often come across battles between Spanish and English ships. In a remarkable testament to the game’s realism, the territory owned by the Spanish and English actually mirrors the real colonies around which the game takes place. These have no significance to the player, and you can simply sail right on past them. However, they evoke the idea that the world exists separate from the player character. Similarly, in one area, while fleeing from an enemy through a river, I was astounded when a crocodile popped out of the water and killed the enemy just as it would have killed me had I ventured too close. This, similarly, suggests that the world proceeds according to some rules that are separate and apart from the player themselves.

The ultimate effect of this massive game world and its incredible implementation, however, goes even beyond the praise detailed here. The entire Assassin’s Creed franchise has been a series of open-world sandbox games, but with no exceptions, I never felt like the franchise actually needed to be, or even should be, structured this way. It always seemed like the open-world nature was just getting in the way of the game’s real appeal, and that it wasn’t used to create any positive features of its own. For the first time in the Assassin’s Creed series, the open-world structure is actually beneficial. It adds something to the game that could not be accomplished any other way, and the game also succeeds in getting rid of many of the hindrances to executing a proper such game, such as the seasonal changes in Assassin’s Creed III or the indiscernible points of no return throughout the Assassin’s Creed II trilogy. For the first time, an Assassin’s Creed game actually truly benefits from an open-world sandbox structure, half because the world is finally implemented well and half because the game finally goes all-in on actually being an open-world game in the first place.

Well-Used Game World
As I’ve said in several of my reviews, an open world is not an inherently good thing. Rather, an open world needs to be used correctly in order to actually be effective. In many games, open-world sandbox structures are used incorrectly; in inFamous, for example, there is too little in the game world to really justify it being an open world. In others, like Batman: Arkham City, there is too much tension for the player to ever really feel natural going out and exploring the world. Still in others, like Grand Theft Auto V, the open world is largely in place of any one primary feature or gameplay mode; the open-world structure is the gameplay, but nowadays that isn’t quite enough to carry a game. And in others, like the majority of the rest of the Assassin’s Creed games, the open world’s function is merely to put space and context around the missions, not to actually represent well-designed levels.

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, however, avoids all these problems, and is the best implementation of the open-world sandbox genre that I’ve ever played outside Red Dead Redemption. Some might disagree with my characterization of the game as a sandbox game because it doesn’t give quite as many options for activities as you find in the products of Rockstar Studios, but the restraint Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag shows actually serves to enhance what variety it does offer. There is a massive variety of activities available in the game, avoiding the problem that plagued inFamous: aside from the bread-and-butter gameplay of the assassinations, melee combat, and newly-featured naval battles, there are also diving sections, treasure hunts, plantation raids, hideout raids, whale harpooning, legendary ships, loaded enemy convoys, assassination quests, naval raids, and more. However, by limiting the number of activities (at least relative to the big-name sandbox games), Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag avoids the problem present in Grand Theft Auto V that I described as “jack of all trades, master of none.” Every single bit of gameplay, every sidequest, and every location is carefully, deliberately, and impressively structured. Ultimately, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag provides the perfect variety of activities: there is enough to justify having an open-world game in the first place, but no so much that it comes across more as a hodgepodge of miscellany than a carefully designed experience.

Although I’ll criticize the plot a good bit later, there is certainly one major strength to the plot in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag: it avoids the tension problem present in Batman: Arkham City. To put this simply, an open-world game thrives on the player’s ability to go anywhere at any time and do anything. However, most good plots revolve around tension and suspense, meaning that there ought to be an impetus to moving on to the next plot point. In Batman: Arkham City, at the end of every plot sequence, there is some significant plot reason why you should go to the next mission right now. Sure, you can ignore this and the game never really reacts, but it still feels artificial. A good plot in an open-world game manages to manufacture suspense and tension that don’t demand immediate player action to respond to the present threat. While the plot in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is nothing special, it also avoids this tension problem. Rarely throughout the story does it feel like the plot is demanding that you push it forward rather than explore and enjoy the world.

And finally, one of the most impressive features of the game world in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is that it is actually well-designed as a giant level as well. In many (if not most) open-world games, the game world is merely context for the missions, not an actual level layout for them. There is little interaction between the specific construction of the game world and the missions or gameplay. inFamous is the best counterexample to this I’ve ever played, and even some of the greatest sandbox games I’ve seen, such as Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto V, are guilty of this flaw. In Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, the game world really does play like a giant level specifically constructed with the gameplay that will take place in mind. In the maze-like jungle areas, there is still a very natural direction that is never presented explicitly, but still always seems to come to the player. The cities, towns, plantations, and coves themselves also provide plenty of affordances for specific elements of the missions. Although the game still does not incentivize stealth gameplay very heavily, it at least is more proactive in facilitating it should the player choose that style.

Taken together, these first two points of praise promote just how spectacular the game world in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is. It is internally well-designed, with variety, realism, scale, and dynamism all taken into account. More than that it also has an enormous positive impact on the gameplay, justifying the massive amounts of side content, contextualizing the missions and plot sequences perfectly, and giving the player every reason to kill time just sailing around having fun. That’s the ultimate goal of a sandbox game, to be so inherently entertaining that the player forgets about the main plot. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag passes that test with flying colors.

Multiple Excellent Gameplay Modes
Dividing gameplay into multiple discrete modes is a necessary, but nonetheless difficult and risky, decision. On the one hand, dividing gameplay is a crucial part of any good game; no matter how strong one gameplay mode is, it will become redundant and boring over time. This is the problem with many off-brand platformers or unimaginative properties: they rely on one type of gameplay and never stray far from that foundation. On the other hand, however, dividing your gameplay means risking losing your game’s identity. This was the main flaw in Batman: Arkham Asylum, in my opinion: the game had three or four reasonably discrete gameplay modes, but because the player never engaged in any of them for more than a minute or so at a time, none of them ever really felt foundational.

However, when performed correctly, varying the gameplay mode is one of the hallmarks of an excellent game. To be clear, ‘mode’ does not just mean style of gameplay, where you might adopt different strategies in pursuit of the same goal. ‘Mode’ is an entirely different type of gameplay, such as the melee and stealth modes in Batman: Arkham City. In Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, there are at least three major gameplay modes, with several other more minor features. Prominently, the game features head-to-head melee combat, stealth combat, and naval combat. The first strength among these is that they are varied with excellent pacing: you’ll typically be in one mode or the other for several minutes at a time, more than enough time to refine and reflect on your strategy and improve your skills over time. You also, to a large extent, have the option to choose which one you’re in at any given time in the world map: you can choose to go sneak into a plantation, confront some guards head’s-up, or attack a passing ship. However, the variation between these gameplay styles would be meaningless if the modes themselves weren’t well-implemented. In Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, though, they absolutely are. Two of the modes, the melee combat and stealth, are carried over from the earlier games in the franchise, but their implementation in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag puts the others to shame. The third, the naval combat, was featured as a sidequest in Assassin’s Creed III, but it flourishes when featured prominently. To understand the quality of the gameplay, let’s take a look at each mode individually.

Since the first Assassin’s Creed game, the combat in the franchise has remained relatively unchanged to be honest. Upon entering head-to-head combat, enemies typically circle up around your character and take turns charging. You counter-attack them one by one, typically taking most of them out in one shot. If not, you wear them down with a couple different counter-attacks until they eventually fall. Later games added enemies with slightly more complicated formulas, such as having to throw them or disarm them first, but it still largely revolved around that same counter-centric approach. By the later games, it got very redundant, and even as the melee combat improved in Assassin’s Creed III (basically the only improvement made in that game), it still remained relatively true to this formula. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag does preserves a decent amount of it, but it varies it enough to make it interesting once again. Rarely do enemies circle up around you like they did in past games, largely because there are fewer occurrences for that to happen. There are fewer “formulas” to the enemies, reducing the work to remember how to defeat certain foes and making the game feel much more seamless and natural. Enemies no longer take several seemingly innocuous counters to finally fall. Enemies also show far less propensity to wait their turn to attack, increasing the challenge in combat, but the game never handicaps the player away from being able to defend themselves altogether. Instead, blocking an attack while attacking another enemy merely interrupts the original attack, encouraging the player to take out the feistiest enemies first. Proactive attacking actually works finally; the player is no longer relegated to counter-attacking as the only foolproof combat approach. The context-sensitive kills are fantastic as well, with Edward often kicking enemies off platforms or dumping them over the sides of ships when in the position to do so. Overall, the melee combat is easily the best the franchise has seen, eschewing the plodding, deliberate turn-taking of earlier games for a much more natural and continuous structure.

I’ve been lamenting for the past several Assassin’s Creed games the franchise’s decreasing focus on the stealth that was the series’ initial selling point. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag doesn’t do much to incentivize stealth gameplay, either, but unlike its most recent predecessors, it does at least do a better job of facilitating and allowing stealth gameplay. Most missions are set up to at least provide a stealth approach that the player may or may not choose to pursue. That approach has its own merits; it allows players that want a stealth approach to use one without forcing it on everyone. More importantly, some subtle changes to the engine also make stealth gameplay far more plausible. The notoriety system has been overhauled (and largely removed), which means small mistakes no longer paralyze your entire approach. In Assassin’s Creed III, for instance, getting caught by one enemy would force you into a battle against seemingly endless enemies, but in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, it is actually possible to resume a stealth approach after having been caught. The minimap also shows which direction enemies are facing, making it far easier to sneak up behind enemies. Overall, while the game never directly incentivizes stealth gameplay, I found myself choosing it more often than not in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, and actually having significant success.

The new combat area in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is the naval mode; it was present in the previous game, but only as a sidequest, and gameplay for such a mode cannot be truly developed until it becomes obligatory. The improvements facilitated by this necessity are fantastic. Ship to ship combat is implemented at the perfect level of complexity, decently mirroring the melee combat by providing a reasonably small handful of combat weapons (six, if I’m counting correctly) to be used in an interesting set of strategies. The options available are just enough that you can try different approaches with different enemies, but not so exhaustive that you can go the entire game without even realizing the value of a certain approach. Graphically, the controls are incredibly intuitive; they are so natural that it took me half the game to even realize how natural they were because I never even had to think about whether they were intuitive or not. Unlike the melee weapons and pistols, the Jackdaw also has a relatively long upgrade arc. It was not until the last couple chapters of the game that I had finally unlocked all the potential upgrades for the ship, and there are enemies that you really cannot face until you have all those upgrades. Finally, the rewards for this mode are significant. In many places, it’s downright required to proceed, but participating in the optional portions also helps you upgrade for exploring the world and unveiling the map. And, most importantly, it’s just plain fun. I often got distracted from my main missions by attacking a passing ship, not because I needed the rewards but rather just because it was fun to do so.

In addition to those three foundational gameplay modes, the game also features several others. There are underwater segments that, truth be told, were not that appealing but still provided an interesting variation on the rest of the gameplay. There are harpooning sections to take out whales, sharks, and other large sea creatures. Several of the missions are interesting variations on the above gameplay styles, such as eavesdropping missions that involve no combat. And, finally, there are also engaging twists on the objectives associated even with those three foundational modes, such as melee combat on ships to seize their cargo and naval battles against forts and legendary ships. Taken together, the varied gameplay modes in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag are flawlessly executed internally and flawlessly varied amongst one another.

Streamlined Information and Interfaces
One of the most ludicrous things about Assassin’s Creed III was the absurd complexity of several of the menu interfaces. Building up the homestead, sending out caravans, trading goods, and constructing new items was so convoluted and complicated that no one I know who played the game even bothered with that sidequest. The same can be said for other elements of several games earlier in the franchise as well. It was often difficult to track what items were needed to craft new goods, what dispatch missions had been sent out, or where optional missions were still available. It simply wasn’t very easy to navigate the game.

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag makes incredible strides in this area. Oftentimes, the game interface seems to operate in the background almost like a computer desktop, waiting to alert you of pertinent information whenever it comes up. For example, there are several goods that can be crafted, primarily upgrades to Edward’s equipment (larger storage pouches, mostly) or upgrades to the Jackdaw. Rather than having to manually keep track of one’s resources, however, the game alerts you when you’ve earned enough money or obtained enough items to construct a new upgrade. When it prompts you about these things, it also provides a button to press to jump straight to the upgrade screen and buy the upgrade straightaway. If you’re just browsing to see what you need to craft new things, the screen is similarly easily navigable: currently-available upgrades are highlighted, the needed ingredients for all are listed plainly, and the game even alerts you if you are about to sell a good that could be used in an upgrade. The entire system takes all the guesswork and legwork out of the upgrade system, allowing players to focus in on it when they need to but let it alert them when they might be missing something.

The world map also does a phenomenal job of displaying all the pertinent information to the player cleanly, simply, and accessibly. Around the world map, multiple icons for different towns and locales dot the landscape. Highlighting one brings up a straightforward list of everything that can be done there and how much of it has actually been completed. Locales for which all the available tasks have already been completed are colored differently to make it easy to bypass them, and the others show easily and succinctly what is available for the player to do. To track progress along the sidequests in the previous games, you’d largely have to go area by area and check for any remaining mission icons, but in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, all of that information is available rather succinctly on one easily navigable screen.

Gets Out of Its Own Way
One of, if not the, biggest complaint I have had about the last several Assassin’s Creed games is that they seem to almost go out of their way to trip over their own feet. They made outright stupid design decisions that limited whatever appeal they had otherwise. The notoriety system throughout all the games was a frustrating, tedious hurdle rather than anything representing a real challenge: it ranged from a meaningless distraction in the earlier games to a mind-numbing frustration in the latest installment. The interfaces, as described, were complicated and non-intuitive, disguising much of the information the player needed. The health meter opted for a traditional HP bar rather than the more contemporary recharging meter, even when the plot easily justified recharging health. Overall, it seems like wherever the earlier games tried to do something interesting, they ended up just doing something bad, getting in the way of what good features the games had.

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag finally fixes that. The notoriety system is the most prominent example; by and large, it’s gone. It’s not completely gone, but it has been simplified so much compared to the earlier games that it barely even resembles the old engine. Whereas the old games had an amount of “notoriety” that you carried with you at all times, notoriety in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is strictly local. If you are caught, you are “notorious” in that area as long as the enemies can continue to see you. Once you disappear, they will look for you for a certain period of time, then eventually give up. When they give up, you’re completely back to square one; there is no persistent meter that causes guards everywhere to lunge at you at the mere sight of your face, forcing you to tear down random posters hanging around to lower your notoriety rating.

In practice, this “notoriety” system in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag makes the other games feel downright obsolete. By comparison, those systems are tedious, silly, overly restrictive, and, perhaps most interestingly, unrealistic. It makes far more sense to say that fleeing the enemies that saw you initially will prevent you from being chased by soldiers on the opposite end of the town or the world; they didn’t have cell phones or anything, there was no way they were going to call ahead and say, “Hey, Assassin headed your way! He’s the one with the glowing red notoriety meter in the top left corner of his HUD!” In gameplay, it’s a far more natural approach as well; if you get caught, you flee until the enemy stops looking for you. Or, alternatively, you can just kill everyone that saw you: that’s just as effective as fleeing. That’s more realistic as well; if you kill every single soldier that saw you, why should your notoriety rise? Who’s describing your face from beyond the grave to the world’s most efficient fleet of poster artists? The notoriety system isn’t totally gone, however; it’s still present for the naval missions, where attacking English and Spanish ships will cause hunter ships to occasionally pop up and pursue you. This system isn’t bad at all, though; keeping your notoriety down isn’t hard, the hunter ships don’t show up very often, and even when they do they are relatively easy to dispatch. It’s a mild inconvenience to be notorious, which is the limit to what it should be.

The relaxed notoriety system is by far the biggest example of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag getting out of its own way and letting its positive features shine. After all, in the earlier games, the notoriety system was literally a punishment for playing the game; the game is about killing people, and yet you’re punished if you actually kill people. The new system is better from every angle, but it isn’t the only improvement. The game’s finally taken the franchise’s collective head out of its rear and implemented a quick, intuitive fast travel system allowing you to quickly move anywhere in the world that you’ve visited before. Recharging health is back because stopping your fun to go find a doctor to buy potions was as dumb an idea the first time it was done as it was the last. When participating in a mandatory mission, whether naval or melee, notoriety remains unchanged, meaning that you’re never punished for actually making progress in the game. Honestly, most of these things are silly to mention because they’re common sense; however, earlier games in the franchise seemed content to make these dumb mistakes, so it’s refreshing that Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag avoids the pitfalls that plagued its predecessors.

Improved Frame Story
One of the major growing flaws in the earlier games in the series was the modern-day frame story. While the mystery and intrigue were excellent in the original, as games passed Desmond proved to be an incredibly mundane protagonist, and the story shifted its focus to some bizarre and contrived story about an alien race instead of focusing on the compelling Templar-Assassin rivalry. The divergence was so significant that Ubisoft even reassured players leading up to Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag that the frame story was borderline optional with how little of the playtime it commanded.

It’s true that the frame story commands relatively little time, and the game has not given up its fascination with the alien race or its obsession with marginalizing the Templar-Assassin war. However, those flaws aside, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag introduces an all-new frame story that, quite frankly, is mind-blowing. To be candid, it probably won’t appeal to many players like it appealed to me, but for me, it is one of the most fantastically fascinating bases for a story that I’ve ever seen. The direction the story takes is strange, but the initial set up and the implications thereof are phenomenal. The basic premise of the frame story is given away in the first 20 minutes or so of the game, but honestly, witnessing it first hand is such a fascinating experience that I don’t even want to spoil it. Suffice to say, however, it questions the boundaries between the game and the real world, and it does a brilliant job of justifying some of the game’s more “game-like” components, such as the internal achievement system that, while present in earlier games, always seemed silly and contrived (who’s following you around counting the number of times you assassinate an enemy from a ledge, anyway?).

The Bad
As a whole, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag might come closest to perfection of any game I’ve played, but only in a certain sense. It is one of the only games I can recall playing that doesn’t do anything wrong; it has no glaring flaws or weaknesses. The game’s only weaknesses aren’t things it did wrong, but rather things it did not do at all. They are missed opportunities, not present flaws, and had Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag been as strong in these areas as it was in the previous ones, I might be giving it my first perfect score.

The Plot
The plot in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag isn’t really bad, per se… it’s more just mundane. The cast of characters is relatively interesting, but throughout the entirety of the game, there are hardly any twists, turns, or interesting developments. There are ongoing miniature little plot lines regarding Edward’s relationships with certain characters or his attitude toward his endeavors, but they never really form or coalesce into a cohesive central driving story. The vast majority of the plot events amount to justification to go to the next unexplored area on the map, and for the most part the game’s missions proceed in relatively linear fashion around the game world until everything has been explored. Then, at the end, there is a thinly-veiled summative mission to go assassinate some of the enemies you’ve been chasing all along; why that suddenly becomes pressing at the end of the game is never really explained as anything more than a sort of, “Well, time to wrap things up” ending. The ending after that feels anticlimactic, but really, there’s nothing really to climax. There are no loose ends to tie up because there wasn’t enough of a plot to have loose ends in the first place. There are some vague general themes and suggestions at character development, but nothing significant or satisfying.

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag benefits extraordinarily from having such appealing gameplay and such a diverse, dynamic world because without those elements, there would be no reason to play the game. Every game needs something to drive the player to keep playing. In the original couple of games in the franchise, it was (in my opinion) the plot; the gameplay was fun, but it wasn’t enough to carry the games without the interesting historical narrative. The middle couple games, especially Assassin’s Creed II: Revelations and Assassin’s Creed III, had nothing at all driving them; the plots were uninteresting and the gameplay was flawed or repetitive. Finally, in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, the game is driven spectacularly by the gameplay, so there is actually little need for a strong driving narrative anyway.

It may actually be beneficial that the game lacked a strong driving narrative; had it had one, it would have risked Batman: Arkham City territory in giving the player too much motivation to ignore the game world and simply pursue the plot. The gameplay in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is so good, in fact, that even had the game had a strong plot, it might have been missed because the player was too focused on the sidequests and miscellaneous activities to keep adequate track of the story progress and character development. Still, the one thing that Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag was missing that would have made it a truly perfect game was a compelling driving narrative. It is still a delight to play without one, but that is the one significant area where the game could have improved.

Still Unfaithful
This second criticism follows somewhat naturally from the first, and like the first, is more of a missed opportunity than a present flaw. It’s also the criticism that I’ve been broken recording about for the past four games, so if you’ve read any of those reviews, you can probably skip this section.

Suffice to say, I’m still perturbed that the Assassin’s Creed franchise has remained remarkably unfaithful to its original roots. The original appeal of the game, in my opinion, was the stealth gameplay and the fascinating alternate history. While Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag makes the stealth gameplay more plausible, it still is not directly incentivized. Granted, I’m not suggesting that the franchise should return to the middle games that just required that you remain undetected with no explanation otherwise, but it would be nice if the game went back to at least encouraging the player to adopt a stealth approach. Batman: Arkham City does this spectacularly in its stealth sections by arming enemies such that the only plausible way to succeed is to remain largely hidden. Assassin’s Creed could benefit enormously from powering up the enemies a bit so that the player really benefits from staying hidden. Instead, up-front melee combat remains more efficient on almost all missions.

My bigger complaint, though, is with the ongoing squandering of one of the most fascinating backstories in gaming history. The idea of a Templar-Assassin war throughout time involving some of history’s biggest figures is absolutely brilliant. Seeing the differing agendas of the two groups manifest themselves throughout the ages in the glyphs from the original games was one of the highlights of my gaming career. Ubisoft has all of history to play with, and that is more than enough to write a hundred fascinating plots. Instead, however, they continue to emphasize this idea of a first alien race that left messages for modern humans to uncover. It’s not an interesting plot, it’s incredibly contrived, and it distracts from the story with by far the most potential.

In the early games, the conflict between the Templars and the Assassins was painted as the defining war of ideals throughout all of human history, a fundamental schism that could never be overcome and would only end with the complete victory of one side over the other. By Assassin’s Creed III, that story was so marginalized in favor of the “first civilization” story that even some of the characters suggested teaming up with the Templars, a prospect that would be absolute sacrilege to the characters from the original game. Worse still, the explanation given for not joining forces was merely token, not rooted in that old idealistic conflict. In Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, that story is further marginalized to the point where one of the game’s most prominent modern-day figures outright states that the war between the Assassins and Templars is trivial compared to his agenda with the first civilization goddess Juno.

Ubisoft, if you were ever to read this, then please understand: people’s complaints about the modern-day sections aren’t based on the gameplay or tedium associated with them. They’re based on the plot of the modern-day sections being silly and unrelated to what made the franchise fascinating in the first place. Go back to the Templar-Assassin conflict, leave this silly Juno and First Civilization plot for another game entirely. Right now, it’s just squandering the potential that the Assassin’s Creed franchise has.

Some Small Issues
Aside from those two missed opportunities, the game does have a handful of very small flaws. These flaws are largely so insignificant that they likely wouldn’t have kept the game from a perfect score, but they deserve to be mentioned nonetheless, if for no other reason than to ensure these problems are fixed when Ubisoft uses this review as a guide for their development of Assassin’s Creed IV: On Stranger Tides.

Oftentimes, the hints that are very helpful in most of the game pop up at inopportune times. The most egregious was when I received hints about using tools while I was harpooning, when you have absolutely no access to those tools. You also received repetitive alerts about crafting darts; the crafting alerts are excellent for upgrades, but they’re silly for items that can be consumed and replaced. Hints often pop up at the wrong times altogether throughout the game, most egregiously when the hint for performing a double assassination inevitably appears after you’ve actually performed one.

As mentioned before, the Jackdaw upgrades have a nice, long upgrade arc. The pistols and swords for Edward, on the other hand, do not. I bought the game’s best purchasable pistols and swords in the first couple hours of the game and never had to shop again. Late in the game I unlocked improved versions through sidequests, but the game would have benefited from a steadier arc to upgrading Edward’s equipment (or doing away with such upgrades altogether).

Finally, I oppose all efforts to blur the line between single- and multiplayer. If you want to make a multiplayer game, go all-out and make a multiplayer game. Features that attempt to bring social elements to the single player campaign are unneeded, unwanted, and distracting. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag has only a few of those features, but that is still too many. The game’s rich dispatch mission system is only available to those with online access for no apparent reason, and it is impossible to acquire all of Edward’s upgrades without taking advantage of the social features. Why do I need to take advantage of social, online features to complete the single-player game? I shouldn’t, simple as that.

The Verdict
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is the best Assassin’s Creed game to date as a game analyzed on its own internal merits. It avoids the myriad of flaws that have been holding the franchise back since the beginning, such as the overly restrictive notoriety system and the increasingly convoluted dialog and menu trees. Instead, the game takes all of the gameplay appeal of the earlier installments and streamlines it, simplifying it notably to the point where the player can really just play the game without overthinking the mundane details like their current notoriety or the specific formula for defeating each enemy. While the story is unmemorable, it at least isn’t as blatantly flawed as those in some of the previous games, and more importantly it does not get in the way of the gameplay as it has in the past.

But more than simply avoiding the franchise’s common flaws, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag actually transcends some of its old limitations and truly comes into its own. For the first time, the series actually benefits from having an open-world sandbox structure. The enormous, dynamic, and varied world gives a true sense that the player’s actions are bigger than just their immediate repercussions, and that the story takes place in the context of a realistic larger world. The world size also does a phenomenal job of spreading out and contextualizing a rich variety of activities that makes the game a total joy to play. Never before have I been so able to get distracted and simply peruse the game world aimlessly. The gameplay is so compelling that it drives the game entirely on its own; the plot may be mundane and the game may whiff on the same old opportunities it’s had in the past, but ultimately, that does not really detract from the game. It’s a joy to play. A better narrative could have made it better overall, but it’s the franchise’s best offering nonetheless.

My Recommendation
There may be a steep learning curve for those who haven’t played at least a couple of the earlier games, but it’s still worth a try. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is the seventh generation’s last, and the eighth generation’s first, must-play game.

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