Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag - Review

Another year, another Assassin's Creed. After last year's Assassin's Creed 3, which supposedly ended Desmond's story in Ubisoft's triple-A franchise, there were a lot of questions, where the franchise could head next after its main storyline ended.
Sadly, instead of finally giving us an Assassin's Creed set in Asia with ninjas and samurai, Assassin's Creed 4 travels back in time before AC3 and is set in the Caribbean islands.
Now, in the boots of pirate Edward Kenway, Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag might easily come off as a cheap extension of AC3's naval feature.
Despite being a new and fun feature in AC3, is a naval or ship focussed AC game in a large world the right next step into next-gen and (more importantly) the right way to continue the franchise?


The plot:
"Samples taken from Desmond Miles' body in the moments after his death have enabled Abstergo Industries to continue to explore his genetic memories using the Animus' newfound cloud computing abilities. The unnamed player character is hired by Abstergo Entertainment to sift through the memories of Edward Kenway, an eighteenth-century pirate and the grandfather of Connor (AC3). 
As Kenway, the player must unravel a conspiracy between high-ranking Templars within the British, Spanish and French empires who, under the disguise of cleaning up piracy in the Caribbean, have used their positions to locate the Sage, who is the only man that can lead them to the Observatory, which they intend to use to spy on and blackmail world leaders." 
(source: Wikipedia)

Instead of going the cheap route and reviving Desmond Miles, Ubisoft did the right thing and introduced a new "unnamed" character with a new plot that sort of continues and picks up certain aspects of the previous AC games.
While it's still a bit silly to continue the franchise with a fully named FOURTH entry despite not really picking up what AC3 left behind, surprisingly AC4's new modern-day plot turns out to be a whole lot more intriguing and interesting than Desmond's story.
It's a nice new take on how a modern industry (or the Templars) would take advantage of the Animus technology and what conspiracy could lie beneath that. With that said, the conspiracy plot is slowly and fittingly subtly introduced and therefore far more effective and mysterious than the previous games' "in your face" approach. Honestly, AC4's modern-day plot is what Ubisoft should've originally went for in the previous AC games.
Additionally, it is pretty funny how closely the new Abstergo Entertainment company resembles the real world Ubisoft with its team of french speaking developers.

Welcome at Abstergo.

On the other side, we got the plot involving the pirate story of Edward Kenway.
While being a good amount more lighthearted and more "adventurous" than previous AC plots, Edward's story is very unfocussed and scattered.
It's justified to say that despite being one of the most enjoyable and just fun plots in the franchise, Edward's story is primarily a pirate story and only very remotely implements the general AC lore into its storyline.
Assassins rarely play a larger role in the happenings. The main conflict between Templars and Assassins, which has been the main theme throughout all of the previous games, only gets relevant during the game's final third. Therefore, it's very hard to see Edward as an Assassin rather than just a pirate with an Assassin's skills (for some reason).
A big reason for this is that the pirate lifestyle can only very hardly be linked to the just lifestyle and creed of the assassins. Although this issue plays a fairly prominent role in the final chapters of the game, this comes off as quite a bit too late.
However, just as subtely as the modern-day plot implements fragments of the previous games' happenings, Edward's story is mainly about finding treasure and rebelling against the British while pursuing criminal pirate actions. In the course of the first two thirds of the story, the game's focus is (as already mentioned) fairly scattered, whereby the focus shifts from rescuing a certain fellow pirate, over securing a certain treasure, to defending the pirate base.
Once again, it's all a fairly simple and fun story with enjoyable characters, which just sadly never quite qualifies as a true Assassin's Creed story up until the final few chapters.
Whether Ubisoft's intent was to value a more subtle approach to the AC lore now that Desmond is gone, or just to market a pirate game under the successful Assassin's Creed brand remains unclear. 
Pirate storyline ahead!


Core Gameplay and Combat Mechanics - Same Old Song

For quite some time now the Assassin's Creed franchise suffers from the same yearly sequelitis symptoms that are most prominently present in the Call of Duty franchise - yearly sequels with only little improvements.

Sadly, this is even more so the case in Assassin's Creed 4.
While incorporating every gameplay mechanic established in AC3, including the recent addition of climbing trees, hunting, etc., AC4 adds almost nothing new to how the game is played on foot (the main Assassin mechanics).
Only short tidbits like the newly added poisonous blowdarts or multi-gun-shot ability represent minor additions to Edward's main Assassin abilities that make him even more powerful.

Speaking of powerful, a main issue i (and many other players) had with the AC franchise for quite some time now, was the broken combat system of the game, which always put the player in an overpowered state, in which he could never be taken down as long as he followed the redundant counter-kill strategy in fights.
Whereas AC3 tried to mix things up a bit by introducing various enemy types that required a certain fighting strategy or certain pattern to kill, AC4 for some reason took a huge step back from this.
Aside from not changing anything from AC's combat mechanics, AC4 features only TWO (or eventually three if you count enemies with guns) different enemy types. One requires no strategy at all while the other can just be taken down after pushing them. Fights therefore absolutely NEVER pose any real threat.

Of course animation work and Edward's assassin kill strikes are as cool and neat as ever, but true excitement or challenge is rarely to be found during fights, because you always know that you easily get the upper hand on the situation. Occassions, in which enemy numbers in tight areas really pose a threat to you, are therefore rare and mostly during moments when you board enemy ships.

"50 against 1? Sounds like i am getting a scratch today."

Naval Mechanics - The Game's Heart

The greatly enhanced and fleshed out naval mechanics are the bread and butter of AC4 and the main reason this entry in the series will be remembered.

Picking up the refreshing naval features from AC3, AC4 successfully builds its entire game around them.
The Jackdaw, Edward's pirate ship, is the main mobile base of Edward and his crew.
With it, you travel across AC4's large Caribbean map, whereas you can attack and plunder cargo-ships, travel to and discover remote island, upgrade your ship in terms of appearance as well as attack power, etc. With so many factors inside the whole naval feature in AC4, it can easily be too much for some players at the start but slowly an carefully grow on you so that overwhelming things like the unnecessary "trade-mechanic" from AC3 don't happen again.
Everything in AC4's naval mechanics has reason and is greatly incorporated.

The fact that Edward can flexibly take the Jackdaw's wheel or just walk around deck or jump into the water while being in the middle of the ocean, additionally gives the game a very organic and dynamic feel with seemingly no restrictions.
The jackdaw becomes both your main vehicle as well as safe-zone, which furthermore gets emphasized through the game's mission designs revolving around the ship.

The ship itself steers just like the ones in AC3, slowly but very authentic. Especially the moments when storms and rough waves make traversing certain spots hard and sea battles the more frantic, are among the best and most exciting in the entire AC franchise. The "sea landscape" you constantly traverse throughout the game therefore never becomes boring but a dynamic "being" characterized by storms, guarding enemy ships, whales, etc. 

Overall, AC4's naval mechanics are what give this game its biggest value and are easily THE fun factor of the game. The sheer amount of things to do and how carefully and detailed the extensive naval mechanics and the world you can use them in are implemented in the game, truely make AC4 a far far better pirate game than an Assassin's Creed game. Without any disrespect to other games, this is one of the most fun pirate games i ever played.

Naval battles are as nailbitingly intense as it gets.

The Large Map - Beauty in Small Doses

AC4 has without a doubt the largest map in the franchise's history. With that said, sailing throughout the map can really take quite a lot of time, making unlockable fast travel spots a great additional travelling mechanic. The sea however never gets really boring if you keep taking advantage of attacking and boarding enemy ships and just do what pirates do.

While AC4's world features a large array of various smaller dock-towns and beaches you can dock on, there are three main larger towns in the game: Havana, Kingston and Nassau.
Although the Carribbean feel and faithful love for recreation is present in all three cities, the game never manages to elevate the cities vibe or make them more memorable than the Italian cities from AC2 or Rome from AC: Brotherhood.
To be fair though, this could easily be the result of many missions not taking place inside the cities but rather on sea, making it hard to get an in-depth feel for each city.

Furthermore, AC4 features some missions in beautiful jungle settings. While in such a tropical setting, Edward can only move in very specific limited corridor-like areas and paths throughout the jungle scenery. The jungle always is very nice to look at and experience with its flora and fauna around it, but the very strict structure of the limited jungle areas make them sadly feel fairly artificial in comparison to GTA V's broad explorable landscapes.

Another comparison to GTA V can be made looking at AC4's underwater world.
Whereas GTA V has an extensive underwater world that is without a doubt always and everywhere accessable, this is not the case in AC4.
There, the underwater world can only be accessed through specific diving-bell-spots, in which a limited underwater area is open for exploration to loot scattered crates. Although just as impressive to look at as the jungle areas, the limited mini-game like character of these sections once again gives them a bitter-sweet artificial feel.

Overall, AC4's world might feel very strict and in certain parts very limited but in terms of its naval mechanics, it gets the job done in a satisfying fashion.
Of course compared to the new landmark called GTA V, AC4's world falls short in quite a few areas, yet still it would be unfair to just overlook how much fun it is to explore the Caribbean world that AC4 has to offer.

You're in the jungle, baby. You're gonna diiiiiie.

Mission Designs - "Hush and just Tail 'em"

AC4's mission designs alternate a lot between naval mechanics and on foot missions.
Whereas a mission is mostly either entirely naval focussed or focussed on on-foot stalking-kill missions, it's especially the missions that blend both elements together that make AC4's most memorable moments.
These missions, in which the player for example has to tail an enemy ship via the Jackdaw and occasionally has to leave the ship to take out enemy guarding posts on foot, give the mission an exciting portion of fun flexibility.

Regarding the on-foot-missions, AC4 has a weird favor for tailing missions.
Usually this mission structure forces the player to follow a target, eventually listen to a certain conversation the person has, and in the end kill the target. This often re-occuring mission structure might feel repetitive for some, but in my personal opinion was in a barely acceptable range due to the alternation with the other naval missions.
A highly positive aspect about those missions however is the fact that stealth is greatly encouraged there, making it as good as always necessary to keep at least a low profile during the tailing and assassination. Running head on towards the target therefore only works in the rarest cases.

The naval missions generally follow two structures: battling other ships and boarding them, or sometimes tailing other ships.
Following the extensive and fun naval mechanics, the naval mission are among the best missions in the game. Winning an intense cannon battle and boarding the defeated ship to kill the captain with your own hands is a great feel of accomplishment.
Yet, it absolutely has to be said that AC4's naval missions suffer from severe difficulty-spikes.
Eventually the player will encounter a naval-mission-battle that is seemingly impossible to win.
In this case, the game will suggest aborting the mission to spend more time upgrading your own ship before the battle.
Whereas some players find this acceptable, i do not. In my personal opinon, great game design means that the ship's necessary upgrades should seemlessly and automatically blend into the game's main-story-progression. Doing optional missions should stay just what their name implies - optional!
Especially due to the fact that towards the end the player faces very hard naval battles against overwhelmingly powerful ships, it will drive you crazy trying to find out what exactly you should upgrade to get the slightest chance against those enemies. Although the feel of accomplishment when defeating those odds was great in the end, the road to it was annoying and hard...very hard. 


Expectedly from such a large world, AC4 offers many things to do aside from the main missions.
Finding treasures, doing assassination contracts, plundering ships, diving, hunting, etc. There is really a large amount of things to do that will keep players busy for quite some time. Especially being scattered around in such a large map.

Most notably, my personal favourite were the surprisingly exciting whale and shark hunting mini-games that are cleverly made very intense and fun to play.

Why are the sharks in this game as big as Jaws? No idea!


As for the multiplayer, AC4 features almost the same AC multiplayer suite that players are already used to by know since AC: Brotherhood with only little new additions like a small number of new modes.
The missed chance of multiplayer naval battles really hurts the overall package and makes AC4's "old" assassination-multiplayer-feature and modes feel fairly boring and unnecessary in comparison to its much more appealing single-player experience.


AC4 is a visually stunning game. Next to Ubisoft's other tropical marvel of a game, Far Cry 3, AC4 boasts the most beautiful tropical scenery i have ever seen put in a video game.
Animations as well as the detailed models of characters and landscapes are truely next-gen and show signficant differences (especially in textures) when comparing next- to last-gen.
Sure, we are right at the start of a new console generation, but still, AC4 is one of the most beautiful game's out there to date.


Despite AC games of course always having a high quality score, the orchestral music of the Assassin's Creed games usually always was fairly low key and more functional than memorable.
This is not the case with AC4. Now, for the first time in the franchise's history, i see myself humming and remebering the main AC4 theme during my play sessions. The adventurous feel of the and general pirate theme gets perfectly underlined by the game's great score, whose main musical motive often dynamically changes and adapts to the specific atmosphere of the cut-scene or gameplay moment.
Other than that, your crew singing authentic pirate songs during sailing as well as the general voice acting performances are equally high quality in the game and help bring the world further to life.

Come at me, bro.

The Verdict

All in all, despite being a sequel, Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag rather comes over as being some sort of new Desmond-free beginning for the franchise (at least storywise).
Although its main pirate story involving Edward Kenway is fairly scattered and not very tightly linked to the general established AC lore, it's still a very fun and (for a change) lighthearted adventure-like experience worth taking.
Gameplaywise, it's very clear that the main foundation on which AC4 was build on top of was the success of AC3's naval mechanics. Due to the fact that those have been greatly and effectively extended now, complete with dynamic weather at sea, upgrades, a large world and just tons of stuff to do, it is to a certain amount excusable that Ubisoft did pretty much nothing to improve the game's on-foot-mechanics. 
In that regard, the great naval mechanics sort of aim to compensate the unchanged on-foot mechanics to a certain degree. This strategy might work for this specific naval focussed game, but remains largely questionable for future AC installments, where those naval features are probably gone.

Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag will be remembered as the "naval AC game", and in that specific regard it does its job and is a good game in its own right. 
Though it is justified to call it a better pirate game than Assassin's Creed game, it nevertheless will keep you entertained and busy with hours of stuff to explore and to do in its large world. 
While AC fans will still experience some deja-vu from the unchanged AC core mechanics, pirate fans and fans of AC3's naval features will find much to love in this mostly standalone pirate adventure.

 Final Verdict: 7 out of 10 

Status: Good

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