To say that there’s a world of difference between Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, and the original game in the series, would be the understatement of the year. We only raise the point in fact, as there seems to be a somewhat vocal group of folks who have decided that the series hasn’t progressed at all. It still features that once-revolutionary free-running aspect of course, but compared to those first tentative steps out of the Animus, this is a whole new world.
That world is also an open one, and one that you’ll be desperate to explore. Eventually. The opening exchanges see you taking on the role of a new research analyst at Abstergo Entertainment, settling down in front of the latest revision of the Animus technology in order to conduct some in-depth investigation into Edward Kenway, who you spend most of the time in control of. Kenway is a seafarer with dreams of owning his own ship, and getting that one big score that sets him up for life. As is always the way, everything feels a little bit on-rails for the first hour or so, as the game shows you the ropes and has you following, eavesdropping, and marching from point to point. At this point, you’ll feel as if you’ve seen it all before.
Then you take over as the captain of your own ship, The Jackdaw. (Note that we’re consciously trying to avoid spoilers, so that’s the last story detail we’ll pass on.) When you finally take over at the wheel, the game changes massively, and gives you a true sense of freedom – much more so than in any of the game’s prequels. You can go wherever you want to, sail to any island on the map, attack any ship that you feel you can best, and pretty much be the master of your own destiny. Heading out onto the open sea can be a danger in itself, even if you don’t run into opposing vessels. If the weather turns, you’ll need to look alive in order to stay alive, steering directly into some absolute monstrous waves in order to protect The Jackdaw from being sent down to Davy Jones’ Locker, or any other lockers formerly owned by members of The Monkees, for that matter. The visual effects and sounds of a roaring storm add to the tension greatly, but its only when the wind dies down and the rain subsides that you realise exactly how far into the moment you were, and how much work you were putting in to prevent disaster. Rather than the cross-city driving of Grand Theft Auto V, where you can avoid danger in the open world if you so wish, there’s no such luxury here. You can’t hide from the weather if you want to become a master of the seven seas.
Dabbling in a bit of old time piracy can be tremendous fun too, given that once you’re aboard your boat, you’re not tied to the wheel. Holding down the B button relinquishes command of the vessel to your quartermaster, and allows you to freely roam around the boat, climbing masts and leaping from the Crow’s Nest if that’s what you fancy. When sat alongside another ship, we found that scurrying up a pole to the nearest long rope, using that rope to swing and give ourselves a bit of momentum, then leaping off at the opportune moment and performing an aerial assassination on the opposing captain was not only great fun, but utterly thrilling. And as with all other aspects of the game, you’re free to approach these encounters as you wish. Fancy diving into the water and climbing up the side of the other boat? Go ahead! How about just sinking the foe and forgoing the booty? Feel free. Want to leap across to the deck for a bit of swashbuckling, with the odd fight culminating in you barging crew members over the side and into the briny sea? Be Ubisoft’s guest.
With so much great action going on in the waves as you build up Kenway’s burgeoning empire, upgrade The Jackdaw, and start accumulating better weaponry, it can be easy to forget all of the tasks that you’re supposed to accomplish on land that actually push the story on. This is the hallmark of a truly great open world game, and it’s one that Ubisoft have struck with aplomb.
When you are on land, a few tweaks to the way the AI behaves means that the game is much more enjoyable than last time around. Enemies no longer seem to have random bouts of x-ray vision that allows them to see you when you’re well hidden, meaning that the stealthier sections of gameplay are generally spot on. There are still occasions where Kenway won’t carry out the command that you’ve asked him to, thanks to the dynamic control system still being a little way from perfect. Standing over a body, the B button will pick the body up if you tap it, loot the body if you hold it, but if the enemy was carrying a weapon and has dropped it nearby, it could also cause you to pick up that weapon. At times when you want to grab the downed foe’s rifle and use it to cap an enemy who’s taking potshots at you from a watchtower, it can be massively annoying when you’re stood right over the gun, but a button press causes you to hoist the corpse up onto your shoulder like a bag of flour. Especially when you realise that there are at least two other buttons free that aren’t doing anything, and which could be used for pilfering the opposition’s firepower.
A couple of bugs do rear their ugly heads at times, too. On more than one occasion, we’ve been inland, leaving our crew to man The Jackdaw as it sits in port. When we’ve returned, we find that the boat is laying on its side, crashing against the rocks. Unless you’re in a position where you can actually upgrade the vessel (which causes it to be redrawn and therefore set right), you pretty much have to quit out and reload, as nothing else will get it back on the level.
These minor issues are definitely worth noting, but they certainly aren’t anything that would prevent us from recommending the game to all. The fact that Ubisoft have taken a franchise that always had the appearance of an open world, but that was in fact severely limited, and turned it into a real experience where often, the only limitation is your imagination, is to be applauded. We’re hoping that the Xbox One edition isn’t just provided as fanservice, and features a few tweaks, as well as even more graphical polish.
Black Flag takes you where no Assassin’s Creed game has before, and we’re not just talking about the fact that boats are involved. A true open-world treat that will provide completionists with dozens of hours of gameplay, ACIV is the real deal, not to mention a real shot in the arm for a series that was starting to look like something of a one-trick pony to all but the most hardcore fans. Highly recommended.