Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag review – Does attaching hidden blades to cannons defeat the purpose?

Assassin's Creed 4 Black Flag wallpaper

Do you know what Tim said to me when he and I first had seen the cinematic trailer for Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag? We were speaking on an IM at the time and he straight-up said “This looks like the first Assassin’s Creed I’m interested in since the first one, it looks properly legit”. “Legit”, being pretty big praise from the likes of him and me. Tim doesn’t often get quite so sucked into game series as I do and so retains a moderately unbiased view when it comes to these things, so after the apparent disappointment which was Assassin’s Creed 3, this was a very interesting thing to hear from him.

That said, if you have read my recent retrospective on Assassin’s Creed 3 you will know that Assassin’s Creed is a difficult topic with me. AC3 was in general given a great big “meh” by many last year whereas I was all for it and, at the time, had a cracking experience. So if I properly liked and enjoyed an Assassin’s Creed which is less than loved by many then perhaps you can understand why me writing a review of an Assassin’s Creed that everyone else loved as well is possibly a bit of a waste of time… Anyway let’s get to it!

In a way an awful lot of Assassin’s Creed 4 is cheating actually. You see, what Ubisoft have done is see all the problems that people had with Assassin’s Creed 3 and have simply fixed or removed them. Surely they can’t do that? It doesn’t make any sense! I was always under the impression that big video game companies didn’t care about what we thought…

I mean, take the protagonist and overall theme of the game. It’s a pirate-themed Assassin’s Creed and the main character is, obviously, a pirate. That is quite simply taking a short-cut in character design because everyone knows that pirates are awesome and cool and so they just have to stand there and be kind of rough yet loveable and instantly everyone likes them (see Jack Sparrow). Also, if you look at it a certain way, one might consider the Assassins as an organisation of Ninjas. This makes Edward Kenway not only a pirate but he’s a fucking NINJA-PIRATE! It’s like they invented him after reading a Guide to Giving the Internet a Hard-On, for Dummies.


Let’s picture this as a sort of meeting between one Ubisoft PR guy and one guy, lets call him “Me”, who represents the collective voice of the gamers and reviewers.

“Right, Ubisoft” I start with, clear, concise and determined to get answers, “We didn’t like the politics of AC3, politics belong behind a desk… NOT in a game that is supposed to be about stabbing and all things stabbing related”. I lean back, I’ve made the opening salvo and I’m expecting to see the fear in the other guy’s eyes. Bizarrely, he seems oddly not bothered and instead responds calmly and in a voice of pure silk and honey, “Okay. So, our protagonist for Black Flag will not only be an Assassin, but he will be a pirate too! Pirates don’t care about politics, they just go out and do pirate things! Like shooting guns and blowing stuff up and, yes, stabbing folks”.

I’m stunned, what am I supposed to to with this shocking information. And how can I continue with the argument when I already have an erection? I soldier on though, my previously chilly and unflappable demeanour now broken with stutters and a lack of surety. “Okay, well what about the setting?” I say, “The colonial setting looked good, but it was so bland and samey, and the wilderness was even worse!” I sit back again, feeling slightly more self-assured to have gotten that off my chest. “Ah, you” Ubisoft responds, his voice soft and seductive, “Just for you, our next location will then, instead of the drab and colourless locale of the colonial New York and Boston, we will be throwing you into the massive ocean of the Caribbean and all the colour and craziness that it entails”.

Assassin's Creed 4 Black Flag swimming screenshot

“Desmond?” I start, but I am cut down instantly by Ubisoft. “We’ll show you some of Abstergo’s Templars actually performing an autopsy on Desmond’s corpse… That guy ain’t coming back”.

I’m struggling now, I had almost whipped out my wallet to start throwing money at them and only through iron-willpower did I resist. “Will we still have to kill all the Brits this time though?” I ask, my voice choked and hoarse. Ubisoft shake their head with the finality of a Darius about to ultimate his way into a Baron fight. “Not only is your character Welsh… But those you will spend a lot of your time fighting… Will be Spanish!” And they had me, heart and soul.

You see what I mean though? It seems that Ubisoft indeed took to heart a lot of the complaints about AC3 and have actually fixed them. Black Flag is not just another lacklustre and uninspired game in the AC series but instead blows a healthy dose of life and fire back into the franchise, rekindling an awful lot of the interest and joy I hadn’t felt in the game since Brotherhood.

Once again looking at Edward, on the Youtube video of the Black Flag trailer I read one of the most insightful comments about the series which I just love repeating “Edward doesn’t say anything for the duration of the trailer and he already had more character than Connor”. He’s a loveable, sarcastic and cheeky scamp, out for his own ends and really is just there to get drunk and pull wenches. And he’s amazing! He only started getting remotely serious near the end of the game when the whole Assassin’s vs. Templars thing had to be dealt with.

A lot of people are, admittedly, awfully down on the actual “Assassin-ing” part of the whole game. But honestly I still love it. The free-running has always had problems, and I will admit that more than once I’ve started yelling at my console because Edward will, instead of straight-up running down a street, brush one hair against a nearby building and then decide to attempt to climb up it, and sticking to it like some overgrown lump of stupid. I honestly think that this could actually have the simple fix of reverting to the OLDER AC controls from way-back when. If just holding right-trigger was run, and then holding A as well actually let you free run and climb things, I personally can’t see a reason why this wouldn’t fix an awful lot of the constantly attempts to mate with the wrong buildings.

Also, as far as I’m aware, it looks like Ubisoft have removed the rock climbing again and I am just so infuriated by that. I had to wait for game FIVE before I could FINALLY climb rocks (things which people ACTUALLY DO CLIMB in real life) and they take away one game later. Those bastards… Equally, the thing I liked most about AC3 was the massive battles and the whole “squad-based” attitude of the enemies where a group of 5 men might line up to shoot at you, and both of those are conspicuously absent from Black Flag and I felt that they should have been kept.

The combat is also now at long last, “at long last” for me anyway, starting to feel old and clumsy, perhaps my eyes have been cleared by my reflection on AC3. Your finishing moves will often require your target to glitch around slightly into a “comfortable” place so that Edward can actually perform the finisher or assassination. The block-counter-combo system combined with the guard break system is also starting to feel a bit weathered. Edward doesn’t feel unstoppable (which is good) but he also seems to lack some of the flow I remember feeling from the early games (which is obviously bad). I think that this is something Ubisoft will need to rectify for the next games in the series, the combat is now becoming simply out-dated and needs a better system. Unfortunately it also needs a better mind than I have to suggest one that would work. Also, the amount of animations seemed oddly limited at times. For example, when fighting the “brute” class of enemy if you try to chain and combo attack into them Edward ALWAYS does this leap-slash manoeuvre and then gets headbutted… You’d thing after the 100th time he is simply refusing to learn… or perhaps all the headbutts have made it so that he CAN’T learn… You also always have to then take them down in exactly the same way, frankly a bit of extra variation would have been nice.

These things aside, I still properly enjoy dashing about the bright and sunny locales only to jump, blades-first, onto the first moving British or Spanish soldier I can find. I’ve never found myself being bored by this stuff, even in AC3, and I’m sorry but I entirely disagree with everyone else who says that it is boring and that they don’t like it. Runny-runny, stabby-stabby, shooty-shooty. It’s quick, punchy and aggressive and I just love it.

Of course, what everyone is raving about is the brand new game mechanic for Black Flag: the vast open-world sailing. Or at least it’s SORT of brand new. The whole sailing ship thing was done in AC3, but only as a distraction and a side mission, it was only once integral to the plot. I said so in my review at the time, that the sailing had earned a special place in my heart, and god if it hasn’t been made oh-so-MUCH better for Black Flag.

Black Flag is one of those wondrous open-world sandbox games where you love being given a mission on the other side of the map because it means a lot of travel through unexplored and exciting areas full of new and interesting stuff to investigate and stab. The continuous gameplay is frankly amazing as well, so you can go straight from sailing around to jumping out and running through a shanty town. The ship-to-ship combat is also pretty varied and exciting as well and carries all of the excitement that came from watching Pirates of the Caribbean (back when it was good) with guns and cannons going off everywhere. Things start to get a little ridiculous late-game when the Jackdaw (a minor frigate) is capable of taking down 100-gun Man-O-Wars, but I digress. You also use the majority of the money earned in-game to upgrade the Jackdaw, which is a far more enticing and worthwhile use of your time than spending money in any previous Assassin’s Creed because they are A. very expensive and thus involve sinking a lot of money into them and B. actually contribute to the gameplay.

Assassin's Creed 4 Black Flag sailing screenshot

My praise for the game doesn’t stop there either. The setting is really rather gorgeous and exciting, sailing around on a brilliant blue sea past tropical islands and locales, whilst pursuing whoever you feel deserves getting fucked up most. One minute dolphins will be frolicking about in the wake of your ship and the next you are engaged in a deadly battle against a fort whilst a tropical storm rages around you with massive waves and twisters as dangerous as cannon-fire. The story is actually quite good as well, Edward for the most part is simply doing different things in an attempt to get rich and avoid detection from both the Assassin’s and the Templars. The characters are a great deal more interesting and amusing than George-bloody-Washington, and have some really rather excellent voice actors. Plus, when things do finally get serious (srs-Assassins-are-srs) it doesn’t really last long and there are some recognizable enemy targets (something missing from AC3).

And there is just so much stuff to do and to play with. Even hunting has a purpose now, as it provides you with upgrades for your equipment. Whaling, for example, is also an amusing diversion and I think it’s historical accuracy is actually rather well placed, because I have to admit feeling quite upset when hunting down whales. It doesn’t feel like they put it in JUST for the controversy. Even the modern-day stuff actually feels a little more interesting this time around, I think the FP perspective helps this, as does the near-complete lack of “those-motherfuckers-who-came-before”.

It’s a game I genuinely cannot recommend enough, and I am so pleased that I feel that this time round I might be justified in saying so!

Rating: A

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