Ubisoft’s swashbuckling epic has better sea legs than it’s failed predecessor
I didn’t buy Assassin’s Creed IV when it launched. After Ubisoft’s botched attempt to rejuvenate the franchise with ACIII, I was left jaded and bitter. “PIRATES!” they screamed for the announcement, ‘We took the freshest part of ACIII and evolved it into a new setting and play-style!’ I did like the sailing parts, but not enough to want to endure more alongside what I expected to be a repeat of Connor’s dismal adventure. So when I heard a lot of good things about ACIV, I figured I’d keep an eye on it for a rainy day. And then I played it. Woah.
Right off the bat, protagonist Edward Kenway is immediately more likeable than his grandson Connor. HeKenway is a charming, daring pirate on the search for plunder, the polar opposite to Connor’s stoic and often unfriendly personality. Following the crazy antics of this loveable rogue and his band of merry men (and Mary Read) as he searches for the fabled location-cum-artefact ‘The Observatory’ makes for a much more enjoyable story.
But it’s not just the characters that were improved. Technically speaking, ACIV is leaps and bounds ahead of its prequel (ignoring some shared problems). Instead of a handful of discrete areas to explore, you are gifted a sea. Described by some as ‘Wind Waker for adults,’ the Caribbean Sea around Cuba is entirely open, stretching at least 10km wide. It’s utterly stuffed with tiny, uncharted islands, larger settlements, side-missions, and of course Assassin’s Creed’s defining cities. Havana, Nassau and Kingston are full to the brim with collectibles and activities, giving you an absolute shitload of stuff to do.
The world map is divided into 11 sections, each guarded by an enemy-held fortress. Only by attacking each fortress by sea before storming it on foot can you claim it as your own and reveal all the goodies in that area. Shared between the island locations and the cities are Animus fragments, assassination contracts and song sheets, which float away on a suspiciously scripted breeze like ACIII’s Almanac pages. Treasure chests dot the map, accompanied by the occasional box of cargo floating on the high seas.
There are also sunken ships to explore. Dunking into the water in a diving bell, you can use Edward’s seemingly superhuman lung capacity to investigate shipwrecks and cave networks, all while avoiding the patrolling sharks. This yields yet more chests and fragments as well as upgrade plans for Edward’s ship. Using these and cargo grabbed from crates or looted from other ships, you can tool up the Jackdaw with additional armour and add more powerful weapons – perfect for taking down the more powerful fortresses, or even tackling the four ‘legendary’ ships in each of the four corners of the map. Something tells me I’ll still be playing the game for another few weeks, because even all armoured up, I didn’t last more than a short while against these Man o’ Wars (Men o’ War?). My weapons still need more upgrading, so back into the sea I go.
You can also go fishing, although not for trout or cod so much as whales and goddamn sharks. Fishing is a spectacular and fun little activity that can give you the resources to craft outfits and ammo capacity upgrades. Maybe it’s because ACIII’s clunky mess is fresh in my mind, but I can’t remember a cleaner and more understandable UI in an Assassin’s Creed game. Menus are easy to navigate with clear controls and the vital gameplay mechanics are all given nice, obvious audio-visual cues.
So there’s plenty to do, and that’s ignoring the modern day parts of the game. Addressing the narrative element for a moment, Desmond is long gone, as is all his baggage. Instead, you’re an everyman, a new tester at Abstergo Entertainment, a game developer branch of the franchise’s Templar front company, Abstergo Industries. It’s a deliciously ‘meta’ take on fitting the virtual experience into the frame narrative, and includes a few appropriate nods to game development. These parts also have a fair bit of content to dive into, with a glut of computers to hack around the offices in the form of a few mini-games, including an AC-themed Frogger clone. There are also QR codes on sticky notes posted here and there, which you can scan with your in-game tablet. Both of these reveal emails, presentations, trailers; all internal Abstergo research on the Assassins, the Precursor race, the Pieces of Eden and nods to the previous games. That said, not all of the story content is easy to access. Some of the audio diaries, in stark contrast with BioShock’s brief, effective soundbites, ramble on for minutes on end and don’t advance the narrative in any significant way.
Of course, the game isn’t flawless. Black Flag runs on the same engine as ACIII and is still riddled with painfully familiar bugs, such as overly-sticky parkour magnetism (I want to walk on the deck of my ship, not hop from cannon to cannon) and ironically the total opposite, when Kenway completely ignores the tree branch in front of him and leaps to the ground. New niggles include sprinting to kill a target only to shove straight past them, but these are minor blemishes on the overall experience.
Thanks to Ubisoft’s colossal size, it’s not surprising that every AC game is so stuffed with content. Sure, ACIII was packed with activities too, but between managing a farm and breaking up bar fights, I’m not sure which bored me most. At its core, Black Flag is a game about exploration. You have an entire sea to at your fingertips, filled with dozens of islands and endless distractions and collectibles to enjoy. It’s my favourite game of the new generation so far, and I can only hope Ubisoft will steer us ever closer to the end of the series with an even greater outing in Assassin’s Creed: Unity.