I love video games, but it’s rare for me to play them right when they are first released. Normally it takes me a somewhere from a few months to a few years to get around to playing to a game. I’ve got a considerable backlog of games that I’ve been meaning to play and it hasn’t been until recently that I’ve been able to start chipping away at the list. With that in mind, I’ve created a series of posts called Late to the Party, wherein I discuss the games that came out in the preceding years that I’m finally getting around to experiencing. Today’s entry in the series is Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, referred to hereafter as just Black Flag. This commentary will be mostly spoiler free, though for the sake of story discussion I will spoil part of the ending of Black Flag’s immediate predecessor, Assassin’s Creed 3, and I will be assuming you have a basic knowledge of the Assassin’s Creed series.
It was October 2013 when Black Flag set sail into the high seas of gaming. At the time, the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One were about to come out and Ubisoft had announced that there would be versions of Black flag for both the newer and older console generations. While I could have played Black Flag on PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360, I decided to wait until I had either a PlayStation 4 or an Xbox One, figuring that their edition of Black Flag would play and look better. Three years is quite the wait, even for me, but recently I finally got around to experiencing Black Flag and jumping back into the Assassin’s Creed series.
Black Flag continues the story of the never-ending struggle between the Assassins and the Templars. In the present day, you are an unnamed new employee at Abstergo Entertainment, a subsidiary of Abstergo Industries. You are tasked to work with Abstergo’s latest version of the Animus, a technological marvel that allows people to relive the experiences of people in the distant past, for the stated purpose of gathering footage for a new entertainment property. The memories Abstergo has you reliving are those of Edward Kenway, a Welsh pirate who sailed in the West Indies in the early 1700s. As you begin Edward’s journey, the ship he is working on is destroyed and he finds himself shipwrecked on an island with a rouge Assassin named Duncan Walpole. Edward kills Duncan, not knowing who or what he is, and decides to impersonate him to collect the reward promised in a letter in Duncan’s pocket. This takes him to Havana where he meets several leaders of the Templar Order in the West Indies. The Templars are trying to locate a First Civilization installation called The Observatory, which would allow them to spy on anyone in the world, and to find it they have captured a man who supposedly knows where it is. This man, called a Sage, escapes before the Templars get any information out of him, and in the process Edward’s deception is exposed. Imprisoned in a galleon bound for Seville, Edward breaks out during a hurricane and then with other prisoners he steals a ship that he then sails back to the West Indies. There Edward joins up with famous pirates such as Edward “Blackbeard” Thatch and Charles Vane who are trying to create a free republic in Nassau. He also comes into contact with the agents of the Assassin Order in the West Indies, and though he helps them at times, he is at first much more interested in growing rich as a pirate than joining their quest to stop the Templars. Meanwhile, back in the present day, your bosses at Abstergo are pleased with the footage you are capturing in the Animus, but now have taken a keen interest in The Observatory and want you to focus your efforts on locating it within Edward’s memories. At the same time, your IT manager has you helping him secretly access Abstergo computers and deliver files to a courier. Your character and Edward have become involved in a much larger web of machinations and intrigue than either first realized, and it is up to you to both complete Edward’s story within the Animus and unravel the mysteries going on outside of it.
Completing a naval contract
Perhaps it is somehow fitting that for a game with a split narrative, I enjoyed one of the storylines in Black Flag but thought the other was lackluster. On one hand we have Edward’s story, which I enjoyed. He is a very different character from some of the other Assassins you play as in preceding games and much more likable than most of them (except for maybe Ezio). Unlike the stoic Altair or the idealist Connor, Edward is a pirate, though not one without a moral backbone. His first concern at the start of the game is getting rich quickly and retiring to an easy life with his estranged wife back in Wales, but he’s not a ruthless savage and over time we get to see his slow transformation from fighting only for his own gain to standing for a cause much larger than himself. The drama unfolding outside the Animus, on the other hand, I found disappointing, mainly because it failed to substantially move the overarching Assassin’s Creed narrative forward. After the events at the end of Assassin’s Creed 3, which saw series protagonist Desmond Miles die and a major First Civilization plot twist get unleashed on the world, I was expecting Black Flag’s modern storyline to be dealing with some major fallout from the previous game’s ending, but apparently very little has actually happened. The biggest result of all that was that the Templars recovered Desmond’s body and that his DNA samples are the ones being used to let the player relive the life of Edward. Just as an aside, am I the only one who thought it was weird that Desmond’s Assassin friends just abandoned his corpse and let the Templars get it? By the end of Black Flag there was only one major plot event that happened in the present day storyline, and it was rendered nearly inconsequential by the final events of the game.
Assaulting a fort
A pirate captain’s life is centered around his ship, and for Edward Kenway that ship is the Jackdaw. Acquired early in the game, the Jackdaw is Edward’s home on the high seas and his primary means of carrying out his piracy. Though a modest brig at first, the Jackdaw can be significantly improved over the course of the game, and when you purchase your final Jackdaw upgrade Edward will have the most fearsome ship in the West Indies. Keep in mind though that the Jackdaw is a ship, not a car, so you’ll have to think about things like wind, waves, and momentum as you’re piloting it. The Jackdaw lets you roam the ocean to your heart’s content, and you might be surprised by how much time you spend aimlessly sailing around. Not since Red Dead Redemption has the simple act of getting from one part of the map to another been so strangely satisfying. Maybe it’s the sight of the Jackdaw cutting across the azure waves, maybe it’s the sea shanties your crew sings, maybe it’s the random humpback whale leaping out of the water. I can’t explain it, but something about taking the wheel of the Jackdaw and exploring the world of Black Flag never gets old. Naval combat is also fun, with the Jackdaw offering a variety of weapons to capture or sink enemy vessels. If you played Assassin’s Creed 3’s naval missions you’ll know the basics of how naval combat works but there have been a few new additions in Black Flag. On top of the standard broadside cannon salvos, chase cannons allow you to now fire from the front of your ship, fire barrels can be dropped from the rear, and mortars give you the option to engage an enemy at long range. As a pirate, you’re more interested in capturing ships than sinking them, and in Black Flag you can board enemy ships at will once they’ve taken enough damage. When you board a ship you’re given a list of objectives to complete, and the difficulty of these objectives scales to the size of the ship you are boarding. Smaller ships usually only require you to kill five or ten crew members, while bigger ships task you with killing more crew, as well as doing things like blowing up the powder reserves, killing the ship’s captain or officers, cutting off the ship’s flag, and/or taking down the scouts at the top of the masts. Interestingly, when you board another ship, all other action on the seas is paused, so if you’re fighting multiple enemy vessels the other ships will stop firing at the Jackdaw until your boarding action is completed. I realize this is purely a gameplay mechanic to ensure that the Jackdaw doesn’t get sunk while you’re away from it, but I like to think that it’s some sort of gentleman’s code that everyone abides by. Successfully board another ship and you get everything it was carrying, most importantly being the resources you need to purchase Jackdaw upgrades. You’ll also have options on what to do with the other ship, such as using its materials to repair the Jackdaw or sending it away to Edward’s fleet so that it can complete trading missions and earn Edward more money.
Though Black Flag’s naval aspects are fantastic, much of the game is spent doing things on foot, and while this part of the game is generally good, it is where most of Black Flag’s gameplay problems lie. Assassin’s Creed’s signature free running mechanic returns in Black Flag, both for better and for worse. Though it is easy to use and works 95% of the time, there’s still that 5% where Edward will jump somewhere you didn’t intend, run up the wrong wall, or, most frustratingly, just sit or stand there and do nothing even though you’re correctly giving the input for him to move. The same can be said for Black Flag’s melee combat. It works the vast majority of the time, but there are still instances where Edward will be standing next to an enemy and you push the attack button and he does nothing, or when he’s about to be attacked and you push the block button but he fails to do so. In the grand scheme of things this isn’t a massive issue, since melee combat in Assassin’s Creed games has historically been easy and Black Flag is no different, so perhaps we should view this problem as some sort of equalizer between Edward and his opponents. A real problem does exist, however, in that in melee combat you’ll frequently find that your greatest foe is not the enemies trying to kill you, but rather the game’s camera, which has a bad habit of being positioned in such a way that it blocks your view of the action and you can’t see when an enemy is about to strike you. My greatest frustration, however, with Black Flag’s gameplay is that you cannot pick up a broom and use it as a war hammer like you could in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. You read that last sentence and you think I’m joking, but I’m not. The Broom of Justice must be brought back! Now, having said all that, there is a new feature in Black Flag’s gameplay that I actually liked a lot. When not in open conflict, Black Flag offers new stealth options in the form of stalking zones, which are large bushes and other vegetation that Edward can sneak through undetected. Though sometimes it can be silly that no one can see him in them, they go a long way to making Edward feel like a predator stalking his prey, or a ghost eluding the guards. Stealth in general is much better in Black Flag than preceding Assassin’s Creed games and even though getting through an area without raising alarms usually isn’t too hard thanks to the hilariously stupid enemy AI, as well as the various tools Edward has at his disposal, it is still satisfying to do.
Killing a target with berserk darts
Edward’s escapades in Black Flag take place within the Animus, and the world created by it is rich in things to see and do. Plentiful English and Spanish ships cruise the same waters of the Jackdaw, providing ample piracy opportunities. The English and Spanish will even fight each other if their ships come close enough, and while most of the time these are just small skirmishes, once in awhile you’ll see more epic encounters, like when two groups of larger ships go at it. Wildlife dots both the land and the sea, and you’ll need to hunt in order for Edward to craft personal upgrades. On land you’ll be tracking down animals such as deer, jaguars, rabbits and monkeys, while on the sea you’ll be harpooning whales and sharks. Needless to say, PETA would not like this game. You’ll also come across a myriad of small islands, coves, sunken ships, and fishing villages to disembark at and explore. As you would expect from this part of the world in the early 1700s, there aren’t many large urban centers, but even so there are still lots of things to do on land, including assassination contracts to complete, treasure chests to dig up, viewpoints to synchronize, collectibles to find, new weapons and outfits to purchase at stores, and other pirates to rescue. These side activities add at least another fifteen hours to the game, and if you’re also busy pirating you could find yourself taking long stretches of time between main story missions. Should you want to take a break from Edward’s adventures, you can exit the Animus at any time and explore the Abstergo Entertainment office where your nameless character works. Gameplay outside the Animus is in first-person and consists of you just walking around, listening in on other employees, and interacting with company computers. You can hack computers by completing mini games and in doing so you’re rewarded with tidbits of backstory and the inner workings of Abstergo. Wandering the office and hacking computers is completely optional, but if you’re invested in Assassin’s Creed’s overarching story you’ll want to set aside some time for this.
As a game that came out in 2013, Black Flag certainly shows its age on the visual front, though it is not a bad looking game by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, in certain areas it still holds up when compared to more recently released games. The crystal waters of the West Indies in particular just might be the most picturesque seas I’ve experienced in a video game, and the ocean effects are outstanding. Whether on a calm day with gentle dips and rises or in the middle of a storm with tumultuous waves crashing against the Jackdaw and spilling water across the deck, Black Flag does an excellent job of creating a believable sailing experience. Where Black Flag doesn’t look so great is in some of the smaller details throughout its world, such as the faces of NPCs being stiff and some textures looking kind of flat. Most of the time the game’s camera is not so close that these things are a big deal, but they are noticeable. Audio in Black Flag is good for the most part, and aside from a glitch mentioned below I didn’t have any issues with sound in the game. The audio is probably at its best during naval combat, when you can have the booming of cannons followed by shooting pistols and clashing swords as you board another ship.
Sailing (and failing) with Blackbeard
Technical glitches, ever the bane of large-scale games like Black Flag, rear their comical head in the game and you’re bound to run into a few before you reach the end credits. I sometimes would see NPCs spinning in circles, one of Edward’s crew randomly died when shooting a cannon, a small number of invisible walls exist in odd places, every now and then an enemy would have a pink wig, and a few times there was no audio when the Jackdaw’s mortars were fired. There’s even a spot on the map where you can see dolphins swimming across land, which I absolutely loved to watch. Bits of environmental and texture pop-in also dot the Black Flag experience, the most jarring of which happened one time when I was sneaking through a fort and a pair of enemies materialized right in front of me and attacked. While this particular sort of glitch is not appreciated, in retrospect I suppose any sort of environmental or character pop-in can be contextualized away as just the Animus creating the world on the fly as you are playing through it.
As my first Assassin’s Creed game in years, Black Flag was a mostly enjoyable return to the series, though it does have a few scattered rough edges. The naval aspects of Black Flag are superb, to the point that when I returned to land I couldn’t wait to get back out on the seas. Edward’s story of slowly rising above himself to become more than just a gold-hungry pirate and eventually morph into a committed Assassin makes him one of the more interesting protagonists in an Assassin’s Creed game, and is one of the better narratives in the series. Conversely, the present day storyline left me disappointed by the seeming lack of progression from the events of Assassin’s Creed 3, but it is a minor sideshow compared to what happens in the Animus. There are certainly a number of things I could nitpick about Black Flag, such as some of the gameplay bugs mentioned earlier, but the more I think about it, the more those quibbles are overshadowed by what Black Flag does right, namely, making you feel like a pirate. For me, Black Flag is one of those games that does one thing so exceptionally well that I can mostly overlook its small flaws and I wouldn’t have any issue with recommending it to other people who think it sounds interesting.