Where do you start with a game of this size? It’s almost impossible to know, other than to say: Pirates!
Over the years, I’ve played Sid Meier’s Pirates!, going back to the title several times. It was almost all of what I wanted from a pirate game: my own ship and crew, resource management; the freedom to roam the Caribbean, take on legendary pirates and assault towns, forts and cities. Everything before or since hasn’t quite lived up to that same billing and Meier’s game has become the pinnacle of everything ‘piratey’ in my eyes.
I’ve glanced over The Curse of Monkey Island, the Port Royale series and others such as Age of Pirates and Age of Booty but none have encapsulated all of those things I crave and, where they have, they just haven’t managed to replicate that feel of being a pirate. Until now…. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is undoubtedly the fullest, most authentic and enjoyable pirate experience you will have had to date on a gaming system.
The elements of the game which replicate the life of pirating come very close to rendering the Assassins Vs Templars elements void. Which, given the wealth of booty to claim and fun to be had, wouldn’t be too bad a thing. Beginning with a short series of flashbacks to the early life of Edward Kenway (establishing his reason for his current situation) before you’re thrust immediately into the midst of a ship-to-ship battle as a lowly crewman on a pirate ship.
After chasing an assassins (or, is he a Templar!?) through a beautiful backdrop, you assume his identity, save a ‘wannabe’ pirate and before you can say ‘Blackbeard’ your adventures begin. Thankfully, the opening couple of chapters and missions are all the tutorial you’re faced with and you’re saved minute details about what you should, can and are not yet able to do.
Compared to the 10 hour tutorial at the opening of Assassin’s Creed III, this is certainly one of Black Flag’s saving graces; feeling much more like a game that appreciates (and does not look down upon) it’s faithful audience. There are certainly plenty of bits of advice and you’re only a few button-presses away from some help – if you happen to be a newb – but otherwise Ubisoft have had the sense to allow exploration and experimentation to be the name of the game.
And that is something you will want to do plenty of. The world of ACIV is vast. There are so many locations that without occasionally fast-travelling it could actually take you 40+ hours to properly explore all locations alone, without factoring in general game-play and just playing about. If I’m perfectly honest, the main story of Assassin’s Creed games has now become so convoluted, complex and uninteresting that it’s more hassle to pay attention to it than to just let it wash over you and try to enjoy the surrounding game as much as possible.
Apparently, through your naughty actions of murdering somebody who may (or may not) be an Assassin you’ll quickly find yourself dragged – kicking and screaming – into a race to track down the mysterious Observatory which holds the fate, and control, of the entire world in it’s… skull.
The story weaves itself into Kenway’s own story, as it does in to that of the unnamed Abstergo employee you’ll find yourself narrowly controlling when you’re pulled from your memories of 18th Century looting and ship-sinking. Luckily, the occasions on which you’re – rudely – extracted from the world of Kenway, back to Abstergo’s new entertainment division are rare and often more your own choosing.
The ruse they’ve created for why you’re actually trawling the world of pirates is actually quite novel and enjoyable but as this starts to bleed more and more into your main story and Assassin’s start fighting Templars once again you will feel like the little narrative you’ve created for your version of Kenway has been interrupted quite needlessly. Thankfully, the vast majority of your time will be spent in exploration as the rogue Edward Kenway, on your ship The Jackdaw.
Options will quickly open up to you – both at sea and on land – and you’ll discover a wealth of distractions, from upgrading your ship, hunting wild animals (the sharks and whales in particular are a blast!) and basically just attempting to ‘100%’ every aspect of the game. While the locales are relatively varied, from large settlements such as Kingston and Havana to various small, uninhabited islands, you will spend little time on land before you find yourself itching to get back out to sea.
The Jackdaw is, in every sense, Assassin’s Creed’s equivalent of Mass Effect’s Normandy; a ship full of it’s own personality, a vessel where you feel completely at home, revelling in the various upgrade and cosmetic alterations you can make to your ship and before long you’ll feel very protective of her.
I spent at least 50% of my time sailing the seas of the Caribbean looking for bigger ships and tougher challenges, fleeing with my tail between my legs in defeat – often – looking for those elusive Elite Upgrades with which to make my ship a ‘destroyer’ and have everyone from brigs to Man-o-War’s fleeing in my wake.
Once you’ve reached a certain level of upgrade you may also want to try your hand against the 4 ‘Legendary’ ships that are located in each of the four corners of the map. Each presenting a very different challenge, ensuring that you don’t just adopt one tactic when tactic your ship into tactical battles. These are very much optional ‘boss battles’, meaning you can come back at any time during the game.
I would definitely advise leaving them until you’ve attained most of the ‘Elite’ upgrades however, as any one of them will make short work of you very quickly. Aside from upgrading your ship you’ll be looking toward upgrading Kenway’s weapons and armour also. Weapons are straight-forward enough, just earn enough money and anything your pirate heart could desire will be yours.
If it’s health, gear and outfit upgrades you’re after then you’ll have to work a little bit harder for them. Because while it’s possible to buy any single animal skin available in the game and ‘cheat’ your way to a 100% kit (which, I must admit now, I ended up doing!) it is usually much more fun hunting down cunning predators and utterly terrifying behemoths. You’ll also eventually be handed a little pirate haven of your own to look after, a place of refuge and safety in a sea of enemies and the dastardly English and Spanish.
Again, as with your ship and Kenway, you can upgrade your hideout several times and even ‘renovate’ your little plantation house to look slightly more pretty. What the benefits of this are, were lost on me, and perhaps it’ll prove to have been much more worth it once we see the content of future DLC packs.
But if you’re anything like me that sense of completion and newness will be all the reward you’ll need! Aside from the story and game-play, the world itself is artfully crafted, with Ubisoft once again getting the utmost out of a now out-dated set of hardware. I’ve seen comparisons between 360 and One and there is a clearly noticeable difference but for a game late in the previous console generation’s cycle it still has it’s moments.
For instance, for a game that intends that you spend a great deal of time on open water, the effects are at once beautiful and exhilarating. Quickly hopping from calm, clear blue seas one second to deadly 40 ft waves and ‘twisters’ the next. Facing one such storm during a pretty intense battle against a few ships can be brutal – and simultaneously awesome – even when you’re at your best.
Coupled with the sounds of open seas, the general ambience and the small, finer details such as your crew breaking into collective song, singing seas shanties and reacting to your commands to ‘hoist the mains’ and so on like a well-oiled machine, Ubisoft have gone out of their way to ensure you’re left feeling every inch the legendary pirate captain.
Backed up by lively cast of characters – both real and created – such as Blackbeard, Jack Rackham and Mary Reed, it is hard to not feel entirely engrossed in this world. With easily over 60 hours game-play at your fingertips (not to mention the added multiplayer), a gorgeous, detailed world to explore and a main character to finally rival Ezio Auditore, you’d be mad to miss out on the best Assassin’s Creed experience since Brotherhood.