Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag - A Pirate's Life for me!
Anyone that has listened to our shows or spoken to me during evening game sessions probably knows that I'm a big fan of this series. The combination of addictive gameplay and the historical settings has always made for a potent combination in my eyes, and the addition of a compelling storyline about secret societies and ancient wars was just icing on the cake. Unfortunately, in recent installments, most particularly AC III, the Desmond storyline had begun getting weighed down under the constant twists and complications. Black Flag corrects this. Playing as an Abstergo employee as opposed to Desmond lightens things up significantly, and some very cool tie-ins link it to the original, ongoing storyline without burying it under the weight of past games.
The thing about this new modern storyline is that while you can explore and hack and spy to your heart's content, you really don't have to. Aside from a few mandatory tasks that take about 3-5 minutes each, you don't have to spend any time outside the animus if you don't want to. Now I, as a completionist and someone who really enjoys the modern Templar vs. Assassin storyline, have hacked everything I can find, but that is due to my own preferences, not something the game has made me do.
The same freedom can be found in the main storyline too. Of course there are main missions that you have to complete, but it feels very natural and open. To be perfectly honest, I spend hours between missions just sailing around, seeing everything I can, and hijacking anything that comes within range of my broadsides. With no loading screens and a wide open Caribbean to explore, you can literally go wherever you want and do almost anything. The one main criticism I have of the storyline is that with so much else to do and see, it feels a little weak. It's not that Edward's story is bad or boring; it's just that it isn't quite powerful enough, or perhaps it's simply overshadowed by everything else in the game. Seeing a humpback whale burst out of the water next to my ship, I forget about Templars and instead hop in my rowboat to go harpoon him and drag him onboard the Jackdaw. The funny thing is, in a way, that aimlessness perfectly fits the Edward character as written. He is consistently more about money than principle, a reluctant assassin more concerned with his own needs than the Brotherhood's, which means that these detours and personal adventures in pursuit of greed are actually entirely keeping in his nature. Does he become more committed over the span of the game? Of course, but he still has that undercurrent of always looking out for number one, and the gameplay reinforces that.
The vehicle for this freedom is the Jackdaw, Edward Kenway's ship, and almost a character in its own right. The money you earn and cargoes you steal can go towards improving everything about your ship, from armor to weapons, as well as personal upgrades. These improvements, in turn, allow the Jackdaw to fight and capture even larger ships with larger cargoes, giving you the ability to improve your vessel still further and sail farther. In Assassin's Creed III the naval missions, while fun, felt a bit forced, almost like a tacked on bit of fun rather than something integral to Connor's story. In Black Flag, your ship is the game, and the ability to sail to an island, drop your anchor, and dive off the side to go exploring without loading screens or interruptions creates a seamless experience that feels completely natural. In addition, the detail that makes even the smallest atoll worth seeing, whether for treasure or just for the sheer fun of climbing the tallest tree to look out at the ocean, is extremely impressive.
Graphically, the game is beautiful, and I can only imagine how it will look on the Xbox One and PS4. As it is, you sail an incredibly vivid and detailed sea with weather effects that are both gorgeous and sometimes dangerous. Waves can block your cannon, allow you to fire down on to the deck of an enemy vessel, or even damage your ship during storms. Waterspouts can rip the Jackdaw up, dealing damage at the most inopportune times. I attempted to attack and destroy a British fort during a storm, and waterspouts did more damage to me than enemy guns, almost sinking the Jackdaw and killing my crew. These add to the immersion of sailing the open sea, making the game a very cool experience. On land, the graphics are still excellent, painting lush jungles and verdant coastlines with a riot of colors. Now, I must admit that there have been a few graphical glitches in the game, where Edward is picking something up but his hands are empty, or one of the aforementioned whales jumped up through the Jackdaw instead of to the side. However, these graphical errors, while somewhat jarring, only minimally attract from what is otherwise a very pretty world.
Overall, Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag stands on its own as an excellent, well crafted, and beautiful game. As the newest installment in a long running and critically acclaimed series, it ditches the weight of the Desmond storyline without destroying it, improves on its predecessors, and sucks you back in to a world where secret societies do battle for the future of mankind. All in all, Assassin's Creed IV is a game well worth purchasing, whether you are a longtime fan of the series, or just want to go pirating in the warm waters of the Caribbean.