Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag review
Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag doesn’t really want to be an Assassin’s Creed game, and I don’t blame it. It seems keen to shrug off the oblique, convoluted lore surrounding the eon-long Assassins vs Templar power struggle, which managed to reach new peaks of ludicrousness even after that bit in the second game when you punch the Pope into unconsciousness in order to access an alien hologram. Black Flag stuffs all that into a box labelled ‘whoops’, throws it down a deep, dark hole and sends you on third-person free-running murder missions on the high seas instead. By Blackbeard’s bushy eyebrows, that is a welcome move.
You are Edward Kenway, a rogue who loves money enough to leave his girlfriend in port and sail to the West Indies in search of a vast fortune. In the opening scenes he steals an Assassin’s hooded garb and wristblades and accidentally falls in with a crowd of Templars, a team of comedy evil caricatures led by a bearded grand master and backed up by a plate armoured man-ogre who throws axes at people. They’re searching for the Observatory, an ancient device that enables its user to see the location of anyone in the world at any time. The Templars want it because it’ll make coups easier, the Assassins want it to stop the Templars, and Kenway wants it because it’s probably the most valuable thing on the planet.
If that sounds a bit removed from piracy and plunder, don’t worry. After the two-hour hand-holding tutorial section – mercifully shorter than in previous Assassin’s Creed games – the Observatory is relegated to distant long-term objective status, and the story refocuses on the building of the pirate paradise of Nassau: a lawless little utopia maintained by a collection of criminals seeking respite from the attention of the law.
That means Kenway isn’t exactly an Assassin. He has all the free-running, jumping and killing skills of the sect – a genetic bonus, it’s implied – but his relationship with the series’ morally ambiguous order of murder monks is fractious. That keeps the plot’s severest absurdities at arm’s length and lets you just be a pirate and do pirate things. Hang out with famous brigands like James Kidd. Watch affable rogue Edward Teach become an unhinged, scenery-chewing Blackbeard. Sail across the ocean, rob ships, fight the British, take sea forts for yourself, harpoon whales, explore large coastal cities such as Havana and raid ancient Aztec ruins for treasure. All this in a beautiful tropical open world that’s at its glowing, hyper-detailed best on PC.
On land, much is familiar. Hubs such as Havana and Nassau are large, but there are no urban spaces to match the size and spectacle of Rome or Constantinople. A shame, certainly, but there’s still a huge amount to explore in scattered settlements across Black Flag’s massive archipelago. You’ll sail between stilted pier towns tucked away in rocky alcoves, tropical islands sprinkled with treasure chests and larger townships like the manicured, orderly haven of Kingston. As always, you have to climb to high perches to scout sections of town, revealing chests, stores and sidequests in the area, the latter including a welcome increase in open-world assassination missions and warehouse raids. These place targets in open areas patrolled by British or Spanish forces and invite you to solve the problem creatively.
Such missions feel closer to the original vision for Assassin’s Creed than the scripted story segments which, while much improved over Assassin’s Creed III’s restrictive and buggy offerings, are still rather over-reliant on lengthy follow tasks. To raid a warehouse, you must first scan the area for the key holder, pickpocket it off him (or rob his corpse) and then make your way to the door without being shot dead by elevated musket snipers and roaming guards. Stealth has been tightened up to make this more interesting. Pervasive jungle foliage offers constant cover and targets can be marked using Kenway’s magic ‘Eagle Vision’ mode, which lets you track guards through walls – a serious advantage, yes, but you no longer have access to the silent, ranged instant-kill throwing knives that made similar challenges trivial in previous games. Instead you have the blowpipe, which can temporarily knock enemies out, or send them into a berserk rage.
The snipers are a pain, perched on high guard towers that overlook most restricted areas. They have long-range muskets that can drop you to half-health in a single shot. The blowpipe is an obvious counter, though the short duration of its sleeping effect inspired several comical races to kick its victims back into unconsciousness before they awoke. You can also hug a nearby enemy to use them as meat shield moments before a sniper pulls the trigger – another trick carried over from Assassin’s Creed III.
With the addition of explosive barrels that can attract multiple enemies, and outhouses as hiding places, there’s some room to get creative with your approach to these open challenges. I particularly enjoyed turning guards against one another. I used guns dropped by friendly-fire victims to pick off the snipers that killed them, shoved brutes into their own tossed grenades and then scooped up their abandoned axes to butcher crowds of lesser enemies. Your foes aren’t smart, but they’re fun to massacre.
You’ll want to take advantage of the environment in this way a little more than in other Assassin’s Creeds, as Kenway’s kit has been slimmed down from previous instalments. You can pick dropped weapons from the ground and wield them expertly, but you can’t carry knives or broadswords around, sadly, which put an end to my favoured assassination technique of lobbing claymores at enemies across rooftops. Instead, Edward’s hidden blades, a pair of sabres and a brace of pistols are his go-to close combat problem solvers. Your one shot mini-muskets can be fired rapidly mid-combo to loudly thin out surrounding enemies, the rest are easily put down with brutal instant-death counter moves. More skilled enemies and brutes – easy to spot thanks to their size and their tendency to casually roll grenades into a fight – must first be distracted with a block-breaking move before being infinitely stabbed. Very large numbers present a challenge, but combat is mostly there to make you feel deadly. I’d like to see more tough fights with more precise strikes, and to get rid of the pointless disarm move, but fighting remains an effective and violent power trip.