After 2012’s less-than-stellar entry, the Assassin’s Creed series seemed poised to spend the last few years of its life cycle fighting irrelevancy. While Assassin’s Creed 3 might have sold well, it turned off a lot of people, myself (an admittedly hardcore fan of the franchise) included. Half-baked mechanics, buggy presentation and a bland protagonist were all parts of the gumbo of disappointment that was AC3.
Not long after that game released, Ubisoft announced a follow-up that would take place in the Caribbean during the Golden Age of Piracy. The new protagonist would be Edward Kenway, father and grandfather to the Assassin’s Creed 3 playable characters Haytham and Connor, respectively. With a game poised to take advantage of the naval combat introduced in AC3, could Black Flag right the ship?
After the resolution of the Desmond story line at the end of Assassin’s Creed 3, many wondered how Ubisoft would continue the series, given that the basic premise is that we (the player) were playing through moments in Desmond’s genetic history, seeing the past via the magic of the Animus. It turns out that Desmond actually wasn’t all that essential because after Abstergo harvested his body, any random Joe can hop into an Animus and re-live one of Desmond’s ancestor’s lives.
The weirdest part of this is that Abstergo, the modern-day front for the Templars, is creating entertainment products very similar to the ones we’ve been playing in real life (Assassin’s Creed 3: Liberation was an “Abstergo Entertainment” joint). This bit of meta-fiction, where you play a game designer at Abstergo’s Montreal studio testing out Edward Kenway’s memories to see which parts would make a good video game, sounds rather ham-fisted but it’s actually a decent way to continue the series. As a voiceless, faceless Abstergo employee (they really went out of the way to capture the feeling of working in the video game industry), you’re roped into the larger conspiracy as soon as you sit down at your desk. Abstergo’s crazy double-crossing IT guy has you hacking your coworkers’ computers to gather intelligence for the Assassin Order which you do by completing some minigames on your tablet. The minigames themselves aren’t that mind-bending but you do get some additional lore about the overall series as well as a tongue-in-cheek look at Ezio and Altair’s less-than-stellar reviews by Abstergo as potential entertainment properties.
The modern day segments are few and far between and mostly optional. The real meat of the game is, of course, the piratical adventures of Edward Kenway. The game opens in roaring fashion, throwing you into the middle of a battle on the open sea during a fierce storm. Edward washes ashore in the aftermath with a turncoat Assassin, Duncan Walpole. Since Duncan is selling secrets to the Templars, Edward decides to steal his uniform and impersonate him to make a quick buck.
For the most part Edward actively avoids casting his lot in with the Assassins, although he works with them on occasion throughout the game. Edward’s position at the periphery of the ongoing conflict leads to some hilarious moments early on when a party of Templars, believing Edward is a highly trained assassin, makes him run through an obstacle course to show off his skills. Edward obviously has no idea what they’re talking about, but performs the assigned mock assassinations perfectly. We’ll chalk that up to genetic imprinting.
Edward Kenway has a lot more personality than Connor; he’s a salty pirate who’s only looking out for his own interest. During the story you’ll meet some other famous figures from the Golden Age such as Blackbeard, Calico Jack and more. The side-cast in AC4 is well-rounded and helps the story feel a bit more lively.
While the main campaign is decent, the game has a tendency to lean a little too heavily on the worst of the Assassin’s Creed stable of missions. Eavesdrop and follow missions are plentiful in the main game and while it is easier to follow your targets (the addition of a Far Cry 3 style tagging system helps, even if it looks a little shoddy) frantically finding a place to hide when your prey randomly decides to turn around and scan the street is never fun. A few missions also have you stealth sailing, which, depending on your patience, may simply be a chore or kind of aggravating.
Where Assassin’s Creed 4 truly shines is the open sea. With the exception of larger towns, which you need to load separately, the West Indies is a wide open ocean for you to explore. Once you have access to your brig The Jackdaw, you can sail around and pillage other ships to your heart’s content. There’s a rather expansive upgrade system for your ship and you can deck out everything from your broadside cannons to your sails.
For such a small ship, The Jackdaw can eventually be upgraded to the point where it can tackle several other ships at once, including the fearsome Man o’ Wars. Your spyglass is handy for seeing what a ship’s level is (green is too easy, red too hard and white just right)and what cargo they’re carrying. Wood, metal and cloth are all used to upgrade The Jackdaw while rum and sugar can be sold to shops. Stockpiling wood and metal will make it easier to upgrade The Jackdaw later on, so make sure to board ships carrying a lot of either to get 100% of the booty (sinking ships nets you half).
Sea battles are just as, if not more, thrilling than they were in AC3, but this time around you can board other ships when you’ve taken their health down enough. Even though boarding can get a little stale after a while, each class of ship has different objective you have to achieve to take it. Once the ship is yours, you can salvage it to repair The Jackdaw, add it to your Fleet, which is a Brotherhood-esque mini-game, or set the crew free to lower your wanted level. You might find yourself stuck in a pattern of fighting ship after ship for hours on end, but it’s just so much dang fun that you might not be able to help it.
The open ocean is stocked with a bunch of tiny islands, atolls and peninsulas, all of which have their own secrets to find and animals to hunt. Hunting and whaling make an actual impact on the game as all of Edward’s upgrades require some pelt, skin or bone. While hunting animals on land is a little dry, whaling is a tense experience, helped along by the pounding music and the close camera angle.
Assassin’s Creed 4 just has so much stuff to see and do, from underwater diving to ship and assassination contracts to collecting sea shanties so your crew can belt them out as you sail along (one of the best features in the game, I have to say). After the seemingly empty Frontier of Assassin’s Creed 3, it feels like the team at Ubisoft went out of their way to make the West Indies as active as they possibly could. While you can fast travel fairly effectively in AC4, the ocean just has so many distractions for you, or you might just want to sail along and take in the sights while your crew serenades you with a rousing rendition of “Drunken Sailor”.
If it weren’t for the repeated mission design in the story and the somewhat repititious process of boarding ships in the later stages of the game, Assassin’s Creed 4 could have potentially been one of the best in the series. That’s not a huge knock against the game as it’s a shining spot in the franchise’s recent history and an encouraging sign that this old tub is still seaworthy.
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