[Note: All images were provided by the publisher and are taken from the PlayStation 4 version of the game. They are not representative of the version currently on shelves.—Ed.]
“Up that rigging, you monkeys! Aloft! There’s no chains to hold you now. Break out those sails and watch them fill with the wind that’s carrying us all to freedom!” So commanded Errol Flynn in his role as Peter Blood, the doctor-cum-pirate captain at the heart of the 1935 buccaneer film, Captain Blood. Blood, adhering to the Hippocratic oath, helps an enemy soldier who had been grievously wounded. He’s tried and convicted for treason by some dusty old bewigged English magistrates, but through a remarkable set of circumstances, gets his own ship and bonny crew and trades in his stethoscope for a cutlass and a life of raiding the Seven Seas.
Likewise, the protagonist of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, Edward Kenway (eventual grandfather to a primary character in Assassin’s Creed III), finds himself a product of circumstance. After being shipwrecked, he fights and kills a turncoat Assassin transporting valuable information to the Templar order in Havana. He assumes the dead man’s identity, fulfills the mission, and gets sucked into a war between the two factions that has raged hundreds of years. As to which side he comes down on, that remains to be seen. He’s a pirate, and he’ll go where there’s the greatest chance of profit.
Black Flag comes during a lull in the series. After the back-to-back triumphs of Assassin’s Creed II and Brotherhood, the next two installments—Revelations and Assassin’s Creed III—were mostly underwhelming. Black Flag turns things around by channeling what Captain Blood promised his men—the freedom afforded by a life on the high seas—and bringing joy back into historical fiction-based contract murder.
Like the previous games, Black Flag takes place in a world where people can plug into a machine called an “animus” and explore history through the memories of dead people. It has always been an extremely clumsy storytelling device, and that hasn’t changed. The coupling of past and present is as stilted and awkward as ever, and it’s a huge bummer whenever you are pulled out of the past and back to the dull-as-dirt present. The out-of-animus experience in Black Flag, though, is less invasive than usual and doesn’t do much to ruin the good times. Rather than being on the run from Templar killers, your present day character is working for Abstergo, a Templar-run conglomerate that is leveraging the animus experience as high-tech entertainment for the paying public. You’re charged with testing out the Edward Kenway module, playing a pirate fantasy for a company selling a pirate fantasy, all of which is imagined by a company (the game’s publisher, Ubisoft) that is selling a pirate fantasy. There’s a lot of meta self-deprecation here. Later, you’re pulled into some corporate espionage, and pieces of the larger Assassin’s Creed narrative are revealed for…
Wait, I’m up! Where were we? That’s right, pirate fantasy. The game proper begins after Kenway’s cover is blown in Havana. With the help of a fellow prisoner, Kenway slips his manacles, seizes the ship, and sets sail for the pirate enclave in Nassau.
Kenway, it should be noted, acquired more than just the murdered Assassin’s garments. He somehow also acquires all of his deadly fighting skills. When on land, Black Flag functions like all the other games in the series. You adroitly climb lookout towers to get a better view of things. You take Assassin contracts and eliminate targets for monetary rewards. You hide from the fuzz in hay stacks. Money can be used to upgrade your outfit, your blades, your pistols, and your ship. You can also hunt animals and use their carcasses for crafting special upgrades. (If I get mauled by one more stupid leopard, I swear I’m going to kill all the leopards in the Spanish Main and somehow make my sails out of leopard skin.)
Shipboard is where the game really differentiates itself. While there was a little taste of life at sea in Assassin’s Creed III, Black Flag focuses more on the naval shenanigans. This is where that aforementioned pirate fantasy comes to life. Your crew, jaunty sea dogs that they are, will sing pirate shanties and other songs of the sea as you sail among the myriad islands peppering the map, squalls and rogue waves buffeting your boat along the way. Engaging enemy ships is a tense affair and a good deal more difficult than the neck-stabbing you practice on land. The idea is to disable an opposing ship using a combination of fire barrels, cannons, chain shot, and mortars, then board her via rope swing, and finally kill enough enemy sailors that they’ll strike colors and turn the ship and its contents over to you. (Tactics learned from the seminal Sid Meier’s Pirates! are surprisingly applicable.) Nimbleness is a virtue, as one or two broadsides from a large frigate will turn your precious Jackdaw into kindling.
At times, Black Flag feels like two separate games. Your pirate pals are always trying to convince Kenway to abandon his dream of Templar super-treasure and be satisfied with the more modest haul afforded by raiding ships. My buccaneer brethren had me convinced. I was content to raid the coast ad infinitum and spend my spare booty on barrels of grog. But Kenway is of a different, more ambitious mind, and to advance the game’s story you must push forward into the Templar-Assassin war. This aspect is passably amusing in its own right—it wouldn’t be much of an Assassin’s Creed game if there were no assassinations—but when on land for too long, I found myself yearning for the freedom of the open ocean.
Black Flag’s developers have crafted a terrific pirate simulator, throwing in everything but the asshole parrot. It’s handcuffed to the Assassin’s Creed legacy, even though the two aren’t a natural fit. If it’s the end result of Ubisoft dedicating itself to sure-thing blockbuster games, then it’s a shame because Kenway’s adventure could easily stand on its own without the Assassin-Templar nonsense. However, even with the added weight of series conventions, Black Flag affords enough freedom that it’s easy and exciting to forgo your Assassin responsibilities in favor of plundering and sending the King’s navy into the briny deep. Forget all that Assassin mumbo jumbo. It’s a pirate’s life for me.