Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag was possibly the best surprise in my gaming life since I downloaded this weird Ocarina of Time game people wouldn’t stop talking about four years back. By this point, I have played Assassin’s Creed 4 three times in a row. Even as I tried to go back and play some of my favorite games of all time, I couldn’t get into them; at the moment, Assassin’s Creed 4 has spoiled me against all other games. It’s truly rare that I love a game as much as this.
I honestly expected to hate it. I’d heard so many conflicting things about the series that I didn’t know what to expect. Apparently, the combat was awful and tailing missions were the devil. I knew that much going in. I’d also heard from some people that the story was awesome, and from others that it was rather less so. Some said the freerunning was boring; others called it almost revolutionary. A friend finally convinced me to give it a try, and looking at how cheap it was to buy used, I decided to go for it. As it turned out, this wound up being an excellent decision. Black Flag is every reason I play games and is one of my favorite games of all time. So in an attempt to convince some of those who refuse to try out the series to give it a shot, here’s why.
An Immersive World
One of the best things about gaming is the way it can immerse you in another world; can transport you to another place. Black Flag nailed that. Every little thing about the game helps to make the player feel like they are in the West Indies, from the insane amount of visual details and touches that drives home that this is a living world to the way your crew sings shanties as you sail across the sea. Black Flag immerses as well as the best of the medium.
That Feeling of Adventure
Ever since I first played Wind Waker, the open world ocean setting has been one of my favorite settings. Not only does it make for a great atmosphere, but it perfectly encapsulates that which many open world action-adventure games strive to achieve: the sense of adventure. It is unparalleled. You’re literally sailing off to unknown horizons, moments from exploring a whole new world, discovering its secrets, and moving on to another, should you desire. There are massive cities to explore, unexplored jungles and coves, ports, small isles, ruins and temples, and even a plethora of tiny little islands. The variety could have been a bit better, but it’s always a blast and there’s always something new just around the corner. Nothing quite compares to seeing a new locale in the distance, slowly drawing closer before jumping off your boat to explore.
It’s Sheer Fun — Usually
Sometimes, the main quest can get a bit frustrating and annoying with super-specific objectives and ways you have to do things, like tailing/eavesdropping missions, and generally limiting the ways in which you can go about completing a task. There’s still plenty of fun to be had, don’t get me wrong, but it’s typically limiting in how you can use the abilities the game gives you. But in between missions, it sets you loose to do sidequests at your leisure and when that happens, AC4 is just sheer fun.
For starters, the abilities you have are very well designed — freerunning is pretty satisfying and stealth is a joy. Ground combat isn’t perfect, but it’s fun enough and certainly gets the job done. Controlling your ship is a breeze and ship battles are utterly insane. So when they let you loose upon the world, give you an objective, and let you accomplish it however you want, it’s just a damn good time. You can take on assassin contracts, for example, which give you a target to kill for a sum of money. You can go in stealthily and kill the guy without open conflict for extra coin or you can run in guns blazing.
That’s how the sidequests in the game tend to go. Want to upgrade your ship? Go take on the toughest ships you feel like you can handle. In doing so, you’ll get in epic ship battles and fight for you and your crew’s life as you board the enemy. Want some extra supplies? Go raid a warehouse, which you can do by sneakily stealing a key and breaking in, or run in screaming and attempt to take down a billion or so guards. Want to unlock your map and get extra side quests? Raid a massive fort, one which is armed to the teeth with massive amounts of firepower, and hunt down the captains inside. There are also collectables and chests scattered throughout the world, giving you ample reason to explore the world and climb/run to trickier places.
There’s just a lot to do and when it cuts out the superfluous and makes it where you get to just run, jump, assassinate, and pirate, it’s an absolute blast. Thankfully, most of the game is that. Again, the main quest is a great time, too, especially during the segments where it opens up; just not to the same extent as the simple joy of jumping off a rooftop to kill a dude or opening fire on a massive enemy fleet because you’re in the mood. When AC4 lets you off the leash to do what you like, not much can match how insanely fun it can get.
Black Flag actually is extremely clever in how it’s designed. You’re constantly making progress; everything you do helps yourself in some way. Every chest you open gives you money and that money can be spent on upgrading your ship or your equipment. Every ship you take down gives you cargo which can immediately and directly be used towards upgrading your ship. Every side quest and almost every collectible feeds back into an upgrade system of making you, your ship, and your hideout better. Everything you do gets you closer to making yourself the most feared pirate on the seas. As you get more upgrades, it becomes easier to get supplies and you can take on more challenging foes. It’s just expertly designed so that there is always a feeling of progress.
The clever thing is that they give you incentive to do all this. Despite there being an intrinsic desire to upgrade yourself and your ship within the process of side quests, it also helps significantly towards the main storyline. There are also the Legendary Ships — these mighty, seemingly insurmountable foes that, throughout the latter half of the game, give you something to aspire to become powerful enough to defeat.
An Engaging Story
Games don’t need stories to be excellent. However, the medium is quite capable of telling great ones, should the developers so desire — and oh, did AC4 tell a great one. Instead of focusing on the battle between Templars and Assassins, they used it as a backdrop for the tale of Edward Kenway. It’s actually a pretty beautiful story. It has several great characters, the overarching plot is interesting, Edward’s development is stellar, and the ultimate message of the tale is simple and sincere. It isn’t perfect — a few too many characters were scumbags or you just didn’t care about them one way or another — but it was definitely an engaging tale. I always wanted to know what happened next enough for me to eventually leave the side quests. There are some absolutely incredible moments; I might have teared up just slightly at the end.
The Pretty Sights
Don’t get me wrong: graphics are by no means the most important part to a game, but it also doesn’t hurt to have pretty ones, and Black Flag sure is pretty. On the one hand, it’s just insanely detailed. Every little thing helps the world to come alive, from the way the oceans turn to the insanely well done character models to the way Edward’s animations slowly change as you leave the water to basically everything else. From an artistic standpoint, it’s stunning, too. Synchronizing on a high point to see far off into the distance, seeing a massive town and beautiful mountains with the endless sea beyond. The sunsets, and the wind. The storms, and the moon in the sky. The waterfalls, and the foliage. It’s just beautiful and a true joy to look at.
A Stunning Soundtrack
The music, on the other hand, is one of the most important parts to a game. Ubisoft brought Brian Tylor on board for this one and he did a brilliant job. It’s emotional when it needs to be emotional, atmospheric when it needs to be atmospheric, and most importantly, ridiculously epic when it needs to be ridiculously epic — which is most of the time. There are so many ridiculously cool songs that it’d be impossible to list them all. The best part is that it all feels cohesive. You can feel that innately “pirate” theme running throughout every song. It’s awesome and makes for one of my favorite soundtracks ever.
You’re A Pirate!
One thing gaming is great at doing is empowering. Through games, you can become anything imaginable. You can be a mighty dragon slayer or a spy or a thief or Batman. In Assassin’s Creed 4, you get to be a freaking pirate and do things pirates would do in the most awesome way imaginable, something few games have attempted. Even if the gameplay was awful and the soundtrack mediocre, even if the visuals were bland and the story a bore, if nothing else there’s just the sheer awesomeness factor. You can have epic fights with massive ships in a hurricane. You can board an enemy ship by jumping on a rope, swinging down and killing two enemies in one go before taking out a dozen more with your pirate swords. Then, you take take down the enemy captains before climbing to the top of the ship and tearing down their flag. You can raid a massive fort. You can go treasure hunting. You can swim in a shipwreck. It all makes you feel like you’re a bad-ass pirate and that’s, well, pretty freakin’ awesome.
A game has to be pretty special to talk about it nearly six months after it loses immediate relevancy to the gaming conversation, but I truly believe this game is remarkable enough to warrant it. It offers an incredible world to explore and a fantastic feeling of discovery and accomplishment. It’s often just pure fun, it offers an engaging story, it’s damn gorgeous, the soundtrack is phenomenal, and above all else, you feel like a freaking pirate. What more can you ask for? Assassin’s Creed 4 is flawed, of that I make no claim to the contrary, but what it does right makes for an experience so phenomenal, I can hardly stop playing.