So, the other day I completed my first game on the swanky new PS4: Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. I’ve been a fan of the series since ACII, enjoying the historical settings and sneaky-sneakster style gameplay that I find on the right side of accessible and fun, if a little overly simplistic at times. The sheer wealth of things there are to do in the open world settings is typically staggering, though I must admit I can never quite bring myself to muster up the enthusiasm to collect all 2 billion feathers/Animus fragments/amoebae/whatever they happen to be.
The previous game in the series, Assassin’s Creed III (I realise this sounds obvious, but the naming conventions are not the most straightforward of things to follow) was a glossy title, full of promise but unfortunately saddled with a number of bugs and poor mission design that made less than it should have been. I did enjoy ACIII, contrary to the opinions of many who thought it was incredibly poor, but it definitely wasn’t the masterpiece I’d hoped for. It wasn’t really helped by the choice of lead character; Connor Kenway (to give him his Westernised name; I’m not even going to attempt to find the special characters I’d need to properly spell out his real Native American name) was a lead lacking in charisma, who frequently made cut-scene decisions that made me want to scream at the television in frustration.
As most people who’ve played it will know, though, the one thing that ACIII really did right was that it gave you a big ship to sail, and some cannons to shoot at things. The naval combat sections of ACIII were easily one of the best bits of the game, so it kind of makes sense that Ubisoft chose to base a lot of the sequel around it. Black Flag focusses an awful lot on naval exploration and combat, with much of the world being made up of that wet watery stuff you see everywhere. This has a few repercussions: firstly, you spend a lot of time at the helm of your ship gazing at beautiful horizons; secondly, you have an awful lot of fun blasting away at enemy ships and forts; and thirdly, the traditional ground-based sections of series are minimalised a little. This latter point does mean that the on-foot sections, whilst taking up a large chunk of the game, are not as memorable as they could be. A few things stick in the mind, like a survivalist chapter centred around some Mayan ruins, but in general the colonies of Havana and Jamaica (and some other areas) won’t bury themselves into your psyche quite as much as Rome, Florence or the Frontier did.
Story-wise, ACIV can be a little lacking at times, though it’s an improvement on the latter part of its immediate predecessor, which felt like a slog through a history textbook at times. Edward Kenway isn’t a traditional assassin, coming into the ‘profession’ through a slightly less-than-conventional means. The character’s arc is a little slow to get going, and does fizzle out a bit at the end. It’s neat enough, though, and there are moments of genuine pathos. The near-future-set framing storing that takes place in Abstergo Entertainment suffers greatly from the lack of a defined central character like Desmond, and Ubisoft, Shaun and Rebecca really need more screen-time in the next game.
As with most of the recent AC games, you’re overwhelmed a little by the sheer number of things to do at times, but most of it is optional and generally quite fun. Apart from bits of the diving. That was just annoying.
So, ACIV, then. Possibly the best instalment in the franchise since Brotherhood, the game is great to play though I wonder whether bits of it will still in the mind as long as some of its predecessors.