Assassin's Creed III was such a massive game, so full of things to do, that despite the obvious quality of many of the constituent parts, you could argue that it lacked direction. Not so with Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag. Ubisoft's latest open-world adventure is a surprisingly tight and cohesive package that always keeps one thing in its sights: a pirate's life at sea.
Starring Edward Kenway, grandfather to the last game's Connor, it sees players swashbuckling their way up and down the Caribbean in the early 1700s aboard Edward's ship, the Jackdaw. Edward's more of a rogue than Connor, it's fair to say, out to make a quick buck and return to England, and he doesn't much care about the Assassins and Templars and their secret war, even when it is spelled out to him. Instead, he falls in with pirates like the mighty Blackbeard, Charles Vane and James Kidd, setting up a pirate city called Nassau where he hopes men such as he can live free.
Naturally he is gradually drawn into the larger picture that makes up this huge series, but along the way you and he mostly content yourselves with piracy. There are huge naval battles aboard the Jackdaw, which becomes increasingly laden with weapons and armour as you gather money and upgrade plans, as well as numerous away missions onto islands you encounter as you explore and even undersea diving for sunken treasure.
It's all seamless, allowing you to jump on and off the Jackdaw and go ashore wherever you please - as long as there's a beach, fort or some rocks to clamber onto - and it all adds up to a game where you feel liberated to pursue whatever you like, far more so than Assassin's Creed III, which bombarded you with obligations rather than suggestions. Here you have treasure maps, convoy routes and legendary ships, not to mention targets for your whaleboat and harpoon. It isn't long before you're sailing around the ocean jumping between tasks as you please, forgetting all about the story.
When you return to it, at least, many of the missions are entertaining enough to justify your interest. It helps that this is a game with more interest in stealth than the last one. Many of your missions involve climbing trees, battlements, rooftops and cliffs to gather intelligence and take down targets, and the bushes you could hide in last time are far more common, so you feel in greater control of each situation, like a silent hunter, which suppresses the growing sense that the on-foot controls are long in the tooth and could do with an upgrade.
Some of the mechanics may be showing their age, but the game itself looks gorgeous, even on current-generation hardware. The clear blue skies and dazzling seas of the Caribbean lend themselves very well to current hardware, and Ubisoft has obviously perfected huge cityscapes, which it does well again in Kingston and Havana, two of the larger locations you can go ashore and tool around in. Animations are weak nowadays, but you spend most of your time staring at the ocean and the Jackdaw, which are gorgeous.
Although it doesn't add anything massive to the revelations at the end of Assassin's Creed III, Black Flag also includes story that takes place outside the Animus, where you control a nameless employee of Abstergo Entertainment, a game company similar to Ubisoft that is obviously controlled by the Templars. You're given good cause to sneak around finding things out, and there's a neat self-contained story told here that keeps things ticking over.
Away from the campaign, multiplayer returns with new characters, maps and game modes. All your old favourites are back like Manhunt and Wanted, along with a Game Lab where you can design your own variations using over 200 settings and then share them with friends. Wolfpack has been given its own small campaign, too, building on the co-op elements that made it into Assassin's Creed III. The unlikely success of the game's multiplayer, where you hunt down targets while trying to remain incognito, looks set to continue, although the fun is tempered somewhat by a growing sense of repetition.
Overall, though, there isn't much to say against Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag. It's another massive, 50-hour-plus adventure and this time the marriage of story missions to side content is much stronger, while the world itself is luscious and fascinating. Edward Kenway is a much more interesting character than his grandson, too, and his unpredictable story ends in a memorable way. Hopefully it won't be the last we see of him, because his game is one of the best in this amazing series' history.
GAME's Verdict: 9/10
- Edward Kenway's a great improvement on Connor.
- The Jackdaw is fantastic and it's great fun exploring the world.
- There are dozens of side missions and they're mostly fab.
- Stealth mechanics and free-running need an overhaul.
- Combat is still rather simplistic.
- Animations could do with a spring-clean.