Quick Note: From one end of the Caribbean to the other, Black Flag is a joy. If you've never liked Assassin's Creed games, you probably wont change your mind, but if you've felt the franchise has been stagnant, rejoice because the magic is back.
Assassin's Creed games are hard to judge. On the surface, platforming around giant open worlds looking for treasures and finding viewpoints to sync up is a lot of fun. Taking over the map and exploring the rich, historic levels can be breath taking at times. However, the franchise has fallen into a slog. Most of the main missions are repetitive in a very not fun kind of way, the combat system is still stuck in 2009 when the second installment came out and there tend to be some frustrating bugs while taking on the hardest, most important tasks. Black Flag may not have fixed all of these problems, but the pirate themed game is a big improvement on the franchise.
Black Flag has you step into the boots of privateer Edward Kenway. After a brief stint, Kenway dons the robes of the Assassin's Order and starts off on a unique story that finds it's own bearings amidst the Assassin's Creed lore. Kenway is a pirate first and foremost, and that's what is so interesting about him. He's lively, active and not always in the right. His first mate Adawale is the first person to point out that Kenway's selfish ways will be his downfall. But it is this different approach to a lead that really hammers home how different Black Flag is from the rest of the series. His story is quite different and adds so much to the overall lore while only taking place over 13 sequences, but it has me so excited to see where this world is going next.
As a pirate/assassin, Kenway has a lot of the similar tropes at his disposal. There are swords to be bought, pistols to upgrade and of course, his handy Assassin Blades. Where Kenway really iterates on the combat are the simple things added on top of this. Hunting down animals allows you to use their skins to upgrade the number of pistol holders, allowing Kenway to hold up to four pistols at a time. The free aiming is incredibly useful and feels so much better than the automatic aiming the series has been plagued with. He also obtains the Blowdart Pipe found in Assassin's Creed: Liberation, which is such a useful weapon. Once earned, sneaking around large groups of enemies becomes much more manageable.
Aside from controlling Kenway, you'll also control his vessel: The Jackdaw. Just like Kenway, the Jackdaw can be upgraded using money and supplies pillaged from other ships. The controls feel awkward at first, but the feel gets more natural as you progress, and the feeling of sailing on the Caribbean is so amazing, staring out at the sunset as your crew sings shanties. The Caribbean is massive, with tons of enemy forts to conquer, hidden treasures to pillage, sunken ships to dive down to and marine life to poach. Everything feels valid, with little repetition between the different variety, at least with these side missions. Of the 35 hours I spent with the game, I would say that at least 20 of them were me sailing to the next island to get that chest, or poach that whale, or take over that fort. I absolutely love the freedom you are given, especially compared to Assassin's Creed III where you didn't even play as Connor until sequence 6.
When you are not controlling Kenway on the open sea and enter into the present day, you play as yourself, a brand new Abstergo employee. The camera shifts to a first person view and you are able to travel around the Abstergo headquarters to complete small missions. Though there are a few story missions, a lot of the interaction is extraciricular and not required. That being said, hacking into security terminals and other employees computers merits great rewards for those fans who love the story of the franchise. This is the first game where you take control as the enemy, so hacking computers gains you documents and tape recordings that range from insight on the passed game protagonists and Desmond's fate to propaganda by Abstergo. It's absolutely fascinating to find that next piece of information. Plus, the hacking minigames are actually pretty fun.
Despite the strengths of the game, Black Flag is still an Assassin's Creed game, which can lead to some faults that still plague the franchise. The main story missions still flounder under the same design constraints that have been in the series since Assassin's Creed II. Tailing missions are still really boring, usually longer than you want them to be, and typically feel completely unnecessary. For the pirate/assassin hybrid that Kenway portrays, it feels off to be skulking amongst 'dancers' to not be seen by the faceless redcoat you're tailing to get to the fort that you already knew how to get to. I know Assassins are supposed to be stealthy and tailing is apart of that, but there has got to be a better way. Or maybe limit the amount of tailing missions.
The other big detractor has to be the combat. Assassin's Creed was one of the first franchises to really incorporate a solid counter system to allow one character to take on multiple enemies without breaking the flow. However, this system hasn't been really altered since it's inception. The Arkham series has refined this counter combat system to feel fluid and swift, so when you get hit you know it's your own fault for not reacting in time, compared to Black Flag where you will hit the button, but nothing will happen, especially when facing more than four enemies at a time. It becomes increasingly frustrating when the missions start forcing large scale combat on you. It's far from the worst combat system, but it is definitely starting to show it's age.
My final qualm came from the diving sequences, where Kenway would drop down into the ocean without any weapons and have to sneak around sharks to get to treasure. What kind of pirate or assassin goes anywhere without a weapon? This resulted in a lot of unfair deaths and frustrating dive sequences to get to that last piece of treasure.
That all being said, Black Flag is still an amazing game. I loved sailing the open ocean and taking down ships or spearing sharks. The shanties are incredibly catchy (so much so I bought the Shanty Edition of the soundtrack) and the world felt incredibly alive. Despite the outdated missions and combat, the game still holds itself really well, including the added depth to the overall Assassin's Creed lore. If you've never liked the franchise, this game will not change your mind. But if you like vast, open world games with lots to do, this game is for you. I highly recommend it to anyone looking to sink some time into the pirates sails.
9.0 out of 10
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