Noah Foster-Koth

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is a fantastic open world video game in which gamers can play as a pirate searching for fortune and glory in the 18th century Caribbean. Players can interact with intriguing real-life historical figures from the era, including other famous pirates such as Blackbeard and Anne Bonny. The game is the most recent installment of a larger franchise published by the videogame company Ubisoft.

Assassin’s Creed games are primarily about exploring ancient history. This installment takes place during one of the most fascinating time periods of the Western hemisphere, the golden age of piracy. The story weaves the player through the most famous battles and situations from the era and gives new life and personality to the real historical figures they encounter. Previous games in the series have taken place during the age of Ottomans and the American Revolution, but failed to make those eras as intriguing as the swashbuckling age on display in Assassin’s Creed IV.

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The game’s look and tone is derived from the classic pirate movies of the 1930s, although, per modern tastes, there is more swearing and stabbing to be found here than in any Errol Flynn adventure. Indeed, the player’s character, a Welshman named Edward Kenway, is a little like a digitalized Errol Flynn for the electronic age. Driven by greed and bravado, Kenway is not the story’s most moral man, but he is the most compelling. Black Flag is one of the only video games where the player’s character is as interesting as the world that surround them.

Black Flag’s gameplay is infinitely superior to other video games on the market, including other Assassin’s Creed games. The series’ trademark stealth levels are finally fun and fluid, since enemies can now be marked and seen through walls. The improved fast travel system also alleviates one of the most crippling frustrations of the last few games in the series. Before, players were required to travel across cities on foot to get from one mission to the next. While a teleport system did exist, it was somewhat restrictive and unhelpful. In this installment, it’s much easier to get around because the fast travel points are more frequent and easy to unlock. This saves a tremendous amount of time in world as enormous as the one on display in Black Flag, time that is much better spent engaging in the game’s many missions and side quests.

Though you’re granted the freedom to travel through it at the press of a button, the world of Black Flag is part of what makes the game so exceptional. The hallmarks of the Caribbean – humid jungles, underground grottos, and the open sea – are all a part of Assassin’s Creed IV‘s gigantic map, and the player is free to explore them all. Doing so is tremendously fun in and of itself, but Black Flag is also one of the rare open-world games where there is a tangible reward for exploring every nook and cranny open to you. Swimming through shark-infested grottos will net you bonus rewards and upgrades for your customizable pirate ship; sneaking through a tropical prison camp allows you to recruit new crewmembers for your vessel. The game has dozens of other optional adventures in store for the player, more than I can list here. You’re usually free to take on as many or as few of them as you would like, but almost all of them are worth your time.

Black Flag is at its best when it sheds the trappings of previous games in the franchise and breaks new ground. The game’s new features include the ability to dive and explore shipwrecks, discover treasure maps that lead to in-game upgrades, and board enemy ships for extra loot. These new additions set Assassin’s Creed IV above and apart from other video games on the market. The underwater levels are particularly well-executed, each one requiring the player to explore everywhere in order to discover hidden rewards (and dangers).

Despite all of the things the game does well, there are a few hiccups. Assassin’s Creed games have never had a great combat system, and Black Flag fails to reverse this trend (though it does make things better by adding a manual aim system for ranged weapons). Additionally, the modern day portions – another carry over from previous installments – feel tacked on and distract from the main game. But these are minor complaints, and they don’t prevent Assassin’s Creed IV from being the marvel that it is.

Different players will have different expectations from Black Flag when they buy it. Some will be excited to play the next installment in the Assassin’s Creed franchise. Others will be dying to experience the simulated life of a swashbuckling scallywag. Still others will just want to play an entertaining video game. The most wonderful thing about Assassin’s Creed IV is that it will meet all of these varying wishes. It’s  a masterpiece, an eye-popping vision of the golden age of piracy that’s as precious as a chest full of gold doubloons.

Grade: A



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