Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is the sixth game in an epic series combining three story arcs—one from history, one from a near future setting and one that transcends time. There are so many things to love about these games: the richly rendered settings, the historical detail and the gameplay mechanisms. But it’s the story (or stories) that keep bringing me back for more. You play as a character in a near future setting who has been recruited by a corporation with the technology to thrust you into history through a series of simulations. During these simulations, you play your part in an ever evolving story between two factions: the Assassin’s and the Templars.
Throughout each installment of the game, you track down clues to a third story. It’s that third story that fascinates me so much! I enjoyed the tease of it in the first game and by the end of the second game, I knew I’d be playing through every installment until I reached the end of the larger tale. I’d love to share that part of the games with you, but I think it would count as a significant spoiler and I’d hate to ruin the end of the second game. True ‘Aha’ moments are so rare.
The simulation aspect of the game also works nicely to explain character death. After you watch your assassin plummet instead of executing a perfect leap of faith (or get stabbed a million times, or…), the simulation desynchronizes and resets. I love this! It’s a simple mechanic for delivering unlimited opportunities to finish the game without breaking immersion.
My Journey to the Open Seas
My favourite installment so far is Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, which completes the trilogy devoted to Ezio’s story. I didn’t like Ezio when I first met him. In fact, I didn’t think much of Assassin’s Creed II when I first attempted to play it. I’d skipped ahead to Revelations after watching a friend demonstrate all the new cool. I wanted to play that game. I’m kind of a stickler for order, though, so I figured I should go back and play Assassin’s Creed II first. I got caught up on an early mission, unable to figure out where to go next, and abandoned the game in favour of Revelations, figuring it wouldn’t matter if I skipped a chapter.
It did and it didn’t. Through Revelations I got to know Ezio late in life—and I adored him. I also enjoyed the conclusion to Altaïr Ibn-La’Ahad’s (the original assassin)story. It was an unexpected twist to be able to go back and see the end of his life—what became of him and how his actions directed Ezio’s journey some 300 years later. In a way, playing Revelations after the original Assassin’s Creed made sense. In another way, it inspired me to go back and retry Assassin’s Creed II. I needed to know all of Ezio’s story—to see how he’d grown from the self-absorbed ass I’d met at the beginning to the mature, somewhat taciturn and thoroughly competent assassin I came to care for.
Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyway) I loved the story. I skipped straight from the end of Assassin’s Creed II to Brotherhood and then played Revelations through all over again. Those three games together rival another trilogy for top place on Kelly’s Shelf of Gaming Goodness, the other being Mass Effect 1, 2 and 3.
Then I got to Assassin’s Creed III. You can read about my trials with that game here, but briefly, it was a combination of gameplay and story that nearly killed my love for this series. But I needed that chapter to continue forward—not just the story, but the experience of it—and I’m glad I persevered because it’s an important chapter in many ways. Just poorly executed.
Imagine my horror when I learned Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag would be based almost entirely on the open sea and would require mastery of one of the most frustrating aspects of the previous game: ship combat.
Thankfully, it’s been simplified and diversified and made fun.
Another of my issues with Assassin’s Creed III was the protagonist Connor. I actually found Haytham Kenway more interesting and liked the idea of playing the opposite side, of investigating the Templar story more fully. The beginning of Black Flag takes you to that place, thrusting you right inside the Order for the first few sequences—all in the lovely skin of Edward Kenway, voiced by the equally delightful Matt Ryan (Constantine).
Kenway is his own man, however, which is probably why he’s destined to become a pirate. He’s not a joiner or a follower. The privateers don’t suit him, His Majesty’s Navy would be a disastrous fit and while the Templars appear to be doing well for themselves, they’re a little too devious for a man who simply wants to make his fortune so he can answer to no one. While with the Templars, Kenway learns about the Observatory. It’s the ultimate prize—fabled and powerful and the obsession of many men. It’s the one way ticket Kenway needs to realise all his dreams.
That something comprises the bulk of Black Flag. Kenway becomes obsessed with the Observatory and like any man obsessed, is easily manipulated by friends and foes.
All of the Assassin’s Creed games delve into real history, postulating certain figures were more than they seem. Black Flag is no exception. Kenway falls in with the pirates of the Golden Age: Edward Thatch (Blackbeard), Anne Bonny, Charles Vane, Benjamin Hornigold and Jack Rackham.
The piracy aspect of Black Flag is FUN. I would sit down to continue the main story and two hours later all I’d done was chase and sack ships, rob smugglers and chart deserted isles. For the achievement hound, Black Flag has a number of challenges that will have you scouring the map for treasure, plans, clues to any of the intertwined stories and gold. Going after all these prizes becomes something of an obsession, which ties in beautifully to Edward Kenway’s story.
His wife gave him two years to make his fortune and make his way back to her. Six years later (and about a hundred hours of game play for me, spread over a period of six months), he has lost everything he once held dear. His wife, his friends, his dreams and possibly his future. He is a man shamed. He is a man scorned. All he has is his ship—and he’s nearly lost that too.
It’s rare for a game to capture one man’s story in such a compelling manner—make it entertaining, playable and touching all at the same time. Black Flag does this while adding boat-loads (I couldn’t resist) to the main canon. My only complaint is the continuation of the greater story. You’re no longer playing Desmond Miles (for reasons) in the near future setting. In fact, you have no idea who you are, or what your stake in the greater story is. There’s a nice scene toward the end when Kenway discovers the observatory and its purpose, but overall, the greater story is ignored. I think this is a great shame, as while the games are enormously entertaining, the conclusion to that story is my ultimate goal. So I will be continuing my journey—and after seeing the trailer for Syndicate on TV this morning, I’m as excited about the next installment as I have ever been.