There are several ways to deal with an annual release. Most tend to stick to the subject matter at hand and adjust where necessary. For Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag (AC4), this is thrown overboard for a hearty new challenge. It’s about pirates. We’ll try to keep the puns on a low level from now. What matters is that this new scope refreshes the stealth action open world the franchise has known and exponentially expands on the model it knew. There’s so much to do, it won’t matter that the story is as thinly stretched as it has ever been.
Diving into the game takes us to the 18th century Caribbean, where piracy dominates the sea and men of adventure fight against the oppression of a controlling regime. Locations stretch from small deserted piles of sand to shantytowns pinned next to luxurious buildings. Shrubberies are scattered among the roads, wildlife flutters around and decrepit fences barricade homes. Details are plentiful in this humongous world, which holds small to big environments all across the map. Even if it’s just a cave amidst a jungle or old rock formations; if there’s a will, there’s usually a way.
Land areas are connected through the gorgeous stretch of the ocean amidst it all. Sun reflects across this sheet of water, bouncing off an idyllic mixture of heavenly blue colors. During storms, this welcoming drink turns to violent gray swills, where rain floods the screen and waterspouts advance quickly upon any ships unfortunate enough to be near. Taking this sparkling universe on, either by land or by sea, can take ages in itself, as expanses are located everywhere. Realism and visual prowess make this an adventure to go through, rather than a chore. This is backed up by a wide array of authentic sound effects and voices. In particular, sailing the breeze while the ship’s crew bands together to sing a shanty lightens the mood, even in the foulest of settings, especially since most songs are a metaphor for something a lot more heinous than first thought.
...And only what I think matters.
If one thing in the presentation is amiss, it would be the cock and bull story. Inside of the pirate world, narration follows Edward Kenway, a selfish prick that uses piracy to fuel his own diluted ambitions. Luckily, the cast of misfits at his side are a lot more consistent at following any rule of conduct, be they good or vile. Yet, for some reason, AC4 will let these characters leave first and then patch up the rest with its ridiculous Deus Ex Machina hub known as the Animus. As the story goes on, the thick plot dwindles to reverse Kenway’s attitude by merely skipping over its formative reasons and so it loses all credibility, all the way to the finale, which ends with implied sexual propositions, for no sensible reason. Main characters are sexy; that should be reason enough.
Fortunately, there’s a ton of gameplay less connected to this story. In fact, some elements are available to players before given the proper context and maybe that’s for the best. It only shows that the story is riddled in holes and it’s best to cast it off to dive in blind.
For acrobatic elements, AC4 returns to the standard wall running, roof jumping and rock climbing the series is known for. Kenway shows his dexterity by negotiating gaps well, adjusting leaps where necessary and falling with as little damage as possible most of the time. It’s farfetched to think that this can also happen with a 50 foot drop on a rope or that any guard or enemy can do the same, but it’s best to suspend disbelief on that, again. It works and that’s what’s important. Scaling the obstacles of the tropical environments has such a fluid grace; running from a tree, grabbing a vine and then swinging to the next platform in mere seconds. There are almost no breaks in animations, making it seem like every move is a natural extension of the player’s hand.
Combat has a similar rudimentary appeal, even if that’s not as desirable, given it’s a much different mechanism. To ward off opponents, a simple routine of countering, destabilizing then hitting is applied to all fights, when not firing. Periodically, it’s possible to strike from above and murder foes in one fell swoop, but the most thrilling kills are those done in secrecy. Our assassin can lurk in bushes or hide behind walls and lure out soldiers, after which a surprising jab to the throat takes out most meddlers. This opens up the wide level designs a lot more, since most are structured to have measured masking spots, just for that very occasion. Finding the fine line of stealth can be time consuming, but it is a lot more titillating.
Further elaboration on assaults is handed out with special weaponry. Darts can make people go insane and turn against their brethren, while smoke bombs obscure the path just long enough to get away or attack. This is mostly handy when large swarms surround the scenery. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s serviceable.
Simplicity, however, is also the part that makes the mastodon of content remain appealing. There is something to do virtually anywhere, which also encourages freeform exploration. It’s perfectly possible to start with a set plan, only to divert into hours of side missions, each done with a few basic actions. Assassin contracts, collecting ancient keys, locating treasures around the globe, finding new shanties; a node for anything is bound to pop up nearby at any time. Auxiliary content becomes so immersive that anything surrounding it starts to drown in it. Story, what? Kenway, who? It’s hard to get invested in some fabrication when there’s an ancient Aztec mystery to be uncovered in seventeen locations.
Topping off the drive for content over design choices, all side events are partially connected to the main theme, so there’s none that feel too outlandish. There are no huge management schemes, no training sessions, fiddling around with tower defense games; just a ton of piracy to be done. Its pride and joy on that point are the naval battles done with Kenway’s ship, the Jackdaw. Anything moving on the waters may be assaulted, boarded and taken, which comes with easy to manage, yet tense dogfights between fleets. Looting also grants resources that can be used to amass coins for new weapons. Cargo can be used to sell or to improve the ship into a powerhouse. Animals can be skinned to craft better equipment. On top of just tons of activity, AC4 follows through with a sensible product to be made of it. It goes all the way to attacking forts and turning them to the Kenway cause. Total conquest is a possibility and that’s damned impressive. Even with just scraps of that, this adventure will last dozen of hours and none of it will get tired.
Similar feelings can’t be attributed to the multiplayer, which expands to add some cooperative modes with little to no drive. It’s possible to enhance characters with new skills and so on, but the core element of the game here is lost on just running up and murdering targets, over and over, in all modes. In theory, the suspenseful cat and mouse gameplay has the right idea. Hiding in the shadows, blending with the crowd and then seizing opportunities may sound like it’s entertaining, but this relies on a fragile ecosystem the online community can’t adhere to. Once one person starts running, it sets off a chain reaction where all players are just frantically sprinting and using the game’s exploits, which gets tired fast. There’s no reason to participate in this part of the game when the main event is such a huge parade. It’s there for those who want it though; there’s nothing inherently wrong with the technically working design.
Join the carnival of death that is multiplayer.
It’s hard to wrap around all the elements Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag possesses. Despite a nonsensical story and flawed multiplayer, the sheer vastness of its connected content drowns out any discrepancy. There is a vice for every whim only a few paces away at any time in the game and that in a multitude of ways. It reaches such extents that this can be fully detached from any other elements that would make the game seem less interesting than the entertainment masterpiece it is now. Don’t witness the game; play the game. Live free of rules. It’s a pirate’s life.