Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is a smart sequel that places an emphasis on freedom and fun while trimming most of the fat that bogged down Assassin’s Creed III’s ambitious but uneven adventure. Ubisoft’s take on the Golden Age of Piracy begins in 1715, and is presented with a much-appreciated lighter tone that isn’t afraid to make fun of itself in the name of an entertaining journey. Sailing across the massive expanse of The Caribbean, exploring gorgeous and unique islands, and getting yourself into all sorts of trouble provide some of the most rewarding and memorable stretches of gameplay I’ve experienced all year. Even after putting in well over 50 hours, I’m still discovering new islands to explore and tombs to raid.
No matter which console you decide to play Black Flag on, you can rest easy knowing that it’s one of the best looking games of 2013. The current-gen versions build upon the already-gorgeous AC 3 by showcasing well-lit, tropical locales and the amazing water effects on the open seas. And on next gen, the experience is even more impressive thanks to minimal loading and maximum draw distances that seem to go on for miles. The way the camera zooms out when your ship reaches its maximum speed, the speakers bombard you with the sounds of the wind, and the sunset turns blood-orange, is simply amazing.
All versions of the game come with some form of off-screen support. The Wii U GamePad acts as a map that comes in handy when you're searching for a particularly hidden piece of treasure, or you can play Black Flag directly off of the screen on your controller. The other versions support Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed IV Companion App, a free download that lets you turn any tablet into a home for maps, an Animus database, and much more. There's a lot of information to digest in Black Flag, and being able to utilize a second screen instead of constantly bouncing in and out of menus helps keep you in the experience.
When you ignore the main mission prompt and simply set out in search of your own fun, Black Flag is at its best. It treats you like an adult, and allows you to explore its gorgeous and activity-filled world to your heart’s content. Want to discover every nook and cranny of Kingston’s sprawling expanse in search of Templar secrets? Or would you rather buy a small fishing boat and hunt for all manner of deadly sea creatures, using your spoils to upgrade your character? Maybe you just want to sail to a remote island, climb to the top of a mountain, and gaze in awe at the world around you. Black Flag is all about embracing freedom and carving your own path through the world.
Also back and better than ever is the series' signature feeling of momentum. It does a great job of marrying the vertical city-based traversal of Assassin’s Creed II with the energetic frontier movement of AC 3. That being said, Edward still occasionally disobeyed my commands by errantly jumping off rooftops and climbing up walls that I never wanted to scale in the first place, but those are minor nuisances. Also, the world’s vast scope invites a handful of hiccups. For instance, the body of a guard who’s holding a necessary key might disappear if you leave the area, meaning that you have to restart a mission. Black Flag is peppered with these sorts of annoyances, and though they certainly aren't deal-breakers, they had a tendency to pull me out of the experience a bit too often.
Death animations are relatively short and sweet, with a surprising lack of blood for a game centered around stabbing people. The restraint is admirable, and it makes combat more fun and less serious business slaughter than in recent years. Then again, Black Flag also tends to repeat some of the Assassin's Creed series’ favorite mistakes, like forcing you to tail a prospective victim at a safe distance for minutes on end while you’re given an exposition dump. It’s very annoying to spend 10 minutes listening to rarely memorable dialogue before I could make the kill.
While the main story is a bit of letdown, I was honestly shocked at how much I enjoyed my time spent outside of the Animus. These first-person missions are mostly optional, but surprisingly great. As a new Abstergo employee working to develop an entertainment product based on Edward’s life, you’ll quickly find yourself embroiled in a bit of corporate espionage that ultimately leads to you to discover all sorts of secrets that gleefully hint at the future of the series.
The amazing world of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag has kept me gladly occupied for longer than any other game in the series, even though its story isn’t the strongest. At no point in my dozens of hours was I ever at a loss for something to do. Simply sailing wherever the wind takes me and seeing what sort of trouble I can get into is a complete joy. Beyond the underwhelming main campaign, Black Flag delivers a world brimming with gorgeous places to go, amazing secrets to discover, and nefarious pirates to stab.