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20/20: Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag is the Best of the Series

/ Nov 18th, 2014 3 Comments

Assassins Creed Black Flag

This is awkward. Really, it is. Even the most optimistic of us can’t deny reality and fact, try as we might. The fact is Ubisoft’s grand evolution in its popular Assassin’s Creed series — which was supposed to culminate in Assassin’s Creed: Unity — is not quite so grand and not much of an evolution. It is not a bad game in spite of its performance issues, but it just isn’t Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag.

Despite its huge popularity and regard, the Assassin’s Creed series’ track record is full of turbulence, often unable to deliver on its overwhelming potential. From the franchise’s first game’s inability to coalesce great ideas into a cohesive game to Assassin’s Creed III being a thoroughly unpleasant experience. For every step forward (Assassin’s Creed II), there are two steps back. The series has more misses than hits.

Assassin’s Creed III left a sour taste in people’s mouths, which is why the expectations for Black Flag were astronomically low. There was a sense of ambivalence to the game as it approached its release — not from the big game hype machine, but from the regular folks. If not for new consoles launching and the lack of selection, many might have outright ignored the game.

It must have been kismet. The context surrounding Black Flag caused the game to be a pleasant surprise. Taking control of Edward Kenway as he sailed the open seas turned opinions from, “Ugh not another Assassin’s Creed game” to “Oh that is an Assassin’s Creed game.”

Don’t Want to be Part of Any Club That Would Have Me

Story and character are central to the Assassin’s Creed series, but this is not always to the series’ benefits. Some of the yarns it tries to spin are torturous, and it only gets worse when the stories follow cardboard protagonists. Even Ezio’s first outing was not all honey and wine. Yet for the vast majority of it, Edward Kenway’s story is highly compelling and touching.

What makes Edward such a fascinating protagonist is how atypical he is in context of the series. Most of the previous protagonists in the series have been willing initiates of the Assassin Brotherhood, and their underlying motives are shades of revenge, which makes the order appealing. Edward is not so much motivated by revenge as the desire for riches, so he is not fit to be an Assassin. While moved by a largely trivial motive, it is this motive that makes Kenway’s character arc rich.

Edward Kenway used to be a privateer in the British Royal Navy until peace put his way of life to an end. With a lack of viable options, he chooses to put his skills to better use. To satisfy his desire for riches and a better life, Edward Kenway turns to piracy. It is in this transition from citizen to pirate that Kenway gets tangled up in the world of Assassins and Templars.
 

Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag

Kenway’s relationship with the legendary Blackbeard is a joy to watch.

While firmly entangled in the affairs of the two orders, Edward is not content to join either. His only use for the Templars or Assassins is the pursuit of great riches. Using cunning and deception, Kenway discovers information about a great treasure from both orders, and the man who will lead him to it.

Kenway plans to make one big score out of this treasure, even if his selfish pursuit causes misery for everyone involved, including Kenway himself. In chasing this treasure, Kenway makes his true talents known as a pirate of great repute and gets deeply entrenched in the struggle to make a true pirate utopia.
 

Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag

Edward and Adéwalé are the coolest pirate bros.

As with all things we desire, the reality of the situation often disappoints. This is the case for Kenway as he finally lays eyes on his great treasure he has been searching for so long. It is the aftermath of this disappointment, Kenway turns from a selfish pirate out only for personal glory and coin to a man trying to make amends for all the ills he has caused.

It is not shocking that eventually Edward Kenway becomes an Assassin because it is an Assassin’s Creed game. However, it is the journey to that point that makes Black Flag such a joy. Unlike his predecessors (or successors, history is weird), Kenway does not follow blindly and it is only after much personal struggle and growth that he chooses to become part of the order.

Shark Week

Black Flag isn’t great only because of its captivating and entertaining story. It also takes the core Assassin’s Creed formula and crafts an immersive gameplay experience around it. The ability to set sail and explore the Caribbean feels freeing. Naval combat is a big highlight of the game. There is a slight learning curve to it, but going from struggling to sink a schooner to taking out giant frigates makes you feel a sense of accomplishment
 

Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag

We’re eating good, boys!

You can get lost for hours chasing down ships to plunder, finding forts to take over, searching for secrets on islands, and testing your mettle against legendary ships. There is nothing better than hunting the big underwater game, whether chasing down a great white or a humpback whale.

There is so much to do at sea, you may not touch the main story for a while (but you should because it is very good). Truthfully, you may not set foot on land for the majority of the game unless you need to do so. This is also because the land side quests are not as interesting as the seafaring gameplay.
 

Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag

These Assassin’s Creed: Unity bugs are crazy.

As good as some of the gameplay choices are here, Black Flag falls victim to the typical Assassin’s Creed mistakes. The game still has a reliance on terrible eavesdropping missions, and the stealth aspect is still annoying. Some of the free running controls lack precision, and despite adding some good additional weaponry, combat has some kinks. Some of these issues are fixed in Unity.

History Judges the Winners

As a series that deals heavily in history, it is only fair that time and distance can be the proper judge of the series as a whole (so far). Assassin’s Creed: Unity is a step back (and forward) for the series in many ways, but not the way you’d think. It is basically Assassin’s Creed II set during the French Revolution, which a few years ago might have been appealing.

However, we know what the series is capable of, and that is a game as good as Black Flag is. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is great for many reasons. It tells the story of a complicated man in Edward Kenway, features charming and complex side characters, and makes some achievements in gameplay for the series.

 

Kalvin Martinez

Kalvin Martinez

Senior Editor at Gaming Illustrated
Kalvin Martinez studied Creative Writing at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He writes reviews, prose and filthy limericks. While he is Orange County born, he now resides in Portland, OR. He is still wondering what it would be like to work at a real police department. Follow Kalvin on Twitter @freepartysubs
Kalvin Martinez

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  • John Q Publiq

    100% agree.

  • MaximumOvertroll

    clearly written by someone who has never played the AC series. I don’t know what Black Flag was supposed to be other than capitalizing old pirate fads but the story was a turd and pirate ship battles were just completely out of place for the series.

  • Ryan Bloom

    I love playing Assassin’s Creed but I think I’m just addicted to its potential to be so much more. I wish it would ditch some of its core gameplay that’s boring. Black Flag was by far the best series has offered and I think Ubisoft should spin it off into an entire pirates franchise.

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