Assassin’s Creed 4 is an unusual change from the series’ original premise, which has remained largely unaltered since the first game, which most focused on the exploration of urban environments in various large towns and cities throughout history. We saw some gameplay elements added with Assassin’s Creed 3 that I don’t think anyone really saw as mechanics that could be used as a base for a full release. Exploring the Frontier was interesting as Ubisoft’s first attempt at giving players a more varied open world to explore, but the lack of “things to do” in that play space caused it to fall flat. The game also saw hunting included in the series for the first time, as well as the ability to take the helm of your very own ship, the Aquila, to complete various naval missions that most involved destroying other ships. Then Ubisoft announced Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag, along with imagery and information promising a truly open world experience for the first time in an Assassin’s Creed game, as well as plenty of other gameplay elements that were once again completely new to the series. One thing was certain… this wouldn’t be a typical Assassin’s Creed release.
Assassin’s Creed 4 has you playing the part of a swashbuckling pirate named Edward Kenway. Fans of the series will recognize him as Haytham Kenways’ father, Haytham being the father of Connor in Assassin’s Creed 3. This places Assassin’s Creed 4 chronologically before Assassin’s Creed 3 and the Revolutionary War, during the so-called “Golden Age of Pirates”. I honestly have no idea what “swashbuckling” means, but Edward is certainly a pirate, and has most of the personality quirks commonly associated with those who led such a lifestyle. Some dedicated fans of the series may be disappointed when they pick up their controllers expecting to begin a new adventure involving the bitter feud between the Templar Order and the Assassins, and find themselves playing a character who seems to care more about money than about stabbing Templars for the greater good. In fact, Edward isn’t associated with either order during the onset of the game, until a particular series of events points him toward the Governor of the city of Havana, who just happens to be a Templar with an offer of riches that Edward finds himself unwilling to refuse. The broader story arc of Templars vs Assassins is still present in the story, but it mostly boils down to the story of a man who wishes to make a life for himself as a pirate to support his wife back home. Ultimately, Edward is presented as the good guy and he does work with the Assassins when he can, but mostly to try and correct mistakes he made during the opening hours of the game, and never truly commits to the assassin ideology. The character of Edward Kenway isn’t motivated by a singular, horrible event like the previous heroes of the story have been. Altair was motivated by the stripping of his rank in the Assassin order, and found himself questioning his creed as he tried to restore his status. Ezio was motivated by an extreme act of betrayal, and the loss of his father and brothers. Connor was motivated by the impending doom that was looming over his people. These origin stories allowed the previous player characters to evolve throughout their stories and become better characters than who they started as. Edward, on the other hand, is motivated by money. One could argue that his desire to correct past mistakes broadens his character, but he never seems to grow much beyond his life as a pirate, and is quick to remind most of the other characters in the game that he wants to be paid if they ask him to do anything.
Other characters in the game steal the show away from Edward, however. Most of the major players during the golden age of pirates exist in the story. From Captain James Hornigold to Edward “Blackbeard” Teach. All of their voice actors are outstanding, especially the ones chosen for Blackbeard and Stede Bonnet. I found the struggle between the pirates trying to live freely, fighting against the Spanish and English for control of the West Indies to be far more interesting the series’ usual Templar vs Assassins overtones which felt more like subtext this time around. Most of the usual Assassin’s Creed flavor came in the form of the modern-day story, in which you play as yourself, having just accepted a job for Abstergo Entertainment, which is the branch of Abstergo focused on creating video games, books, and other forms of media with the intent of re-writing history and warping the perception of events to subtly brainwash the masses. Desmond is gone, though you can learn more about him by hacking computers around the Abstergo offices during the modern sections. These hacking minigames are mostly optional, but serve as a great way to expand the lore to the players who are keen on cramming as much backstory into their minds as they can. The hacking minigames are fun as a change of pace from the usual climbing/stabbing, but aren’t nearly as challenging as some of the puzzles in previous games. The framerate is also terribly choppy during the modern sequences, though this is likely due to playing the game on old hardware.
As usual, the world constructed by the wizards at Ubisoft is amazing to look at. Everything from the open ocean, to deep jungles, to the small fishing villages and larger cities are crafted with an amazing attention to detail. Characters are vibrant and memorable, and the world is one of the most visually appealing I’ve seen in the series to date. The soundtrack and ambiance coupled with the graphics bring the world to life. The music switches appropriately whether you’re sailing the sea, exploring Mayan ruins, or even besieging and enemy fort. Voice acting for all of the characters is convincing, and the sound design in everything from the sound of gulls near port, to the clang of cutlasses during combat, and even the eerie moans of whales while exploring underwater shipwrecks come together to create a wonderful audio-visual experience.
One of the biggest changes to the game is the open-world aspect of sailing the open oceans and discovering various islands to explore. Most of the island dotted around the map are small and include a few collectibles or treasure chest at most, but there are also a surprising amount of larger islands with small fishing villages bustling with life. Nearly every location has something to find or do. Whether it’s accepting an assassination contract that leads you to another island, attacking a fort which opens up even more side activities, harpooning whales and sharks, using the diving bell to search underwater wrecks for treasure, exploring Mayan ruins deep in island jungles, hunting various animals, preying on enemy ships, plundering warehouses, or just completing the next step in the adventure, it seems like there is always something to do. Even after 50 hours of gameplay, I hadn’t completed 100% of the game. The best part of all of this is that with the exception of a few main towns/cities, you can visit any of these locations without loading them first, by simply anchoring your ship wherever you wish and throwing yourself overboard.
Many of the old gameplay elements still exist. Climbing, free-running, and exploring still work the same as they did before, though they feel a little sloppy to me. I had some trouble with Edward falling from large heights for no reason, or jumping in a completely different direction than I told him to. These moments were relatively rare, however. Edward is just as capable as any of the previous assassins in combat, choosing to wield two cutlasses as his signature weapons, though the dual hidden blades are still present and just as deadly as before. Rope darts make a return (though surprisingly late in the game), as well as flintlock pistols. Throwing knives are back, though you can only carry one at a time and acquire them by disarming fast enemies. One of the most interesting additions is the blowgun which fires two different types of darts. The first is a sleep dart, which allows you to temporarily disable rooftop sentries or stronger enemies until you can deal with them later. The other is a poison dart, which works much like the poison darts from Ezio’s adventures, only instead of causing the target to flail around until they die, it enrages them, causing them to attack anyone nearby until the poison either kills them, or they’re slain by another enemy. This can arguably make the game very easy, as the blowgun has a pretty significant effective range, and you can poison a target and guarantee their death as you walk away from the area undetected. I mostly used it to distract groups of guards, however, as starting a large enough battle causes many guards in an area to investigate the disturbance. If I have one complaint about the combat, it’s that the camera seems to be much close to the action than it was in previous games, preventing you from ever really being able to survey the situation you’re in, and causing you to be attacked from off-screen surprisingly often. Why they chose to restrict you from pulling the camera out a little further is beyond me.
The most obvious upgrades to the gameplay involve the naval exploration and combat, however. The Jackdaw is a very capable ship, controlling much like the Aquila from Assassin’s Creed 3, albeit with an upgraded arsenal. The Jackdaw is equipped with mortars for massive, long-range damage which is very helpful against forts and larger ships. The forward-facing chase cannons are the only ones that fire chain shot this time, and they have a “stun” effect on all ships, slowing them down if they’re too fast, or simply making it impossible for them to avoid a square hit from your ram for massive damage. One of the biggest changes is the fact that you can now disable any ship (with the exception of Legendary ships and gunboats) and board them, stealing their cargo and then either destroying them, or adding them to your fleet, which can then be used to complete missions that are not unlock the assassins missions from Brotherhood and Revelations. When you board a ship, you obtain all of the cargo from that ship, which is usually an assortment of salable goods like rum and sugar, or items like cloth, wood, and metal which are used to upgrade the Jackdaw. You’ll also gain a few crew members, which help you board ships, so keeping their numbers high is a must. Attacking ships does have a price, however. The traditional notoriety mechanics of guards spotting your character more easily if you have high notoriety is gone, instead replaced by your notoriety as a pirate vessel. Attacking enough ships without lowering your notoriety will cause pirate hunters to harass you as you travel. The hunter ships will chase you until you outrun them or destroy them, but are little more than a nuisance after spending enough time upgrading the Jackdaw.
Other new features include whaling, which is one of my favorite activities in the game, in which you lead a small group of men in a harpoon boat, throwing spears are sharks and whales as they drag the boat along. These sequences are intense, and a few of them are quite difficult if you don’t have all of your whaling upgrades. The diving bells allows you to explore sunken ships and inlets, and the underwater sections are completely new to the series. Swimming below the surface of the sea is tense as you race against time to find sunken treasure and other collectibles before running out of air. Barrels of air can be found, but are a one-time use and limited. Jellyfish, Eels, and Seas Urchins serve to punish players for swimming to close, but the most dangerous foe are the sharks, which are obviously faster than Edward under water, and can be difficult to avoid. They become especially annoying when you realize there’s really no way at all to keep from being attacked by them. If they see you, they’ll follow you until attacking, at which point taking damage is unavoidable. You can hide in patches of seaweed, but these tend to be sparse and far enough away from your objectives that they become nearly useless.
Multiplayer remains largely unchanged from previous installments. The game revolves around stalking other players and trying to score more points per kill than they do. Winning games grants you XP which can be used to unlock new abilities that make you more of a force to be reckoned with during the matches. Ubisoft has taken more steps to improve the gameplay and convince other players to avoid being detected and play stealthily by increasing the points for attempting to stun them and decreasing the points for sloppy kills, but it still doesn’t seem to be enough, as many players seem to prefer several 200 points kills over one or two kills worth big points. The upgrade system also serves to create a huge gap between veteran players and the initiates, as players who have played the game longer than others inevitably have a larger selection of better tools at their disposal than their targets and pursuers. This wouldn’t be as much of a problem if it weren’t so common seeing lobbies full of players ranging from level 1 to 50 and everything in between. In truth, I’m not a huge fan of the multiplayer in Assassin’s Creed. I think the concept is decent, but there doesn’t seem to be all that much incentive for players to perform well in the game. One aspect I do like, however, is the co-op Wolfpack mode, which has been updated for Black Flag and can provide some great experiences when played with friends.
Overall, this is my favorite entry in the series since Brotherhood. Even with all of the problems and annoyances, such as the sometimes sloppy climbing, and the claustrophobic combat camera. The game is also full of many of the annoying missions, such as tailing various targets, and eavesdropping on their conversations. I can even forgive the annoyingly effective sharks in the underwater sequences and the lackluster story. There is just so much content that is amazing that I can’t fault the game too much for getting some things wrong when it does so much of it right. If you want a game with nothing but city exploration and don’t want to pilot a ship, this may not be the Assassin’s Creed for you. But if you’re open to a bit of a change of pace and want to sail open waters, and prey on ships, and search for buried treasure, and have poor hygiene, and harpoon whales, and yell “ARR!” a lot, and become a devil of the sea… this is the game for you.
A great dynamic soundtrack that changes to match the area you’re currently exploring really sets the mood. Voice acting decent for Edward, but he’s surprisingly forgettable and other talent steals the show.
Surprisingly detailed on current-generation consoles, but the framerate suffers for it, especially during the present day sequences. some of the busier cities are also plagued with character pop-in issues, which can be annoying when you run headlong into a group of guards that literally materialize out of thin air. Next-gen and PC look exceptional, however.
An unfortunately boring story is presented here, which is surprising for the series. Most of the characters don’t seem to care much about the outcome of their own conflicts. Even the series’ trademark after-assassination conversations with your dying targets feel oddly disconnected from the larger premise of the main story arc.
Additions to the naval combat and the ability to board almost any ship you wish makes exploring the open oceans more enjoyable than the naval missions in Assassin’s Creed 3. The climbing still feels strangely sloppy as it did in the third game though. Combat would be better if the camera weren’t so close, making it difficult to react to some enemies who may be lining up a shot or readying an attack off-screen.
Even with the uneventful story, sometimes sloppy climbing, and a few combat issues, Assassin’s Creed 4 is my favorite installment in the series since Brotherhood. The open world exploration, advancements in naval combat, and the wealth of things to do in the world are a nice change of pace from previous games, even if there are still too many “tail this person” missions.