Reminder: Assassin's Creed IV Is Great

Reminder: Assassin's Creed IV Is Great

I've been playing a lot of Assassin's Creed lately. First Unity then Rogue, I've since moved onto (or returned to) Assassin's Creed IV, and playing all three in quick succession has reminded me of one thing: Black Flag is a very good video game, better than most people gave it credit for when it was first released.

I mean, yes, it was good. It reviewed well, it was a lot better than Assassin's Creed III, and indeed it still sits on our Bests lists for both Xbox One and PS4. It's not like we're talking about some underrated cult hit here.

But I feel like when everyone played it late in 2013, they played it as Assassin's Creed IV, the latest instalment in a singleplayer series where you control a single character through their struggles against the Templars. And by focusing on that, maybe didn't appreciate how good the rest of the game was.

There are actually two games inside Assassin's Creed IV. On occasions they come together, but for the most part they stand apart, symbols of a divide in not just game design, but also player enjoyment.

One stars a man called Edward and traps you inside a janky on-foot adventure, with a storyline that's falling apart and missions designed to bring out the worst in Assassin's Creed's heavy and ageing control scheme.

The other stars a boat called the Jackdaw, and is just the best.

Assassin's Creed IV's marketing and design may have led you to believe one of them (the Jackdaw's half) exists only to serve the other. That it's simply a collection of sidequests, peripheral diversions from Edward's big quest, but that's simply not the case. If you played Black Flag like that, treating your own private pirate ship as nothing more than a travel device and upgrade accessory, I feel bad for you son.

Reminder: Assassin's Creed IV Is Great

Because you missed out on the real game. The one that was fun, and free, and which even on a second playthrough sits there fresh and waiting to be explored and enjoyed as though you'd never played Black Flag before in your life.

Where ACIV's Assassin campaign was — a few naval missions aside — a fairly predictable collection of kinda-busted-assassination missions and entirely-terrible-trail objectives, set pieces designed to be completed sequentially in very video game fashion, Black Flag's high seas and open world leave the player free to jump behind a wheel and do, well, whatever they feel like doing that day.

You can explore uncharted islands. Fight, whether on sea or on land (the assassination contracts outside the main story are shorter, more open and enjoyable than most of the campaign's). Trade goods. Go fishing for giant sharks. Air assassinate more ocelots. Craft stuff. Blow up forts. Track down rogue ships. Control an entire fleet, and send them around the world.

There are even, in the game's four legendary ships, a form of final boss, something to aim for (instead of the singleplayer campaign) as you sink ships and loot coin in pursuit of stronger hulls and bigger cannons.

Reminder: Assassin's Creed IV Is Great

Assassin's Creed games have long been bursting at the seams with extra content, especially of late, but rarely have I ever delved too deeply into it, even when it was as numerous as Assassin's Creed III's, because it often felt rudimentary, a laundry list of errands laid out like some completionists chore.

So what makes Black Flag's different? What transforms a supposed diversion into the highlight of the game? There are two things. The first is that, in terms of design, it's able to exist and stand as its own game. There are systems and locations and battles here that all relate and co-exist as though there wasn't a narrative campaign at all. In every other AC game, even Unity (which should have known better), anything not marked as a campaign mission feels and plays like something lesser, existing on the side. The game's map screen is explicitly saying sure, you could do this little thing, but your main objective is actually this thing over here, now get back to work.

Reminder: Assassin's Creed IV Is Great

The second is that, well, pirates are fun. And the world they're living in is, in many places, simply breath-taking. When you enter the world of any other Assassin's Creed game (Rogue excepted), you're usually confronted with what looks like a city. Only, it's not really a city. It's a box you're trapped in, built by designers, and any sense of place you develop is quickly lost amidst the tedium and repetition of walking, climbing and running over rooftops that exist only to hide collectibles and serve as pathways for campaign missions.

Assassin's Creed IV, it's deceptively boring tutorials/intro and occasional port town mission aside, is by contrast liberating. Its open seas are the antithesis of cramped streets, and once you're able to point in the direction of an objective and move in a straight line, instead of clambering up and down buildings like a slow and slightly broken money, being thrust back into urban environments (in this or other games) feels like being put back into a straitjacket.

It helps, of course, that it's not just an open world, but one that's rich in detail, and character, and the kind of little touches that separate the good games from the ones that burn their way into your consciousness and leave a lasting impression.

Reminder: Assassin's Creed IV Is Great

The most important of these touches are the game's sea shanties, which while being a bit of a stretch historically, do more to drown you in the world of pirates and the Spanish Main than any number of polygons or lines of dialogue could ever manage. Even 18 months on from the game's release, I still find myself listening to them just for the hell of it (made handy by the fact many of them were rounded up and released on two sea shanty soundtracks).

But there are so many more of these flourishes, examples of going the extra mile, whether they be visual (the crystal-clear shallows might be the most inviting in all of video games), narrative (Black Flag's cast of ensemble characters are some of the most memorable and interesting of the series) or, once again, musical (the pub songs, while playing second fiddle to the shanties, are still wonderfully immersive.).

And then there's the end! Hoo boy. SPOILERS AHEAD.

For much of the game, Black Flag's story is the usual stuff we expect from an Assassin's Creed plot: enough characters to confuse, not enough exposition to allow a full understanding, and constant intrusions from a modern-day sub-game that mercifully died a death in Unity. But one aspect we do stay on top of throughout is the battle between Edward the pirate and Edward the husband, told through a series of flashbacks that illustrate his increasingly estranged relationship with his wife back in Wales.

At the very end of the game, we're led to believe we're getting to see an in-game resolution to this! Edward has reveived a letter, and his lady is on her way, and can't wait to see her man. Edward, flush with victory over the singleplayer campaign, waits at the docks, only to find that instead of meeting his wife, he's meeting a daughter he never knew he had. Oh, and his wife's also dead.

It's a punch in the guts, one rarely delivered with such heft by a blockbuster video game, and I'm not ashamed to admit that the first time I saw Edward and his daughter on the deck of the Jackdaw, a father scrambling to come to grips with a child he has never known but must now care for, I teared up, just a little. For a series that has usually only been able to switch between tones marked "stone-faced heroism" or "sexy japes", it was a deft shot at something a little heavier.

Reminder: Assassin's Creed IV Is Great

There's a sense of sadness whenever I talk about how good Assassin's Creed IV is, because every memorable moment doesn't just remind me of the game's quality, but of how it appears to have almost killed Assassin's Creed for many people, myself included.

Fans of the series will be the first to admit that these are games you both love and tolerate. Few other blockbuster franchises have as many obvious and glaring problems as Assassin's Creed games, from their pacing to their controls, and yet the series' brute strength in other areas, like visuals and world-building, helps (usually) drag them every year to critical acclaim and big sales.

Assassin's Creed IV freed us from this. It gave us a game with the same old problems, yes, but also built an entire other game alongside it, the latter of which is the one most people bring up when talking about their favourite parts for what is many their favourite game in the series.

Black Flag gave us freedom no other Assassin's Creed game before or since has managed, and I think Ubisoft's retreat from its formula to a more traditional setting is part of the reason folks were so down on Unity. You can't let people sail around on a rad pirate ship for a year then drop them back in a city, making them walk/get stuck on fences everywhere, and not expect them to feel like they're missing something.

Because they remember. They remember the thrill of swinging on a rope to board an enemy ship, pistols strapped to their chests. The wonder of diving to the bottom of the sea and searching for treasure, the sun shimmering through the waves above them. Or, as I recall most fondly, how beautiful it was to simply sail over a calm sea at midnight, a full moon overhead, while your crew sings the melancholy "Lowlands" while they work.

Basically, they remember the stuff that wasn't Assassin's Creed at all.

Reminder: Assassin's Creed IV Is Great

My hope for the future is that, if Ubisoft could find the manpower to develop Rogue alongside Unity, then they can once again scrape together a team to continue working with their naval tech.

Only leave the Assassin's Creed stuff behind. Start a spinoff (or even unrelated) series using the same trade/explore/fight premise — which really, isn't much different from other fully-fleshed games like Elite and Sid Meier's Pirates! — for those of us who loved Black Flag for its sailing, not its tailing.

They could even re-use the same map, and I wouldn't care. I mean, I'm just putting this out there, but Blackbeard was a cool guy...

Reminder: Assassin's Creed IV Is Great


    This is gonna sound stupid to most people, but I preferred the Pirates of the Caribbean toy box from Disney Infinity.

    I liked the boaty bits, but the disgusting hud-centric view, stiff movement with clumsy double functions, hideous face tech, unlikeable characters, and often tedious gameplay held it back a bit.

    Ubisoft should stick to boat games.

    this game really was amazing. I thought the AC series died a long time ago but this..... i mean who doesn't want to be a pirate?

    Has anyone played the Port Royal games? If so, then good. If not, then think of a trading sim style game set in the Carabieen. Now, take all we know about it, and put that in the AC4 engine, with all the good stuff in, and make one of the BEST GOD DAM BOAT TRADING GAMES EVER FOR FUCKS SAKE!

    Is it really just me that preferred 3 to 4?
    I feel like 3 at least had a story. 4's story was pretty atrocious.
    Naval gameplay was definitely better in 4 though.

    I did play 4 on ps3, perhaps it was a better experience on ps4?

      The article mentions that AC4 had a terrible story. But if you just play it as "Sid Meier's Real-Time Pirates!" then it's awesome.

      I spent hours playing AC4 before I decided that I should finish off the story, only to discover that I was only about 30% of the way through and I'd already played all the fun bits.

        Also, "OK, you're finally up to the story mission which serves as a tutorial for the things you've already mastered completely."

      I found the protagonist in 4 a lot more interesting than in 3, which made it more enjoyable to me. I also liked that AC4's story didn't follow the formula of the previous games, instead having you play the majority of the game as an outsider to the secret conflict.

      And while I liked the sailing aspects of AC4, I also liked the city parts of previous games. The problem was that the cities of AC3 were pretty boring. While the cities from the previous games felt like they'd been built up over decades/centuries, the AC3 cities felt new and orderly. That might be historically accurate, but it certainly wasn't as fun to play.

        Yeah, I guess I can see that. I can certainly agree that the cities in 3 were boring!
        I really miss the present day supernatural mystery though. Haven't played unity yet, so not sure if it is revived in that one or not.

          In a way the present day story from AC4 mirrored the past story in that you played as an outsider to the conflict, trying to find out what is going on. I agree that it would have been nice if something actually happened though: it seemed to be saying "Remember that thing that happened at the end of AC3? Well it is still happening".

          I haven't yet played Unity either, but from what I hear even less happens in the present day story.

      I was annoyed by III's story - it was like "here's all these historical events, and Connor was at every single one of them!".

      It didn't help that he was wetter than a drowned fish, really.

      3 had better melee combat and climbing. Granted 4 had the same systems but removed the rock climbing and combat had less options and the double combo kills were almost impossible to pull off after being fairly easy in 3.

    Was late to play this, so am half way through it at the moment, and couldn't agree more. Probably my favorite AC game so far, although have still yet to play unity

    To me the style of gameplay and the controls just leans better to playing as a pirate than playing as an assassin. Being an assassin shouldn't be about running through streets in plain sight and then horribly trying to run up unclimbable walls because the controls says you can't run up there. I know that's not the main point made in this article, but I feel that it's one point that doesn't get picked up on enough.

    But yeah, the sailing and the freedom that you have, that was, and still is, amazing just to cruise around, take on whatever ships you feel like, go to random islands and start exploring them, it's a proper open world game

      Definitely. The controls lent themselves better toward open combat than stealthy assassination, which definitely fits the 'pirate' theme better than the sneaky assassin theme.

    The only good thing about AC4 was the sailing, the rest was horrid, buggy & frustrating as fuck -especially the bloody stalking missions & contextual controls (oh, you want to carefully drop down, so let's jump forward or get you stuck, thus failing the mission for you).

    This game DESERVES the love-letter here.
    AC4 was the first game I ever 100%'d on PS3. The only one I could ever be bothered to explore to completion. I completely immersed myself in it because it was just SO DAMN MUCH FUN.

    I bought it a while ago on the PS4 when it was cheap, meaning to just compare the graphics, an experimental 'gimme' that I didn't mind extra bucks going to Ubi for something I've already played to death because they deserve it for that one...

    And now I'm going to 100% it again. Years later, I'm still utterly enthralled by it.
    (And yes, Lowlands Away is the best shanty.)

    I don't think AC4 was hurt by its addition of the 'Assassins' quest line. Edward was a great character, I loved his development. Knowing his gallivanting about with the vague 'I'll return to my wife, a rich man' goal was just a comforting lie told to avoid confronting the lonely and shameful reality. It stung. His comments about Kidd 'having a way of pricking at my conscience that gives me pause'. No lofty idealism here, just a man looking out for him and his... with a troubling growth of conscience. The on-foot stuff gave us a vehicle to better explore that character. And the fantastic supporting cast. Frankly, I'd have wanted to see even more of them - even if it was only in briefings and debriefings.

    Also, having the island-crawling on-foot mechanics served as a break from the ship-faring. Stay out at sea for too long without it and the simplicity of the mechanics becomes too present, too glaring to gloss over. They grate, on their own. On-foot missions were the vegetables to the sailing meat of the AC4 meal. I agree with the author that the less talky/finicky/tailing bit pieces were infinitely more enjoyable than the more tightly-directed/scripted sequences, though.

    Last edited 22/04/15 11:01 am

    I loved playing this game but the saved game bug killed it for me. I sunk 2 x 30hours into it only to have the save game corrupt with no way to recover. I gave up after that :(

    I never really liked the AC games but I loved AC4 and it was the first one I ever completed.

    If they took out the assassins creed style missions like following people in stealth or the stupid working at google bits then it would be perfect.

      Your username suggests there was a strong possibility you liked this game :P

      i think you probably liked it because it didn't really feel like an AC game.

    I actually really disliked ACIV. I much preferred Unity.
    The storyline in ACIV was garbage, and I never felt that Edward even cared about his wife. He just up and abandoned her. And I was pretty sure early on that she was already dead/going to die.

    I found sailing around and exploring the world really tedious. Not to mention most of the missions involving the Jackdaw had broken mechanics. Also, why the hell couldn't I use one of the captured ships instead of that piece of crap brig?

    ACIV is the only AC game that I haven't actually finished 100% (not counting crappy DLC).

    My only complaint about the sailing was that there were bloody ships EVERYWHERE. Would have been nice to have the seas slightly less densely populated. As it was, it was like shooting fish in a barrel. I remember going after the legendary ships, Now that was intense. The sea where they were located was devoid of other ships, and suddenly you'd see them and then holy crap you were in a fight for your life! Good times...

      The prize for beating the legendary ships was a bit strange too. "Here's a manoeuvre that will make you more effective in battling other ships. It's too bad there are no more difficult ships to battle though, since you just beat all the legendary ships".

    AC4 was a great game to play. The only issue that stopped it being the best in the franchise was the horrible story. Instead of starting with an assassin, we were given some guy masquerading as one who didn't really have a set goal until towards the end of the game. Also, while the present day scenario was intriguing in the way it was presented, the payoff at the end was extremely lackluster compared to other entries.

    Brilliant Game. Great Article. But dear gods was that hard to read? Can we please have less gifs? Can we please have at least a page between one gif and another. At no point was my screen not showing at least one moving image. I couldn't read without the moving distracting me.

    Hell, even longer gifs would be alright. Maybe do gifs that are, say, 10-15 seconds? The loop of 3 seconds or less is really *really* hard to read through

    Still looking for Havanah 2 hours in ruined the game for me

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