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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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...