Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag begins with a case of stolen identities, as the shipwrecked Edward Kenway murders a Templar and steals the man’s clothes (and name) in order to get home. The game does the same, too, building as it does on previous entries in the series in order to launch a pirate-themed franchise, but unlike Kenway, it often forgets its own creed, throwing a huge variety of missions at the player in the hopes that something will be pleasure to the player. There’s no denying that Black Flag is the prettiest entry to date in the series, especially on next-generation systems; if only it didn’t all feel so empty.
That said, Black Flag goes to great lengths to avoid repetition and largely succeeds, at least within the main content. Because the game takes place across a huge, sailable swath of the Caribbean, most missions take place in unique locales, rather than in various sectors of the same city. The swamps of Nassau are nothing like the slums of Kingston (or the military encampments of Port Royale across the bay), which in turn are wholly distinct from Great Inagua’s twisty jungle corridors and ruined Mayan temples. Moreover, expanding on the ship mechanics of Assassin’s Creed III, Black Flag offers clever nautical missions that eschew blasé combat for the stealthy navigation of bayous or the navigational challenges of a waterspout-filled tempest. Finally, the new diving sequences, while somewhat hampered by controls, are literally breathtaking, in that if you admire the vivid scenery for too long, Kenway is apt to drown or be eaten by a shark.
And yet, by the halfway mark of the game, things start to grow static, or as Kenway puts it: “I feel like I’m running errands, not living my life.” Blackbeard makes a tragic appearance, James Kidd and Mary Read are conflated into one character, and a whole bunch of other notable pirates show up to bluster about and check off the boxes of a traditional swashbuckling adventure: There’s a mutiny, an imprisonment, a marooning, a blockade, and so on. It’s difficult to keep the characters straight, and the plot advances so quickly that certain threads are simply abandoned, like Kenway’s attempts to turn Nassau into a pirate republic. Assassins and Templars show up from time to time, but it doesn’t mean anything. Even the modern framework for Black Flag, where you’re a playtester for Abstergo Entertainment, diving into Kenway’s memories, is filled with memos from co-workers who think that pirates and Precursors don’t really belong together.
As much as an improvement as Black Flag is over previous Assassin’s Creed titles, Ubisoft is using its audience to market-test certain ideas and mechanics. It feels odd and slightly insulting to be given the option to rate missions, as it implies that the designers still don’t know what works or, worse, that they want to better pander to gamers. More troubling is that certain fundamental mechanics—the free-running and the counter-based combat—are still almost identical to their original incarnations, which speaks to Ubisoft’s tendency to play it safe, even after six games. There’s also a lot of crass monetization: pillaging ships is so laborious (and repetitive) that it’s tempting to simply spend real-world currency to upgrade your ship. And while multiplayer is enjoyable, particularly the refined co-op Wolfpack mode and its synchronized kills, in-game earnings are so pitiable that you almost have to spend money to be competitive (i.e., to unlock the better skills).
The fact that Black Flag is a gratifying game despite all of its flaws only proves how chockablock of ideas it is. If you don’t like the sluggish harpoon mini-game, skip it; if naval combat is too repetitive, you can stick to standard on-land assassination missions. If the modern-day hacking puzzles are too frustrating (even though they’re essentially basic math puzzles and a remix of Frogger), you can largely bypass them and focus on whatever sort of pirating warms the cockles of your black heart. Heck, you can even download an app and take care of some of the more time-consuming tasks, such as maintaining a fleet of ships with which to raise a regular income, from your mobile phone.
In the end, while Ubisoft might not know what sort of game they want Black Flag to be, they’ve at least left it up to the player to make it the game they want it to be. Yo ho: For better or worse, that is the pirate’s way.