The Assassin's Creed excels at providing oodles of gameplay in every corner, and that holds true on the sea as well as inland. You'll still synchronize by climbing up tall structures to get a bird's eye view of the surrounding area. Most locations like towns or cities have dozens of collectibles to gather such as chests of gold or fluttering sheets of music that unlock new shanties when you grab them. Treasure maps and Mayan pillars both offer a visual puzzle for you to solve to find riches. Assassination contracts are available throughout the world, and these provide a short yet fun objective of sneaking into a guarded compound to take out a target. There's always some way to press the pleasure pedal in Black Flag.
The story missions are varied, and the series continues the trend of optional objectives like staying out of combat or performing specific assassinations which lets you play how you want. There are still a few missions that demand you to stay undetected or restrict you from killing enemies, and while these could be frustrating at times, the challenge was appreciated. Mission checkpointing is generally well-placed, but there were a few instances where you must replay large chunks if you fail. When those two occur simultaneously - restricted gameplay with poor checkpoints - Black Flag suffers, but it only happened on a handful of missions.
Crafting and upgrading has been streamlined, with Ubisoft taking a cue from Far Cry 3's simplicity. You can hunt animals such as howler monkeys or wild pigs for their parts, and a crafting menu will let you unlock extra ammunition storage, or more health. New to Black Flag, you can find areas on the open seas to harpoon aquatic animals like hammerhead sharks or humpback whales. It can be a fun activity to toss a harpoon, and be pulled along by the huge animals, but the blood in the water and the image of the hanging whale or shark you killed may make you pause. If you don't want to hunt, but still want to upgrade, you can purchase hunting ingredients at most shops in town for a hefty price. Upgrading your ship is also costly, and for the truly good stuff like extra hull shielding, you need resources like metal and cloth. The only way to obtain those is to take down ships, which in turn makes those upgrades even more valuable. It's a genius risk/reward loop, and you'll spend a lot of time in your captain's cabin lusting over more powerful cannons or mortar rounds.
Perhaps the most gratifying open world activity you can perform in Black Flag is taking over a coastal fortress. The major military powers in the region have forts which can shell passing pirate ships, and are generally jerks, especially if your wanted level is high from boarding innocent trading ships. You can take the power back by assaulting the forts, using mortar attacks for long range fire, or sailing nearby to use your broadside cannons. You have to be careful to avoid returning mortar fire, and there's always a powerful brig patrolling nearby. Once you destroy all the fort's defensive structures, you can lead a land assault on the base, take out the officers, and find the war room to assassinate the fort's commander. Raise the black flag, this stronghold is under pirate control now, and that unlocks a fast travel location, an officer you can bribe to reduce your wanted level, and new naval assassination missions. The fort location turns green on your map, and you have a visual on every location and collectible in the area. Some of the forts are easy to assault, while others have many more defensive mortars and whole fleets of ships protecting them, so it can be quite an undertaking. The whole epic sequence of taking over a fort really makes you feel like you've accomplished something important and impacted the world.
While Black Flag feels very much like an Assassin's Creed game, its gameplay reminds me more of Sid Meier's Pirates! wrought in glorious 3D. As in that classic game, you are free to sail wherever your heart desires, and be as dastardly or as benign as you like. Embodying Edward Kenway and living through his adventures on the seas, while also experiencing his struggle with Assassins and Templars alike, is pure escapist delight.
Bottom Line: Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag offers an excellently designed sandbox in the golden age of piracy.
This review was based on the PS3 version of the game.
Game: Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag
Genre: Action Adventure
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Platform(s): PC, PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, Wii U
Available from: Amazon(US), GameStop(US), Amazon(UK), Play.com(UK)
If you're interested in the Assasin's Creed universe, please check out Mike Kayatta's Pick Your Path feature, New World and don't forget to find out which Assassin's Creed protagonist you are by taking this personality quiz!