Assassin’s Creed III was a mixed bag. Bigger and more ambitious than anything in the series to that point, it largely failed to engage players with new protagonist Connor.
That shouldn’t be a problem for Black Flag, which jumps back in time to spotlight pirate Edward Kenway – Connor’s grandfather – whose roguish swagger and base motivations make him immediately more engaging. Propelled from a slovenly sailor’s life into the shadow war between Assassins and Templars, Kenway spends a good portion of the game unaffiliated with either faction, playing them against each other in his quest for easy riches before heeding a greater calling.
In the 21st century, the Templar’s modern face, Abstergo Entertainment, is poring through what’s left of previous hero Desmond Miles, mining his genetic memories for the location of a device of epoch-defining importance. Returning players will find a ton of Easter eggs here, from the ways Abstergo white-washes the series’ events to favour the Templars, to the return of supporting characters in surprising roles.
In both time periods, there are additions to the Assassin’s Creed formula, though rarely more than slight refinements. The present day sections adopt a first-person perspective, which bolsters the sense of immersion and mystery as you uncover the secrets of Abstergo. Playing as Kenway brings the usual mix of stealth and free-running, though melee combat is much improved, particularly against larger groups. Naval missions in Kenway’s ship, the Jackdaw, offer sharper controls and more satisfying nautical battles, far less frustrating than those of its predecessor. The multiplayer offerings also benefit from a once over, with the now-familiar hunter/prey modes joined by a particularly thrilling area domination one.
However, Black Flag feels oddly torn between appealing to newcomers and placating long-time fans. Kenway can take on assassination contracts, usually targeting Templars, long before he’s inducted into either faction or invested in their conflict. There’s a weird dichotomy between plot and mechanics throughout the game, making it feel schizophrenic in its progression, or at least forgetful. Basic gameplay elements – puzzle quests for Mayan relics, hunting and crafting, finding cargo at sea – are introduced long after players will have mastered them, something even newcomers to the series will find distracting.
Assassin’s Creed IV doesn’t so much rock the boat as shuffle the chairs on deck. It’s the same core experience, but better. A compelling lead, an interesting story, a vast and gorgeous world to explore – just no real surprises along the way.