Note: this blog has been migrated to Medium, with the articles here available to preserve permalinks. Please see this post at https://medium.com/@ianrbuck/assassin-s-creed-iv-review-6cc6e5fc18a9
When I finished with the disappointing Assassin's Creed III I vowed that the only thing that could get me to buy the next one is if they made it almost entirely naval battles. Looks like Ubisoft was listening. I'm very happy to say that Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag may be my favorite Assassin's Creed game of all time. It is certainly the one I have spent the most time playing, at almost 60 hours. It's competition is of course Assassin's Creed II, which had a great cast of characters and a story that spanned several decades. Black Flag's story is not as strong, but there are plenty of great characters and tons of open-world activities to entertain you in the meantime. It also doesn't hurt that pirates were one of my minor childhood obsessions.
The key to including side activities in a game is to make them enjoyable. Black Flag succeeds so well in that area that I focused most of my time plundering ships, taking over forts, and doing assassin contracts rather than advancing the story missions. This lead to several amusing moments where I played story missions clearly intended to teach me how to do a side activity (take over a fort, for example), only I had already done that activity several times on my own. Some side activities are better than others; attacking and boarding ships never really gets old, but I only hunted when I absolutely needed a particular pelt to craft a piece of equipment.
The downside to making an ambitious open-world game like this is that it may have been a little too much for the developers to handle. There were numerous times when my movement would be impeded by invisible obstacles, and there were occasional objects getting stuck inside walls. None of this was a game breaker, but it is something you notice. My favorite was in a scene where Blackbeard was being very menacing, very serious, and then a bug changed the tone of the whole scene.
If you play Black Flag simply for the story, you probably won't think it is an amazing game. It's biggest problem is that it lacks direction. It tried at the end to bring everything together with a fairly emotional scene in which Edward reflected on all the people he had lost on the way, but it didn't feel like enough. The real magic happens while you are just having fun sailing around, fighting royal convoys and pirate hunters, getting caught in storms, and listening to your crew sing sea shanties. Speaking of which, the soundtrack is once again wonderful, and it keeps getting stuck in my head while I am away from the game.
I have read a lot of people complaining about the modern-day story that the game advances every once in a while. I didn't mind, but I think that may have to do with my unique perspective: I'm a computer science student, and Abstergo Entertainment is somewhere I could totally see myself working at in a couple of years. I enjoyed just walking around looking at all the nice equipment they have.
Visually Black Flag is a beauty. My biggest complaint about Assassin's Creed III's graphics was the resolution of their textures, and that problem has definitely been fixed. I suspect that the new generation of consoles had to do with that.
Assassin's Creed is the only annual franchise that I have been able to get behind, and I think the key is variation. The unifying element is freerunning, but there have been many twists and additions to it that help keep each game feeling fresh. Couple that with the fact that there are many different settings for them to choose from, and I predict that this series will continue on for quite a while.
$60 is definitely a reasonable price for this game, and I also feel comfortable recommending it as a jumping-in point to the series for those of you who have missed out on it until now.
EDIT: you can now read my review of the Freedom Cry DLC.