Assassin's Creed III was a worthy but inconsistent entry to the historical adventure series. It was so ambitious that the overall experience felt disjointed. From it's prolonged opening act, to it's linear mission structure, AC III seemed like it had far too many boots to fill. Despite this, Ubisoft managed to introduce some great elements. The hunting mechanic was one of them, allowing you to stalk and kill wildlife for resources. Naval Battles, however, where the main attraction. These provided scripted side quests, letting you helm your own ship. You could command a crew, and plunder enemy ships in intense sea battles.
With AC IV : Black Flag, Ubisoft really pushes the boat out. Not just with it's presentation, but with the amount of variety. This is the largest AC yet, with a surprisingly vast and diverse world. The Caribbean is filled with lots of side activities, and there's plenty of reasons given to you for exploring every nook and cranny. It's easy to forget the main story, and simply venture off into the unknown. Whether it's exploring an underwater wreckage for loot, demolishing a Fort with your ship's cannons, or simply dropping anchor and swimming to a tropical island. You create your own fun, and with it's less restrictive environment, exploring has never felt so gratifying.
Set in 1715, a time known as the "Golden Age of Piracy" a conflict is brewing between the Assassin's and Templar's. You take the role of Edward Kenway, a British privateer-turned pirate. Edward is the grandfather to Connor from AC III, but despite his relation, Edward is far less serious. He's a more charismatic character when compared to past protagonists. It brings a more light-hearted tone to the series, and it blends well with it's pirate-y theme. Edward is a true pirate, a ruthless, untrustworthy and greedy one at that. He simply want's a life of fortune, and will take anything that doesn't belong to him. Edward's quickly becomes raveled in the on-going conflict, but he only seems to help when it benefits himself. Living the rich life is always his main priority.
Your first introduced to Edward in an explosive Naval Battle. Your quickly thrown into action, with you taking the helm of Captain Edward's' ship. Your objective is simple, sink the enemy ships and survive at all costs. But Edward soon becomes shipwrecked, left washed up on shore a tropical island. From this moment, your given a small tutorial before let loose in it's open-world. It's obvious that Ubisoft listened to the criticism from AC III, as your no longer waiting hours upon end before given freedom to explore. Restricted paths are no longer a concern, which makes exploration far more engrossing than ever before.
Edward soon forms a crew and acquires a new ship, called the "Jackdaw". You can then sail the vast ocean at your own leisure. A lot of your time will be spent at sea, traveling to various ports, islands and Districts, etc. The ocean's scale can seem rather daunting when in map-view, but a fast-travel feature means your never required to traverse across the same stretches of water. However, sailing the sea is where most of the memorable and enthralling experiences lie. It could be from harpooning a giant whale, tackling the ship against an aggressive storm, wrestling with a shark, or simply diving into an underwater wreckage in search of loot.
The Naval Battles are the most spectacular events. They work much like they did in AC III, but are no longer scripted events. The ocean is filled with plenty of small and large ships for you to battle against. Simply viewing one through your spyglass gives you details on their strength and resources. Opening-fire on any ship is entirely up to you, and doing so can be a thrilling experience. Small ships can be easily sunk with one or two rounds of cannons. Yet, the larger ships can be far more challenging. There's a neat array of weapons, which you can purchase from collecting resources by plundering ships. You could increase the Hull's armour, improve the damage of your cannons, or even add a Mortar. It can be extremely addictive trying to improve your ship, and it makes challenging other ships so enticing.
Large ships are the most exciting to battle, mostly due to the ability to climb on board. Swinging to your foes burning ship, then assassinating the captain from above is an instant joy. It's these instances when your reminded it's very much an AC game, as much as a pirate one. Aerial assassination, stealth kills and free-running works seamlessly, but on slight occasions I found Edward hopping to a structure I didn't intend to. Combat is also fluid and responsive. It's pretty much unchanged from it's predecessors, with you given a standard and heavy attack, along with dodge and counter attacks. It's just as fun as it's ever been, and there's some nice pirate weaponry to spice things up, such as swords and duel-pistols.
Open-ended Assassination's make a welcoming return, which gives players more freedom in how they execute. Whether it's sneaking up behind your target, executing them discreetly with your hidden blade, luring them into a haystack , or simply dropping down from above. The environments are well designed, making it easy for you to accomplish your desired assassinations. There are, however, the return of eavesdropping missions, which require you to pursue targets, listening in on their conversations. These are the most uninteresting sections of the game. They are the weakest addition to the series, and it's surprising that they return in AC IV.
The Xbox One version provides some higher textures, moving foliage, along with a sharper draw distance, which can be seen for miles. The Xbox 360 version still looks impressive though, and it's one of this year's most attractive game, no matter which console you play it on. Both version, however, do show civilians fading into view at times, but it's nothing that occurs so frequently that it ruins the experience.
Along with single-player, also comes multiplayer. Online has been a big focus since it was first introduced in Brotherhood. In Black Flag, Ubisoft don't just add the same modes and provide new map designs. There's still your traditional modes, such as Manhunt and Wolfpack mode. Yet, the new Game Lab tool is what may have you returning. This allows you to personalize game modes to your taste. There's tons of options, such as the ability to choose what abilities can be performed. You can also change the score rewarded for kills, and much more. It's a great new addition, and one that keeps the multiplayer fresh.
AC : Black Flag is a great step up from it's predecessors. There's enough here to keep the series at an interesting level. The main highlight's are with it's large open world. Then there's the Naval Battles and a more enjoyable single-player offering than in AC III. Overall, this is one of the best, if not the best AC game yet. It's a refreshing entry, and certainly one of 2013's biggest highlights.
Reviewed on Xbox One