The Fishtank: My Favourite Games, Part XI: Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag

Gosh that’s a long title. And it has two sets of Roman numerals. That must mean it’s important.

Believe it or not, I was not a big fan of this back when I reviewed it properly. It was the least Assassin’s Creed-y game of the series to that point (and arguably still, depending your thoughts on Odyssey) and following on from Assassin’s Creed III, it had simultaneous high and low hopes to live up to: it of course had to be better than III, but it also was basically more of the same, acting as a direct prequel to that game.

Having long since sailed away from the trappings of the first few games, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag abandoned much of what tied the story of those early entries. For the first time, the modern story structure did not feature Desmond, with players instead taking the role of an unnamed Abstergo employee, Abstergo being a company that made video games and movies about the lives of real world historical people, based on the memories accessed by said unnamed employee. It was a bold flex by Ubisoft to essentially paint themselves as the largest threat to the modern world, masquerading as an entertainment company. Overall, it was a wacky concept, but the Assassin’s Creed games have never really been about realism.

Edward Kenway (voiced by Matt Ryan’s, TV’s Constantine) was a fantastic character, and the Kenway dynasty was the best family in the series (yes, better than Ezio, fite me). With the benefit of hindsight, it’s a shame that Edward/Haytham/Connor weren’t either all playable in one big game, or had a game to themselves each released chronologically, because the Kenway line could have been something really unique in the series. The Kenway Mansion even makes an appearance in the London based Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, and the Viking armour featured in the Black Flag spin-off, Rogue, would hint at what was to come in 2020’s Valhalla. I think Edward’s nonchalant nature to most of the Creed’s way in the world around him was the highlight, though: he starts the game by killing an injured Assassin to steal his clothes, and ends the game raising a family and watching a nice opera. What a man.

The gameplay, too, could not have been a larger departure from the previous entries. First of all, you don’t even play as an Assassin for the vast majority of the game. Edward Kenway, an Ezio-esque rapscallion no longer a playboy but a pirate, was a sailor by trade, explaining his climbing abilities. His natural swordsmanship was a perfect fit for the violent life of an Assassin’s Creed protagonist, and meant that you didn’t need a ‘how do I sword fight’ mission to kick things off. Though Edward did have pistols to use, they managed to avoid feeling too overpowered, as the pistols (up to four at a time) had to be reloaded, very slowly, between uses. Edwards’s pistols are significantly more satisfying than the snap of a bowstring, and compare this to the “Light Bows” in Origins, Odyssey and Valhalla, which were basically just reskinned machine guns.

Edward’s ship, the Jackdaw, was essentially the selling point of the game, following on from Assassin’s Creed III‘s best parts (its sailing segments) and is surely the only reason Odyssey would go on to have naval warfare of its own. I have come to strongly prefer the harsh cracks of cannon fire over the “thwips” of loosing arrows. The gameplay mechanic of boarding other ships was a very welcome part of the naval conflicts and sending Edward upwards to traverse the mast and crow’s nest to infiltrate the other ship was always fun. The resulting spoils could be used to upgrade your crew, or the Jackdaw itself, as well as customise various features of the ship. It’s not a deal breaker if it’s gone, but it’s always nice to have “your own” ship to sail.

The other characters, each based on real life pirates from the time, are among some of my favourite in all of gaming. Of course Blackbeard makes an appearance, as does his infamous ship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge in all her glory. But it was the pair of Anne Bonny and Mary Reed (secretly posing as James Kidd) that stole the show, along with Charles Vane, voiced by my personal favourite Ralph Ineson. Real life pirates Benjamin Hornigold and Woodes Rogers also make appearances in the story, acting as antagonists (so I had some feelings when they popped up in 2014’s TV series, Black Sails, let me tell you). Anyone who finishes the game and claims not to get a tear in their eye as Anne Bonny sings “The Parting Glass” is lying to themselves.

Maybe it’s just the passage of time that has endeared me to this game. I played it on Xbox 360 upon release, and then on Xbox One when it was a free game on Games With Gold. I still go back to it to just sail around the gorgeous locales, and listen to the shanties, and I regret not appreciating it for what it was: the Golden Age of pirates, and the Golden Age of Assassin’s Creed. For both of those things, it’s all downhill from here.

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