‘Black Flag’ is like a deep breath of fresh, salty sea air

Jon Mercer
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The mystery of Assassin’s Creed was finally cast into the light in the fall of 2012, when “Assassin’s Creed III” brought the tale of Desmond Miles, as told through the eyes of his hatchet man ancestors to a close.

A screengrab of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. — Submitted photo

There was a very brief, but noticeable groan when “Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag” was quickly announced after the release of the third, as gamers had grown cynical after no less than five main series iterations during the last console generation.

III’s Connor had been a marked step down in the quality of a protagonist from II’s Ezio Auditore, lacking his rapier wit and any sense of derring-do. However, despite any franchise fatigue gamers might have been anticipating, “Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag” is like a deep breath of fresh, salty sea air that pushes back the expected series tropes and brings promise of new adventure.

Roaring across a chain of islands in the Caribbean, “Black Flag” is the tale of Edward Kenway, a pirate who has a surplus of charm, but a dearth of scruples. In what can only be described as an 18th century equivalent of the “thug life” mindset, Edward sails a razor line between British and Spanish naval fleets in his quest for riches.

When he is marooned on a beach following a storm with one of the titular assassins, Kenway steals the man’s clothing and sets off for Havana to claim his prize and make some quick coin. This impulsive snatch and grab drags the salty dog into the eternal struggle between the valiant Assassins and the dictatorial Templars.

Already, the game had my full attention, as it avoided the stoicism that grounded Altiar’s and Connor’s stories, whilst not going for the clichéd revenge route that began Ezio’s tale. Edward doesn’t care one single iota for the clashing ideologies of either cause, seeking instead to play both sides against one another in search of a fabled First Civilization treasure he can profit from.

Within an hour or two, “Black Flag” has Kenway in possession of his very own ship, the Jackdaw, and players are set loose onto the seas to explore the life of a pirate. It’s a thoroughly engrossing tale — enough so that I was actually wishing it hadn’t been part of the Assassin’s Creed mythos, and the birth of a new franchise for Ubisoft.

And while “Black Flag” may gloss over the history books a little more than its predecessors (or perhaps, have less historical richness to draw from than, y’know, the Italian Renaissance), it doesn’t gloss over the sense of freedom allowed the vastness of the game’s map, though the game play remains lean and mean, despite its massive scope.

The Jackdaw can anchor off of any island, allowing Edward to explore on foot, taking in vistas, solving puzzles, hunting wild game, or searching for treasure. Out on the waves, the Jackdaw can do battle with other ships, plundering them for loot and supplies (which Edward must rescue from the sinking husks before the sea claims them).

If the Jackdaw’s wanted level gets too high, it can be lowered by destroying a few Privateers, or bribing officials back on land.

There are a staggering number of diversions in “Black Flag,” but unlike the admittedly bloated III, this game doesn’t play like it is in need of a cutting room. It’s just a huge world, ripe for the taking.

Ship upgrades, new weapons and armour, even something as simple as wanting to scale to the top of an ancient structure jutting out of the canopy of the jungle simply because it is there.

Assassin’s Creed has never been this much fun to play. The story was always enough to drive the game forward, but in this case, Ubisoft seems to have perfected its formula.

I could easily write a review more than three times the length I am allowed on everything that works in “Black Flag.” It is a game that begs to be played, and is a much needed high-profile release for both the PS4 and Xbox One. It is equally brilliant on PS3 and Xbox 360, losing a little of the graphical fidelity, but none of the flavourful game play.

I fully expected “Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag” to be a real three-legged dog for the series; however with much of the same roguish charm and catlike grace as its protagonist, the game deftly avoids the creaks and groans that come with growing long in the tooth, and makes the series’ stifling mechanics feel new and young once more.

The story is a mature tale, but with all the vim and vigour of a child’s adventure story.

I believe Christopher Columbus said it best: “And the sea will grant each man new hope, as sleep brings dreams of home.”

The bulk of Assassin’s Creed’s tale might have ended with III, but “Black Flag” proves that the series still has an impressive amount of wind in its sails.

Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Wii U, PC (PS4 and Xbox 360 versions reviewed)

Developer: Ubisoft Montreal

Publisher: Ubisoft

Release Date: Oct. 29, 2013

Rated: M for Mature.

Email Jon Mercer at thejonmercer@gmail.com.

Organizations: Italian Renaissance

Geographic location: Caribbean, Havana

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