Black Flag was my last Assassin’s Creed game. After being burned badly by Assassin’s Creed III, I was put off by the fact the next game was veering off into a completely different direction for the series. Why was this pirate game being released as an Assassin’s Creed!? I was feeling rather alienated by this series I used to love, and resigned to being done with it. But of course, the praise got me too curious and I begrudgingly came around to the idea of it, buying the game a few months after release. “A pirate game actually sounds fun!” I was thinking, talking up the idea of firing cannons at my enemies before swinging onto their ships and clashing swords with their captain in an epic duel. This will be fun! ...but I didn’t like it. I honestly don’t know if I went in with an open mind or not, but I think the issue was that ACIII had exposed the flaws in the AC formula too clearly to me for me to enjoy another one, and ACIV was really just a typical AC game carried by the pirating side of things. But I didn’t like the pirate mechanics. Having played through Black Flag again, I still didn’t really like them, and I think that’s what gave me clarity regarding what I didn’t like about the game the first time. I was just burned out on the formula. It can happen to even the most dedicated of fans. I enjoyed my time with Black Flag on the second go around, but there’s no denying that it’s janky and messy. It’s the kind of game I’m able to appreciate having taken some time away from the franchise, and one that is really appealing at the moment. Being able to just chill in some pretty environments, ticking things off a checklist while never feeling too mentally taxed, is a welcome feeling when things have felt completely out of control for the past few months.
Black Flag (and a lot of Western open world games as a whole, let’s be real) is a game full of things, yet feels so empty. It wants to be so many things, yet ends up failing to deliver each one to the standards it deserves. It wants to be an emergent, systemic game while possessing no real systems to engage with. At the same time it wants to be a guided, cinematic game despite possessing no bombast nor fine-tuned scenarios. It’s enjoyable but I would hesitate to say it’s ‘great’. It’s messy and never quite reaches the heights you want it to, yet there’s something comforting about it. When I was climbing buildings to get a good view of the area, then leaping into a stack of hay, it felt good. I remembered how these games used to make me feel. I used to track down each and every viewpoint in a city before I did anything else, taking in the views and taking that exhilarating leap from a great height. That bird-like screeching as I fell into a haystack once more brought all those feelings rushing back. I distracted some guards by sending a group of dancers their way so I could sneak by and grab the rare manuscript they were protecting. It was nice, it was simple, it was like I’d never left. Things were the same. And so I kept playing. Oh. Things were the same.
I was doing all the same things I did in other games. I had somehow repressed the tailing missions from my mind. You know, the ones where you pretty much just follow someone around for a few minutes and if you get spotted you have to do it all again? Yeah, there’s plenty of those. This time you also have to tail SHIPS and I let out an ugly laugh when I remembered those missions. There’s action sequences where you’re just running in a straight line for a few minutes as things explode around you. Gripping stuff. The more open missions where you have to sneakily take out enemies on the way to your main target are more enjoyable. Yanking a guard off his feet into the haystack you're hiding in so you can kill him without his buddies noticing is still incredibly satisfying. But the weird thing about Assassin’s Creed as a stealth series is that there are so few stealth tools to actually make use of. They took an easy way out this time and made levels laden with plants and vegetation in which you can move through undetected. For a lot of the game, stealth is basically waiting in hiding spots for people to walk by so you can take them out. Eventually you get a few more options, but the one you really need is the ability to distract guards without alerting everyone with your presence. You need to be able to mix it up a bit and try to create your own paths rather than just relying on what's put there.
Through all of this I was running into one of the big issues with the series - the jank. Sometimes your character just won’t move where you want them to, or will completely fail to perform the stealthy takedown you’ve set up and get you spotted. Other times enemies might glitch off their paths and spot things they’re not meant to or completely fly off into the air after you successfully take them out, and land in plain sight. As a result, I ended up playing a lot more riskily and aggressively this time. It’s quite satisfying being able to charge through a fort and taking everybody out before they can raise the alarm. Sometimes you can be spotted without immediately failing or missing out on any bonuses, so you get into tense stand-offs where you need to very quickly take out certain enemies before your cover is completely blown.
The main draw of Black Flag for a lot of people was, naturally, the promise of being a pirate. It’s what eventually got me to cave into buying the game. Everyone has watched the Pirates of the Caribbean movies and thought “God, can you imagine playing a game like that?” But while this aspect of the game regularly evokes praise, I can’t help but feel ambivalent to it. The naval combat lacks something I can’t put my finger on. You’re just kinda sailing around in circles waiting for your weapon cooldowns to expire so you can fire at the enemy again. Then when you get their defences low enough everything comes to a standstill as you board their ship. I remember calling this out in a preview of a game and readers not receiving it well, but the boarding process feels so artificial. When I think of pirating I think of epic battles between ships firing at each other, while crew members swing from ship to ship and blast each other or lock swords in battles that are as showy as they are technical. But in Black Flag you:
Weaken a ship enough to open it to boarding. This makes it stop in place, halt its attacks, and glow with an aura that indicates you can board it
Get near enough to the ship that you can hold down the board button, initiating boarding mode. Everything around you basically just stops. You can be attacking a heavily armed fort that will then completely stop its assault on you while the boarding process happens
Wait for the ships to dock close enough to each other for you to jump across. Optionally, you can instead get on the swivel guns and potentially shoot the enemy crew from a distance
Swing or jump to the enemy ship. The swinging is really funny because a lot of the time you don’t actually reach the enemy ship and can’t perform the dramatic aerial kills you’re clearly meant to be able to do
Kill enemies and complete contrived objectives to win. Assassin’s Creed’s combat is so simple that instead of having epic swashbuckling duels you’re just waiting for the counter indicator to appear so you can swing your swords with nebulous stats around and kill everybody with cinematic instant-kills.
Don’t let the crew metre deplete. When I think of pirates I think of Pirates of the Caribbean, where just about every crewmember on the Black Pearl has a name and personality, and One Piece, where every crew member has a deep and personal backstory. In Black Flag, your crew is just a resource that determines how long you have to complete a boarding. You never build a connection with them at all (outside your Quartermaster), so losing any of them doesn’t have any impact unlike in games like XCOM. Even just giving them randomised names and appearances would go a long way, making you think “Oh no, I lost Michael!” instead of “I guess I’d better hurry up”
It’s just such a curated idea of a naval battle where you don’t have to do a lot and are never at much risk; you can just feel successful while pretty things play out. However, things really stood out in the ‘legendary ship’ battles you can take on in the endgame. These are massive ships unlike anything else in the game that will completely destroy you if you haven’t upgraded your ship. They also require completely different tactics, like needing to position yourself to avoid a ramming ship and ram them in return, or needing to hit a heavily armoured ship in its specific weakpoint. If there was more like that then I could forgive the dull boarding sequences as the battles themselves would at least be engaging.
“But Josh, didn’t you say you enjoyed this game? You’ve almost exclusively slagged it off!” Yeah… I mean, I completed the game 100%, I’m not going to say it’s bad. But it’s also a game that can be hard to praise because its flaws always get in the way right as it’s getting good. It’s one of those games I call “good enough”. Not bad enough for you to walk away from, but not impressive enough to sing its praises. It’s good enough to get through and enjoy. Sailing around from island to island while my crew sings sea shanties, gradually completing every mission and finding every collectable, was just really relaxing. The game is spread a bit thin across heaps of samey-looking islands that never build a sense of connection like the locations in previous games, sure. But it was nice soaking in that ambience and looking out into that beautiful blue sea and the lush green jungles. I still found myself digging into every nook and cranny to find collectables, even the ones that serve no purpose other than adding to your collectable tally. There’s so many things to find and do all over the place, there’s even a laughable story mission that only exists to point a bunch of these out to you. And yet a lot of these things just exist to justify the size of the world. There’s not a lot of substance to what you’re doing, but it’s engaging enough for you to keep pushing through it.
Black Flag’s story is an aspect I did appreciate a lot more on this playthrough. It starts off in quite a funny way - you’re not playing a character on either side of the Assassin/Templar conflict, you’re playing as an imposter. Pirate Edward Kenway comes under attack by an Assassin, whom he kills in retaliation. Finding a note on the corpse promising a high-paying job, Edward impersonates the dead Assassin and heads off to collect the prize. However, it turns out that this Assassin was actually selling out to the Templars and Edward finds himself in well over his head when they catch on to his ruse. Edward’s story is about avoiding his responsibility and wanting to live a free, but selfish, life and seeing his dreams fall around him by his own doing. He has a solid arc, certainly a lot more than some of the other games in the series. One of my favourite parts is a questline where you help out groups of Assassins you’ve endangered in exchange for special keys their Templar foes hold which lead to a rare treasure. At the time, I thought this questline was dumb because Edward wouldn’t bother with all this just for a few Macguffins, but this time around it was clear he was just using the treasure as an excuse to hide the fact he really did feel bad about selling them out, and wants to make amends.
My biggest complaint is that it tries telling a pirate story and an Assassin’s Creed story that are mostly separate from one another, with the result being that neither gets the attention it needs and the whole thing ends up feeling rushed. Characters you’ve barely spent any time with die or betray you and you’re meant to feel strongly about it, but you just can’t. They don’t mean much to you at all. There’s a whole sequence where you and a friend are marooned and you’re forced to put him down when he loses his mind and becomes dangerous, WHICH IS CONDENSED TO A SINGLE MISSION. It all takes place in a matter of minutes and is brushed off like it was nothing, it’s baffling. It’s only at the end of the game where Edward reflects back and realises he has nobody left and has put off joining the fight for too long that things start to get emotional (though of course it’s a woman dying that finally pushes him to make his choice). I actually felt sad this time when Edward goes off on his own to reunite with his family and sees all his dead friends toasting to him, because it's in that moment where you're able to look at the story as a whole and appreciate it. It's one of those stories that is good in of itself, but is told very poorly.
Black Flag continues the present day plot too! Well, I say ‘continues’, but that’s not strictly true. There’s more of it? You’re working for the entertainment sector of Abstergo in this one, which is a fun way to look at how Abstergo puts out propaganda to control people. You get a peek at what the Assassins have been up to since Desmond’s death in ACIII and it’s a bit melancholic until you remember how dumb that plotline got by the end. Things don’t really progress any further in this one either, you just discover the big bad Precursor who killed Desmond in ACIII is still planning her return. You don’t feel like the story’s working towards anything, and a god-like being is probably too big a threat for a game like this to properly handle. I have no idea how they’re meant to resolve this in future games and this one didn’t give an indication of how anyone will work towards stopping it.
Even now, Black Flag didn’t blow me away like the first two Assassin’s Creed games did at the time. It’s more about adding things to the formula rather than truly improving or building upon it. But having said that, I’m glad I came back to it as my return to the franchise. I feel like I’ve gotten a bit of closure from returning to a game I wrote-off and having a better time with it. It puts me in a better frame of mind to now venture into unexplored territory and play the games I’ve never touched before. It seems that having some distance from the series has increased my tolerance of its, uh… ‘quirks’, and allows me to appreciate the games more.