We approached the cliffside fort with trepidation. The Jackdaw was loaded the gunwhales with heavy shot, our mortars were ready, and the swivel guns had been tried and tested in many a battle. Still, this fort was much bigger than anything we’d tackled in the past. With nine separate defence structures, it would be a long and dangerous battle before we could even approach the shore.
The crew raised the sails and we charged in. 500m from the shore, I ordered Adewalé to loose the mortars and rain fire down on the fort. We drew close enough to for our cannons to reach and that’s when the heavens opened and rained hell down on us.
Everywhere we looked, typhoons roared and threatened to rip our brig apart. From the north-east, rogue waves came rolling in. Again and again we had to turn away from the fort and face these beasts head-on, or risk the crew being swept overboard. A nearby Royal Navy fleet were not so lucky and their sails were dashed to pieces. Fortunately for us, they were stranded out of the fort’s reach and gave us an opportunity to rest and repair the brig.
That is, if you count grappling a ship filled with enemies, and scrambling through the rigging in stormy seas while they try to kill you, as rest.
All the highlights of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag take place upon the Jackdaw and the Templars vs Assassins story takes a back seat to Edward Kenway’s tale of setting up a free republic where loyalty to man takes precedence over political ideology.
Ubisoft have built a great world filled with ships to plunder, forts to claim and islands to explore. It’s perhaps a little too filled, as you can barely go for a minute without running into a ship, a heavily-guarded fleet from the various Royal Navies, or a gunboat protecting one of the many restricted areas. Wouldn’t want gamers to get bored of that empty horizon, I suppose. Taking forts will sort out the restricted areas, as well as revealing the undiscovered locations in the region.
On the land, you’ll find the Assassin’s Creed familiar from the previous games. Thanks to his years of clambering around a ship’s rigging, Edward Kenway is quite at home scaling buildings and climbing trees. His hunting skills are less refined than those of his grandson from AC3. Rather than setting bait and hiding in bushes, you’ll just climb trees and shoot things from afar, or run down the creatures with swords brandished.
You can use animal skins to make new costumes and upgrades for Kenway, or simply sell them for cash. The merchants of the West Indies are not particular about the quality of their skins and will pay the same price no matter how clumsily you kill things. Should you find hunting and whaling a chore, you can just buy the components instead.
They cost a lot of money though, and it’s a hard life as a pirate. Instead of scuppering ships that you plunder, you can choose to add them to your fleet. As well as being a pirate, Kenway is himself a bit of a merchant sailor. In the game and through the companion app, you can assign your captured ships to trading missions, earning coin every few hours if a ship successfully reaches its destination. You’ll need to secure the routes beforehand by way of a minigame. It can get a bit tedious waiting for the battles to play out with little input but can be a useful way to make some cash in your downtime when away from your console.
Missions and sidequests themselves will be familiar as well, to the point of being a bit dull. There’s nothing on par with da Vinci’s flying machine here. On land you’ll be sneaking around plantations, trying to locate the guard with the key and unlock the warehouse without alerting too many guards. You’ll also tail guards, ducking out of sight as they turn abruptly for no reason whatsoever, or you’ll hop along rooftops eavesdropping on conversations. Some of the eavesdropping missions can get quite challenging as your targets walk swiftly past a series of guards, but for the most part it’s same old, same old.
Rather depressingly, the ship-based missions are built along the same themes. Following 400m behind a ship in broad daylight without being noticed is just plain absurd, but thankfully, this doesn’t happen too often.
There’s a certain glamour to pirate stories and it comes through in the cutscenes and the fact that sailing around in the Jackdaw is great. However, most plot-centric conversations seem woefully underwritten and can be best summarised like this:
A Pirate: I heard about a thing. Kenway, you should sail there and plunder it.
Kenway: I will! While I’m on the way I shall continue to search for the magical thing that will make me a wealthy man worthy of my posh wife back home.
Pirate: That’s a pipe dream, mate. Also, you drink too much.
Kenway: Didn’t you betray me once? Never mind, I forgive you. Let’s drink to that!
I can forgive the uninspiring dialogue though, as an incredible amount of work has gone into the Animus database and collectibles. Several characters seem superficial but as you go through the collectibles, you’ll find their stories told through messages in a bottle, or other collectibles. The sticky notes you’ll find around Abstergo get very strange and, as always, the database entries for landmarks will teach you history, which a splash of character. The Cathedral of Havana is a personal favourite. If you have a tablet, I would suggest getting companion app, as it syncs to your savegame, letting you read through or listen to your unlocked Animus entries at your leisure. (iPad version, Android version)
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is everything that was promised: pirates, mystery and betrayal with plenty of seafaring action. I wish the mission types had a bit more variety but this is a solid game for anyone with a pirate fantasy.