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You Should Be Playing - Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag


Note: The PS4 version was played for this article.

Assassin's of the Caribbean

October 31st 2013; A hungover day after a Halloween night out during my third year at university. Whilst nursing myself back into sober health in the form of a greasy breakfast wrap, my motivation for the day found itself in the form of a late present from my friends for my 21st birthday: Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag on Xbox 360. Being put in the shoes of Rogue Pirate-turned Assassin, Edward Kenway, Black Flag separated itself from the mundane drag in which the series had been heading, through the methods of it's implemented unique gameplay, gorgeous settings & the fun combining its main adventure and full world exploration. Three years on, well into the current console generation with two Assassin's Creed sequels released since, playing through Black Flag is still as refreshing as it once was, standing as the most playable & memorable of the franchise. 

Swiggity Swooty, coming for your booty. ARRRGGHHH!

The Heath Ledger Look-a-Like

Upon entering the 18th century Caribbean during the Golden Age of Piracy, you're thrown into what's significantly different about Black Flag from other entries: it's protagonist - washed-up-on-shore-pirate, Edward Kenway. After being caught in a fray with Assassin-turned traitor, Duncan Walpole; Edward decides to steal & don his robes (because why not?) and ends up being caught in the middle of the millennia-old Assassin-Templar war. All whilst on his quest of plundering gold & rum to be the richest pirate in the land. 

Set sail with those golden locks. Huzzah!
 
After previously having to play as the boring; wet blanket protagonist that is Edward's grandson, Connor (Ratonhnhak√©:ton) in 2012's AC3, followed by Ezio (Assassin's Creed 2) wanna-be, Arno Dorian in 2014's AC Unity, Kenway feels like a breath of fresh air. He doesn't come charging in to take the moral high-ground as the hero from the get-go. He has his own set of morals. These tip towards the side of good, but most of the time his objectives are favoured towards him & his crew, if not solely himself. In short, he's an arsehole, but an arsehole who will entertain you with his so-so morals & occasionally warm your heart as he has his crew's back as a goodhearted captain. One that you would love to swig a cold pint with before drunkenly fist fighting with the other patrons. 

Toast of Equality!

How You Shiver Those Timbers

Story-wise, Black Flag's single player campaign can feel a little restrictive but tastefully lighthearted. Certain missions can only allow certain methods of gameplay. For example; you could be in a tail-your-enemy mission for 10 minutes, after several failed attempts of which will make you want to stab every NPC (Non-player character) in sight, but the way the plot flows and gameplay unfolds will make you almost forget about any frustration. It follows Edward being progressively caught into the rock and hard place of the Assassin-Templar War, unlocking more weapons and gameplay options as you go along. Swords, pistols, smokebombs, hidden blades (tehe), blow darts that will make enemies rage on their comrades - you name it! Whenever you're let off your leash is when Black Flag is enjoyed most because you're set free to look at what this world has to offer. There's so much to do, it's borderline ridiculous. Explore on foot islands both large & small; to search for hidden treasure, take on region-wide Assassin contracts, scout British work plantations to murder soldiers & steal supplies as you please or even just stroll around the jungles & oceans: hunting wildlife from bunnies to killer whales to craft weapon & ammunition upgrades to your heart's content!

Hush, little solider. Don't say a word...

When not exploring what the land entails; setting sail on the open seas, diving into the naval combat is Black Flag's largest, most exciting and breath taking aspects. So many times I had been distracted for at least two hours sailing in my ship without realising: engaging every ship & naval fort I came across in an epic ocean battle leading to their submission; boarding and murdering their crew members, acquiring the remaining for my own, alongside their own supplies of sugar, rum, metal, wood & cloth in order to sell & upgrade my own ship: The Jackdaw. Adding to the gripping sea-scuffles, you even have to keep watch when fighting during storms, before large waves crash on your deck, killing portions of your men. The idea of plundering ships to acquire their resources to continuously upgrade my own, thus being able to take on the higher level "Legendary Ships", blasting through the weaker ones even quicker is an addictive motivator that wouldn't allow me to put the controller down. That's not even everything. You can even anchor the ship for a while, whip off your pirate shirt, and head down diving for some undersea treasure. Even hop on your row boat and harpoon a few sharks if you like. Anything to get some crafting materials for those rage-inducing darts. Yippee. 

You'll have a real, BLAST 
 
Unlike games in the Assassin's Creed series that came before, Black Flag was the first entry of the series to shy away from the franchises' dragged out and overly clouded present-day storyline which featured the 2007-2012 protagonist, Desmond Miles. He's replaced with a nameless, first person, Templar-Abstergo employee who is tasked with entering the machine named the Animus: the fictional machine which delves you into Edward Kenway's epic tale of the past. Serving as a mere go-to between acts of the main storyline, the present-day missions serve as a simple & effective break-up of Black Flag's campaign: featuring nothing more than some optional mini-games with only minimal mandatory tasks. It takes you out of the pirating world & throws you back in with the right timing, feeling more refreshed to tour of what that 18th century world has to present. 

The present-day missions will make you want to change jobs...

For those few who are still in the multiplayer-lot of Assassin's Creed (few enough to be rare like unicorns), Black Flag has improved on it's package slightly. Upgraded graphics, several gameplay adjustments and the standard game modes which include the search-for-and-stab objectives, hunting for your rival players among the crowds. It's great for a bit of fun if you want something a bit different from standard multiplayers but that's not really what the appeal of Black Flag is about. As the multiplayer is only land based, the allure to go back into single player mode and head out on a naval battling spree and raid some enemy ships will be too irresistible.

OM NOM NOM NOM.

Those Aesthetics Though

That large variety of exciting on-land & sea adventures would be nothing without matching high quality sound & visual ingredients. Black Flag looked & sounded ravishing to both my eyes and ear holes when I first played it on Xbox 360. Thankfully, it still holds up. Actually, no, it holds HIGHER on a current generation console. You can't help but "ooo" & "aaahh" at the shimmering waters of the West Indies whilst panning the camera to the side of your ship, listening to the roaring waves as they crash against the bow. The sun shining on the lush, vibrant tropical plant life of the forests and towns. It literally looks like a much brighter world as your strolling through a tropical jungle, taking in the diegetic sounds of the wildlife, right on the way to stabbing your next target in the face. One of the hardest challenges of taking in the scenery the of rustic pirate island-town, Nassau is resisting the urge to smirk as you watch drunken bar patrons trying to swig booze with the local wenches, as you stand in judgement from the roof tops above. 

Pretty. So very pretty.

When wanting to talk about what's really invigorating, an example will always be Black Flag's soundtrack. The moment you start up the main menu, your ears are engulfed in the melody of a sea shanty. It's not just the game boot-up either. Even in the breadth of battle, whether your aiming cannon fire at an enemy schooner or clashing swords, the lively track's tempo speeds up accompanied with it's much deeper pitch, gripping you forward into it's thrills of live combat. The most awe inspiring musical aspect though, is the collectible sea shanties that are available to gather throughout the world, giving your crew the opportunity to sing you a merry tune as your going full sail on the open waters. Opening the Jackdaw to full travel speed; bringing the ship into full screen, your men singing "What shall we do with the drunken sailor?" as your drifting towards the sunset is awe-inspiring. This ultimate combination of the magnificent appeal & harmony is just uplifting & full of life, almost as if it's full of the freedom our Pirate Captain-Assassin protagonist is trying to create for himself. 

*Sniffle* I need a moment.

Final Thoughts
 
Other games have come & gone since so it certainly takes something special, a unique and flavourful combination to leave a lasting, smile-creating taste in your mouth for the ages. Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag is that flagship pillar of the Assassin's Creed series because it doesn't suffer under the weighted burden different franchise entries had to bear. It doesn't attempt to justify an overly complicated story or take itself seriously more than it should. It's an Assassin's Creed game and yet it's not. What it most definitely is though is a pirate simulator. A lighthearted interpretation of a well known genre. A genre within a genre. 

Oh and you're mates with Blackbeard. Just saying.
 
When fellow gamers have reminisced of instalments for the series before, the charming & fierce force that is Ezio Auditore of Assassin's Creed 2 is said to have made that particular title the greatest of the franchise. However; Black Flag is the embodiment of how modern gaming can be a showcase of a hearty, fiery protagonist, lighthearted story, exquisite settings and breath taking gameplay that can immerse you into the very definition of escapism: fun. You may ponder a somewhat similar feeling when playing different past & future Assassin's Creed games, sure. Although; when you wish to act on that sudden urge to embrace a video game's true expression of freedom, to be washed over by an experience of merry enjoyment embedded by ocean waters, home to plundering & cannon fire, you will hear a whisper: "A Pirate's life for me".

 
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