- Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag revolutionized the franchise with its innovative gameplay, exploring uncharted waters and introducing exciting concepts rarely seen in gaming.
- Black Flag‘s focus on sailing and island exploration reinvented the Assassin’s Creed formula, creating one of the largest open worlds in the series and offering a unique seafaring fantasy.
- The game’s thrilling naval battles, swashbuckling sword fights, and varied side activities immerse players in pirate fantasy, while its grounded and compelling narrative humanizes historical figures and delivers one of the best stories in the series.
For much of its lifetime, the Assassin’s Creed franchise has been heavily criticized for its consistent lack of innovation or fresh ideas. While each new entry at least introduces minor gimmicks, few games in the series have been able to truly shake up the series formula. Even Assassin’s Creed Mirage, which was a long-awaited return to form, left fans hoping for another entry that will push the series to more ambitious heights. However, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag not only took the franchise into uncharted waters but also explored creative concepts that are rarely seen in the gaming industry.
Set in the West Indies during the early 18th century, Black Flag follows Edward Kenway, a pirate whose search for treasure and wealth leads him into the middle of the centuries-long conflict between the Assassins and Templars. What follows is an adventure that will have players sneaking through jungles, conquering military fortresses, and taking part in explosive ship battles. Only a few video games have explored the exciting potential of swashbuckling stories or delved into the real-life events surrounding legendary historical pirates, but Black Flag is the perfect showcase of what the medium has been missing.
Black Flag Was A Departure From Assassin’s Creed Usual Formula
Before Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, the series had already been trying to revitalize its formula and stave off franchise fatigue. Assassin’s Creed: Revelations delivered a change in scenery by moving from the Italian cities of Assassin’s Creed II and Brotherhood and taking players to Constantinople. Assassin’s Creed III brought even bigger changes with its American setting by allowing players to traverse across treetops and hunt animals in its dense wilderness. Despite their changes, these games were still criticized for reiterating old ideas. In contrast, Black Flag‘s focus on sailing and island exploration represented a complete reinvention of the Assassin’s Creed formula. Series staples like parkour, hidden blade assassinations, and leaps of faith were all still prominent parts of Black Flag, but the game used these familiar facets in exciting new ways.
Sailing originally debuted as an optional minigame in Assassin’s Creed III, but Black Flag reworks it into the player’s primary means of traversal through its open world. This not only brought a massive shakeup to the series’ gameplay, with the bulk of Black Flag being spent sailing between destinations or engaging in explosive naval skirmishes, but it also resulted in an open world that was unlike anything Assassin’s Creed had ever seen before. Rather than confining players to a few cities, Black Flag features a massive map consisting of dozens of lush islands and small settlements, as well as hundreds of collectibles spread out between them.
Consequentially, Black Flag features one of the largest open worlds in an Assassin’s Creed game, though this comes with a few drawbacks. Many islands and settlements lack the visual distinction of many other cities from past entries, which partially works against the series’ appeal of exploring unique historical locations. Additionally, the overabundance of collectibles clutters the map with unnecessary icons, with many of these signifying menial rewards that aren’t worth the effort of obtaining them. However, despite sounding like a precursor to the bloated RPG-style entries like Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, Black Flag benefits from its large environment. Most of the game’s map is occupied by a vast ocean, providing players with plenty of room to sail between destinations or battle against other ships. This also places much more distance between the various islands, which makes finding a new locale feel like an exciting discovery, even if some places are more interesting than others.
Even when players return to land, Black Flag‘s changes to the series’ gameplay illustrate its different direction. Combat and stealth are both faster and easier in Black Flag than prior entries. Edward can only use hidden blades or dual swords, but his ability to smoothly alternate between attacking and countering helps Black Flag‘s swordplay feel more fluid than in prior entries. Furthermore, the traps and hunting tools that comprised Connor’s arsenal in Assassin’s Creed III were replaced by sleep and berserk darts, allowing players to quickly tackle stealth encounters by altering enemy behavior. Along with giving players new means of approaching stealth encounters, Black Flag‘s focus on speed and simplicity highlights its goal of delivering an action-packed experience above all else. While this may sound like a questionable design choice for a stealth series like Assassin’s Creed, it transformed Black Flag into the most creative game in the franchise.
Black Flag Perfected Its Seafaring Fantasy
Although Assassin’s Creed had gradually evolved into an action series with its increasingly bombastic set pieces and greater emphasis on combat in each entry, Black Flag was the first entry to fully embrace the franchise’s action identity. The ability to assume the role of a stealthy assassin was still available, but the game hinted toward its true intentions by placing players in the role of a non-assassin. At the start of the game, lead protagonist Edward Kenway isn’t bound to any creed or specific ideology. Instead, he’s wholeheartedly a pirate, and his initial pursuits of fame and fortune set the tone for Black Flag‘s gameplay. Despite the name of its franchise, Black Flag isn’t a game about assassins, but rather a one-of-a-kind pirate fantasy.
Naval battles in Black Flag are as spectacular and exciting as anyone could hope for. Edward’s ship, the Jackdaw, is armed with a plethora of weapons including cannons and swivel guns for close combat, mortars to strike distant foes, and a ram that can deal devastating damage. Even with this abundance of firepower, players can’t always rely on careless firing. The Jackdaw’s slow turning speed and limited ammunition can leave it vulnerable to deadly barrages from attackers. When faced against enemy ships with better defenses and more powerful artillery, careful maneuvering and defensive positioning become far more important than brute force. Despite their deceptive simplicity, these naval battles can sometimes be challenging tests of the player’s strategic thinking and reflexes.
While there are times when sinking the enemy’s ship is the only way to move forward, the true highlight of Black Flag‘s battles is ship boarding. Some vessels can be rendered immobile after taking enough damage, allowing the Jackdaw’s crew to jump onboard and overthrow the enemy forces. What follows is a chaotic skirmish wherein both crews clash swords as battle cries and gunfire begin to fill the air. During these battles, players must complete specific objectives to force the enemy to surrender, such as killing a certain number of foes or destroying the ship’s powder reserves. The game’s flashy swordplay shines the most in these sections, with skilled players able to effortlessly execute one soldier after the next in a brutal dance of blades and bullets. Successfully capturing the ship allows players to add it to their fleet, lower their wanted level (which attracts hostile bounty hunters upon reaching a certain threshold), or partially repair the Jackdaw.
Alongside its exhilarating naval combat and swashbuckling sword fights, Black Flag immerses players in its pirate fantasy through its impressively varied side activities. Players can dive underwater to explore shipwrecks, hunt land or sea animals for their skins, and use maps found throughout their adventure to uncover buried treasures. Additionally, ships in Edward’s fleet can be sent out on missions to other parts of the world, with some leading to important items needed to upgrade the Jackdaw. Even aimlessly sailing around the world can be an enjoyable time in Black Flag, either for the seemingly endless events and locations that players can stumble into or the simple joy of listening to the Jackdaw’s crew join together to sing sea shanties.
Despite Black Flag‘s goal of emulating the pirate fantasy often described in movies and literature, its story is deeply grounded in the real-world people and events of the era. Assassin’s Creed has always prominently featured historical figures from its respective time periods, with some serving as major characters and villains in the series’ fictional conflicts. However, Black Flag places history at the forefront of its narrative, focusing on the lives of notorious pirates like Blackbeard, Mary Read, and Charles Vane. But rather than representing these figures with cartoonish or larger-than-life caricatures, the game attempts to humanize them by presenting complex yet deeply flawed personalities. Through their close (and sometimes bitter) relationships with Edward, players witness the rise and fall of these legendary pirates, and it’s easy to grow attached to many of them.
However, those who are familiar with the history of these figures will already be prepared for the tragedies that unfold throughout their lives. Black Flag delivers a bleak, sometimes depressing story about people struggling to escape their dangerous lifestyles or succumbing to their own ambitions. This theme is reflected in nearly every major character, including Edward himself. It’s one of the best narratives in an Assassin’s Creed game, and the personal nature of this story makes it easily the most compelling in the series.
Black Flag Hasn’t Lost Its Charm
Other games have tried to deliver similarly feature-rich representations of pirate adventures, but none have matched the excitement or emotional storytelling of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. Classic titles like Sid Meier’s Pirates and The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, or even the more recent Sea of Thieves all attempted to create similar experiences by allowing players to sail across vast oceans and engage in exciting battles. However, Black Flag is the only game to truly deliver everything players could want out of a triple-A pirate game. Thanks to its cinematic combat, memorable characters, and endless opportunities for exploration, there’s nothing quite like Black Flag.
Even Black Flag‘s direct follow-up, Assassin’s Creed Rogue, couldn’t capture the same thrilling sense of adventure. Rogue introduced numerous changes and improvements to the ship-based combat, though it deviated from the Black Flag‘s pirate theme with its setting in the icy waters of the North Atlantic and story centered around the Templar Order. Although Rogue is an excellent game in its own right, it wasn’t designed to replicate the pirate fantasy of Black Flag.
Even 10 years after its release, Black Flag remains unmatched in its ability to deliver a thrilling and immersive swashbuckling experience. While this is partly due to pirate-themed games being surprisingly uncommon, it’s also a testament to the game’s lasting appeal. Black Flag took a massive risk by straying so far from the Assassin’s Creed formula in both its gameplay and story, yet it committed to its pirate fantasy in every aspect. The result was not only a revolutionary title for its time but is arguably the peak of the Assassin’s Creed series and one of the best games of the seventh-gen consoles. Although Ubisoft is aiming to repeat this success with the upcoming Skull and Bones, it’s unlikely that any other game could replicate the magic of Black Flag.
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