There was a time, several sequels ago, when you pretty much knew what you were going to get with an Assassin's Creed game. A new title would put a twist on things but still surely revisit the sci-fi intrigue of technologically tapping into the DNA of a hapless bartender named Desmond. From there it would slip gamers into the virtual-reality shoes of Desmond's bloodline ancestors, to become part of an ongoing religious battle between the Assassin Order and the Templars. It was a sneak-and-kill kind of twisting adventure involving an ancient yet advanced civilization, magical artifacts and, well, the potential end of all mankind.
But now—some six main games and a rather large handful of supporting titles later—Desmond is dead and gone. And the history-hopping storyline has become so convoluted with a spaghetti bowl full of character threads that it's impossible to keep track of short of memorizing an entire wiki site devoted to the details.
So who in the world might be able to navigate some sort of detour around this historical dead end? Why, pirates, of course, me bucko! Pirates.
A Rum-Soaked Adventure
In something of a storyline sidestep, Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag worries very little about its sci-fi franchise roots. Sure, we still flit back through time, but now we're playing as one Edward Kenway, a handsome rogue who starts out working as a privateer for some quick cash and ends up becoming a blaggard on the bounding main.
What of the Assassin Order and Templars, you ask? Yes, they're still part of the plot here. Edward eventually finds himself caught up in a Templar conflict—which revolves around the search for and use of a mysterious place called the Observatory. But through most of this booze-buoyed adventure, your main pursuits are simply a mix of treasure-seeking, salty sea battles and witnessing the origins of famous pirate folk like Cap'n Stede Bonnet and Blackbeard.
Gameplay wise, this is a vibrant, open-world adventure filled with a vast uncharted Caribbean. There are numerous islands to explore (each with its own Spanish, English or piratey feel), scores of hours of sneaking and swashbuckling quests to fulfill, and your own ship, the Jackdaw, to recruit men for and equip with the latest sails, plating and cannons. And, of course, there are scores of other vessels out there, from merchant trading ships to military gunboats, ripe for battle and plunder.
All the while, the famed Assassin's Creed game mechanics give your character an almost superhuman parkour ability to scamper limberly up the mast and leap from yardarm to topsail with a grace Douglas Fairbanks only wished he could have mustered.
In Need of an Eye Patch (or Two)
That's a whole lot of yo-ho-ho and a shanty song too. And Black Flag could have made for a rich journey had it stuck to the lighter side of a treasure-seeking life at sea. But then it wouldn't be an Assassin's Creed game, would it? So in its reach for a realistic historical adventure, this franchise chapter also packs a mighty mess into its seafaring kit and caboodle.
Pirates are known more for walking the plank than for pacing down the straight-and-narrow path, and these here ones are quite fond of swilling rum (resulting in a camera-eye fogginess), ogling wenches, and trading tales of rape, slaves and whores, popping off occasional f- or s-words as they do. Thievery is a common way of life, and the king's law is smashed to the deck far more times than it's obeyed. And glamorized is the only way to look at the way we witness (and join in on) the piratey violence and rampages.
Edward and his cohorts use a variety of pistols, swords and hidden blades to gut and hack at thousands of snuck-up-on or leapt-upon foes. Cannon balls can be used to rip apart a burning galleon or bombard a nearby fort, and they can also hit a man in the chest to splatter him on the deck. Blood gushes and enemies cry out as they're downed. And the game sometimes offers special reward points for finding creative ways to obliterate a targeted enemy.
So what can we see with our spyglass from the crow's nest? A game that tries hard to separate itself from its predecessors and give fans a fresh sea-spray-in-the-face experience. But also a game that doesn't benefit as much as families might hope from its compass-twirling course change.