Assassin's Creed Black Flag

Special Series Playthrough - Assassin’s Creed

In ACIII, Desmond sacrificed himself to avert a world calamity, and Isu entity Juno was unleashed to enslave the human race. OMG! So now what? Have the modern Assassins worked out how to stop Juno, will the Templars side with her?! What happened?!

Part Four; Black Flag

Nothing. It’s like ACIII's ending never happened. We’re now a silent nobody working for Abstergo Entertainment, the Templar’s modern-day front, sifting through genetic memories – the Templars have a new Animus; now anyone can see the past using DNA, and we’re searching through Des’ remains to see what Edward Kenway, father of Haytham Kenway, Grandfather of Connor got up to. What didn’t he get up to?

Edward is aboard a pirate ship, trying to knock over a passing British ship; big mistake, it has a pissed off Assassin aboard who was defecting to the Templars. Ed and the Assamplar are the only two to survive, but not for long. Soon enough Ed has some new threads, a blood vial and an invitation to Havana, where delivery of the vial will net a large prize. Ed decides to pass himself off as the Assassin and claim the loot. I like him already.

Kenway might be my favourite game character of all time. Obsessed with wealth and respect, the lad convinced his comely wife that a year (maybe two …) in the navy will see them right - five years later and he’s shipwrecked and wearing a dead man’s clothes. The wife was right (as always), but Ed’s intentions were vague from the start; he might have even convinced himself, but you know if he made a fortune, he’d piss it up a wall in a year.

Ed hands over the vial and then does one of my all-time favourite missions; while the Templars discuss the vial, a place called the Observatory, a ‘Sage’, their goals - literally the game’s plot - Ed uses the distraction to pickpocket the Templars. It’s the best character-defining moment I’ve ever played - petty, opportunistic, short-sighted, risky – I knew then exactly who I was, what my attitude is going to be - it’s a Pirate’s life for me.

Ed decides to kidnap the Sage, who can lead them to this Observatory where he expects to find fame and riches. But the scheme goes sideways and Ed is thrown aboard a prisoner ship; escaping, he steals a ship he calls the Jackdaw and names himself Captain.

If ACIII subtly rebooted AC, Black Flag gives it the boot - Ed never takes the Creed, he’s little more than an honouree Assassin by the end, and the majority of the game is Ed’s self-destructive path while all around him the Golden Age of Piracy dies. Friends, crewmates and even enemies school him in reality but Ed ignores it all. And it’s easy to see why.

You can practically smell the sea-air, hear the gulls and feel the creaking of the Jackdaw. Wandering the Frontier was fun but BF is just incredible. The warm waters, atolls, the stilt fishing villages, white sand beaches and coconut trees, jungles, plantations, plus the busy cities we visit; it’s huge, detailed and breath-taking. But, this is AC in name only.

In fairness, there’s a lot of AC tropes here but the ocean-setting gets you exploring and there’s far more scope and distractions – thankfully, we’re no longer searching for feathers but we’re finding treasure chests, uncovering ship upgrades, treasure maps, taverns to fight in, animals to hunt, messages in bottles I never read, ships to rob and Mayan ruins to unlock; a Pirate’s life is intoxicating stuff. Or maybe that’s the rum. Back to sea my trumps!

The Jackdaw is way ahead of Connor’s Aquila, and you really get into marauder’ing like a bad’un. The ship has some moves and multiple attacks, and a crew to maintain (as in replace as they get blown to bits because I keep forgetting to tell them to brace.) Attacking ships or forts is never a slam-dunk but it’s always exciting - you develop a pirate’s recklessness; even when you spy a Man O’War that clearly outclasses you, you still hazard a mortar at it – a merry life and a short one shall be my motto.

Once they’re disabled, Ed and his scurvy lads leap aboard and claim it; the ship can then be used to bribe bounty hunters, repair the Jackdaw or send to Ed’s own Pirate fleet – early on, Ed gains a hideout with a harbour. We never see the ships docked, which is a shame – I was hoping for a GTA style garage or trophies at least; instead, you get a mini game where you secure the route then trade. It was actually a terrible tie-in app, but now every time I start a new game my old ships are still there. By the end of this playthrough, Ed amassed a fleet of fifteen brutal Man O’Wars. But he’s not the only pirate on the block.

Basically, we’re playing an adaption of 1724 pirate bible ‘A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates’. We help establish the Pirate Nation of Nassau, defuse Teach’s Blockade of Charles Town, plot with Vane to escape using a Fire Ship, inspire Bonnet to become the Gentleman Pirate, get crossed by Calico Jack – all actual events we play a role in, but unlike ACIII's meddling, they’re the setting, not our focus.

We hang out with every scoundrel, thug and rogue of the era, even Mary Read and Anne Bonny; it’s amazing how they tie Ed’s adventure to historic acts yet not get him too muddled like Connor unrealistically was. Ed cuts his own path through history, and he’s equally dismissive of the Assassins; when his ‘sight’ is discovered and they try to convince him to take a higher path, Ed’s response to the Creed is typically self-centred. He kills Templars left, right and centre, but only because they’re in his way or there’s gold in it, not because of the Creed. It’s an incredible narrative that draws you in - until you’re forced out.

Back in the Abstergo office, an IT guy makes us hack – via an annoying mini-game – information for Rebecca and Shaun, who have infiltrated Abstergo. We can also roam the Abstergo office, but why would I wander around an office? And why the hell are modern assassins even bothered – you witnessed Juno’s threat, focus on that, this memory doesn't have anything to do with it. Those scenes just remind you we're supposed to be an Assassin not a pirate. Not that I'm complaining. This is awesome.

Back in Ed’s shoes, when he says “I’m not an easy man to call friend, am I?” we’re nodding along with long-suffering Quartermaster Adéwalé. Almost everyone he knew or loved is gone, turned traitor or at the bottom of the sea as the Golden Age of Piracy dies; yet he’s still a rascal. He agrees to save assassins (that he endangered) but only because their targets have keys to a sword-deflecting outfit. Those are great mini adventures and each a very different story, not that their Templar struggles bother Ed much. There’s other ways to avoid responsibility too.

While out at sea, there’s wrecks to dive which are as beautiful as they are dangerous. Sharks circle, Moray eels bite, sea urchins spike, coral cuts you, jellyfish sting, you can run out of air, get lost in underwater cave systems - all in the name of upgrades, which you’ll do because you’ll want the Jackdaw to Boss the sea. There’s freelance assassination missions which are good fun, including one in a flooded mine that has a patrolling shark; thankfully it’s not the target.

There’s also whale-hunting, which upset the animal rights lot. It’s thrilling stuff being pulled through the water by Moby Dick and while I do feel guilty when I see the bloody corpses dragged aboard, I’m also happy to see a new gun holster. Ubisoft tried to argue it’s just one of those things - “We do not condone illegal whaling, just as we don't condone a pirate lifestyle of poor hygiene, plundering, hijacking ships, and over the legal limit drunken debauchery." – but Ed doesn’t catch scurvy or syphilis so arguing it’s ‘just pirates’ doesn’t really work and it doesn’t make a lot of sense when we hoist a whale bigger than the Jackdaw aboard. It’s a bit unpleasant but still, I’ve got four pistols now.

There’s also legendary battles which aren’t legendary or battles; they’re slaughters. Ominous fog rolls in and inside is a mother of a ship. They’re ridiculous fights, and besting them only gains you money – money you won’t need by the time you’re ready, since taking them on without the Jackdaw at Elite level is suicide. If they were real re-enactments of famous pirate battles, or the ships joined your fleet afterwards – or even your trading fleet joined the fight – it could have been something, but it’s more frustrating than thrilling.

Now five-odd games in, AC is starting to iron out the free-run kinks. Ed actually looks before he leaps and it’s a lot more intuitive, making it a thrill to parkour about. Sure, there are ‘get down!’ and ‘what are you doing?!’ moments and Ed may claim he has fishhooks for fingers but he still leaps to his death too often. But this is a fluid game where you feel like you’re in control, not on the backfoot. Swordfights are awesome swashbuckling fun, Ed can fend off multiple targets with some block/break/stab motions, and the weapons have a value that’ll decide how quickly Ed reaches a finishing move – doing all the Naval mini-missions awards you swords with pistols in the hilt. Well worth it. I am a proper pirate.

Not that we care, but turns out all that modern-era hacking unlocked Juno – so her big scene at the end of ACIII, where she proclaimed she’d enslave the human race amounted to her becoming Abstergo’s screensaver? Apparently she intended to possess my body, but changes her mind. I don’t blame her, but, she’s a digital entity - surely being on the net gives her far more power to enslave humans than my geeky little body.

It’s then revealed the IT guy was another Sage, who are reincarnations of Juno’s husband and throughout history try to find ways to bring her back. It all feels vague and a non-starter – at least Des had reasons for searching those past memories; this modern era’s only connection to Black Flag is treading water.

As the Golden Age of Piracy comes to a brutal close, Ed finally accepts there’s more to life than riches and power, but his obsession cost him dearly. Finally humbled, he promises to do right by the Creed and as he sets sail one last time, Captain Kenway sees a rum-soaked table filled with everyone he lost - it’s a big table.

BF is one of the best games of all time. It’s not just the unapologetic pirate history we experience, the assassins vs templars story that’s woven in, or the way it manages to make being a sea-faring criminal a stellar RPG, it’s how it’s all anchored by Kenway’s complicated motivations. Okay, I’ll admit to a bit of a mancrush, but it’s rare to play a character who is truly flawed. You can understand his need and go along with his dubious plans, but you worry about the path he’s on – Edward is against the world but he's his own worst enemy; he deserves a lot of what happens to him, but we feel pity as well. Once you add in the incredibly scenery, ship battles, fights, the side-missions and solid main-mission, you have the perfect game.

But, it’s not an AC game. It’s even further removed than ACIII was. There is something in it that we're experiencing an AC narrative as an outsider, taking a different approach rather than going through Ezio and co's footsteps again, and that does make BF refreshing and freeing - everything we expect is here, but we're not following the Creed. I can understand why they did that given BF's setting, but we didn't sign up to play an onlooker, we're supposed to be an Assassin fighting the Templars. It makes you wonder where the series is headed, if it's now fully shifted away from AvT and into historical dramas. Therefore, I can’t award Black Flag best AC game or make Ed the best Assassin. It’s just one of the best games of all time.

So that means Ezio still reigns, and Revelations is still my favourite AC game. But up next isn’t an Assassin, it’s two assassins in two add-on games, Liberation and Freedom Cry.