At one point in the first Pirates of the Caribbean, Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow says something along the lines of: "Wherever we want to go, we go. That's what a ship is, you know. It's not just a keel and a hull and a deck and sails. That's what a ship needs. But what a ship is... what the Black Pearl really is... is freedom."
I can imagine the developers at Ubisoft have taken this line to heart as they went about working on Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag. When you take control of Edward Kenway's ship, The Jackdaw, you definitely feel that the world is yours to explore and you can go wherever you want to. No matter where you head you'll find adventure - something to discover or explore, a treasure to unearth, an animal hide to collect, a collectible to pick up. Or a Templar to kill.
It's what the essence of being a pirate is all about, boiled down to a miniature Caribbean that, unlike Depp's outlandish adventures, is firmly grounded in history and realism. As you'd expect it's the somewhat warped version of history and reality that the series always offers up, where a bunch of historical figures are revealed to have ties with Templars or Assassins.
The journey takes us to Havanna, Nassau, Kingston and the Cayman Island, to name but a few destinations. We meet up with legendary figures like Black Beard, and a whole cast of other pirates and governors. If the names aren't familiar you can easily look them up on Wikipedia for reference.
The main character Edward Kenway cannot be found in any history books, but that doesn't make him any less charismatic. He's witty and full of himself, but perhaps a little singleminded. His mind is set on finding a great treasure in order to return home a wealthy man, or have his estranged wife join him in the Caribbean from her home in Wales. He's not even an Assassin in the traditional sense - the hooded garment is literary something he plundered, and he simply wears it because he likes the way it looks.
Up until now Edward has made a living as a Privateer serving the English crown, but as the wars have come to an end, it's no longer a profitable business. But his path crosses with that of the Templars as they are chasing down a place called the Observatory - an unknown location similar to the legendary El Dorado - that promises immense treasures, and Edward naturally wants to get his hands on that.
While Edward formally isn't an Assassin, he's most certainly cut from the same cloth. He possesses Eagle Vision and is sharp with both cutlass and dagger, and as he's been a thorn in the side of the local Templars he quickly proves useful for the Assassins, even if he's not really part of the order.
This is not to say that you're simply an errand boy. Edward is his own man, and captain of the Jackdaw, and he pretty much does as he pleases.
Once you've acquired a ship you can pretty much set sail and head anywhere, and life on board is certainly eventful. You constantly run across driftwood and shipwrecked sailors - these can be picked up and made to join your crew. There is an abundance of small islands that haven't been mapped, where you can find treasure and collectibles. You will see Spanish and English vessels of trade and war on the horizon, and a quick look with your spyglass reveals their strength relative to yours as well as their cargo. Rum and sugar can be sold for cold hard cash, while wood, iron and fabrics are important resources that allow for upgrades to your ship such as cannons, a stronger hull, and more space for ammunition and crew.
Raiding other ships is mainly an optional pursuit, but it's one we thoroughly enjoy and unless you want the later missions to become painfully difficult it's wise to at least do it on occasion. As you cut through the waves toward you're unknowing prey, you prepare to fire volleys of cannon balls towards the ill-fated ship. Until it's on fire and no longer moves. Now you're given a choice - you can either send one more volley its way and sink the ship or board and defeat the crew up close and personal. The first alternative only gives you half the loot, but it's the safer option. On smaller ships you only have to take out a few enemies, but with larger ships you have to fight the captain and make your way to the top of the mast cut down the flag.
The sea lanes are full of ships and you often end up fighting two or three ships at a time. At times you have to contend with fog, poor weather and huge waves that can be very destructive if you don't tackle them correctly. If you've bitten off more than you can chew, your only option is to put up all sails and attempt an escape, praying the winds will be favourable.
You'll also see English and Spanish ships fight each other, and much like a scavenger you can swoop in and collect the spoils - or perhaps even make it a three-way battle.
If you feel up to it you can try and take on a fort. These heavily fortified positions are better equipped than most ships, but they're worth the trouble. When all of cannons have been taken out and the commander has been killed, all the hidden secrets of an area are revealed. It works similarly to how the synchronisation points on land function. Parts of the seas previously patrolled by warships who attack on sight open up and allow for even more exploration.
Everything plays out seamlessly, without the slightest hint of loading. If you see an island you want to visit you simply drop anchor, step away from the wheel, jump over board and swim ashore.
The only exception to this are the larger towns and settlements, such as the previously mentioned Havanna, where the game more or less starts off. When you see Havanna it's easy to understand why this is. It's massive. Full of shops, side missions and other activities, synchronisation points (these are so engrained in the DNA of the series that they have begun spreading to other Ubisoft titles), and this is also where a large part of the story takes place. That means there will be lots of parkour exercises across roof tops and on branches. As always the world is your playground and you can do as you please in it.
Most of the action on land should be familiar to longtime fans. Edward isn't equipped with Connor's bow, but with a bit of crafting he can carry as many as four pistols. The combat system is familiar to what we've seen in previous games and works as advertised. I gladly take on my enemies irrespective of whether it's a direct confrontation or a sneaky dagger in the back - regardless of the method it's equally satisfying.
The only area where Black Flag shows weakness are the controls. But it's the kind of issues we've grown accustomed to with the series. Edward will sometimes be keen to run up the doorpost instead of running through the door, and I've given up on counting the number of times I've jumped on top of a box instead of stopping in front of it. At times it makes you feel like a clown more so than a skilled free-runner, but the problem is really only present at times where you do not want to run up across roof tops, branches, masts and so on. As long as you want to run up on buildings and make leaps you'd never dare in real life, it works flawlessly.
Back in the present there are plenty of changes. Desmond Miles is no longer part of the story, instead we're playing as an unnamed main character that just joined Abstergo Entertainment. Simply put we're a game developer who digs through genetic memories to find stories suitable for virtual reality experiences. Well, that's the official story anyway. Once you dig a little deeper you'll find there are more sinister intentions at play.
You'll only experience a handful of these current day sequences. They all play out from a first person perspective and are relatively short. If you want to you can step out of the Animus and be a modern day pirate hacking the computers of colleagues for more information. It's by no means required, but adds a bit of background.
Given that Desmond is no longer part of the story, the game also presents the perfect starting point for people who, for one reason or another, haven't dived into the series until now. Mechanics have been polished and refined over time and it's difficult to find any faults with the core gameplay. There is also no real need to grasp the bigger picture as the "real" main character of the previous entries is no longer part of the story.
My save file tells me I've spent around 23 hours on completing the main story on Xbox 360. Prior to that I played through half of the 12 main story missions on PlayStation 4 over the course of 14 hours, enabling me to progress more quickly on my second run. The game easily lasts for 28-30 hours on first play-through, even more if you really want to dive into the optional content.
As far as the visuals go, the PlayStation 4 version easily puts the old consoles to shame. The frame-rate is higher and less prone to dip, and the environments are more detailed. There is more vegetation, the sea is more beautifully rendered, and faces and character models are much improved. As far as content and gameplay goes - the versions are identical.
As you'd expect there is multiplayer in Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, but unfortunately we haven't had a chance to try it out. The multiplayer is an evolved version of what we've seen in the predecessors, where players blend in with NPCs and try to pull off assassinations on other players without being detected. There are several variations of this concept, but the core idea remains the same. If you enjoyed the multiplayer in previous entries expect more of the same, but if you didn't enjoy it then Black Flag is unlikely to convert you. We'll cover multiplayer in more depth once we've had the chance.
If you're anything like me, it's the story that will pull you in to Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag. And the story is absolutely captivating. The combination of the now classic Assassin's Creed brand of gameplay and the great sense of freedom and adventure when out on the open seas is just as awesome as it sounds. It's not innovative or revolutionary, we've seen it all before to varying degrees, but Ubisoft has become a well-oiled Assassin's Creed making machine over the years. It's not just a brilliant Assassin's Creed, but Black Flag also managed to eclipse every other pirate themed game I've ever played.