There are two games in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. There’s a good game; It is Sid Meier’s Pirates! with beautiful, expensive visuals and exhilarating, though simple, systems of exploring a vast Caribbean sea, upgrading your ship and shooting things with giant cannons. The other is bad. It is an Assassin’s Creed sequel. It is filled with linear tracking missions, clumsy stealth and a bloated amount of uninteresting things to do. These games, and their goals, are constantly battling each other. That conflict defines Black Flag and leads to its worst problems.
Structurally, the game is broadly similar to previous games in the series. An ordinary, well combat trained chap, Edward Kenway: Welsh Privateer in this case, becomes entangled in vast global conspiracies through unfortunate circumstances. This leads him to dawn the cowl of a secret order, the Assassins, and murder a bunch of historically significant people. The player achieves Edward’s goals by traversing an open world, accepting and completing missions and playing through side activities to gain money and upgrades. The primary hook of Black Flag is that the primary form of transportation is a pirate ship. The open sea acts as a hub between the various islands, pirate hideouts and cities the rest of the game takes place in.
In theory, this is an effective structure. The main series of Assassin’s Creed has enough swashbuckling and daring do to fill out the missing pieces of this concept and its historical, time-hopping schtick is a easy fit into a period piece focus. The game itself, however, values convenience over experience.
The world of Assassin’s Creed is incredibly vast, but every major and minor location is visitable through the map screen. With the simple press of a single button you can travel across the world with ease. This makes travel extremely convenient, allowing the player to waste no time just sailing the sea. It also makes the world feel much smaller than it actually is. Every secret and every collectable is numbered by location and visible on your mini-map. This is, again, convenient, but it kills any sense of excitement or mystery that finding secrets, locations or even a simple treasure chest could provide.
What makes open world games appealing is that they are alive. Games are essentially exercises in cause and effect. A series of elements that interact with each other. Open world games are a space to interact with that ruleset. To poke and prod and kick and kiss it until its mysteries open up to you. Most rulesets are focused on mastery, but the open world is about possibilities.
Black Flag chokes the game’s possibility space at every turn. Although, there is enough space for random events to happen within the context of the open sea, this is effectively neutered by the fast travel system. When everything is marked and placed for the player, when the player can just hop across the game world without consequence or reason, there can be no real mystery or discovery. There can also be no pacing in terms of exploration. Emptiness and time to ponder can lead to chaotic moments having a great deal more power.
None of this is helped in that the vast majority of the collectables are uninspiring and/or boring. Most just involve varying amounts of money. Fortunately the economy is not broken. It does require a fair amount of money to upgrade your ship or to buy new weapons or guns. The collectable are thus not entirely unhelpful, but the rewards for collecting them are not tangible. Even the upgrades themselves, which do have a visible and present effect on the power of both your character and your ship, are mostly just more of what you had previously. Enemy ships don’t become trickier to defeat, they just become bigger and deal more damage. Thus your strategy must not change, only the quality of the armor and guns you buy. This means that the player does become more powerful, but only on the game’s own terms, not through the player’s own ingenuity.
All of this is a shame because there is a empowering and free open world game within the categorized world. There is a gleeful sense of freedom in sailing. The weather and time change with an impressive sense of realism. The sea is alive, open to possibility and, most importantly, powerful and active beyond your own power. There are ships that can easily defeat you if you don’t have the proper upgrades. Other boats will break out into fights outside of you and you can even plunder ships about to sink. These are small things, but they make the world feel real. The most magical detail, however, are the shanties. These are songs that you can collect in the game world and that your crew will sing during sailing downtime. The songs are beautiful, varied and somehow always seem thematically appropriate. The game can get downright soulful as you sail in a setting sun while your men sing of better times. It’s moments like those that long for a stronger game, one more able to bear a thematic weight.
It is not that Black Flag has no narrative power, but it suffers from a poor understanding of structure. It attempts to wed a linear story with a nonlinear gameplay. The most effective games that attempt to do this make the narrative beats a more integral part of the game world. For example, Bioshock or Mass Effect do have a simple linear arcs, but they gain a thematic complexity through the exploration of the game world. Black Flag does no such thing. Almost the entire narrative is explained through cutscenes or dialogue and it gives a beautifully realized, complex world almost nothing to do narratively. There are moments where the game leans into the gameplay to say something: missions where you are encouraged not to kill certain enemies or the fact that when you are sneaking through a plantation, the slaves never warn the guards. Those moments, however, are sparse.
As for the missions themselves, there are a few that fully embrace the game’s mechanics and allow the player a fair amount of freedom in tackling the game’s challenges. Assassin’s Creed is fundamentally a stealth franchise. Stealth is a genre rooted in choice and precision. It is not exhilarating to be told exactly how to tackle a situation, but it is exhilarating to outwit and outthink a set of AI opponents. So when the missions emphasize player choice, these lead to the main story’s strongest moments. However, these moments are often between missions where you follow a person around a city or a ship through some set of islands. These missions are fundamentally boring. They force the player to wait on the computer and give them little agency in the context of the level. There are no compelling decisions to be made. Unfortunately, the game relies on these kind of missions for exposition. This is the worst kind of level design: one placed in the game to suit convention. It also represents an ineffective way of telling stories within games: telling rather than showing or experiencing. Slightly worse is how imprecise the controls can be. It is far to easy to jump further than you want or pop out of cover when you didn’t mean to. The controls were clearly meant to be seamless and, again, convenient, but they result in frustration more often than not.
Simply put, the game has too much. There are so many pieces in Black Flag, but none of them build to a cohesive whole. It’s a game that needs vision. Ultimately, Black Flag is bad game. However, like Assassin’s Creed III before it, it’s a bad game with a lot of good. There must be a large amount of remarkably talented people who worked on it. It has moments of heart and beauty that long for a game better able to utilize them. The split between an Assassin’s Creed sequel and game about pirates forces the game to make decisions and include features that it shouldn’t have to. It would have been better being just a pirate game.