Ah, the open sea. The sun on your face, the wind in your beard and the smell of rum and gunpowder in the air… Can you imagine anything better? Sailing the seven seas is something almost every kid dreams about at one point, and Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag gives you a great opportunity to sail at least one of them – the Caribbean Sea. Assassins? Templars? Secret societies? Ancient civilizations? Nah, it’s the pirate life for me!

Well, that’s not completely fair. Assassin’s Creed 4 does have something to do with Assassins, Templars and the ancient artifacts they all seem to be searching for, but it all takes a back seat to the pirate stuff. Even the protagonist, Edward Kenway isn’t a real Assassin; he is a pirate captain who stumbles upon the whole Assassins vs. Templar thing, and uses it for personal gain (as pirates do). He spends most of his time sailing from one island to the next, ransacking ships and scouring the ocean’s floor for treasure (as pirates should). Most of the assassination stuff is limited to the campaign story missions, which are consequently where the game is at its best.

So the story follows Edward Kenway, a sailor-turned-pirate-turned-fake assassin who gets mixed up with a templar conspiracy to take over the world with an ancient artifact. It’s not long before the local guild of assassins reveals itself to Edward and asks for his help to stop said conspiracy. Edward, however, seems to be much more interested in rum, wenches, gold and hanging out with his pirate buddies. Between the pirates, templars and assassins, AC4’s story is all over the place; it’s pretty obvious it is more about being a swash-buckling privateer than a trained killer working for the greater good. True, as the story progresses, Edward seems to be drawn more and more to the assassins’ cause, but by the time he starts to embrace it – the game is already over. This make the main story feels like a prelude to something that never actually happens.

Nevertheless, the missions themselves are classic Assassin’s Creed. Despite not being an official member of the guild, Edward has all the makings of a true assassin – he can climb, stealth, track and air-assassinate with the best of them. It’s a little weird he can do all that stuff before he even knows what an assassin is, but just roll with it for the sake of gameplay. When on land, Edward will follow his target, eavesdrop on its conversation to gather vital information, and then kill it in a spectacular manner – a lot like what Altair did in the original AC. Actually, the gameplay in the main missions is really similar to the first game in the series, which isn’t always for the best. This repetitive routine of follow-eavesdrop-kill is present in too many missions. But (and that’s a big but), a lot of missions offer different and exciting objectives, like infiltrating a well-guarded castle, boarding a massive man-o-war or sneaking through a swamp to take out the lookouts as your ship sails by. These are the best parts of Assassin’s Creed 4, the parts that manage to creatively combine piracy and assassinations into intense moments.

But you won’t be spending a lot of time on terra firma. Edward’s only real home is the captain’s cabin onboard the Jackdaw – his beloved ship. And you’ll see a lot of the Jackdaw; she is both your only means of transportation and your main weapon. Sure, Edward has his arsenal of swords, pistols and darts, but nothing is more satisfying than taking the mast off a frigate with a well-aimed chain shot. Plus, we’ve already seen most of Edward’s combat moves in previous games – the old “counter, break guard, skewer” routine. Sailing the Caribbean Sea, plundering small isles and passing ships for treasure and materials can be both exhilarating and tiresome at the same time; it really depends on how much you enjoy pirating. The sea also offers the best side activities in game, like diving underwater to explore shipwrecks and caves, or harpooning sharks and whales. However, nothing quite capsulate the true pirate experience as the game’s naval combat.

What started as a nice little distraction in Assassin’s Creed 3 is now a centric gameplay mechanic in Assassin’s Creed 4. While pretty straight forward, Naval Combat can be intense, especially against legendary ships or forts. Add the ever-shifting weather conditions and you got yourself something you won’t find in many other games: exciting and engaging battle on the high seas. Avoiding cannon balls, tidal waves and typhoons at the same time can be tough, but satisfying. Once Edward and his crew have pulverized the enemy’s ship – it’s time to board it and loot its cargo. The seamless transition between commanding your ship and boarding the hostile vessel helps keep the tension up and the action flowing. That is maybe the one thing in the entire game you’ll never get seek of doing over and over again.

So between land and sea, the world of Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag is huge. So huge, in fact, that it’s unlikely you’ll visit every island and collect every manuscript during the single-player campaign; or ever. There are a lot of things to do in this big open world, most of which aren’t particularly fun or exciting. If you’re a hardcore collector or completionist, AC4 will offer you literally dozens of hours of gameplay filled with shiny items to find and collect. Every major location is jam-packed with collectables, unlockables, places to see, and people to kill. Even the smallest island on the map has at least one chest for you to kick open, or at least a treasure map that leads to one. However, if you simply want to get from one place to the next and focus on the story – these side activities and collectables won’t tempt you to stray off the quickest path from point A to point B. Furthermore, this means there’s nothing to fill that voyage with excitement or interest; except for the sea shanties.

Where Assassin’s Creed 4 does manage to squeeze in some references to the overall plot of the franchise are the modern-day sequences. By now we all know the fate of series’ reoccurring protagonist Desmond Milles, so it is time to move on. In AC4 you play as yourself – a star employee of Abstergo Entertainment researching material for a new video game (yes, Assassin’s Creed 4 is a video game where you play a video game just like Assassin’s Creed 4). When you’re not hooked up to the Animus, you get to wander around the offices in first person, reading sticky notes and hacking into your peers’ computers. It’s actually way more fun than is sounds, since you’ll uncover a lot of information that bridges the gap between Ac3 and AC4, as well as a some very cool concept art of alternative Assassin’s Creed games (remember this picture? It’s there). You’ll also meet some familiar faces and help to ever-so-slightly push the story arch along, though it’s not really evident how. Still, the modern-day missions can be a welcome break from all the pirating, especially if you’re craving for some actually relevant progression.

Whether you’re inside the animus or hanging by the water cooler, you’ll notice the game looks rather unimpressive. At first, the huge vistas of the Caribbean are pretty stunning, but once you take a closer look you’ll notice the ugly truth. Weird and jagged shadows, plain character models and various glitches and bugs serve as a constant reminder you are playing a video game, and won’t let you get lost in the world of Assassin’s Creed 4. It’s impossible to escape the feeling that the graphics and visuals took a hit so that AC4 could support such a big open world. The sound, on the other hand, is great; particularly the voice acting. Edward is immediately likable thanks to his jolly demeanor, and his supporting cast of sneering pirates and dashing buccaneers all fit the bill remarkably well. Listening to Edward’s crew sing sea shanties can be a treat, and you’ll find yourself joining in pretty quickly.

Another place you can find the familiar Assassin’s Creed gameplay is in the multiplayer: it is basically the same as in the previous game, with the addition of some new character skins and locations. The franchise’s online component was always far from the main attraction, so if you enjoyed the competitive and cooperative play in Assassin’s Creed 3, there’s no reason no won’t enjoy it this time around. Plus, there are a lot more assassinations going on there than in the single-player campaign.

Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag is somewhat unnecessary within the Assassin’s Creed universe; the plot doesn’t really go anywhere and you hardly ever do anything assassin-related till the last few hours of the single-player campaign. The whole game feels like filler – something to keep fans busy until Ubisoft decides which direction to take the franchise. That been said, if you ignore the Assassin’s Creed title, AC4 is a fun game about pirates where you get to sail the Caribbean Sea and wreak havoc on the British, Spanish and French trading routes. The personal story of Edward Kenway is compelling enough to carry the campaign, and there are some very entertaining missions along the way. Unfortunately, the fun bits can get lost in the game’s huge world that is basically filled with repetitive activities that add nothing to the overall experience. Assassin’s Creed 4 is a step up from the previous game, but it seems to be navigating dangerous waters without a compass.

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