Disclaimer: I have a confession to make: I loved Assassin's Creed 3. I know that's currently a sin in the public eye, but it was great to see us transported to an entirely new and refreshingly unique era, with a new aesthetic, greater focus on exploration, and a politically-motivated revisionist narrative of American history. It was also great to see the level of attention they paid to the tribal nation the protagonist Connor hailed from - of course being First nation also, I may be biased -and the nontraditional portrayal of him that ventured far from the often romanticized image of First Nations characters. The game also took some risks that thankfully paid off fairly well, and left players with a wealth of additional content at their fingers. Nonetheless, the plethora of glitches left an otherwise impressive entry feeling unpolished and in some cases, underused potential. That doesn't even include the contemporary storyline involving Desmond that continued to reach new levels of absurdity.

It's with a very cautious sense of optimism that I began playing Black Flag, the latest entry in the Assassin's Creed franchise, but I found myself impressed. The game improves on much of the series' strengths while trimming the fat from the unsavory elements and eschewing most of the overblown idiosyncracies of the series in favor of a more straightforward and lighthearted tale. While lacking somewhat storywise, it represents one of the most refined games since Assassin's Creed 2.

Assassin's Creed 4 does a spectacular job of introducing players, throwing them in the thick of the narrative and avoiding overlong tutorial sessions and handholding; players will get to exploring much sooner than expected. Taking on the role of the pirate Edward Kenway, players will amass an impressive crew while meeting colorful characters throughout their misadventures in the Caribbean, from the ever trustworthy Adewale to the notorious Blackbeard. The plot is surprisingly sparse, centering around a quest for the Observatory, another first civilization location with mysterious power that grants near omniscience. Kenway seeks it for profit and the chance to impress his love; the Templars reprise their usual role, seeking it instead for power, and the Assassins nonetheless are trying to stop them. Although Kenway inevitably gets caught in the middle of this conflict, his goals remain his own and far from stoic.

However, apart from a few unavoidable segments, players will be free to explore the myriad locales to their heart's content. The story itself is much subtler and less heavy-handed, although it seems to be directionless at certain points. It only evolves in the final third of the main campaign, and perhaps it's for the better; it's otherwise action-packed, filled with lighthearted moments of thrills, misadventures, betrayal, cameos of infamous historical figures, and just plain badassery. Kenway isn't your typical assassin; he's far more pragmatic and ambitious in comparison to the idyllic ones we're used to seeing, and this nonchalance will come with its consequences. While not as emotionally gripping, it's an otherwise refreshing departure from the often confusing conspiracy-laden plots of the previous entries.

Another departure is Black Flag's much touted emphasis on naval exploration, a popular side feature of the third numbered entry. Players will still find themselves parkouring throughout cities, towns, ruins, and jungles, yet the sea also offers players an equal amount of opportunity. Kenway's ship, The Jackdaw, starts off with a modest crew and arsenal, but will need to be upgraded in order to survive the perilous regions of the Carib, neatly marked on the world map.

While a few upgrades will only unlock as the story progresses, many of them will be attainable through lot's of exploration... and plundering. Special treasure chests will unlock ship upgrades, from more powerful broadside cannons to stronger hull armor. These naturally will require the appropriate resources, most of which you'll acquire from piracy.

Selling Rum and Sugar you've acquired along with other resources will be the primary means to amassing riches, and other vital supplies like wood and metal will be found on the ships you'll encounter while roaming the seas. These range from small pushovers like schooners to moderately-challenging frigates and daunting Man-o-Wars.  These ships typically won't engage you unless you're in restricted territory or in battle with part of their fleet, so would-be rogues will be able to pick and choose to their leisure. The yields vary depending upon the region and the tougher ships naturally will yield better rewards, so players will undoubtedly find themselves testing their limits. Thankfully, identifying them through your spyglass will allow you to determine the relative strength of the ship based on a leveling system I have yet to understand. Engaging these ships is equally impressive.



Naval combat is an incredibly refined iteration of the feature from the previous entry, with a better targeting system for broadside cannon fire, improved navigation - don't expect any actual fidelity to real sailing, though - in addition to increasingly dynamic environments. Players still have their standard shots, devastating but limited heavy shots, in addition to chase cannon fire and explosive barrels that players can unload; these function as mines that players can detonate when enemy ships venture too close. Players will be able to reveal the weakpoints of ships with greater ease for vital critical hits that can be swiftly unleashed. Bracing against attacks while carefully managing your position and speed is also easier. The greatest improvement however, shows when players attempt to incapacitate enemy galleons.

Destroying the sails of enemy ships in Assassin's Creed 3 during naval missions was an endeavor marked with incredible tedium. Such isn't the case here. Proper timing and the appropriate barrage will result in a ship being handicapped so that players can board it, which is also a blast. With the right button press, The Jackdaw will automatically begin docking near the downed ship as Kenway's crew cast hooks and drag it close. You'll have the option to take a few pot shots using a swivel gun to take out a few of the enemies before boarding the ship yourself. Players will then have a set number of enemies to kill in order to make the remaining crew surrender, ranging anywhere from five to twenty. If you're lucky, you might find yourself completing that objective before you even board with well-placed shots.

A few other objectives may need to be completed in order to succeed in capturing a ship, whether it's assassinating scouts or captains, destroying gunpowder barrels, or destroying the ship's flag. Players will then reap their rewards and will find themselves presented with several options depending on the scenario, whether it's lowering your notoriety or recruiting them to your fleet. Players will sometimes get spare crewmembers to replace those killed in battle, also offsetting the tedium and masking the repetition that comes with the process. The ability to fast travel is also more than welcome.

The chaos and excitement doesn't stop there, however. While sailing, players may find themselves engaging enemy galleons in the midst of fierce storms as giant waves thrash against the ship. Typhoons may form if the weather gets too severe, wreaking untold havoc on your ship if you aren't careful; you can even lose shipmates. In other cases, players may find themselves sailing through dense mists and navigating treacherous pathways. Players might even spot Naval convoys that they can plunder for impressive rewards - anywhere from 1000-20,000 Reales - provided that they're up for the challenge. There are also forts players will be able to sack in order to secure territory for Kenway's forces, and it's during these riveting segments that the impressive polish of naval combat shines through.

Don't think that Kenway will be able to terrorize the seas unchallenged, though. An all-new notoriety system created just for Kenway when he's roaming the seas will accumulate each time he plunders a ship. Once it's risen to certain point, players will find themselves being engaged by pirate hunters eager to claim the bounty on your head. The higher it rises, the greater the opposition; players might find themselves being engaged by several pirate hunters while already in the midst of a skirmish. Managing notoriety thus becomes an important element of exploration when plundering ships; players of course, can also lower it by offering the usual bribe while docked.

When not engaged, there're plenty of islands to explore and plunder for collectibles and other secrets. The Jackdaw will even encounter various goods drifting in the sea, from barrels of rum and sugar to castaways you can recruit. Players will occasionally spot ships recently decimated and have the opportunity to plunder their goods before the ships sink; other locations will allow Kenway to explore underwater wreckage for treasure and other secrets, some which can be used to customize The Jackdaw. Players might even spot fauna to harpoon, from bull sharks to the white whale itself. The wonderfully-rendered environment never ceases to mesmerize players on pure scale alone; the added detail and intricacies of each location are another incentive.

The locales of the Caribbean may not have the same sense of spectacle as Rome or Damascus, but they do have their own sense of character and personality, from Kingston to Havana. In addition to side missions like naval and assassin's contracts, players can also acquire shanties that will unlock new songs for Kenway's crew, from the lively "Handy Me Boys" to the somber "Stormalong John".  Wildlife can be hunted for their skins and other resources so that players can upgrade Kenway's equipment, and come in a diverse variety, from Capuchin monkeys to jaguars. Players can even rescue pirates that will then join Kenway's crew.

In addition to traditional points of interest like Viewpoints, players may find soldiers guarding warehouses with resources for Kenway to hoard in segments that rely on stealth and wit; alarm bells that guards will use to attract more soldiers if Kenway is detected can be disabled. Combat against numerous enemies no longer poses as great a threat as before, though. Players will encounter a range of enemies, from standard axe-wielding brutes that need to be disoriented in order to land effective strikes, to musket-wielding snipers surveying the area from rooftops. Countering is much easier this time, and combat flows smoother, with Kenway utilizing sabers and double pistols masterfully. Replacing the traditional throwing daggers are darts that Kenway can use to either knock enemies unconscious for a short period, or send them into an ultimately fatal mad frenzy to provide the necessary distraction. Upgrading them can increase the time duration of their effects.

While there are a variety of different activities, players will still find themselves stalking enemies to learn important information, locating and assassinating targets, and protecting allies to be the most common tasks Kenway will perform throughout the campaign. The game manages to alleviate most of this repetition by occasionally breaking up the monotony with missions that require sea travel - that nonetheless, will require you to tail another ship most of the time. Some missions provide an adrenaline dose of naval warfare, while others expertly combine both sea and land exploration in impressive stealth-centered segments. Players can then rate each mission once completed and send their ratings as feedback, a somewhat puzzling, yet welcome addition to the game that borders on metagaming, a feature that Black Flagincorporates with ham-handed effectiveness.



When you're not venturing the seas as Kenway, you're an intrepid new Abstergo employee tasked with searching Kenway's timeline for any useful data; in this case, the Observatory Kenway is on a quest to discover. You'll find yourself in an office with employees cheerily discussing the historical events they've experienced, even a poster of games they've made using the information acquired from Desmond's DNA, including a not-so-subtle reference to Liberations. It tries to elevate the story told to a narrative with meta-textual depth, but the premise ultimately ends up smarter on paper than in practice.

Players will find hidden notes discussing new ideas for "games" in addition to profiles of previous Assassins being considered for these interactive experiences, all from the warped perspective of Abstergo. It's an amusing but unfulfilling distraction from a present day plot light on story and heavy on annoying hacking mini-games. There is an element of intrigue that gives players a nice view from within the notorious corporation, but players undoubtedly find themselves eagerly speeding through these segments in order to return to the animus and resume their adventures as Kenway. By the time players have completed the main campaign, they'll be ready to sail again to discover other secrets as well as complete Community challenges for other rewards.

Black Flag's multiplayer doesn't innovate much, maintaining its predator/prey dynamic with the allure of new locations. A Game tool that allows players to make their own customized modes does add to the variety, and Wolfpack mode feels improved also. Yet, players who haven't played multiplayer probably will not find anything they're missing out on; not having multiplayer ship battles is a wasted opportunity that could've given multiplayer some serious replay value. But these underwhelming aspects can't ultimately tarnish the wealth of content available to players in the campaign mode. I'd barely cracked fifty percent completion after dozens of hours playing, and I had yet to even crack into the fleet of ships I'd amassed to use for special trade missions. Sadly, they aren't done as well as one would've liked, but they're a nice distraction.

The sky has finally cleared after a lively rainstorm, with the sun lighting up the vivid ocean. As I survey the waters ahead of me, my crew breaks into another shanty. There's a humpback splashing in the water beside The Jackdaw that I can harpoon, and a Man-O-War with my name written on it. Then again, there is an island nearby with a relic I can find at the ruins hidden there, even a fort some leagues away ripe for the taking. It's hard to choose, sometimes. Concluding, Assassin's Creed IV is a surprising hit filled with booty for the inner rogue to squander, in a world that's remarkably realized with great care and polish. It takes risks by eschewing the often melodramatic and convoluted premise in favor of a simpler and contained narrative that you'll never want to escape, and intriguing characters you'll relish. The game excels when it avoids its pretensions, and reminds players that showing is always more valuable than telling.