Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag: Video Game Review

It is all so very pretty, and pretty fun, but it’s just not very surprising.

The sixth "Assassin's Creed" title takes to the high seas for a "Pirates of the Caribbean"-style adventure.

It shouldn’t be surprising that, six games into a series, there isn’t that much new under the Sun. The pleasures to be found in an Assassin’s Creed haven’t changed: Exotic, beautifully rendered historic locales and smooth ways to kill lots of people in them. As it ever was. That’s the trick with franchise games: deliver those things that people liked before, while finding ways to spin those things in newish ways. Don’t do too much to alienate, but do more than merely duplicate.

In that regard, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is a success. The locales are beautiful and the artful demise of governmental stooges as silky smooth. But the problems that have plagued the AC series since the beginning are still there, waiting to pounce.

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The sci-fi conceit behind Assassin’s Creed was always a wonderfully heady one: Thanks to a new technology called the Animus, people could enter simulations drawn from their own genetic memory. Basically, they could live as their own ancestors. Instead of dying during those simulations – and the gameplay — you were “desynchronized” from the memories. One poor sap, Desmond Miles, was kidnapped by the Abstergo Corporation and drawn into a centuries-old conflict between the Templars and the Assassins Brotherhood – because his memories held the key to an artifact of unspeakable power. (Just once, I’d like someone to be after an artifact whose power is totally speakable.)

Each game focused on a different set of memories which let the player experience different worlds and different characters – the taciturn Arabic Altair during the Crusades, the roguish Renaissance-era Italian Ezio Auditore, the petulant Mohawk Ratonhnhaké:ton stalked the American Revolution – while pulling the action away from the period thrills for contemporary adventures with Desmond.

Now, the sixth installation takes place during the early 1700s, on the high seas of the Caribbean. The main character is Edward Kenway – the grandfather of AC3’s Ratonhnhaké:ton – who, as with the other games in the series, has to find artifacts, take on assassination contracts and eliminate Templars to progress. Even more than other games in the series, the modern-day segments feel onerous, like homework you have to do before being able to return to the game you want to be playing, the one that lets you sail as the Kenway, captain of the Jackdaw, or scramble through lush cities like Kingston, Jamaica and Havana, Cuba.

And the pirate missions are the gems here: Even though nautical combat was introduced in Assassin’s Creed 3, it’s far more fleshed out here – the Caribbean is its own open-world to explore, with treasure to dive for, wee islands to explore, game to harpoon and, of course, battle to wage. One could be forgiven for never wanting to set foot on dry land, because when you do, the missions are simply variations on ones you’ve played hundreds of times before: tail these guys, assassinate those guys, sneak into this fortress, chase that sheet of music -- all using a still-frustrating control scheme that will still have you climbing something (or not climbing it) at exactly the wrong time.

At least Kenway is a more engaging character than the half-native American/half-Brit of the last game, who was burdened with a maddening blend of noble pomp and feckless angst. Kenway’s a guy who likes a good carouse, who relishes a well-executed crime, who likes it when his crew sings a full-bodied sea shanty.

Assassin’s Creed hasn’t become the sort of disappointingly compulsory franchise that, say, Madden NFL is – where you’re buying it every year either out of habit or simply for the updated player rosters. Nor is it, like so many first-person shooters, a hollow adrenaline-exercise. It feels more like Grand Theft Auto – a series that once pushed boundaries but has since settled into a sort of sumptuous complacence.

It is all so very pretty, and pretty fun, but it’s just not very surprising.