WARNING: This article contains some major spoilers for the game, and for the Assassin’s Creed franchise as a whole.
So. After finishing Assassin’s Creed III, many of us probably sat back in our seats as the credits rolled with several questions on our minds. Two of them were likely “What the fuck was that?!” and “WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN NOW?”
If you shared this reaction, then you’re probably going to get the same reaction I did the moment you pop Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag into your PC or console. It’s that wonderful, all-consuming feeling of “Holy shit, I have no idea what’s going on”. You’ll figure it out throughout the course of the game, and as the revelations happen, it’ll be rapidly replaced with Feelings.
Capitalization necessary. See, if there is one thing that Black Flag was great at doing, it was reminding you that no, you don’t actually need your heart. You should rip it out of your chest and hand it over for a good, old fashioned beating.
I’ll get to that bit soon. Let’s talk about a few of the other things that make this game worth playing.
When the news about Black Flag first came out, the thing that the gaming community appeared to be most excited about was Ubisoft’s promise to make Black Flag quite the experience with its provisions for naval warfare. Every title within the Assassin’s Creed franchise is set in a particularly interesting portion of history, and since Black Flag takes place during the so-called “Golden Age of Pirates”, putting assassins and Templar on boats and having them duke it out on the high seas was kind of really necessary. Let me tell you: they REALLY delivered with that part. The random weather generator makes for a challenging experience (and they’ve conveniently included a fast travel option for lazy gamers like myself), and the naval battles themselves constitute at least half the fun of the entire game. It’s an excellent counter-balance to the traditional flavor of Assassin’s Creed (you know, that whole part where you jump some roofs and take some names and kill some fuckers), and adds a layer to the gameplay that both lends some really nice flavor to the historical period that they’ve chosen to highlight in Black Flag and gives players something new to do.
Now let’s consider how Black Flag fits into the main line of Assassin’s Creed. The ending of Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation meant the end of Desmond Miles, the character behind the historical Assassins that you manipulate throughout the game. Furthermore, the Assassin whose life you follow is Connor Kenway, a man who appears to be the veritable end of the chain linking Desmond to Altair. Black Flag goes out on a limb by changing things up, and putting you in the shoes of a random Abstergo Entertainment employee who has absolutely no idea that he’s looking for something of incredible value to the Templar (and, subsequently, something incredibly dangerous for the few Assassins that remain after everything got turned around). Your unnamed employee persona, in fact, doesn’t seem to have a clue about what’s really going on. In fact, the “official” reason why your character has been put in charge of going through the life of Edward Kenway – Haytham Kenway’s father, which effectively makes him Connor’s grandfather – is because pirates are cool, pirates sell, and pirate games are Awesome.
This is, in my opinion, metafictional genius that only increases the overall metafictional power of Assassin’s Creed as a whole, both on the narrative end and on the gameplay end of things. The entire setup, in fact, of “Abstergo Entertainment” within the game appears to be a running parody/critique of the game developers and the gaming industry as a whole, all through the eyes of the rank and file involved in video game production. This adds some nice texture to the gaming experience, and provides the means for looking at things from the Templar side of things, and from the perspective of someone who is totally in the dark over the secret war between Assassin and Templar. And let’s not even go into how Ubisoft seems to have added a whole lot of Easter eggs within the stuff that your employee persona gets to read.
With that out of the way, let’s take a look at Edward Kenway. Ubisoft appears to have taken the criticism behind Connor Kenway’s character seriously and provided us with a rather colorful new assassin to take through history. Black Flag, in fact, is an origin story that is unique in the sense that you end up controlling a man who is about the farthest you could possibly get from being Assassin material, and walk him through the his journey towards the Brotherhood. It helps, of course, that Matt Ryan breathed life and vibrancy into Edward by providing wonderful voice overs, and that the Assassin’s Creed team took pains to illustrate, through Edward’s arsenal and the way he moves in combat, the kind of swashbuckling anti-hero that Edward is supposed to be in contrast to pretty much every other Assassin we’ve played as until this moment. There are, after all, few things more gratifying than getting to Jack Sparrow your way unto a Spanish boat that you practically blew out of the water, and kick/slash, punch your way through an enemy crew.
On a more serious note, though, the game’s plot seems to start with a single question for Edward: “Who are you, really?” The answer is found with every failure he suffers, every comrade that ends up dying in front of his very eyes or in his arms. His origin story follows the rise and fall of some of the biggest names in the Golden Age of Piracy: he successfully becomes a part of an area that represented, in many ways, one last cry for freedom and independence from the crushing machinery of imperial colonial powers. In this sense, he’s believable, especially in light of the fact that there were only too many nameless and obscure pirates who took to the seas because they felt cheated by their old masters, and chose to rage against the dying light by constantly biting the hand that once fed them. It doesn’t help, of course, that the masterminds behind Black Flag’s soundtrack know exactly how to gutpunch you with music. It ALSO doesn’t help that, through Liberation and the franchise’s novels, we know how the story picks up from there: the secrets Edward was entrusted with are stolen after he is killed in his own home, his son Haytham becomes a Templar, and Connor later kills his father with his own hands.
Overall, Black Flag was a commendable attempt at escalating the plot, and it definitely succeeded in maintaining the momentum that Assassin’s Creed, as a whole, possessed as a franchise. I admit that because I had such a good experience with Black Flag, I’m a little apprehensive about checking Unity out, especially in light of the reception it has received from all aspects of the gaming community. Here’s hoping that Ubisoft will be able to put out something with as much power as Black Flag possessed in the future.