Assassin's Creed IV is an indulgent game. No doubt as a reaction to its predecessor, Black Flag is lighter on the historical detail and spends much more time embracing both myth and classically "fun" gameplay. While that sounds like a strike against the game's historical storytelling, it's actually not - rather than dialogue and database entries, Black Flag uses game mechanics to convey its historical setting. It's subtle enough that you may not even realize it, but Black Flag's mechanics cause you to think like an 18th century sailor and unconsciously live the pirate life.
Shanties are probably the best single element in Black Flag. They're fun collectables, give players a sense of the period and make the long stretches between islands pass with ease. And that last bit is truly inspired design-because that's what sailors used songs for in the first place.
First, hard truth: shanties shouldn't be in AC4. Shanties are a specific genre of chanted work song that arose during the mid-19th century on clipper and packet ships. Inspired by African-American dock worker's songs as well as British and American folk music, shanties helped sailors work in rhythm during tasks where they needed to synchronize specific actions like hauling in the anchor or unfurling sails. "Leaver Her, Johnny," for example, was written to accompany working a ship's pump. While some of the period songs in Black Flag are genuinely from the early 18th century, many like "Drunken Sailor" come from a hundred years after, and others are not work songs, but "sea songs."
That aside, the sea songs in Black Flag serve the same purpose as their historical counterparts-to make the ocean seem less empty, to keep spirits up and stave off boredom during long trips. Songs fill empty spaces for the player, just as they did for seamen making long voyages with nothing but their voices and a few small instruments to entertain them. While it's true many of the songs are out of period, their use bridges the gap between player and ship better than anything else in the game.
Making Port, Blowing All Your Money and Heading Back to Sea
Land-based gameplay is the worst part of Black Flag. Boring port activities and chores, only interrupted by missions you have to slog through to get to sea again. Worse still, you're frequently poor on land, having blown all your money on ship and weapon upgrades-you know, fun things-before your clothes even dry out. As a result the more time a player spends on land, the more he looks out to sea, dreaming about the salt air and next big score.
Now I'm sure Ubisoft didn't intend this-no sane AAA developer would-but the limited pleasures on land actually replicate how many sailors spent their time and money during the Golden Age of Piracy.
There is nothing to buy on a ship at sail. Sailors might pay each other to make pipes or other small goods, or buy items off each other, but that was fairly limited. Added to that, cruises were long, boring and harrowing, meaning that when ships came into port, crewmen needed to relive stress and have fun before embarking on another monotonous voyage. Unless a sailor had a spouse to support or a relative to take care of his money (most people didn't use or trust banks) the only solution was to spend wages on goods and pleasures. The result was that shore leave often became a multi-day debauch, with sailors drinking, visiting brothels, and buying everything in sight before they went back out to sea and their currency became useless again. In fact, this behavior was known to be so extreme that some sailors blew all their money within a fortnight on shore, and had to take on menial work or wander around broke until the next voyage. The result was that many veteran seamen left the trade with no savings at all, winding up as beggars at home. The cycle was so infamous that it inspired a famous Royal Navy song, "The British Tars," where the narrator laments that after twenty years in service, he's "turned adrift to starve upon [his] native shore."