Pirates might have been supplanted by zombies in our current cultural lexicon, but Black Flag proves there's plenty of charm left in the sailor's life. You could argue the best parts of last year's Assassin's Creed 3 were the naval missions, but they were somewhat linear and you could only explore a small area of the seas when playing them. Black Flag opens up the whole Caribbean, and you are free to sail wherever you would like, attack whatever brig or schooner looks appealing, and have a blast doing it. Oh, and there's also some Templars to kill, naturally.
In contrast to overwrought videogame stories, Assassin's Creed IV presents a pretty basic narrative without seeming clichéd. Edward Kenway is tired of being poor peasant, so he leaves his girl in Wales to make his fortune as a privateer. The ship he's sailing on is sunk by a guy in a fancy hooded costume, and the two wash up on an island together. Kenway kills the Assassin , steals his clothes, and heads to Havana to sell the information the Assassin was peddling on an ancient artifact called the Observatory. The Templars there take him in, but eventually things go sour and Kenway has to escape. Once he steals a ship and names it the Jackdaw, your life as a proper pirate captain begins.
What's interesting about this opening is the character you're playing initially has no allegiances in the ongoing struggle between Templars and Assassins that's a fixture of the series. Kenway wants gold and power, but he also respects the freedom that's a tenet of the Assassin creed. The Observatory is also a symbol of some current events in our world - the device lets you spy on anyone anywhere - and the Templars want it to commit some serious NSA-level intrusions of liberty. In the modern-day sections of the game - very short sequences in which you play as an Animus operator ostensibly researching for a pirate film - Abstergo Industries wants to control the Observatory, too, of course.
But that's all framing to support what is a truly huge open world, erm sea, to explore in your pirate ship. From Florida to Jamaica, from the Yucatan to Tortuga, you can travel to every inch of the map, set ashore on small sandbar islands or major settlements to dig for treasure or perform assassination contracts. When you start out, it makes sense to discover as many settlements as you can to unlock fast travel points. The fast travel system allows you to move quickly when you want to, but in Black Flag just sailing between points of call is an adventure. Your spyglass is an essential tool; you can use it to identify ships on the horizon - as well as what they are carrying - and investigate island locations, marking them for further exploration. Set your sails to the fastest "travel speed" and the game's UI disappears. Your sailors will sing traditional sea chants, and it's a pleasure just to take in the beautiful setting sun as you ride the waves. Black Flag makes you feel like a pirate.
Enough talk about pretty things, it's time to blow some shite up. You're not truly a pirate until you start pirating. You pilot the Jackdaw using intuitive controls, and firing broadside cannons on your prey is as simple as aiming a gun. Momentum is important, and you'll be adjusting your sails often in navel engagements to turn quickly or to speed past enemy guns before finding a good opportunity to fire yours. There's a bit of figuring out how to approach enemy ships, and if you can get behind them to fire your first volley of chain shot with your chase cannons at the bow, you'll do well in disabling even Spanish brigs or English man-o-wars. Once the ship is disabled, i.e. its health is low enough, you can board her. Your men will throw grappling hooks to pull the two ships close together, and Kenway can jump on to the enemy deck himself to swiftly kill crewmen in hand-to-hand combat . It's a great dual system that rewards both skill in naval combat, and the pirate action you've wanted to indulge in since watching Pirates of the Carribbean. Swinging onto the enemy ship, climbing into the rigging, and air assassinating two crewmen is endlessly satisfying.
On land, sneaking is usually preferred to straight-up combat. There's a lot more opportunities to hide in thickets of foliage or haystacks to avoid detection. Holding a shoulder button or trigger lets Kenway free climb up most buildings and obstacles, letting you parkour like a YouTube champ. Ubisoft has improved the climbing algorithm so that you're not running up unwanted surfaces very often. If you don't feel like running or hiding, guards can quickly overwhelm you, but clever use of counter attacks can usually defeat large numbers quickly. Combat is virtually unchanged from previous games, with swords, pistols and special items like smoke bombs you can use to great effect. In general, the combat system lacks nuance and patience is all you need to kill your foes.