The game sports sublime vistas and visceral combat. And who doesn’t want to be a pirate?

Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag really took me by surprise. I only have this game because it came free when I bought my new PC in early 2014. Since playing AC2 in 2009, I have always looked down on the franchise because of its notorious cod sci-fi, conspiracy theory, sub-Dan Brown schtick. But I have to say that Black Flag has made me revise my opinions about the franchise and consider how quick I am to dismiss things.

In essence, Black Flag is a pirate game, and a damn good one. The bulk of the game casts you as Edward Kenway, a charismatic and self-motivated rogue out to make his fortune in the Caribbean. He’s a winning lead and very well-voiced by Matt Ryan. The game features the typical AC malarking around buildings and up scenery, which is largely smooth and good fun. Combat has been improved, to my mind, and the swordplay in particular is generally very satisfying. There is a ‘counter’ button when an enemy attacks and the animations are the most impact-ful and entertaining I have encountered outside the Batman Arkham series. It’s terrific fun. Kenway has various other tricks in his armory, including some firearms, and it’s a satisfying arsenal. The only time it falls down is when boarding ships, as the number of people can make for clumsy targeting and collision detection. This makes for some of the game’s most frustrating moments when you take too many hits and fail a boarding attempt.

The game prominently features ship-based naval combat and it is done well. This is not something I expected I would enjoy at all but the naval combat is quite dramatic and well-balanced. It takes a while to get used to handling the ships and managing the different forms of attack, but you get there eventually. I was disappointed not to get to command more than one ship during the main storyline, but your ship, the Jackdaw, does at least have significant scope for customization. There is a cool minigame where you can get dispatch ships you’ve captured out on trading missions to make money, and it’s quite addictive. You need to get some really powerful ships after a certain point, though, and it’s a pain to capture them. You have to do so during certain story missions, and it would be nice if the game let you keep those ones, but it doesn’t.

Sailing is good fun and can be quite relaxing, while the sea shanties your crew sings in fine weather are surprisingly enjoyable. It’s always a good thing to see a video game take up an aspect of human cultural history and portray it with some degree of care and intelligence, so credit to the designers for that.

The game’s story is adequate, as Kenway is reluctantly dragged into the usual Assassin-Templar shenanigans. This still felt like the worst aspect of the game and largely unnecessary–the game would probably have been better if it was just played as a swashbuckling historical drama, without the weird sci-fi trappings. The storyline is punctuated with sections set in the present day that are probably significant for the overarching AC story but completely redundant in the context of this one game. I did love that the game did such a good and sympathetic job of depicting historical figures like Blackbeard, Mary Read, and Ann Bonny. For all my indifference to the AC universe, it is pleasing to see a major franchise addressing historical subject matter in a reasonably intelligent manner.

The environments and lighting in this game are largely stunning, with some really beautiful coastal vistas. It is an absolute treat to explore the more open regions of the game, although the intermittent jungle terrains are more claustrophobic and largely uninteresting. The ambient soundtrack is wonderful too. As ever, there are a lot of different collectibles and side missions that pop up, and once you get the hang of the game’s mechanics the side-quests can be a lot of fun (although some of the collectibles and crafting mechanics are a bit perfunctory).

There is a bit of a steep learning curve and the the game’s pacing lets it down. It is slow to hit its groove, with too much of the early game set in a tedious and sterile present-day environment where you are just walking around offices. The story is probably too long, as well, which I would attribute to the writers having to write a good pirate story as well as shoehorn in the typical AC mumbo-jumbo. They largely manage it, but the latter stages certainly dragged on a bit for me. There was a surprisingly poignant ending to the story, which was not at all connected to the Assassin-Templar feud, and there’s a lesson there for the franchise. Not one that will be heeded, I’m sure, but nevertheless, I’ll have fond memories of Edward Kenway’s story which was entertaining and surprisingly mature.

I played this on PC and I must say the keyboard controls took a bit of getting used to. It worked out fine in the end although I did get a bit of wrist stiffness now and again after extended sessions. Future games I’ll make sure to play on console. I did try playing it with the Steam Controller (actually one of the reasons I bought that piece of junk) but it didn’t work well at all. Hey ho. The game was forty quid plus when it came out and I got it for free so it all evens out I suppose.

Overall, I had a lot of fun with this game, and it also resonated with me emotionally much more than I expected. That said, there are still inherent weaknesses in the artistic conception of this series and those do hold back the single-player campaign from fulfilling its potential. As it stands, this almost does for pirates what Red Dead Redemption did for cowboys, but it falls slightly short of that mark. Still no mean feat, though.

I didn’t play the online multiplayer at all so can’t comment on that. My rating for the single-player game is an eight. If I had played the multiplayer I might have given it a nine, but as the game has been out for two years one imagines its been superseded by more recent games.