By the time Desmond Miles met his fate, the “Assassin's Creed” franchise resembled its protagonist. The series looked spent after yearly iterations that seemed to exhaust the creative juices of its developers. The endless opportunities that the property once held narrowed as Ubisoft Montreal and its partners had to explain and conclude Desmond's story arc.
The franchise needed new heroes and a fresh focus, and thankfully, it gets both with “Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag.” There's optimism for the franchise as it returns to form. This time around, gamers play themselves — part of the campaign is in the first-person as they take on the role of a new Abstergo Entertainment employee. The narrative gets meta as players realize they've been hired to research a pirate game based in the “Assassin's Creed” universe.
When they enter the animus, the device that lets them relive memories of historic figures, players inhabit the game's main character, Edward Kenway. He's another of Desmond's ancestors, and he lived through the golden age of piracy. It's the perfect backdrop that capitalizes on the unfulfilled potential of “Assassin's Creed 3.” The naval gameplay, one of the best but underused parts of the previous title, is fleshed out as Edward helms the Jackdaw, a stolen Spanish ship.
In the campaign, players travel around the Caribbean visiting ports of call such as Havana, Kingston, and Nassau while ransacking frigates and forts. Naval combat is easy to control and requires some strategy as players maneuver boats for ideal striking positions. If players damage a rival ship enough, they can board it, which offers a slew of approaches and is just as engrossing. There's a fair amount of grinding as players pillage resources to upgrade the Jackdaw so it can take on more powerful man-o-wars and galleons.
As for missions on the land, it's what fans of the series have come to expect. There are assassination quests and a host of collectibles and ingredients used to upgrade Edward's gear, making him a more lethal pirate. Few of the missions stand out, but the team did make stealth more forgiving. Players can easily cut down a squad of soldiers without having an army falling upon them.
Although that's improved, some parts of “Assassin's Creed IV” are a pain. The missions where Edward has to tail and eavesdrop on targets are annoying, with no clear path and enemies constantly patrolling an area. It's a frustrating exercise in trial and error.
What saves the game is how “Assassin's Creed 4”³ recaptures that sense of exploration and possibilities that the series once held. The world is full of so many locales and items to discover that players can easily get lost and not mind it. Meanwhile, the fresh start with new characters opens up exciting prospects. It feels as though Ubisoft Montreal can take players anywhere, and with the improvements in this sequel, fans will be up for the ride.
'Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag'
* * * ½
Platforms: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Wii U, (PlayStation 4, PC and Xbox One later this year)