There are few time periods more romanticized than the Age of Piracy, and all forms of entertainment have long been obsessed with the freedom-loving pirates who sail the open seas. Video games arguably have an even stronger obsession, and nine years ago Ubisoft released one game that manages to perfectly tap into that pirate fantasy. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is easily the best pirate game ever made, giving players a vast world to explore and plunder.
Ironically, Black Flag manages to be so good because it tones down all the Assassin’s Creed elements, and instead focuses on providing a story and gameplay experience built around the idea of piracy.
Like every other Assassin’s Creed game, Black Flag takes place in a historical setting against the backdrop of the eternal conflict between the Assassins and Templars. The main character, Edward Kenway, doesn’t start out as an assassin, but rather a privateer-turned-pirate. Black Flag’s story sees Edward meet an array of colorful historical characters, like Blackbeard and Anne Bonny, but the game’s biggest strength is not tying most of these characters to the series’ two organizations.
Edward simply wants to live free from the shackles of society. So when the Assassin’s Brotherhood comes into the picture, Edward only participates begrudgingly. Instead, the narrative is more focused on exploring the people and places of the Caribbean, displaying the ever-growing enmity between pirates and the military forces of the British and Spanish.
Nearly every gameplay element in Black Flag is designed to reinforce the idea of being a “free” pirate. The core gameplay loop is heavily influenced by the stealth action of previous Assassin’s Creed games, but this is where the series really started to invest more in exploration.
Early on in the story, players get control of the Jackdawn, used to travel the open sea and a smattering of islands, large and small. In true pirate fashion, there’s an almost limitless number of things to discover in the world of Black Flag, from small pieces of treasure hidden underwater, to massive ancient ruins propped up on forgotten islands.
Your ship and crew become a vital part of the experience, and Black Flag provides a robust set of options for upgrading both. You can recruit new crewmembers to bolster your combat abilities, and improve the armor and cannons of the Jackdaw. Ship combat is the highlight of Black Flag, giving you full control of your ship’s offensive systems in high-intensity battles that see you maneuvering for position against the enemy ship, and looking for the perfect opening.
Many of these ship battles end with a climactic boarding sequence where you ram the enemy ship and swing over on a rope to cut down any survivors. Black Flag’s combat certainly feels more action-y than later entries like Odyssey, but it feels visceral and fitting for the setting.
On top of the actual mechanics, Black Flag’s visual and audio design impeccably represents the Age of Piracy. The cerulean oceans of the Caribbean look absolutely gorgeous, and even by today’s standards Black Flag has some of the best water tech found in video games. Environments are also filled with vegetation and wildlife, making the world feel more realistic and vibrant. While sailing the seas, your crew will occasionally break into a rollicking sea shanty, an incredibly fun feature that Assassin’s Creed would carry over into later games, including Valhalla.
Assassin’s Creed’s defining feature has always been the historical playgrounds it lets you play around in, but no other game has managed to embrace its setting quite like Black Flag. Everything about the game is impeccably designed to play into that central fantasy, and there are very few pirate games that can compare.
It’s a prime example that shows Assassin’s Creed is at its best when it lets you simply fulfill a fantasy, and doesn’t get weighed down by all the lore.
Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag is available on PlayStation, Xbox, Switch, and PC.