A Highly Enjoyable, Swashbuckling Adventure
Switching out the traditional Assassin’s gear for a pirate hat and cutlass, Black Flag marks a significant step forward for the Assassin’s Creed series, one that brings a much more expansive map to explore and plenty of naval adventuring. With such big steps forward, Black Flag’s narrative suffers as a result. While it’s good enough to drive you forward, and Edward is certainly one of the better Assassins of the series, it ultimately plays second fiddle to the gameplay.
Beginning after the events of Assassin’s Creed III, the present-day timeline picks up with a newly rejuvenated Abstergo Industries continuing to explore Desmond’s genetic memories thanks to samples taken from his dead body. With new-found cloud computing abilities, the Animus returns in the form of a makeshift VR head-set.
Played out through first-person view during the present day scenes, this nameless protagonist is hired by Abstergo to sift through the memories of Edward Kenway, an eighteenth-century pirate and the father of Haytham Kenway from Assassin’s Creed III. The purpose of this comes from an Animus-powered interactive film that the company are creating.
Under this facade, Abstergo – the Templars in the present time of course – search for a First Civilization structure known as The Observatory. For now though, it’s on to the swashbuckling pirate tale that plays out.
After shipwrecking on an island, Edward kills a rogue Assassin called Duncan Walpole and takes on his identity for a Templar meeting in Havana. Edward unravels a conspiracy between high-ranking Templars working within the British and Spanish empires who are looking for the Sage (later confirmed to be Bartholomew Roberts) in order to find the Observatory.
This happens to be a First Civilization device which can monitor anyone when provided a blood sample. Their idea is to spy on and blackmail World Leaders while hiding this nefarious scheme under the pretense of cleaning up pirates in the neighbouring areas.
Edward’s recklessness endangers the entire Assassins’ Order though, prompting him to pursue the Sage and the conspirators all the way to Jamaica. Eventually Edward catches up to Roberts on the island of Príncipe.
Keeping up the traditional story tropes in this series of meeting historical figures, Edward runs into a rogue group of pirates along the way. Here, we meet Edward “Blackbeard” Thatch, Mary Read (under the alias of “James Kidd”) and several other misfit pirates. They dream of a pirate utopia and with Edward’s help, seize control of Nassau and establish a pirate republic.
However, this pirate state falls perilously close to collapsing not long after being formed, leaving the founders divided on the best way of re-establishing order. Edward attempts to interject but to no avail. Along the way, Blackbeard announces his retirement from piracy.
Eventually, Edward and Roberts uncover the location of the Observatory and retrieve the artifact powering it. Unfortunately Roberts betrays Edward at the last moment, consequently causing him to be imprisoned. After a brief stint behind bars, Edward escapes with the aid of Ah Tabai, the Assassin Mentor, and elects to join their Order.
Chasing down and eliminating Roberts and the Templar conspirators, Edward retrieves the artifact and returns it to the Observatory, sealing it away for good. Unfortunately, he suffers some casualties along the way in doing this, including Blackbeard who helps feed his vengeance-fueled mission to stop Roberts and the others. In doing so, Edward is left facing an uncertain future until he receives a letter revealing his wife has passed away and his daughter Jennifer Scott, is en-route.
Edward travels back to England, promising Ah Tabai that he will continue the fight against the Templars back home. Some years later, Edward, Jennifer (using her mother’s surname in her memory) and Edward’s young son Haytham attend a play in an English theatre.
Interspersed around Edward’s swashbuckling adventure are the present-day sequences. These follow a very simple narrative beginning with our nameless character contacted by John, Abstergo’s IT manager, who tasks you with hacking various computers and sneaking information out to Shaun Hastings and Rebecca Crane, who are working undercover to infiltrate Abstergo.
When the facility is locked down after the hacks are discovered, John carves out a route to the Animus’ core where, upon flicking a switch, Juno materializes into an incorporeal form. She reveals that although it was necessary to open her temple to avert disaster (the solar flare in the last game), the world is not ready for her and she disappears.
At this point, John reveals himself as the reincarnated form of the Sage and attempts to murder our nameless player to cover up what’s transpired. However, he’s killed by Abstergo’s security before he can do so. With the Sage dead, the story ends with you contacted by the Assassins as they continue their infiltration of Abstergo but are unable to reveal many of the mysterious details surrounding the Sage, which is where the main narrative draws to a close.
While there are stand-out moments in the story – meeting Blackbeard and Robert’s betrayal – the rest of the plot ultimately fails to stand out next to such a compelling and enjoyable gameplay experience.
This is something Black Flag has a real problem with at times, especially given how big the world is. Narratively though, the game does quite well to keep things interesting and Edward’s story is certainly one of the better character journeys we follow through the Assassin’s Creed series. The ending involving his daughter is a really satisfying way to close things; a passing of the torch for what transpired in Assassin’s Creed III.
However, the present day timeline really struggles to match the compelling piracy angle and it’s here the plot slips up. We know absolutely nothing about this nameless character by the end and this lack of identity hurts the game a lot during these modern sequences. Despite all this though, Black Flag does well to make a name for itself but the narrative is largely forgettable next to such an enjoyable and fully-realized world.