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The opening as a whole is fantastic. Normally AC games feel like an extended tutorial for the first eight hours, but this strikes that tricky balance of opening up very quickly, while still unfolding the ways you can interact with your surroundings at a steady and appealing rate. It takes little more than an hour or two for practically the whole map to be fully explorable. Concessions to convenience are also made with a proper fast travel system: you can not only zip to any islands you’ve previously visited, but also to any synced viewpoint.
And speaking of islands, there are a lot of them. The three majors cities – Nassau, Kingston, and Havana – are all comparable to ACIII’s main hubs, but then there are dozens and dozens of other locations, ranging from large swathes of Aztec-style jungle, to postage stamp-sized sandcastles containing little more than a tree and a treasure chest. Visiting them all, let alone hoovering up the myriad collectibles contained within, would be a full-time job.
Lessons have also been learned from Ubisoft’s finest recent outing, Far Cry 3. Some of the viewpoints resemble Rook Islands’ radio towers, and there’s also a crafting system that tasks you with hunting down deer, jaguars etc. in order to upgrade certain bits of Edward’s kit. The at-sea harpooning sections left me a little uncomfortable in a way that none of Far Cry’s animal slaughter did, mind – while there’s farce in mowing down a cassowary with a high-powered machine gun, throwing low-fi spears into a whale as the sea turns red is not something I appreciate being forced to do.
Assassin’s Creed 4 PS4 gameplay video. Subscribe for more PS3 & PS4 videos.
So this is a beautiful, sun-drenched idyll in which you’ll never want for something to do, and as such Black Flag is an excellent pirate fantasy. However, the core game is undermined by issues which should have been booted out of the franchise years ago. Eavesdropping missions have always been abysmal, and there’s a boatload of them here. Slowly being forced to walk-and-talk with NPCs is another tiresome chore that returns. And back with serious vengeance is the tailing – the horrible, interminable tailing – which has you laboriously spy on targets from a distance time and time again.
This isn’t acceptable in a current-gen game, let alone something leading the charge on PS4. One of the many things that set GTA 5 apart in its genre was the consistently thrilling and inventive approach to your tasks, and this is a lesson the Assassin’s Creed series seems wilfully resistant to learning. And it does dilute the experience, with some poor objectives, bad checkpointing and dodgy AI driving you to distraction. However, Black Flag’s cocktail of Caribbean capers is so large that the effect is like dropping a shot of tequila into a fishbowl of Sea Breeze. You know it’s there, and you’d rather it wasn’t, but you’ll still enjoy the journey regardless. Despite the nausea. Again a disappointing ignorance to key areas that need fixing, but this is more than mitigated by a vast and beautiful world full of possibilities and ripe for exploration.