I’m standing on the deck of a double-masted sailing ship, spinning the wheel and ordering the crew to unfurl our full sails so we can race across the waves in search of loot, plunder, and booty. Nearby, two ships are engaged in a duel of cannon fire, and a bell rings overhead to warn me that another ship has turned to pursue us. I need to drop the ship’s diving bell over the side of the ship near the wrecked hull of an unfortunate vessel so I can collect some of the rich stuff on the bottom of the ocean, but before I can do that, it’ll be smoke and swordplay. Except I’m actually in a hotel suite in Seattle, while a member of Ubisoft’s “Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag” team takes me through the paces, and tries to make sure that I don’t run my ship aground on a reef or careen into the wide of a man-of-war.
I’ve been a longtime fan of this series about stealthy gameplay and traversing historic European cities using parkour, but after four games, it was beginning to get slightly stale. “Assassin’s Creed III” came in and shook things up, taking you to the time of the Revolutionary War and putting you in the shoes a brand-new protagonist Connor Kenway, while providing some very fun diversions, one of which was a naval element. Those portions of the game were some of the most intriguing, and thankfully Ubisoft recognized that as well as “Black Flag” puts the focus solely on the life of a privateer, and takes you further into Connor’s backstory as you play through the game as Edward Kenway, grandfather of Connor. And connecting you yet again to modern-day Desmond Miles.
Although I played the multiplayer for the game at E3, this was the first chance I’d had to get behind the wheel of the Jackdaw, and it’s easy to literally lose yourself at sea in this game. Thankfully, it features second screen connectivity, so you can turn your smart phone or tablet into a navigator, which will keep you from diving into the menu over and over. Zooming out, you can see how vast the oceanic world is, with over 75 islands that you can visit, and plenty of encounter out on the sea itself. You can engage in naval combat, harpoon sharks, rescue drowning men, and of course, go diving. Although beware when beneath the waves, as one hungry shark relentlessly pursued us, probably pissed off by the fact that we had speared one of his relatives.
You can dock at several different ports, ranging from ramshackle shantytowns, to full cities like Nassau and Havana. When you disembark, the gameplay will shift to a much more familiar Assassin’s Creed model of climbing, stealth kills, eagle vision, and more. But the addictive thing really is the ship to ship combat. Long ago, I used to salivate at “Sid Meier’s Pirates!” (before the reboot) and pretend that I was living the life of Blackbeard or Captain Kidd. But playing this on a PS4 was like a punch in the ocular nerves, putting you behind the ship’s cannons where you could almost smell the smoke. As the deck was ripped up by whistling iron, and flames belched out all around, the game managed to reach ahold is the gene inside all of us that finds pirates fascinating for some reason, and just doesn’t let go.
Yes, you’ll have to leave your ship to continue driving the campaign forward. But the sheer enjoyment of a life at sea is going to keep you coming back to this game over and over.