Though not the most common, pirates are certainly one of the more easily recognized motifs applied in books, films, and games. From cartoony fun to treasure-seeking adventure, the success of these offerings depends on a lot of elements—approach, style, storyline, etc. among them. There is a world of difference between Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean films and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Ubisoft’s 2013 entry into the world of video game pirating, Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag, is one of the best incarnations of the motif I’ve ever experienced, but is not without missed opportunities.
If the video gamer wants to go out pirating, there is nothing like Black Flag. An open world (perhaps better phrased “open sea and archipelago”) game, it delivers pirating in spades. You want a large number of places to travel and explore and sea to navigate, the game feels positively huge. (It feels like the biggest game I’ve ever played, even though it may not be in reality.) You want ships blasting cannons at one another on the high seas, cutlass fights on deck, and swinging through the rigging on ropes, Black Flag delivers this, as well. You want colonial Caribbean, from coconut palms to stone churches, shanty shacks to flintlock rifles, Black Flag offers oodles. You want treasure hunts, plundering, and raiding for gold, Black Flag has numerous side missions and quests that have the player doing a lot of fun, interesting stuff that either contributes directly to the rpg elements (e.g. crafting for both the main character and his ship) or simply getting rich. In short, in Black Flag Ubisoft have captured the overwhelming majority of the aspects that make pirating, pirating.
But for all the positives, there are still some aspects of the game left wanting. My biggest complaint is the loosely cobbled main story. Perhaps it’s my fault for not paying close, close attention, and perhaps I needed to know the lore of previous Assassin’s Creed games to truly appreciate Black Flag, regardless, there were some twists and turns which didn’t seem to make sense, the story seemed disjointed, and the ending just suddenly popped up and was over in a scene. I think it’s also fair to say the “real-world” elements of the game (the scenes wherein the main character is in a 21st century Montreal office building, walking the halls, and interacting with the CEO) do much more to distract from gameplay than enhance it. I had the wind taken out of my sails (har, har) every time the game switched to the modern era. In short, the side missions on the seas and at port are the most enjoyable aspects of the game. From the typical assassin’s contracts to finding sea shanties for your crew to sing while sailing, taking down forts to finding treasure chests, engaging in sea battles with massive British warships to deep sea diving—these are where Black Flag shines brightest, leaving the main storyline largely as a piecemeal affair disrupted by the meta-storyline of assassins and templars.
In the end, Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag feels extremely pirate-y but not in a corny manner, which is perhaps the game’s greatest compliment. Yes, there are some issues: the main storyline seems broken, there are some issues with the controls, and the modern-world scenes feel tacked on, but the number of positive aspects outweigh these. Exploration of what feels like a truly vast Caribbean archipelago is energetic fun. Ignoring the main quest and just setting out to see what you can discover—hidden bandit camps, tunnels, swamp hideouts, treasure, big sharks—is great enjoyment, and the best way to approach the game (and perhaps the most pirate-y). And the scenery, whether it be ocean or land, towns or capital cities, feels like the home of pirates. My heart is still with The Secret of Monkey Island, but Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag certainly offers something Guy Threepwood can’t.