So the short version is that Black Flag is not only a sparkly new take on a tired old series but almost definitely the best entry in said series yet and you should almost definitely buy and play it for 38 hours like I did.
For the long version, read on.
For this particular outing in Animus-Land you'll take on the role of Edward Kenway, a likely lad from deepest, darkest Wales who sets off to the Caribbean to earn a fortune for himself and his fiancÚ working as a privateer, which for those who don't know is basically an officially sanctioned pirate. Also, just in case you were wondering, it never gets old having a Welsh protagonist.
As you may have guessed from the above Edward doesn't start the game as an Assassin but comes into the fancy trademark hidden blades and super swish hood by getting into a scrap with a not very nice Assassin. Then it's off to Havana for some fairly standard tutorial missions which introduce some of the core gameplay that anyone who has even looked at an Assassin's Creed game will be more familiar with by now than they are with some members if their own family. You probably know the deal by now: stabbing, sneaking, awkwardly standing next to strangers (otherwise known as the games blending mechanic,) stabbing, running, jumping, stabbing, shooting, and also stabbing. Then all of a sudden something cool happens.
You get a boat.
Specifically the Jackdaw. It's at this point the game gets good. Like really good. From this point on you're free to go and do basically wherever or whatever the hell you want in the game's world and what that will mostly be is sailing about being a goddamn pirate. As it turns out being a pirate is a lot more fun than being an Assassin, and most of the game's best moments will be spent on the deck of the Jackdaw. There's something uniquely exhilarating about firing a broadside into a Spanish galleon whilst riding a wave that would give Poseidon second thoughts. I have to confess I didn't play Assassin's Creed 3 so I can't speak to how the naval gameplay compares to the previous installment but I can tell you that the ship controls fantastically. The ship physics are just arcadey enough to make the game fun without sacrificing too much realism, though many a time I found myself chuckling at the breakneck U-turns you can pull off at the wheel of the Jackdaw.
The Jackdaw is not only central to many of the game's missions but also integral to the game's neat progression system. This time around you have to work for your cash. It goes like this; you board ships and take their stuff, which will be some combination of money, rum, sugar, metal and wood. Money is pretty self-explanatory and sadly the sugar and rum you just sell to get more money. Metal and wood however are very important as you'll need lots and lots of both to upgrade the Jackdaw and take out bigger prizes, which will then let you upgrade the ship further. The system is neatly worked into the main story so you have to have a ship which is up to snuff or you'll get blown to bits in certain story missions. The system does feel a little circular as beyond progressing in the main story and a few raid-boss style legendary ships to fight there isn't really an end goal apart from having a pimped out boat but it's better than in previous games where you would invest money real estate to progress only to find yourself sucked into a money singularity protected only by the fact you've already bought all the best gear.
The ground combat sections in the game are actually fairly few and short-lived which as it happens is more or less fine by me because whilst there have been some improvements to the sword fighting it remains just as not that great as ever it was. The most notable upgrade is moving the counter function to a single button rather than making you hold down block and simply waiting for enemies to attack. Now you have to time your counters Arkham Asylum style and then press the attack button to kill your opponent. There are other counter options but I fail to see why I would throw or "hurt" my enemy when I can just outright kill him. It's not much but at least a cursory attempt at making sword fights a little more challenging has been made and when boarding an enemy ship things do sometimes approach the kind of hectic chaos one would expect from having five or six dudes all swinging their swords at you. However I will never forgive the game for the brutes, an enemy type which in this installment randomly shower you with grenades no matter where you're fighting which often leads to the painfully immersion breaking sight of seeing the idiotic AI blow itself and it's allies up.
Also on the ground the tailing mechanics have seen a bit of an upgrade and it's now actually kind of fun to follow people around being all sneaky and whatnot. The addition of an actual sneaking mechanic in the form of the new stalking zones is a welcome change. It never failed to irk me in previous Creed's how there was no way to actually sneak in the traditional low profile stay out of sight sense.
The story starts off quite well and there is a clear goal in the form of Edward searching for The Observatory, an ancient piece of technology left behind by the god-like forerunner civilization introduced in previous installments, but the story loses momentum a lot of the times when it seems like it's picking up steam and there's a lot of faffing about. It is however mostly enjoyable faffing spent with famous pirate faces like Blackbeard and Calico Jack, the writing for whom is generally top-notch, especially Blackbeard. The game does take some serious liberties with history but that's to be expected from a narrative that is simultaneously about the ongoing conflict between the Templars and an order of goodly Assassins, and the ancient aliens theory.
Remember how I said at the start you take on the role of Edward Kenway in this game? Well like the other games you actually play as a modern human hooked up to an Animus who is in turn taking on the role of Edward. Thankfully you're not Desmond this time but a floating tablet, which somehow still manages to be a more interesting character. The present day sections are first-person and I am saddened to report that the change in perspective both from a character point of view and from your literal point of view do nothing to stop these sections for being as absolutely appalling as ever and I do not appreciate the game forcibly wresting me away from being a fucking pirate to have me spend ten excruciating minutes playing awful, corny hacking mini-games. These sections are blessedly short however and you can get back to the swashbuckling pretty quickly.
Black Flag injects a sense of fun and catharthis that the series has been sorely lacking for a few iterations now, and despite some problems detailed above the shift of focus to sailing and I repeat, being a goddamn pirate makes the game as refreshing as standing at the wheel of your vessel with the sea salt spray on your face.