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Review: 'Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag' — Drink Up, Me Hearties!

"Assassin's Creed IV" is very different from the five games that preceded it, but proves that a little change can be a good thing.

A pirate's life for me

Story

The year is 1715, and the Golden Age of Piracy is coming to an end. Edward Kenway, a Welsh privateer, has left his young wife to seek riches in the New World. His plans go awry when, after a pitched naval battle, he finds himself stranded on an island with only a bloodthirsty hooded man for company.

When Edward kills the man — an Assassin named Duncan Walpole — and assumes his identity in the hope of making a little coin, he finds himself drawn into the endless conflict between the freedom-seeking Assassins and the controlling Templars. As he decides where his allegiances lie, he takes control of a pirate ship called the Jackdaw and seeks to end the Spanish influence in the Bahamas to let a pirate republic flourish.

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The story in "Assassin's Creed IV" is good in its own right, with excellent writing, numerous twists and turns and a cast of memorable characters that includes historical pirates like Benjamin Hornigold, Stede Bonnet and Edward Thatch, better known as Edward Teach or Blackbeard. Its connection to the larger "Assassin's Creed" story is a bit tangential, though.

Since Edward begins as a free agent with neither Assassin nor Templar connections, he always feels like a bit of an outsider in their intrigues. As a result, Edward's piratical adventures are always more pressing and usually more relevant than his Assassin allies and Templar enemies.

Graphics and art

If there's one area where "Assassin's Creed IV" underperforms, it's in the graphics. The game doesn't look bad by any stretch of the imagination, but the game's art style has not changed significantly since the very first game in 2007, and the 6-year-old game engine is not as impressive as it once was. Characters, ships and structures are all distinct and interesting, but it's nothing you haven't seen before.

Aside from some minor tearing during pitched battles with lots of ships and Spaniards onscreen, the game's animation is very smooth, although the frame rate seems to change slightly while climbing tall structures, making the game appear a little too "fast."

Music and sound

Like its predecessor, "Assassin's Creed IV' sounds great. The music is not exactly hummable, but it's atmospheric and varied, from violent drumbeats during intense naval battles to ominous strings when exploring strange new settings.

In particular, the songs in the game are fantastic. When you approach a tavern, musicians will play a period-appropriate song complete with instruments and harmonies. While sailing the vast Bahaman seas, your crew will burst into rousing sea shanties — and if you don't like what they sing, you can collect dozens of new ones.

The voice-acting is also easy on the ears, and buoyed by a strong script. In accordance with the setting, characters switch frequently and seamlessly from English to French to Spanish, and give remarkable trilingual performances.

The bottom line

Although "Assassin's Creed IV" feels very different from the five games that came before it, it's just what the series needs right now. The setting is lighter, the protagonist is less entrenched in the ongoing storyline, and gameplay leverages the best parts of the previous games while eschewing a lot of the chaff.

"Assassin's Creed IV" is not a revolutionary entry in the franchise from either a narrative or gameplay point of view, but it's a big, fun, polished game that shows just how flexible this long-running series can be.

This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.

Developer: Ubisoft
Genre: Action/adventure
Price: $59.99
Release Date: 10/29/13 (Xbox 360, PS3) / 11/15/13 (Xbox One) / 11/19/13 (PC) / 11/22/13 (PS4)
Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3, PC, Xbox One, PS4

Requirements:

OS: Windows Vista SP2 or Windows 7 SP1 or Windows 8 (both 32/64bit versions)
Processor: Intel Core2Quad Q8400 @ 2.6 GHz or AMD Athlon II X4 620 @ 2.6 GHz
Memory: 2 GB RAM
Graphics: Nvidia Geforce GTX 260 or AMD Radeon HD 4870 (512MB VRAM with shader Model 4.0 or higher)
Hard Drive: 30 GB available space
Sound Card: DirectX Compatible Sound Card with latest drivers

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