REMEMBERING ASSASSIN’S CREED 4: BLACK FLAG: THE GAME THAT REINVIGORATED THE SERIES.

On the 27th October, Assassin’s Creed: Origins will be released. After a year-long hiatus, the hooded hitmen with a fascination for hidden weapons will return to a console near you, this time emanating from Egypt. The golden sands, incredible architecture and duplicitous politics of one of history’s greatest periods will be reimagined on screen.

Ubisoft has gone to great lengths to tell us, and show us, that this Assassin’s Creed is different from the rest. New mechanics have been added, and old mechanics have been discarded or reworked for the modern player. It all sounds rather lovely.

Origins might be the most anticipated Assassin’s Creed game since the first. No other game in the series has changed the mechanics so extensively. Developers, Ubisoft Montreal, have used the extra time, given to them by the enforced hiatus, to fabricate a world and a game totally different than any before.

It’s not all rose petals and sphinxes, though. Assassin’s Creed: Origins comes at a time when the series is on its knees. One more poor, generic game and the franchise as a whole could collapse under the weight of disappointment. The series has found itself in this dark place before, but it managed to claw, or more poetically, climb,  its way out thanks to the excellent Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag. Interestingly, the team that delivered Black Flag is the same one delivering Origins. It seems like they are the firefighters of the series–saving it from the fires it seems to start itself.

With that in mind, we are going to look back on why Black Flag was so good and why it was the game to reinvigorate the series.

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By the time Black Flag came around, the Assassin’s Creed formula was getting stale. The idea of running around a wide and high open world, tracking down targets and trying to stealthily kill them was becoming ever more boring. Assassin’s Creed 3, to its credit, did move away from that, offering up a few smaller cities and a more wild frontier to play around in, but that game was marred by so many different issues, that itS failings outweighed its merits. Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag didn’t have that problem

Like 3, Black Flag gave us three smaller cities, Nassau, Havana and Kingston, but unlike 3, the world was built around pirates. And all good pirates need a ship. Naval warfare was introduced in 3, but it was the core mechanic of Black Flag. Taking players away from the city-grind and giving them a huge, explorable map, and a way to explore that map that was fun and engaging is a major reason why Black Flag was so well received. No longer were players climbing towers, running along rooftops or hiding in plain sight, instead, we were given a ship, open seas and told to create havoc. Which, by-and-large, we did.

This approach needed good mechanics. Fighting on the high seas ship-to-ship, while almost repetitive, was always fun. Ships of all different sizes could be attacked, regardless of your power, and you needed to manoeuvre well and be clever to take them out. But, being an Assassin’s Creed game, hand to hand combat was integrated to get your hands on the bounty these now stricken ships offered. Black Flag may have been a pirate game to some, but the ol’ Assassin’s Creed staples like climbing, jumping and stabbing were still there, even if terra firma was not.

Yes, at its worst, it could be argued that Black Flag was a dressed-up pirate game, but it’s mechanics, were still very Assassin’s Creed-ey, they were just de-emphasized. On land, you could still scale large towers and have a random eagle fly around as you took in one of the endless vistas, before jumping off into the obligatory hay or flower-cart, but these mechanics were not overly emphasised. They were treated as muscle-memory from previous games. You did them because that’s what you knew to do. Instead, far more emphasis was placed on the naval aspect of the game, so the more long-in-the-tooth mechanics never got overly stale. It was the same with story-missions.

During missions on land, stealth-based gameplay was still encouraged, and you still got to make use of the hidden blades, but, as was the theme with Black Flag, what made it so good was it didn’t take being an Assassin so seriously. You could still go in all guns blazing and get a favourable result. It just gave you options. Black Flag was the first in the series to give you combat choices to fit your style and players appreciated that. Suddenly, the gameplay, across the board, was not as boring or as generic as it once had been.

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Ubisoft took a chance by completely changing up the formula for the world and the mechanics of Black Flag. They also took a chance with the story. In all the Assassin’s Creed games to date where there has been an origin story, the would-be Assassin joins the order fairly early. In Black Flag, Edward doesn’t officially join until late in the game. Where the other Assassins have noble causes–mainly revenge, but also upholding freedom–Edward’s desire, throughout the game, is just to make money for himself and his wife back home. In fact, the way the game uses freedom to facilitate the idea of the pirate state is an interesting reversal to what many people would believe freedom actually is. There is a difference between freedom and lawlessness, and the game tries to convey that message.

Essentially, for the majority of the game, you play a pirate dressed in a hood. Black Flag puts the Assassins at the periphery and makes it a  personal story about Edward Kenway, the pirate. Edward has his pirate friends like Blackbeard and James Kidd (Mary Read), and they play more of a part in the story than the Assassins do. As the game goes on Edward either kills or watches each of them die, causing him to think about his actions. The pirates become a source of sympathy for the player thanks to very clever, emotional writing. Eventually, you become an assassin with a noble cause in mind, but by that point, it’s the only thing left for Edward. He transitions from the pirate to the assassin.

It all culminates with one of the best ending sequences the series has ever produced. Seeing your fallen comrades in a vision with The Parting Glass being sung was a poignant and emotional moment that people who have experienced it will never forget. It held the emotional weight that the series has failed to replicate.

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What sets the game truly apart from the rest of the series, though, is Edward himself. As mentioned, his motives are that of a pirate. He wants fame, fortune and freedom, and he will do anything to achieve that. Many of the Assassins before and after Edward are stoic, introspective, almost boring characters–yes, even Ezio–but Edward is a free spirit. He is confident, cynical, reckless, yet also, thoughtful, calm and caring–in the right circumstances. He feels like a more realistic character, and he fits the character of a pirate, and later, an assassin. His transition into doing the right thing and embracing his assassin responsibilities does not feel forced; Edward earns his change of character. It’s that emotional change that is missing from many of the assassins in the series. Ezio achieves it across three games, but Altair, Connor & Arno never come close to that sort of characterisation.

The imagery of Edward leaving England with the desire to gain fame and fortune as a pirate/privateer to prove he is better than his lot, and returning as a single parent with his daughter, and a new-found sense of honour bestowed on him by becoming an Assassin is cleverly thought out and a true pay-off for the character. It was so well done, that we never feel the need to have a second game with Edward, his character-arc is so complete, anything else would be redundant.

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Did Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag save the series? Probably not. It probably would have limped on regardless. What Assassin’s Creed 4 did do, though, was it gave the series a new lease of life–one it unfortunately squandered with the disastrous launch of Assassin’s Creed: Unity a year later. It is no surprise that the team reinventing the wheel for Assassin’s Creed: Origins is the same as Black Flag. It is also not a surprise that the fate of the series rests on the back of this team. Still, they knocked it out of the park with Black Flag, so we have no reason to believe they won’t do it again with Origins.

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