10 Years Ago Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag Redefined the Series

Games Features Assassin's Creed IV
10 Years Ago Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag Redefined the Series

I’m sitting behind my brother in our childhood basement, watching the television over his shoulder for hours as the dashing pirate, Edward Kenway, scallywags and swashbuckles his way into the Assassin Brotherhood and my heart. I’m a storyteller by trade—a vice I’ve had since I gained consciousness—and I can’t remember my brother playing such a wonderfully story-driven game since The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. And, to be honest, I don’t remember the story of Twilight Princess all that well. That’s either because I was 5 when it came out or because a 9-year-old boy is utterly incapable of explaining the Legend of Zelda lore to his annoying little sister. Either way, there was something about Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag that held my attention in an iron grip. Independent of my lack of knowledge about other Assassin’s Creed titles, Black Flag was easy to understand. Once briefly explained, every element, from naval combat to genetic memories to the nuances of Edward Kenway, became natural in a videogame that felt novel compared to the others I remember growing up with.

Years later, during my junior year of college in a course about videogames and education, we were asked to elect a game to play throughout the semester and craft our final projects around. Black Flag still haunted me. Well, what really haunted me was the fact that, despite all my best intentions and even having purchased the game, I don’t know that I had ever actually laid hands on Assassin’s Creed IV. The objective of the project was to play our chosen game and study how well they keep you engaged and learning through challenge and good design. The result: I have written an 18 page paper about Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag.

What was the outcome of those 18 pages, besides helping me finish my degree? Black Flag lends itself exceptionally well to academic study. The game almost seamlessly blends gameplay, history, and fantasy in such a way that every element can be analyzed at a critical level for how they create an immersive experience that can be unique to every player. Assassin’s Creed IV’s magic circle is nigh on unbreakable, and this game is intricate. It is careful and intentional in its settings, characters, combat styles, even music—especially music—while still being deeply approachable and, in some ways, revolutionary.

Now revolutionary is a big word. I throw it around because we are rapidly approaching Oct. 29 which marks Black Flag’s 10 year anniversary, and it feels important to use such a big word now to address why the videogame culture has been calling Assassin’s Creed IV nuanced, superior, and, yes, revolutionary for the last 10 years. 

Let’s start simple with the game itself and the element that consistently makes it stand out from the rest of the Assassin’s Creed franchise: naval combat. Ubisoft had been employing exploration, stealth, and parkour for five games before Black Flag and, while unique, these elements began to get tired as the basis for combat and movement in the franchise. So Black Flag took players to the high seas, adding cannons and Man O’ Wars. Players could not only fight the people on other ships, but Edward Kenway’s ship, the Jackdaw, became a weapon itself against the vessels of his enemies. Combat on the high seas was more chaotic and team-based as Edward worked with and relied on his crew to reach land safely. Besides combat, the naval elements of Black Flag expanded upon the open world gameplay that already sprawled across the Caribbean. Players could now explore oceans and islands, and a culture of its own exploded aboard the Jackdaw with crewmates and iconic sea shanties. There was more than one world in Black Flag: the land and the sea, and one balanced the other.

We continue to find balance in Black Flag’s protagonist, Edward Kenway. Where past Assassin’s Creed installments saw their main characters as willing and mission-driven members of the Assassin Brotherhood, Edward is kind of just some guy. He’s a pirate—he cares about money, his ship, and seeing the world. Then he accidentally kills an Assassin. And yet he sees a chance for profit in the situation, and so suits up as a pseudo-Assassin, thus beginning his involvement with the Brotherhood until it becomes a true commitment, one that goes beyond his initial search for financial gain. So, rather than the tired, agreeable, voluntary Assassins of games past, audiences got perhaps a more relatable protagonist that brought a layer of nuance to Black Flag. Edward was a pirate before he was an Assassin—do we let go of his criminal past in favor of his future, or do we let it create a character that brings lively depth to his videogame?

Edward Kenway and his journey present a break away from the previous Assassin’s Creed formula. Black Flag removed Desmond Miles, the franchise’s previous modern day protagonist, and allowed the player to instead operate a nameless employee of Abstergo Entertainment during the present sequences. Anyone could explore Desmond’s genetic memories as an Assassin, and this blew the franchise open for more varied storytelling and historical exploration. All of these new, refreshed elements left audiences still heralding Black Flag as the best Assassin’s Creed game of the last 10 years.

Still, I’ve seen and heard the opinion that Assassin’s Creed IV is not a real Assassin’s Creed game purely because of how different it is from its predecessors. However, as we approach 10 years of the game, I think that script can be flipped by the argument that Assassin’s Creed IV helped form what we know to be an Assassin’s Creed game today. It was experimental and expansive in ways the franchise hadn’t been before, and that liberated Ubisoft to continue experimenting with these games. I would also posit that Black Flag saved Ubisoft from franchise fatigue and made room for the Assassin’s Creed that audiences know and love today and improve upon their predecessors. The key is not forgetting the Assassins that sailed the high seas before them.

Maddie Agne is an intern at Paste.

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