Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag PS4 review: Avast, conspiracy ahead

Here are just some of the things you can do in Assassin's Creed 4: climb a tower, hunt a whale, hide in a haystack, steer a ship in a storm, stick a sword through a man's eye socket, shoot an iguana, stab a shark, stand atop a church balcony and sprinkle coins onto the people below, regardless of their beliefs.

But you can't just crouch when you want to, which seems a bit odd for a game that spins around sneaking, subterfuge and poking holes in the heads of a secret war between assassins and templars. The struggle for supremacy intersects with old-fashioned analogue piracy in Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag, which lets you sail across the massive caribbean, swim in its perfectly turquoise waters and make any treasure your own. Not having a squat button in the middle of a meticulous recreation of Havana is the ultimate first-world, 18th century problem.

You do, however, bend your knees and lower your stance automatically as soon as you enter a bush, and the good news is these stealth shrubs are everywhere. Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag is a more honestly designed game than the last, appearing cognizant of where it needs to lay down some rug-shrubs to cover up the seams between – how many systems is it now? There's sword-fighting, pickpocketing, free-running, air assassinating, diving, sailing, eavesdropping, harpooning; all slave to another massive, richly rendered slice of history. And it's all the better for designers understanding the monster they've created.

Assassin's Creed is commandeered by its environment, as is the franchise's new coarse heir, Edward Kenway. Dissatisfied with his meager status in London, he leaves for the West Indies to find a better life in illicitly gained wealth. Determined but without direction, Kenway sees every earning as a disappointment, and too small in comparison to the ultimate prize he vaguely envisions. He's skilled and quick to deceive too, falling in with cutthroat pirates and flitting between templars and assassins as a smooth-talking impostor. "You haven't earned these," a mentor says of his ominous robes, "but they suit you."

While Edward checks in and out of clandestine cults as it suits him, Black Flag toys with being both a proper Assassin's Creed game and a lavishly made pirate adventure. It usually makes a stronger, more coherent case for being a pirate game, with a sensible progression system anchored by your ship, the Jackdaw (named after a bird dear to Edward's heart).

The Jackdaw is a vessel not only for Edward, but for much of what you would consider the point of playing a game about pirates. Upon grasping the wheel, you sail through a light-whipped ocean dotted with islands of varying size and buried richness. The monkeys, ocelots and other etcetera you exterminate can be crafted into additional pistol holsters or crippling poison darts (thanks, Far Cry 3!), and the materials you earn in naval battles are funneled into upgrading the steadfastness of your ship's hull and the piercing power of its cannons. Purchasing a diving bell also unlocks a weightless world underwater, which is serene until you realize you're running out of oxygen.

The ship itself feels like a beast, taking time to turn and creaking in protest, even as you desperately try to shrink its profile in the face of incoming cannon fire. The Jackdaw is an unusual video game vehicle, introducing more tension than frustration in its lurching movements. Black Flag is thrilling while at sea, rooting you on the ship's deck and waking your cannons as you simply look at them, aim and bellow. If there's one major fault, it's that the other denizens of the sea are a little too touchy – it's far too easy to accidentally pick a fight with everyone nearby and find your ship shattered from every direction, especially if you haven't heeded the game's occasional warning to beef up the Jackdaw just a bit more.

While unforgiving, the naval combat is a natural fit in this grand execution of a pirate's life. The absence of loading screens, save for when you enter or exit one of three major cities, permits an essential coherency in Black Flag, which grows even more impressive when you collide with vanquished vessels to begin your plunder. Let go of the wheel and – oh – now it's an Assassin's Creed game again, in which you clamber from one ship's mast to the next and start skewering the crew on the deck you just splintered. Two oddly shaped in-game objects intersect on a realistically simulated ocean, and both become valid components for combat and climbing – maybe this technical marvel is why we can't just crouch.

As Edward and his swarthy companions grow disillusioned with the dead-end pirate life, their precious haven in Nassau gradually overrun by rats, he again finds inspiration in his impromptu assassin career. There's a better Assassin's Creed game in Black Flag too, at least if Assassin's Creed 3 is the latest one to reside in your memory.

The designer's grip has been relaxed, and how you go about assassinating important figures, toppling coastal fortresses or lifting the goods from plantation warehouses feels less guided. There's no policing one way or the other – you can klutz your way through it if you don't care to role-play – but at least you have something that resembles agency. Bonus mission objectives usually clue you in on the coolest methods, however, and may illuminate a treetop escapade over an indelicate assault through a target's front door.

Most of the venues for Black Flag's story missions appear tailor-made for the protagonist's skills, making your success seem less coincidental than before. Eavesdropping on a mobile target, for instance, is a matter of connecting the dots – or shrubs, as the case may be – and sensing a path through a visually dense environment. I imagine this is the personal thrill for Edward, too, in that the stealthy course is discerned from a sequence of rooftop dashes and hapless guards who walk by stealth shrubs at nearly the right moment.

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The historical cities themselves needn't feel inadequate next to the oceans, either, with Nassau, Havana and the developed Kingston offering a conflicted texture, inviting with blue skies and condemning with shoddy construction and a drunken society. This makes the songs at the taverns well worth listening to.

It's all of a richness that you'd come to expect of Assassin's Creed, which is a sentiment that also hurts Black Flag's consistency. Sometimes the Assassin's Creed skin is awkwardly grafted to the pirate game skeleton, resulting in an unnecessary exploration of – ugh – stealth sailing. There isn't much of it, but the outwardly stupid idea turns Black Flag into a game of staring at the minimap, making sure your dot avoids some inquisitive cones at sea. You can tell your pirates to shut up and stop singing shanties at this point, but your biggest advantage is that nobody on the enemy ship ever looks at the boat sneaking up behind them.

The Other Assassin's Creed Thing That Must Be Discussed, of course, is the modern day wrapper that connects each game in a strange, self-referential fiction. The mystique has evaporated by now, with Black Flag casting Kenway's present day counterpart as someone capturing historical footage for an upcoming pirate video game, developed by Abstergo Entertainment and published by Ubisoft (no, really). One of the optional quests is to go about the office collecting – I'm not kidding – QR codes. If you really want a modern touch, I suggest diving into Black Flag's polished multiplayer game instead, which still presents a smarter, more sophisticated interpretation of "social stealth" than the single-player game is equipped for.

Beyond its present-day feature set, Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag is a vibrant historical adventure, drawn from bold characters and edge-of-your-seat sailing. It's not the proper return to form for the series, but it is a concerted acknowledgement of what that form is today, and what works for the monster of gameplay systems, stealth, ships and oceans that lurks underneath. I'm told that we might expect the mythical squat button in a sequel someday, but for now I'm happy to leap between the roles of assassin, pirate and one-time whaler wracked with guilt.

This review is based on review code of the PS4 and Xbox 360 versions of Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag, provided by Ubisoft. The majority of the reviewer's time was spent with the PS4 version. If you're interested in how the PS4 version performs over current-gen systems, click here.

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