As a late comer to the Assassins Creed series (the first one I played was Assassin’s Creed III), I don’t have a lot of preconceived notions about what the series can or should be. Instead I look at it from a more neutral angle, and from that point of view, I’m going on record that Assassins Creed 4: Black Flag is one of the best games I have played in 2013.

First off, this game is gorgeous. That was the first thing to cross my mind when I started playing and it still strikes me from time to time as scenes play with color, light, shadows and geometry to create some amazing sights. The faces and expressions on the cast are likewise well done and the voice acting is top-notch. Hands down, this is the prettiest game I have ever played, and the audio is right up there, too. With that out of the way, let’s focus on how it plays.

Assassin's Creed 4

As pirate – sorry, privateer – Edward Kenway, you sail the Caribbean in search of fame, fortune, and something called the Oracle, a source of power and knowledge that the series’ Templar faction is after. You spend about half of that search combing towns, beaches, jungles and other sites on land, using your free running skill to navigate them with ease. I wasn’t impressed with free running in Assassin’s Creed III but here it is so well integrated in with the environment that it comes across as second nature.

The balance of the rest of your time is spent on the Jackdaw, your sailing ship. The seas are amazing to sail as waves toss your ship to and fro, crashing across the deck before flowing out through openings along the sides. The varying time and weather keeps things interesting as you can sail from a calm sunrise into a rain shower or full-on storm in the evening. Controlling the ship is fairly straightforward, if not realistic (watching your ship parallel park at a port is humorous), though I’ll contend that more realistic controls would be a hindrance rather than a boon.

Stealth has never been my strong suit. Given the choice in a game I’m more likely to kick a door in than climb in through the window, but Assassin’s Creed 4 makes stealth more palatable through the use of quick kills to deal with patrolling guards and lots of hiding places. When forced out of hiding, combat is rather clumsy and seems to want to use a Batman: Arkham Asylum/City/Origins-style attack/parry/counter pace but it doesn’t work very well, especially in fights that involve more than two foes in tight areas, such as when boarding a ship. Part of the problem is the lock-on in combat that makes changing targets to deal with changing threats difficult.

Assassin's Creed 4

Being an Assassin’s Creed game, there’s also a modern day setting to deal with, and in this case you’re an employee working on a game based on Edward Kenway. How very Meta. The game you bought to play, this game, is a game that you’re supposedly play testing inside the game. Seriously, you’re playing a game about playing a game. Add to that how Ubisoft asks you in game to rate each mission after you complete it and I can’t help but feel that this part of the game started out as an inside joke that went too far.

That aside, it’s hard to find much not to like about Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag. The graphics are phenomenal, the gameplay is good, and the story – aside from the modern day parts – works well enough to keep you playing. This is an action game everyone should try.

Final Score: 9