Let me first throw this out there. I'm not a big Assassin's Creed guy. I know the franchise has a tremendous following and gamers line up in droves every year to check out the new offering, but for me the series has been too repetitive and trite.
Playing a new Assassin's game each year has made me jaded by predictable mechanics and gameplay. I had become sick of always being the one wacko in a town who ascends massive buildings in a given city, perching up on a fortuitously placed wooden beam and surveying the land below. How many times would I need to hide in a bunch of conveniently placed hay? Literally hundreds.
So after all these years of spinoffs and sequels, what on earth would compel me to dive back into a franchise that I've had such a vehement relationship with? I want to be a pirate, obviously.
Where Assassin's Creed III failed to deliver on the promise of an experience off the beaten path, Black Flag makes it a pill much easier to swallow. There's a lot of familiar gameplay in Assassin's Creed IV, but there's also enough refinement to make it surprisingly fresh.
Black Flag represents the most noticeable aesthetic departure from an Assassin's Creed game to date, and for a franchise that was starting to blend together for me, it's a welcome change of pace.
But while it's a game with some new ideas, it's worth pointing out that there's never really a time where you'll forget you're playing an Assassin's Creed game -- there are still some awkward hiccups in freeflow running and climbing and the margin for error in some missions is frustratingly small. Open-world sailing, which isn't as vital to the main campaign as one would hope, is the best part of Black Flag and works as a great buffer between land missions.
It became very clear immediately after Assassin's Creed III's release that maritime combat was a success, and Ubisoft has done a great job at milking that experience for all it's worth. These sequences are the most outstanding in the game and getting to sail through different locales, varying sea conditions and discovering new lands is extremely satisfying.
But back on land is where I still have my gripes with the gameplay. There's still too much repetition in objectives and a swordplay system that's getting stale. The story told isn't as finely manicured as veteran players might expect, and that disjointment manifests itself with a lack of originality among the characters you'll meet and side quests you'll take up.
The sense of exploration available in Black Flag hasn't surfaced in another Assassin's Creed game, and for me, it makes this iteration my favorite. Once the shackles of the campaign begin to loosen, you're able to take advantage of the game's mind-blowing scope.
I liked Assassin's Creed IV because I got something I didn't necessarily expect -- and for a franchise that hangs its hat on such a specific set of rules and systems, it's a relief that the game wasn't a total recycling.
CNET verdict: An almost-perfect storm
Black Flag is arguably the most accessible Assassin's Creed game to date, even if that direction might rub core fans the wrong way. In its haste to be a more open-world adventure, Black Flag sacrifices a lot of what's made previous games so compelling in the story department. It works out, though, as Black Flag's seas are filled with tons to explore and loot.
For another look at Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, check out GameSpot's coverage.