After the disappointment of Assassin's Creed 3, I was nearly ready to write off the franchise. Ubisoft's open-world foray into the American Revolution was too unfocused and too unpolished. Certainly, a one-year turnaround for Black Flag—the next fully-numbered entry in the series—wouldn't be enough to move the series forward. Or, so I thought.
Black Flag improves upon nearly every aspect of Assassin's Creed 3, largely by focusing on a grand mission statement: be a great pirate game. Although you engage in a multitude of activities—from hunting wild animals, to diving for treasure, to assassinating—they all work towards the goal of furthering your pirating ways.
Shifting to a pirate theme makes so much sense. In fact, it feels like the franchise was always meant to be a pirate game. Your motivation as Edward Kenway is rather simple to understand: get rich or die trying, and every action you take furthers your quest to rule the seas. Of course you'll get into a drunken bar brawl as a pirate. Of course you'll recruit new sailors to join your cause. And of course you'll end up assassinating some targets—for the right price.
Telling players to "get rich" is a rather easy way of directly translating character into player motivation. However, there's no point in earning money if there's no way to spend it. Surprisingly, one of the most impactful additions to Black Flag is the ability to spend money on your ship, the Jackdaw. Whereas previous games in the series have given you the ability to improve your character or build out your Homestead (which you can also do in AC4), no upgrade tree in the series has felt as meaningful as this. Why? The improvements you acquire make an immediate impact on gameplay. And given how often you sail your ship, it's no surprise you'll quickly become attached to it.
Naval combat proved to be one of the highlights of Assassin's Creed 3, and making it the focus of Black Flag is a wise decision on Ubisoft's part. Like its predecessor, AC4 makes naval combat accessible, but challenging and satisfying at the same time. While it may be far from a proper naval sim, you'll still have to be mindful of wind speed, wind direction, waves, and boat position. Given all the factors one has to consider while commandeering a boat, even fights against stationary objects can be thrilling. While you'll engage in a fair share of skirmishes against other ships, the best fights in the game are those against armored forts. These structures take and dole a lot of damage, and you'll have to master your approach in order to best them.
Crippling a ship or destroying a fort's defenses will lead to one of Ubisoft's most marketed bullet points for the game: seamless transition between naval and on-the-ground combat. It may seem like an insignificant addition at first, but it does drastically change the pacing of the game. Being able to stop a ship, gun down a few soldiers with a cannon, and then jump aboard their sail and perform air assassinations below is an incredible experience, one that simply wasn't possible in previous games. Being able to instantly switch between the two modes of combat is liberating, and lets you properly appreciate the scale of your battles, from afar and up-close.
There are other things to do with your ship than blow things up. You'll also be able to go hunting, harpooning sea creatures a la Resident Evil 4. However, the biggest surprise of the game has you going underwater, looking for treasure that may be trapped on the sea floor. These sequences feel like nothing the franchise has done before, presented more like a horror game than adventure. You'll feel claustrophobic from the limited air supply, and you'll feel incredibly vulnerable as sharks and other underwater threats look to make you a meal. These sequences introduce a new way of approaching stealth, as you try to hide in sunken ships and sea foliage. It's a fascinating new way of playing, one I wouldn't be surprised to see fleshed out more in future AC titles.
When you're on land, things get much more familiar. Here, you'll find yourself returning to the same mechanics that have defined seven-plus Assassin's Creed titles. You'll still find synchronization points to climb, you'll still tail targets to overhear their conversations, and you'll still hide in haystacks to murder-in-secret. On land, the formula begins to show its age. It may no longer be as fresh or exciting as it once was, it is nonetheless refined. You'll be able to use Eagle Vision to see through walls and track multiple enemies, for example. You'll also be able to quickly and easily restart checkpoints, if need be.
There's a greater focus on doing awesome things on missions. Crucially, AC3's numerous tedious chase missions have been cut down. Assassinations have been better structured to enable cooler takedowns. You'll even be able to double-air-assassinate two targets in one mission, if you play your cards right. One mission even incorporate social stealth, letting you kill your target quietly while sitting on a bench.
Black Flag's underwater sections are terrific
As a pirate, Kenway doesn't care much for the war between the Templars and the Assassins, and as a result, the player isn't given much incentive to care about the story either. While I enjoyed Black Flag's cast of supporting characters, the narrative is rather thin. Disappointingly, Kenway doesn't really grow much as a character until the very tail end of the game.
In a rather bizarre twist, what does work is the modern-day storyline, which has you playing as a video game tester in the fictional Abstergo Entertainment. It is largely optional this time around, with players forced to play in the modern day for about half an hour. But, there's good reason to explore the environment and dive into the lore. By wandering the offices, you'll be able to find QR codes, and eventually, you'll be granted the ability to hack into terminals and access information you weren't "supposed" to get. Clever writing which parodies video game development as a whole goes into surprising detail about the fate of Desmond and goes into detail about the potential future of the franchise. It's smart and genuinely satisfying, especially for longtime fans.
Adewale is one of the many likable side characters in Black Flag
Much like Assassin's Creed 2 took the unpolished ideas of the original AC, Black Flag builds upon the flawed AC3 experience. Ubisoft's latest adventure takes the best ideas of last year's game, refines them, and adds surprising new experiences in the form of underwater missions and a genuinely fun modern-day narrative. It's unquestionable that the Assassin's Creed franchise will one day outstay its welcome, especially at the pace Ubisoft continues to make these games. However, Black Flag shows that there's still life in the series yet. 
Surprise! The modern-day story is really fun to play
This review is based on early retail PlayStation 3 code provided by the publisher. Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag is now available at retail on PS3, Xbox 360, and Wii U for $59.99. It is also available for download on PlayStation Network. The game is also coming to PS4 on November 15, PC on November 19, and Xbox One on November 22. The game is rated M.