Ship combat is fantastic, involving a certain amount of planning and strategy when taking down a larger ship, nimble sailing skills to avoid its cannon fire and attempts to ram you into oblivion while also staying close enough for your cannons to be effective. Once the ship is disabled, then begins the boarding process, which involves swinging across to the enemy ship and fighting the crew until they surrender, often including specific side-objectives such as killing the officer or tearing down the ship's flag. The only downside is of combat is that the "Swivels", a pair of small cannons that can be pivoted, are too powerful, and somewhat unbalance the combat when only fighting one ship.
The various side-missions are also surprisingly consistent in terms of their quality. Arguably the most exhilarating are the Fort assaults, which involve besieging colonial fortresses with cannon fire to destroy the defences, before scaling the walls to kill the Captain and Commander. This in turn frees the surrounding seas from Colonial control, revealing other locations of interest and causing patrolling ships to cease attacking on sight. Also worth mentioning are the "Templar Hunt" objectives which take place across several missions, and tell little side-stories of their own, such as two Assassin brothers who have fallen out over a female Templar. Completing each Templar Hunt gives you a key which eventually unlocks a special suit of Assassin armour. Alongside these are whaling and other hunting opportunities that provide skins and various animal products that can be sold or used to upgrade equipment, and shipwrecks that can be salvaged for coin - provided you avoid the sharks.
Not everything is quite so ship-shape. In an attempt to redress the distinct lack of sneakiness involved in Assassin's Creed games, Ubisoft have introduced a new stealth system, which involves hiding in bushes. Now, we're familiar with light-based and sight-based stealth, but vegetation-based stealth is a new one. Mechanically it just about works, as in, it is now possible to be stealthy when required. But it also makes no logical sense, and because of AC's contextual controls, attempting to make any quick movements while sneaking is equally likely to make Kenway leap out of the bushes and shout "Ta-daaaaa!" while doing jazz hands. The main story is overly reliant on it, too, with far too many missions involving leaping between conveniently placed flora while eavesdropping on enemy conversations. It's one step away from Kenway holding a twig over his head and pretending to be a tree. Just bite the bullet and give us a "sneak" button, Ubisoft. Please.
And naturally, it wouldn't be an Assassin's Creed game if it didn't intermittently pull you out of that wonderful, absorbing world for the sake of its ludicrous Animus sections. Mercifully, the animated chair-leg of a protagonist that was Desmond got killed off in AC III (consider that a public service announcement rather than a spoiler), so we can at least celebrate that. In Desmond's stead you play a nameless employee of Abstergo Entertainment, who ostensibly are using Desmond's ancestral memories to make...er...a computer game about Kenway. More like Absurd-o entertainment AM I RIGHT?
Admittedly, these sections aren't terrible, with well acted characters and a little office complex to explore, but it's still like waking up from having a dream about being a pirate to discover you've fallen asleep at your boring desk job. Actually, it's not like that, it's exactly what happens.
Still, we'll only slightly begrudgingly swallow all of Ubisoft Montreal's stupid ideas if the end result is a game as novel and delightful as Black Flag. It's without a shadow of a doubt the strongest entry in the series, and is also the best open-world game of this year, with an environment that is as fun and compelling to play in as it is visually delectable. It does sidestep the franchise's problems rather than addressing them head on, and that almost certainly won't work twice, but for now we're happy to cruise the ocean waves, sailing towards the sun and whatever arises from the horizon along the way.