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Assassin's Creed was, for a while, one of my favorite franchises in gaming. Before it became Ubisoft's yearly titan, this whole idea was unique and well worth enjoying.

Then came the subtitles and sidequests. Ubisoft built multiplayer, added a whole slew of activities and expanded their efforts to include sailing, climbing trees and hunting wildlife.

All of that is here in Black Flag, and the sailing is absolutely stellar. Ubisoft has created more to do, and polished the heck out of what was already here to begin with. The result is a high seas adventure that feels vast, grand and epic. It's not perfect, but this ride is the best the series has seen in years.

Assassin's Creed IV Black Flag is well worth your, wait for it, doubloons…

A Huge World With A Lot To Do

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One of the first things that will impress you in Assassin's Creed IV Black Flag is its sheer size. The open seas are enormous, and the area is teeming with activity and objectives that come and go at a constant clip.

The world is so big that you'll absolutely want to make use of fast travel every now and again, but only because you know the space between your current locale and next objective will be way too distracting to survive.

In fact, there's almost too much to do in this space. You can't go two minutes without meeting a shipwrecked sailor, picking up cargo, engaging in naval combat or harpooning a shark. The diversity and constant barrage of activities makes this world seem alive and addicting all at once.

I never did the same thing for more than an hour at a time. Even when I tried to focus on story missions, tiny objectives and activities would catch my eye and send me down a deep sidequest worth exploring. Dangling on the other end of each ride was loot, the proverbial carrot on a stick that kept me pushing forward.

Ubisoft made the wonderful decision to include present day mechanics without making them mandatory. All told, you will be forced to spend something like 30 minutes in the present day. However, you can visit the space whenever you want. And Ubisoft's setup for the contemporary time is fantastic. I won't spoil it, but it works.

While the side activities are plenty and varied, my only complaint is that they become way too repetitive thanks to cutscenes. Every time you take a ship, you'll see the same little scene. You'll hear the same voice acting, you'll engage in the same methodical UI navigation. The variety and fun of each activity is dashed a little by repeating assets, and I wish they'd just been cut altogether rather than used again and again.

Not Quite Seamless, Still Rather Smooth

One of the major promises Ubisoft made in the early marketing for Assassin's Creed IV was seamless delivery. They said they were making a massive open world that would arrive without breaks and joints between locales.

Well, in a way, they were right. You can sail the high seas and jump off of your boat to swim to tiny islands at will. There's no loading or breaks in the action, and the whole thing feels very fluid and refreshing.

However, bring your boat to a big region or island, like Nassau, and you'll be met with a prompt asking you whether or not you'd like to dock. If you say "yes," you'll be greeted with a loading screen, a break in the action, that's right… a seam. So much for "seamless."

It's still a smooth experience, though. One of my biggest complaints about Assassin's Creed III stemmed from its disjointed nature and wealth of game breaking and taxing bugs and glitches. The breaks have been made a litte more sparse in Black Flag, and the glitches are all but gone. Seriously. I don't think I experienced a single major bug throughout my 20 or so hours of play with this game. That's huge.

Black Flag isn't as seamless as initial promises suggested; however, it's much better than last year's effort. That alone is one of the best facets of this game.

Sailing Is A Blast

One of the best and most surprising elements of Assassin's Creed III was the naval stuff. When Black Flag was announced and pirates were made the focus, gamers assumed that Ubisoft would cash in on the love for steering ships with this new entry.

Mission accomplished.

The naval exploration, combat and upgrades all feel fantastic in Black Flag. You'll command the Jackdaw on the seas of the Caribbean, and you'll love it. Steering is tight, combat is fun and everything about the experience is rewarding.

As you outfit your ship and bring new crew members aboard, a sort of bond will form between you and your Jackdaw. There's even a button press that activates singing while you sail. I geek out every time.

Awkwardly Hiding In The Bushes

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When engaging in combat, running on rooftops and diving into piles of leaves, Assassin's Creed IV is at its best. When tasked with stealth and secrecy, this game still hangs and stumbles.

These missions come constantly. You'll be tasked with moving from point A to B while avoiding detection. That means sneaking from bush to bush while waiting for the right moment to move or strike. In theory, it works. In practice?

Enemy AI is either way too smart or entirely too stupid keep the facade up for long. They'll notice you from hundreds of feet away, or you'll slip directly through their line of sight without even a blip of recognition. The rules of stealth, therefore, are kind of a mess.

What works in some situations doesn't in others. That means that, rather than learning the mechanics of the game and employing them to get better at conquering moments, you'll be sent into spaces of pure trial and error. It's then that things should work but don't, and that kind of "stealth" gameplay can be frustrating for players.

It's okay that Ubisoft insists on delivering these stealth moments, but they need to make them better for the sake of this franchise.

Time To Trim The Fat?

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While I applaud Ubisoft for delivering a game with so much content, this whole thing feels unfocused and clunky. There's a story in this game, and if you can pry yourself from the sidequests long enough to take it in, it's rather enjoyable. There are strong characters, famous faces and great plot points well worth your time.

Yet, the fantastic plot hardly seems like the stuff Ubisoft is championing the most. I raise the question of whether or not it's time to trim the fat with these games not as a point of criticism but as a point of genuine curiosity. Is it time for Ubisoft to focus on the Assassin's Creed storyline or keep delivering games filled with fun activities?

Assassin's Creed IV Black Flag is fantastic. It's the best in the series since Brotherhood, the title that often earns my nod for Ubisoft's high point. Brotherhood was great because it offered distraction while still telling a wonderful story. Black Flag offers even more distraction and needless activity.

It boils down to what you, as a gamer and consumer, want most from this franchise. The fat is either the storyline or the myriad activities that abound. Black Flag has so much to do that it's hard to separate the necessary from the pointless, and that makes the plot points very hard to focus on.

Ubisoft needs to focus on one or the other in the future entries in this franchise. If they can, that missing focus will turn into brilliance.

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There's tons to do, and you probably won't get bored with the game anytime soon, but don't expect a concise delivery or harrowing ride.

The Assassin's Creed franchise, from mechanics to scale, has become one of the biggest yearly efforts in gaming. Ubisoft clearly worked hard to polish this effort and make it a smoother experience, but Black Flag's distinct lack of focus keeps it from really coming together.

There's tons to do, and you probably won't get bored with the game anytime soon, but don't expect a concise delivery or harrowing ride. Being a pirate is fun, but narrative pillars have apparently been shipwrecked and lost at sea.

Perhaps more focus and better story beats could have driven this experience into a more memorable territory. Assassin's Creed IV Black Flag is an ambitious and fun game, but it never really stands as tall as it can.

If you love the series and are looking for a product stacked with value, you can't go wrong with buying into this entry. There's room to grow and features to hone in on, though.

We received a copy of Assassin's Creed IV Black Flag for the Xbox 360 for consideration a few days before launch. We played the game until the story's conclusion before starting this review. We tried multiplayer, but didn't step into it enough to form a genuine opinion.

4 out of 5