Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag.
Assassin's Creed has always been a slightly tricky game series to pin down in terms of quality.
Assassin's Creed had a sparkle of inspiration, beautifully designed settings in an uncommonly used era and place, but was bogged down with repetitive gameplay and deep, abiding confusion as to why your medieval Syrian character spoke with an American accent. Assassin's Creed II continued that theme of fascinating settings and bolstered it with a greater variety of gameplay – but as its spin-offs wore on, more and more optional gameplay was added, leaving the games unpleasantly cluttered.
Assassin's Creed III was arguably the lowest of a bunch. Crammed to the brim with enough poorly implemented minigames and sideshows that I often felt like I was desperately trying to escaping the grasping claws and ravening teeth of an entire village development simulator hiding in the belly of my ridiculous historical stealth game, they also made the baffling decision of setting it in one of the most boring eras of history.
The American War of Independence is many things, but interesting is not an adjective which could ever be applied to it, being as it was a prolonged pushing and shoving match between two functionally identical groups of genocidal white Englishmen. Even American fans seemed to be enamoured with the setting less because it was interesting and more because a game set in America was somehow reassuring to them, a soothing balm in the face of the abject underwear-wetting terror that had come with alien locations such as Acre, Damascus, Venice, Rome and Constantinople.
But Ubisoft did its very best to milk the era anyway, consigning a coherent plot to the waste bin in favour shoving era-appropriate politicos at you or dropping you at the sites of notable battles in the frankly baffling hope that you'd be able to distinguish them from any other battle that has taken place in history. Often, Ubisoft was a tangible presence, looming over you and softly hissing “Are you feeling patriotic yet?” like some kind of Tea Partier Gollum.
Thus, I was arguably a little wary when Assassin's Creed IV was coming out. Pirates? Seemed a bit pandering. You'd spend half the game at sea? Not very good for free-running.
As it turns out, both concerns turned out to be correct: Pandering is this game's middle name, throwing practically every named pirate from history it can feasibly work in to the game at you. Before the game is done, you have become acquainted or close friends with Blackbeard, Mary Read, Anne Bonnie, Jack Rackham, and about a dozen more, and it feels as clumsy in this game as it did in the last.
As for free-running, well it's true that it's down from the last game, but the sea sections aren't really to blame for that. They're frequent, that is for sure, and awkward at first, but before long become quite fun. The real problem is that when on land, almost all of your missions are variants on 'follow this person without being seen or getting too far away', and involve you flinging yourself from well-placed bush to well-placed tuft of grass as you pursue a meandering figure past guard checkpoints. It helps that your targets are quite unobservant: At one point, I murdered a target's entire retinue of guards as he made his way through the city, and at not a single point did he seem noticeably spooked by his compliment of guards having suddenly vanished.
Where the game really excels is when it drops you into an area filled with both guards and places to hide, and instructs you to achieve a simple objective – kill a target, acquire a key, reach an important location, it hardly matters precisely what it is. You're left with your start point and your end point, and all the choice in the world of how to get from one to the other, and the gameplay thrives on that kind of freedom. But even that isn't without its issues, as game often seems to conspire to, through the use of watchtowers who can see almost everything around them, pinned down in the same piece of grass for increasingly long and frustrating periods of time.
But in spite of all of these problems, Assassin's Creed IV is, unlike its immediate predecessor, actually fun. A lot of fun. I found myself enjoying the sailing sections, and I even found myself enjoying the endless follow-the-target sections by the end. While the plot occasionally bordered on the incoherent, I always knew roughly what was going on and roughly what still had to be done.
But probably more important than all of those things is that unlike your character from III, Connor Kenway, your avatar for this game, Edward, is actually interesting and fun to be around. Connor had, regrettably, all of the personality of a particularly boring log; Edward, meanwhile, is alternately playful and serious, deeply conflicted between his mercenary tendencies and his better nature, beset by bad habits and delusions of grandeur that lead him astray more than once. It's genuinely fascinating to see what he'll do next, and the game is not shy about punishing his many, many mistakes.
Even the sections set in the present, where you play a silent first person protagonist wandering around the headquarters of an (evil) game development company, were a blast, not least because of Ubisoft's cheery self-deprecation.
Assassin's Creed IV is a game that shouldn't work but does, with what would be painful flaws in any other game pulled off with enough grace and panache to make them genuinely engaging. With Ubisoft's rapid-fire development rate, too, it won't be long until we see them tackling another setting from history. If they tackle that one with as much flair and skill as they did the golden age of piracy, then Assassin's Creed V should be an excellent game.