I debated a long time on whether to write a review of Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag because while I didn't technically "pay" for this game, it is not free to the general public. It came with my new video card (NVidia GT760) that I spent a while saving up for. However, I do want to say that if you actually buy one game this year, your money would not be wasted on Black Flag.
"Yo Ho, Yo Ho, A Pirate's Life For Me!"
When I was a much younger man, I remember wasting many an hour playing Sid Meier's Pirates Gold! It was a mostly 2-D trip to the days of the Jolly Roger, plundering the Caribbean to your heart's content, wooing governor's daughters, taking contracts, plundering ships and towns, and managing your fleet of pirate ships, and eventually amassing a fortune and retiring in comfort to live on your ill-gotten booty. The world was divided into two groups, your pirate ship and targets.
While AS4:Black Flag may not have intended to do so, it has recaptured much of what I loved about Pirates Gold. The field of play encompasses the Caribbean. There's a story you can follow, with missions, and there's a "bigger story" involving "Assassins vs Templars," and there are some jarring "outside the animus" sessions that are slightly annoying at best (you find out you're actually a play tester for a Pirate Game using some new "memory investigation" technology) but you can concentrate mostly on the fun part - being a pirate!
The "Story" is secondary - there's work to be done. There are enemy ships to plunder, resources to accrue, gold "Reals" to acquire, and upgrades to your ship to be had! The Jackdaw doesn't come tricked out with gold-plated cannons and an iron-plated hull - you have to earn them!
"Argh and Avast, Me Matey!"
The real beauty of Black Flag is the open field they give you to play in. Dozens of locations can be investigated, and hazards of all sorts can pop up at any time, from a hurricane with "water devils" flying to rogue waves as you sail under the guns of an enemy fort! There are undersea wrecks to dive (when you're far enough along in the story) and hidden in treasure chests around the Caribbean are the final plans required to turn your beloved Jackdaw into a fearsome man-o-war, capable of taking on the most powerful Ships-o-the-Line.
While you're at it, you establish a "hideout" on a secret island, where you upgrade your mansion and the local village, complete with the euphemistically named "Dancers." Attend a bonfire at the beach, and build your own General Store where you can purchase any manor of cutlass and blunderbuss.
"Yo Ho, And Up She Rises!"
One of my favorite parts of the game is sailing - and not because there aren't faster ways to get from point A to point B. There's a "fast travel" system that unlocks locations you've been to so that you don't have to spend a lot of time when you're not in the mood for a bit of salt air and sunshine. But when you're looking for the metal and other supplies you need to take from unsuspecting ships, or if you're trying to collect bonus chests or "animus fragments," your crew will sing any one of a variety of old sea shanties as you sail. And sing they do, about everything from far away loves to ship's held together with bailing wire to whiskey and drinking and women of comfort.
One of the side challenges is collecting "shanties," which can be frustrating until you've done it a few times, and then it is well worth the reward of grabbing a sheet of paper out of the air to teach your crew exactly what to do "with a drunken sailor!"
"I had a Dream....Lowlands, Lowlands Away!"
While the story itself is fun, and the Assassins vs Templar storyline is interesting, the real fun of this game is that it fulfills the dream of a new "pirates" game like nothing I've seen in a long time. If you get the chance and have a hankering for spilling blood and doling out chaos, Assassin's Creed: Black Flag is probably right up your gunwale!