Pirates have gotten a bad rap in 21st-century pop culture. There are the desperate, haggard pirates tangling with Tom Hanks in “Captain Phillips.” Or the stumbling, soused Capt. Jack Sparrow in “Pirates of the Caribbean.” Or even the freeloading pirates who destroyed the music business.
“Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag” (Ubisoft, for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii U, $59.99) tries to restore the kind of glamour that pirates haven't really known since the early days of Hollywood, when Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks sailed the high seas. And it's mostly successful, serving up a rich stew of swordplay, naval combat and discovery.
The protagonist is Edward Kenway, a strapping young Welshman who's bored with life on the farm and decides a pirate's life is for him. After a shipwreck, Edward kills a mysterious assassin and assumes his identity, inadvertently becoming a player in a millennia-old battle between two secret societies. The Assassins, essentially, stand for freedom, while the Templars seek control; you can guess which team a pirate will want to play for.
Edward's story sprawls across the Caribbean of the 1730s, with major stops in Havana; Kingston, Jamaica; and Nassau, the Bahamas. Along with the Assassin-Templar feud, Edward and his merry band also have to contend with British and Spanish troops, slave traders and competing freebooters. There's a search for a strange place called the Observatory, but you can spend dozens of hours cruising around the islands before aiming toward the endgame.
As in previous games in this series, there are almost too many activities to distract you from the core story. You can hunt ocelots and wrestle crocodiles. You can search for treasure or collect sea shanties to sing with your crew. You can take on assassination contracts, either for money or to impress the capital-A Assassins lurking on their own island.
“Black Flag” comes into its own, though, when you hit the waves. Over all these years, very few games have tried to capture the thrill of sailing the open seas. (The 10-year-old “The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker,” which Nintendo remade this year in high definition, is a worthy exception.) But once you take the wheel of your own ship, the Jackdaw, you'll wonder what you've been missing. When you're navigating under calm skies, it's beautiful; when the skies darken and rogue waves attack, it's harrowing.
And yes, there are British and Spanish vessels looking to send you to Davy Jones' locker. The ship-to-ship combat is riveting as you try to maneuver your port and starboard cannons or ram the Jackdaw's prow directly into your opponent. If you're near an enemy fort, you also have to contend with mortar fire. And once you've crippled the other ship, it's time to swing on board and cross swords with the survivors. Each engagement demands a combination of reflexes and strategy, and it's great fun to roam the Caribbean just looking for trouble.
“Black Flag” stumbles only when it drags you back into the present day. The meta-story here is that you are an employee of Abstergo Entertainment, an Ubisoft-like company that's creating a game based on Edward's adventures. The 21st-century conspiracy involving the Assassins, the Templars and Abstergo has always been the weak part of the “Assassin's Creed” series, and you'll be longing to get back to your crew.
As long as you're at the helm of the Jackdaw, “Black Flag” is the great pirate adventure that gamers been waiting for since 1990”²s “The Secret of Monkey Island.” It's audacious, flamboyant, funny and often thrilling. Yo ho ho. Three-and-a-half stars out of four.