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Gaming review: Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag

Has the latest installation in the Assassin's Creed franchise found its sea legs? Sam Gill thinks so...

Although breaking sales records for the series, last year's Assassin's Creed III was for many a disappointing release. Lacking much of the city-crawling combat that made the franchise special, in the cut-throat world of top-tier videogaming, it was a blunted blade where rapiers were required.

Pleasingly, a more focused installment emerges from Ubisoft this time round. Despite widening its horizons to encompass the high seas, a deeper experience reveals itself, with a streamlining of several key mechanics resulting in a deftly balanced and more expressive game.

The naval battles in particular are excellent, and feel more positively integrated into the game, with your own customisable ship, The Jackdaw, allowing you the option of spending your hard-earned cash in exchange for hardier hulls and swifter sails. Behind the wheel, Edward Conway develops into a far more charismatic hero than either of his confused progeny managed last time out. A swashbuckling privateer with big ambitions who soon becomes mixed up in the Assassin's Order, Conway thankfully proves a compelling substitute for the much-mourned Ezio.

Developed by the same team behind last year's Far Cry 3, their familiarity with sun-kissed island landscapes bears exotic fruit as Havana, Nassau and Kingston are all lovingly rendered, with plenty of parkour potential in the cities, swamps and clifftops that appear. They've also expanded the multiplayer modes and enabled lots of customisation to extend interest past the already well-stuffed single player campaign.

Abstergo Industries and their modern-day memory tricks are spiralled sparingly into the story as ever via the Animus. In their gleaming meta-offices, you can engage in present-day piratical naughtiness via various hacking subgames. But as it should be, the crux of the game is all violent historical mayhem and sneaking around in an odd quasi-period costumes. At that, Assassin's Creed IV is perhaps more effective than ever.

The sun-kissed island landscapes of Black Flag offer a natural extension of the rooftop parkour of previous outings.

Reviewed on Xbox 360