The premise of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is that you’re a pirate who gets pulled into a secret war between the Templars and Assassins. You’re shipwrecked with a crazy man who tries to strike a deal with you and who then tries to kill you. When his plan doesn’t work — you kill him instead — you take a rare item he needed to deliver to collect a reward yourself. You assume his identity and head towards the meeting spot for a drop off. From there, it quickly turns into a struggle for the fate of humanity. Yadda, yadda, yadda.

After the jump, what else is new?

The progress of Assassin’s Creed plots is a twisted mess of intrigue and science fiction that previously followed Desmond Miles’ journey through his ancestral DNA. This game, however, moves beyond Desmond. Instead, you’re navigating someone else’s DNA for an entertainment company called Abstergo Entertainment. Abstergo creates games from the DNA of different subjects the company has acquired. According to the fiction of Assassin’s Creed IV, their first big product was Assassin’s Creed: Liberation for the PS Vita. It’s all a sly meta wrapper for the series, mercifully free of Desmond Miles. For the modern day sequences, you don’t have to do any Tomb Raider exploration, which is about as wise a choice as getting rid of Desmond. Instead, you explore the workspace, hack cameras, solve puzzles, collect clues, and never once have to pretend you’re playing a shooter.

The previous games’ horseback treks are now swapped out for a wide world of oceangoing exploration. The Caribbean is lively with activity and dense with things to do. If you’re tired of playing missions, explore the multitude of little islands. You’ll find a variety of collectibles, including new shanties for your crew to sing. You can also do a bit of hunting for upgrades similar to the system in Far Cry 3. Your ship upgrades will take the lion’s share of your resources and attention, as this is very much a ship-centric game with hearty ship-to-ship combat that will make any Master and Commander fan proud.

As an overall package, Assassin’s Creed IV is the best in the series for how nearly everything has been tweaked, overhauled, and completely rethought. With one exception: the melee. In the day of Batman, Bayonetta, and a rebooted Devil May Cry, there’s no excuse for this uninteresting combat. It’s simplistic, unruly, and never takes more than the same recurring two-button combo. It works, but that’s simply not enough compared to the attention lavished on everything else. Wonky combat aside, Assassin’s Creed IV is a hell of a game. Instead of building giant cities separated by little patches of open land, you have here a massive ocean peppered with islands that include small to mid-sized cities, forming a Carribben setting that oozes character. Never has a game delivered on the promise of living the life of a pirate as well as Black Flag with its awesome production values, refined game design, and lively oceangoing hijinx.