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Be the best and bloodiest pirate you can be with our ‘Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag’ guide

guide getting started assassins creed 4 black flag iv screenshot 7
Image used with permission by copyright holder
Ubisoft Montreal’s Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is a big, big game. There’s a ton of things you can do, and simply exploring the map can take hours. Following the primary missions gives you a taste of everything that can be done in the game, but if you want to cut a few corners we have some tips for you. Please note the hours listed below as a reference are an approximation, and gameplay times will vary significantly from user to user.

This will be an ongoing guide and it will be updated. If you have any tips to pass on, let us know in the comment section below. We’ll post them and give you the credit you deserve.

You can check out our full review here.

Loot and plunder

Assassins Creed IV Black Flag screenshot 3
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Although Black Flag does allow you to roam the streets of Havana early on, the game doesn’t really open up until somewhere around the five-hour mark when you take possession of your ship, the Jackdaw. This ship is more than your means of conveyance; it is one of your primary means of earning money, obtaining supplies needed to upgrade the ship and make it more powerful, and securing hostile areas.

Many of the upgrades will be locked at first, until you hit a specific mission in the story that introduces the associated features. Some of these take a long time to earn – the diving bell, for example, won’t be unlocked until the sixth sequence, which could be 15-20 hours in depending on how you play. That doesn’t mean you can’t prepare though.

Assassins-Creed-4-Black-Flag-Caribbean-Sea-Naval-BattleIn order to upgrade your ship, you need two things: supplies and cash (known as “reales” in the game). The latter is easy to find in small amounts. Treasure chests, side quests, and the looted bodies of your victims can earn you some quick reales, while main missions earn you significantly more. One of the best ways to increase your worth though, is to take down ships  carrying large amounts of rum and sugar. The richer their stores, the more you can sell the loot for.

While doing this you will also earn wood, metal, and cloth. Do not sell these, as tempting as it may be. You can earn cash in a multitude of ways, but supplies are the only way to upgrade the Jackdaw and there are only a few ways to earn them. Take your time and use the spy glass to identify targets that fit your needs, and are within your means to defeat. Pay close attention to the ship’s level and what it is carrying, then choose wisely. A vessel carrying 120 bits of metal is a tempting target, but each ship has an assigned level, and if the number is displayed in red it means the ship is more powerful than you are. Be sure your prey is alone too, unless you want to fight multiple enemies at once.

Once you have saved up enough (and unlocked the ability to upgrade in Sequence 3), purchasing hull upgrades is vital, followed by cannons, and then mortars, in that order. Rams and fire barrels are important too, but you won’t get nearly as much use out of them as you will the other three until later in the game when you are facing much tougher opponents. Things like aesthetic enhancements should be saved for the last. Crimson sails are definitely cool, but they don’t stop cannon balls.

The biggest hauls and the best ships are located in the southern seas, but don’t be surprised to find yourself frequently outgunned at first. If your timing is right though, you may stumble upon other pirates in a pitched naval battle with multiple enemies. Just be prepared and have the Jackdaw ready to fight.

Kenway’s fleet

companion_app_2When you board and take a ship, you begin with two options: use the taken ship to repair your own, or press the sailors into service to lower your wanted level (the logic of this is questionable, but just go with it). As with previous AC games, when you fight enough enemies, you attract more guards – in the case of Black Flag, you attract “hunter ships,” slightly more powerful frigates that will keep coming for you until you lose them or attack them (you can board them as well). Later in the game though, at around the 8-10 hour mark in Sequence 4, you will unlock a third option: Send it to Kenway’s Fleet.

This is an online metagame that uses the Black Flag second screen app. It’s similar to how the previous games allowed you to send assassins on missions, as well as the trading mechanic in AC3. You choose where to send the ships in your fleet, then sit back and wait for a timer to tick down for your payoff. It is an automated process that runs in the background, and it can be controlled via the app even when you aren’t playing Black Flag. Use it, and use it often, to earn money and supplies. You can progress without it, but the extra income makes a difference.

Go a’forting

AC4 fortThere are 11 land-locked forts spread throughout the Caribbean overlooking key waterways, ranging in difficulty from easy to hard. Destroying a fort gives you a new port including a harbor master and naval contracts (like Assassination Contracts but you hunt ships instead of people), but more importantly it shows all items within that fort’s range and makes an area “unrestricted.” There will still be plenty of ships to plunder, but you won’t be attacked on sight that area’s allies.

You can attack forts at any time, but you’ll be better served by waiting until you upgrade the mortar a few times and have at least a slightly armored hull; two or three slots in at least. The fort has two means of attack: cannon fire and mortars. Its mortars are relatively easy to avoid – just stay out of the highlighted circles that show you where the strike zones will be. The fort can’t dodge your mortars though, so keep the attack up. Maintain your distance, wear the structure down with mortars, and then, when it begins to crumble, move in and finish the fight with a few passing broadside attacks with your cannons, bracing for return fire when necessary. Once you take the fort you can repair the Jackdaw there for a pittance.

Timing is also important when attacking a fort. Forts belong to one of the nations vying for control of the Caribbean. If your timing sucks and you are unlucky, you attack and find yourself surround by the fort’s allies who were nearby but just out of sight, leaving you to take fire from all sides and mortars from above. When approaching, keep your distance and see what happens – be ready to move though; forts have an exceptionally long mortar range.


Assassins Creed IV Black Flag screenshot 9Although saving your cash for upgrades to the Jackdaw serves you well in the long run, there is one exception to this: Edward’s weapons. While the hidden blades are iconic and useful, in combat you need a good sword and pistol. You can pick up the odd discarded weapon during combat, but you can’t keep any of those – swords and pistols can only be purchased, and the good ones aren’t cheap.

Even if you are a master at countering attacks, a good sword makes the difference between a fight that lasts two minutes and one that lasts 10 seconds. Save your money, then buy a good blade. You don’t have to buy the best right away, but the longer you save, the happier you’ll be with the results. As for the pistol, look for something with both damage and range. Until you get the blowpipe in Sequence 4, pistols are the best way to deal with enemy riflemen.

Robbery ahoy 

Assassins Creed IV Black Flag screenshot 5A potentially lucrative new addition to the Assassin’s Creed series found in Black Flag are warehouses, a side quest of sorts that will first be introduced in Sequence 3. These warehouses are filled with goods that merchants are waiting to ship. They pop up all over the Caribbean, and may be in cities, smaller ports, or sometimes on a island to themselves. When you discover one, find the viewpoint for the area and climb it to “synchronize” to the area. This not only shows you were everything is (including the alarm bells every warehouse features that you can sabotage), but also unlocks fast travel to that location. Once you do, you can keep checking the map in order to see when if the warehouse is listed as “full,” or “empty.” They regenerate goods you can steal frequently.

The pattern is simple: find the person with the key using your Eagle Vision, steal it or kill them for it, then become anonymous to open the warehouse door and walk away with a sizable haul of supplies you can sell or put towards upgrades. Being sneaky is recommended – you earn a bonus for not triggering an alarm – but sometimes you don’t have time for that nonsense. That’s when a few ridiculously unnecessary and overpowered mortar strike speeds things up a bit. (Disclaimer: only works on certain plantations near the water, always funny.)

Diving for treasure

Assassins Creed 4 Black Flag Caribbean Sea Shark ThreatOnce you unlock the diving bell, you’re able to access several wrecks scattered around the Caribbean – simply sail up to the wreck marker and dock to release the bell and explore the sea bottom. These undersea hunts offer a handful of chests, but the real prizes are “upgrade plans” that you need in order to max out the potential of the Jackdaw and reach the “Elite” level on most upgrade trees. Some upgrades, such as crew quarters and cargo hold space, can be fully optimized without picking up any of these collectibles, but anything that increases offensive or defensive capabilities does.

These dives can be difficult. Sharks are constantly hunting you, eels hide in the seaweed, and spiny anemone line the walls. You can’t fight any of these dangers. Stick to the seaweed to avoid sharks, and keep your eyes peeled for the anemone and eels. The upgrade you find makes it worth the trouble though, and the money you earn from the chests is respectable too. You will also find upgrade plans along with certain buried treasures. Once you find a treasure map, simply match the corresponding coordinates on the world map with those on the treasure map, and fast travel to the nearest location. Even the treasures without upgrade plans can reward you with thousands of reales, so if you are in need of cash, diving and treasure hunting are a good place to look.

Crafty crafting

Black Flag sharkBlack Flag features a sizable list of items that can only be obtained through crafting, including the “Hunter’s Outfit,” which makes you less visible to animals. In order to create these items, you need to see what “ingredients” you need. Those ingredients consist of the pelts/bones/skins of land and sea creatures, so it is off to hunt.

Once you synchronize a viewpoint, it will uncover what – if any – animals are indigenous to that area. As with supplies, it’s best not to sell anything until you know for sure you don’t need it. You inevitably come across most of the animals you need just through the natural course of the game, but there are a few that are tougher to get than others, including the great white shark and the humpback whale.

Assassins Creed IV Black Flag screenshot 8Both creatures can be found in the southern portion of the map near Kingston, and as with all sea creatures you can hunt, they are marked by a white patch of water and several birds flying above it in a circle. Before you try to tackle them though, be sure to upgrade the armor on your rowboat and increase the number of harpoons you carry. Hunting sea creatures initiates a mini-game, where you hook a creature by hitting it with a first harpoon, then continue to pepper it with more harpoons until the creature’s health meter (displayed int he upper left section of the screen), empties. Many of these creatures fight back though, and some will ram your rowboat, which has its own “health” meter. Upgrading to the elite harpoon requires you to find an upgrade plan for it, but you don’t need it to kill the monsters. You will need patience and rowboat armor though. If you are running low on harpoons you can always end the hunt at anytime and then start it over, which replinishes your health and harpoons.

All your base

Assassins Creed 4 Black Flag Caribbean Sea Jack And BenjaminAfter completing a mission for Blackbeard at around the 10 hour mark, Edward earns himself a home base called Great Iguana. Once you’ve got this hideout, you’ll be asked to invest in the island to make improvements – costly improvements. Of the five options, only two are worth considering early on: the harbor master and the general store. If you are conserving cash, don’t even bother with those – with fast travel you aren’t confined to one location, and store prices never change. The brothel and pirate campfire make it so you can hire swordsmen and dancers anywhere in the Caribbean for free – useful for distracting or fighting enemies – but they only cost 150 reales without the HQ upgrade, while a brothel costs 15,000. Unless you are flush, it’s not worth it.

Templar season

Black FlagYour main reason for returning to Great Iguana during the first half of the game is your pursuit of a rare Templar outfit locked behind five locks. Each of the five locks is opened by a specific key held by a Templar that needs to be slain. It’s not quite that simple though. One of the five Templars meets his fate as part of the story, leaving you with four to hunt down. In order to find them you need to participate in a series of missions called “Templar Hunts.” These missions are all hosted by Assassins, and the icon on the map is an Assassin’s logo.

originalYou can tackle the missions in any order, and three of the four Assassins are easy to find. Just look at the map for Havana, Nassau, and Kingston (assuming you have those locations unlocked). Each Assassin has four missions for you to complete before you earn the key, and although the missions are varied, they are all in roughly the same area – at least close enough that you can find them easily on the map. The last Assassin, Opia Apito, takes some work to find.

Apito is located on the Cayman Islands, west of Jamaica. Look for a small island with two fast travel icons, one on the east coast and the other on the west. She appears on the west side at first, but be warned – the entire area is restricted and crawling with tough, aggressive enemy ships. The second and third missions for Apito are on the east side of the island. The fourth is on another island to the immediate north called Pinos Isle, which features a Mayan ruin and a single pathway in blocked on either side by level 25 frigates. You can attempt these missions at any time after they are unlocked, but sneaking into Kingston and Pinos Isle is difficult if the Jackdaw isn’t up to it and prepared to fight multiple ships around level 20 and above. 

Once you have the fifth and final key, return to Great Iguana and unlock your reward, the “Templar Armor,” which offers Edward a new look along with increased defense.

Mayan Stelae

acga_sp_61_caribbeansea_spyglass_1377255636There are several collectibles in Black Flag, but some of the most useful are the “Mayan Stelae.” There are 16 of these totems scattered around the Caribbean, and you need to discover them all in order to unlock a door on the eastern island of Tulum (you discover the island during the course of the story, before hour 15).

When you find a Mayan statue (they appear on the map after an area has been synchronized), you simply climb it and “interact,” then solve the puzzle. These puzzles ask you to align an outline with figures on the ground, which then shows you a place to dig. There is no simple way to find these beyond old school exploration, although conquering a fort will unveil all the Stelae in that fort’s area, as will synchronizing viewpoints on an island.

The reward for collecting all 16 stelae is the “Mayan Outfit,” created out of materials from the First Civilization that make you impervious to bullets.

Legendary Ships

Legendary ShipIn the corners of the maps, hidden in dense fog, you will discover level 75 “Legendary Ships.” These are the biggest ships in the game, and they will dominate you if you are unprepared. To give you an idea, a Jackdaw without upgrades won’t survive a single broadside from a Legendary Ship. These can be difficult battles, but the 20,000 reales reward makes it too tempting to ignore.

The easiest way to face these behemoths is to upgrade the Jackdaw to its highest, elite level and just take it to them. That isn’t necessary, but the more powerful you are, the easier these fights become. No matter how tough you are though, these ships are tougher.

Each of the Legendaries has its own attack pattern, and so defeating them always comes down to learning their patterns and using the Jackdaw’s better maneuverability to your advantage. You can’t trade broadsides with them, so the best strategy is to stay close enough so their mortar strikes don’t hit you, and at an angle where they can’t turn to fire on you; ideally behind and diagonal to them, since that’s where where your cannons can hit the most mass. An upgraded ram and chain shot are especially effective. Having increased ammo capacities helps too.

There are four Legendary Ship locations, and five ships to defeat in all. When you think you are ready, you can head to the northeast and take on two of them at the same time, the Royal Sovereign and HMS Fearless. This is a brutal fight, and the ships will work in tandem to destroy you. When you sink one, the second will light itself on fire and gain increased speed, damage, and defense. If you try this without elite upgrades, good luck. Defeat all the Legendary Ships and you earn an Achievement/Trophy, and a new ram charge attack for the Jackdaw.

Editors' Recommendations

Ryan Fleming
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Ryan Fleming is the Gaming and Cinema Editor for Digital Trends. He joined the DT staff in 2009 after spending time covering…
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