Assassin's Creed

Beating AC4: Black Flag without ship upgrades: A (Video) Guide

I have been sitting on these videos for a while now because I wanted to edit them all together into a nice video guide. However I am too lazy for that so it never would have happened. I figured I might as well share them as they are and write down my thoughts instead.

My rules

  • No boarding ships while in combat (so no mid-combat healing). This is basically cheating, and realistically other ships would just park next to you and unload all their shot into your ship.

  • No Upgrades beyond what the game forces you to get, which are Hull lv.2, Broadside cannons lv.2 and the diving bell.

  • I can reload checkpoints if I can manage to reach the checkpoint with full health (because your health and that of enemies gets replenished after reloading). A health segment also replenishes once you leave active combat, so you can fall to ~70% health and still have full health a few seconds later.

  • Upgrades for Edward himself and cosmetic upgrades for the Jackdaw are allowed.

  • For the videos, I only show mandatory combat. If ships can be avoided, then I will. I also start with Proper Defenses because I expect everyone to have a similar experience during the pirating tutorial with Hornigold because everyone will have a base Jackdaw here. You can click on a mission name to see my video, and a full playlist of them is here.

General Tips

  • Bracing becomes basically mandatory and can mean the difference between life and death.

  • While bracing, you lose the ability to turn. If you turn hard just before you brace, you keep your turning momentum while bracing at the same time. Can be useful is some situations.

  • The edges of the screen will flash if you are about to collide with something. Helpful if you are looking at something else.

  • Your crew and quartermaster actually shout helpful information. Your health, enemy types, when an enemy fires and collision courses are all things your crew will tell you, which is useful since you can’t look everywhere at once.

With that out of the way, let's start. Also spoilers for the entire game, obviously.

Proper Defenses

This mission mainly teaches you to how to avoid ship mortars, which will become an invaluable skill later. The skirmish with the gunboats later can be a bit scary, but ironically is easier than normal since we don't have to worry about full sync with unaimable heavy shot.

The Forts

Again, pretty easy. The fort itself only has two towers and they don't have a lot of health. Ignore the brig and focus on the fort, because once the fort goes down you lose aggro and can safely dock. This mission teaches you about fort mortars, which unlike their ship counterparts must physically travel to their impact point. This means you often can safely sail through the danger zone even after it has turned red. It takes about 3-5 seconds after you hear the mortars being fired for them to hit you, depending on distance, so use this to your advantage. More on forts later. This is also the first mission where the game recommends you upgrade your ship.

Devil's Advocate

You can avoid combat when you search for Blackbeard. Afterwards, this mission uses Black Beard's ship for the combat and from my testing this ship is static and doesn't scale with the Jackdaw, so everyone has the same experience here. Skipped.

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The siege of Charles-Towne

This mission is naval stealth and has no combat, so I skipped this too.

The fireship

Easy again. The enemies are just gunboats and schooners. If you keep moving after the fireship explodes you are never in any real danger.

Do not go gently

The first real difficulty spike, and a pretty steep one at that. Fighting a Man-o-war with our boat made from basically wet paper is no joke, especially without a plan. The man-o-war starts with a mortar. We immediately go full stop in order to both lead and avoid the mortar and to let the pirate brig draw aggro. The other pirate brig will die immediately.

The plan is to let the brig distract and to stay out of range ourselves. Here is the thing about (most) man-o-wars in the game: they have terrible range because all their broadsides are heavy shot, so they must rely on mortars for ranged damage. This is something we can exploit since our normal broadside outrange theirs. Once the pirate brig dies the man-o-war should be decently damaged and then you just have to chip away at it from range. Make no mistake though, it is still a legitimate threat. You can't be at the wrong place twice because two volleys of either the mortars or broadside will likely mean death.

Forts (In particular Cabo de Cruz)

Before you do Vainglorious Bastards, I highly, highly, highly recommend you take out the fort Cabo de Cruz. Let's talk forts in general. Forts are surprisingly doable. The level 1 forts fall very easily. Some level two forts have a gimmick like reinforcements or the stupid waterspout that circles the island. However, now that we know that mortars aren't so scary anymore, most forts become more of an endurance fight. There are two forts that I wasn't able to beat: Chinchorro, because it calls in a ton of high-level reinforcements, and Charlotte, because the rogue waves completely halt your speed, making you an easy target for a devastating mortar. It may be possible to beat this fort by sticking close to it, but it will be extremely difficult. The final level 3 fort doesn't have a gimmick, just a lot of health. It took me around 15 minutes to beat it and most of it was spent sailing around the island so it couldn't hit me.

I haven't uploaded all the fort videos yet but honestly they aren't that interesting, and you can probably beat the game without destroying them. It just means exploration in general is more annoying because most of the sea will be a restricted area.

Vainglorious Bastards

Probably the hardest mission in this run. Two brigs and a frigate are very strong. The brigs outspeed and outrange you, so use your barrels when they get close. Ships will always try to avoid barrels, and this is very helpful to get them of our backs. Still, you do little damage. Then there is the frigate, which also outranges you and can shoot multiple broadsides that do a lot of damage. Their combined offense is just too much and therefore we have a big problem.

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This is where our fort comes into play, and we absolutely NEED it. Once the mission starts, go fast and go wide towards your fort, using barrels to keep the brigs off your back. Your goal is to bait them into the range of your fort, because your fort will do all the work for you. Once you reach the fort, head towards the cliff where there are a few rocks that you can use as cover. This also leads the sips in front of the fort so it can damage them. I got really lucky at one point where I should have been hit with two broadsides at the same time, but I think my chain shot stunned them into not firing. By the time you reach your fort again all ships should be dead or nearly dead and you only need to shoot the frigate once to allow for boarding.

Trust is earned

Not a naval mission but in order to access it we need to destroy some ships. The gunboats fall quickly and the frigate is made easier by plenty of cover and restricted space. Just be careful not to hit land. A nice breather after the hell that came before it.

Black Bart's Gambit

Again, stealth and at the end you command a static and quite overpowered man-o-war. Skipped.

Murder and Mayhem

Like Hornigold himself, his ship is kind of a pushover. It is stronger than a normal schooner but if you focus your efforts on it and hit it hard and fast you shouldn't have problems. Ironically, his own barrels do a lot of damage to him, so make sure to shoot those. Don't worry if you hit the Spanish ship that helps you out, just keep focusing on Hornigold.

Royal Misfortune

A hard mission again. During the chase, you can't see where the mortars will land, but I think it may be the same every time so you could learn to get through this without too much damage through trial and error. Once it starts dropping barrels you are relatively safe for a short while.

Then the four-way free for all. The Royal Fortune is the strongest non legendary ship in the game, and you have to respect it. Luckily, if you don't attack the Spanish or English ships they won't attack you. Let them do damage and use them for cover. Basically, you're bait again because Black Bart prioritizes you above the other ships. Stormy weather makes movement tricky though. Take shots when you can, just make sure not to hit your "allies".

Ever a Splinter

Like Trust is Earned not a naval mission, but the mission start marker is guarded by two men-o-war. You can actually swim to this marker and start the mission this way, or stealth swim to the ships and incapacitate them this way. Personally, I found this to be anticlimactic. After fighting an already damaged man of war and a man of war together with other ships, a one on one seemed like a fitting end for this run.

Aggro one ship then lead it away from the other. Like always, their range is bad, and we exploit this. Because this is still in the open world, there is still some randomness involved like weather and patrolling ships, but this is honestly not that hard, especially after everything that came before. It just takes. Way. Too. Long. This is purely a stamina fight if you get lucky and manage to keep it a 1v1. After beating one ship, I didn't bother to fight the other one too because I already proved I can beat one and I don't hate myself that much to have another 10+ minute battle where two mistakes mean death.

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Closing thoughts

I didn't attempt the legendary ships because it is obvious that you stand no chance without upgrades in a fair fight. The ships are just too fast and hit too hard. They also all have a gimmick that makes it even harder. You can however take them out by boarding them on your own, there are videos of this on youtube and I think this is a fairly well known trick, so I didn't see the need of repeating it myself.

Should you attempt this run? Maybe. It is kind of fun to overcome these insurmountable odds in a Dark Souls kind of way, but your options are too limited and especially the later fights, when you've become good at movement, mainly become endurance fights. It also kind of ruins your casual enjoyment of the game because casual naval combat becomes incredibly easy and every upgrade starts to feel overpowered.

I also attempted Freedom Cry but the base Experto Crede is already quite capable with mortars, good health and good offence, so I lost interest. I may also attempt Rogue in the future but it won't be soon. Rogue forces you to get mortars and I don't really know how I feel about that.

So that was it. Black Flag beaten with the minimal number of upgrades. It is surprisingly easy until you get to Do not Go Gently. After this it gets more frustrating and frankly less fun. If you made it all this way than I thank you for reading, and I hope you enjoyed it or that at least made you learn something new about AC4 or its naval combat.

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