We’re carrying on from where Black Flag left off, it’s time for some more vaguely Assassin-themed piratical nonsense with Freedom Cry, a standalone expansion for Black Flag.
Assassin’s Creed IV: Freedom Cry (PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One [reviewed])
Base Game: Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag
Released Dec 2013 | Developed / Published: Ubisoft
Genre: Action-Adventure, Stealth
Set 20 years after Black Flag, Freedom Cry follows Edward Kenway’s former quartermaster-turned-Assassin, Adewale. After taking on a Templar fleet to recover a mysterious package, Adewale is shipwrecked and washes up on the shores of Port-au-Prince in French-controlled Haiti; there he finds the local Templars working with a brothel madame named Bastienne. However, she is in turn also working with a group of freedom fighters, the Maroons, and Adewale quickly becomes sympathetic to their cause, offering to work with them to disrupt the slave trade and gather more liberated people to them.
If the actual Templar-Assassin plot seems light-to-nonexistent in that summary, well that’s because it is. It could easily be refreshing to some but frankly could also be seen as making Freedom Cry feel rather pointless. Instead of Ubisoft’s rambling nonsensical narrative about a millenia-long clandestine war between 2 schools of political though, Freedom Cry opts to give time over to the plight of those enslaved by colonists and upon whose backs the Empires of the 18th century were built. Almost everything outside of the main plot in Freedom Cry is concerned with liberating them; it’s quite interesting to see how the mechanics of Black Flag have been refocused in this DLC.
When wandering about towns, for example, where Edward saw opportunities to steal and revel, Adewale sees only the suffering of slaves. Beatings, auctions, prowling jailers, and escapees making a desperate bid for freedom are common occurrences in Haiti, and taking on the Templar Overseers rewards Adewale with more fighters recruited for the Maroons. Where Edward prowled plantations looking only to loot them, Ade stalks them as a liberator, killing the Overseers so that more slaves might escape. Even out on the ocean, though Ade sails the seas in his own brig, Experto Crede, he attacks slaves ships rather than booty-laden convoys.
It all serves Ade’s character well, and works to show just how self-serving both Edward, and the Golden Age of Piracy, were, even on top of the base game. When Ade joins the Assassins in Black Flag, he berates Edward’s selfishness and inability to consider anyone but himself, citing the need to be part of a wider, grander cause; here we get to see a little of what that means for him, using his Assassin-honed skills to fight not against the Templars, but instead against a very real injustice.
Given he fights against slavery, perhaps it’s little wonder then that he is far more brutal than Edward. In the short time we spend with Freedom Cry, you can’t help but feel Ade is right to feel like he wants revenge against the slavers he sees in Haiti. Appropriately enough, he arms himself with a sugar-cane machete, and his combat animations are far grimmer than Edward’s; he hacks away at limbs and faces, and the finisher where he slowly takes his time slitting his foe’s throat is, frankly, deeply unsettling. He also picks up a blunderbuss; your standard videogame shotgun, it takes out groups of enemies at short range though I found it to be too slow and cumbersome to be of any real use in the game, and certainly not preferable to usual smorgasbord of options available to Assassins.
Freeing slaves is also the primary way in which you upgrade Ade; as a shorter piece of DLC, Freedom Cry is bereft of the crafting and hunting mechanics of Black Flag, but encouraging you to free more people in order to get more gear for Ade is a fine way of engaging players with the mechanics. Practically every action rewards you with freed slaves, most of whom return to the Maroons to help build their new society, while a far smaller proportion join their ranks as warriors. Warriors and generic people form two different reward paths; more warriors freed gives Ade access to more weaponry and upgrades for Experto Crede, and other upgrades are tied to freeing great numbers of non-combatants. It’s not a branching upgrade system, or a choice though; you free both during the normal course of gameplay which on the one hand feels like a missed opportunity to specialize Adewale’s skills but it helps keep the DLC reasonably brief and speedily-paced.
It would be remiss of me not to mention the fabulous soundtrack. The franchise typically utilizes filmic score but often mixes them with at least something interesting and relevant to some element of the game and Olivier Deriviere’s music for Freedom Cry is no exception though it is pulled here remarkably well. The voice that leads the opening track The Root has a morose, plaintive quality which lends itself well to communicating the plight of the Haitian slaves; as the vibrato brings a mournful quaver to the vocals, it’s hard not to feel heartbroken. The ability of the vocal tracks to hugely elevate a track (or parts of it) are not to be underestimated – much of The Fight for All is merely good but when the vocal refrain kicks in at the 1:50 mark it sparks into life. Likewise, without the vocals, The Freedom Cry is a lovely song, but with them it is transformed into a cry for help that resonates so brilliantly.
Fight the Tyranny is another personal favourite; the violins remind me strongly of Yoko Shimomura’s work in Kingdom Hearts but around the mid-point it takes more and more interesting elements to the melody and rhythm and as far as Assassin’s Creed battle themes go it’s definitely one of the more unique ones.
The music is by far the best thing about Freedom Cry, beyond its interest in tackling a sensitive subject as part of its core narrative and gameplay loop. It would be cynical to boil it down to just another Assassin’s Creed game but that is basically the long and short of it. I do enjoy it, and having the Assassin’s Creed formula condensed down to a briefer experience is a pleasant change of pace. For a game about freedom though, it does remarkably little to break the chains of the franchise, but it’s a fairly fine game nevertheless.
4/7 – GOOD. Sure, maybe something doesn’t quite work but at least it has heart, or a spark of excitement that makes it worthwhile despite the faults. Definitely worth a go if you can at least find it on sale.