Ignite a bloody slave rebellion and strike a blow for freedom.
PC Release: December 18, 2013
By Ian Coppock
I need a palette cleanser after Assassin’s Creed Liberation, so I’ve returned to the kick-ass fold of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag for our next murder-stabby adventure. For today’s selection, we’re going to take a look at a story-driven DLC that takes place long after but not far away from the swashbuckling of Black Flag. For some reason Freedom Cry was also released in a standalone version, but I know not why any sane person would play only Freedom Cry and not Black Flag, which, as I’ve said a million times by now, kicks ass. We are, however, going to borrow the standalone version’s title of Assassin’s Creed Freedom Cry, since Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag: Freedom Cry is a few colons too many.
Like the main game (ass-kickery all up in there, by the way), Freedom Cry takes place in the Caribbean in the early 1700s. You control Adewale, a slave-turned-pirate-turned-Assassin who served as Edward Kenway’s first mate in Black Flag. Adewale is now in service to the Brotherhood, with a ship and crew of his own. Freedom Cry begins fifteen years after Black Flag‘s conclusion and follows Adewale on a two-year mission to aid the Maroon communities in modern-day Haiti. The DLC adds Hispaniola to Black Flag‘s Caribbean map, and the French Empire as foes.
Our story opens with Adewale chasing after a Templar vessel, using the same ship and boarding mechanics introduced in Black Flag. A terrible storm casts him and his ship awry, and he washes up on the shores of Haiti, by far the most brutal plantation colony of the colonial era. At first resolute to find a new ship and continue on his original mission, Adewale witnesses some surprisingly uncensored brutality being inflicted upon the slaves. Reminded of his own upbringing as a slave in Trinidad, Adewale decides to put aside his mission as an Assassin to free some slaves.
To find Adewale on such a mission came as little surprise to me. In Black Flag, Adewale was always the empathetic foil to Edward Kenway’s selfishness and indifference to others, and a far more perfect fit for the Assassins’ mission of freedom. The character is instantly likeable, if a bit boring, and he’s also one of a very seldom few black protagonists in story-driven video games. I don’t think we’ve seen a black male protagonist since… Lee? In The Walking Dead? Which came out in 2011, I think.
In Freedom Cry, your focus has shifted from robbing ships and plantations to freeing their enslaved workers. As Adewale, your job is to infiltrate everything from slave auctions to torture chambers and free their captives from hell on earth. You can also sneak onto plantations, kill their overseers, and send slaves packing for the hills and the Maroon communities hidden in the jungle. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a video game tackle the issue of slavery before, much less with such raw visual power. True, it relies on the same rote ideas of freedom and liberty that we’ve seen in all Assassin’s Creed games, but Freedom Cry isn’t afraid to get graphic with what slaves had to put up with in colonial America. It’s unpleasant, but important. Just like most truths out there.
Adewale is not alone in his fight to free the slaves, finding allies in a disheveled Maroon leader and the madame of a local brothel. These two are your primary points of contact for new missions, though Freedom Cry is also happy to let you roam the streets of Port-Au-Prince, fighting Frenchmen and freeing their reluctant “charges”. The gameplay in Freedom Cry is identical to the main game, with a nice balance between land and ship-based missions. Adewale gets a new ship, the Experto Crede, that you can deck out in a manner similar to the Jackdaw, and his own gallery of weapons for dealing some pain to the slavers.
Freeing slaves also brings its own reward as a game mechanic. Whereas you previously had to skin animals and harpoon sharks to make your gear, Adewale gets upgrades every time he frees a certain number of slaves. Every tier of newly minted Maroons brings you newly minted pouches, armor and weapons. I suppose the slaves were hiding these things in the sugarcane fields, or something. Upgrades to your ship are still made by gathering supplies, be that through raiding enemy camps or relieving hostile vessels of their cargo. You can also liberate slave ships.
Despite some of Freedom Cry’s drawbacks, like a bug that made guards occasionally run in circles, or a very small map with perhaps 10 discoverable locales, it was nice to play an Assassin’s Creed game that sets aside the whole Assassin-Templar war for a moment. Freedom Cry remembers that the Assassins’ main mission is freedom for all of mankind, and Templars are certainly not the only people seeking to keep that out of people’s reach. Adewale descends into the hazardous dark of the colonial underworld, where the motivations of his enemies are bloodthirst and plunder instead of abstract philosophy.
That doesn’t save Freedom Cry‘s story from getting staler as we approach the end. It’s about four hours of content, plus a few more if you explore the map, but most of the missions are side quest-style fetching and sabotaging dressed up with a few lines of dialogue (which, by the way, I recommend using subtitles for if you’re not good with Caribbean accents). The plot has an unfortunate tendency to get lost in irrelevant tangents, like a few missions that you spend helping an expedition prepare to circumnavigate the globe, only to end with “well, that will be neat, okay, back to liberating.”
So what is the value of Freedom Cry? What enjoyable experience is to be gleaned if the game’s mechanics are identical to Black Flag‘s and the story is less than compelling?
I think the biggest value this game brings to the table is being unafraid to portray the brutality of slavery. The entire suite of Black Flag game mechanics is tweaked to reflect the fight for freedom rather than the fight for booty. Plus, it adds to the open-world, swashbuckling fun that we experienced with the main game. Adewale doesn’t undergo much evolution as a character but he’s enjoyably noble, and one of the most Assassin-y Assassins that we’ve yet encountered in any of the games.
The most emotional moments of the narrative were typically the ones not involving talking. There was one scene where you’re running through a burning slave ship that had me breathing heavily long after the mission had concluded. There were a few scenes in which condescending Europeans casually discuss the supposed superiority of white people, in such a manner as to cause chills. Ubisoft deserves props for writing dialogue that pulls no punches on sticking to the conventions of the times.
This punch-pulling is part of a wider debate on how media tackles historical matter. George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, while by no means historical, has gotten a lot of flak over the years for how it portrays women and girls. While anyone who’s read the books or seen the show can agree that the treatment of women in the world of Westoros is pretty horrific, that’s how things were in the Medieval times upon which such portrayals are based. It wasn’t pleasant, but it was the truth, and those who seek to portray the truth should not sanitize it for fear of causing offense. The emotional gut-punch associated with the truth doesn’t feel good, but we owe it to ourselves and the ones who have suffered misfortunes to be in touch with the reality of cruelty, and that’s what Freedom Cry does in its portrayal of slavery. We need to know the crimes of the past to prevent them happening again in the future.
Sorry, got a bit off-track there. Anyway, that’s why Freedom Cry is important and it’s fun enough for me to recommend. Ten bucks for the DLC version, $15 for the standalone version. Go get it.
You can buy Assassin’s Creed Freedom Cry here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.