“Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag” was the most unexpectedly essential game of 2013, a title so commercially and critically popular that Ubisoft is reportedly considering pirate-themed spin-offs under the “AC” brand. We loved it enough to put it at #4 on the best of 2013. And so, despite the relative failure of “The Tyranny of King George,” the DLC for “Assassin’s Creed III,” the anticipation was high for “Freedom Cry,” the first story-based downloadable content for “Black Flag,” priced at $10 for those without a season pass (which is $20 and allows access to all current and future DLC). Does “Freedom Cry” connect creatively? Yes. It’s not the home run of “Black Flag” as some of the mechanics feel a little less refined (I had more trouble with ship combat in the four or so hours here than in the proper game, which makes little sense) and the missions get repetitive to a degree that somewhat damages the piece thematically, but it’s still a strong offering for the price point and displays the creative potential of staying in this new pirate-based world of “Assassin’s Creed.”
“Freedom Cry” takes place fifteen years after “Black Flag,” as you take control of Adewale, the former shipmate of Edward Kenway. Playing a strong, black hero in a modern action game is something notable on its own but “Freedom Cry” takes it a step further, working in the sensitive thematic arena of the horrors of human slavery. Much like Quentin Tarantino's “Django Unchained,” you are a man who knows the pain of slavery and are hell-bent on saving your people and leading a revolution against those who have enslaved your fellow men in the West Indies. You will explore several areas of the Caribbean, primarily Port-au-Prince, and the developers don’t merely use slavery as a backdrop for an action game. It is a part of everything you do, from rescuing slave ships on the open water to the constant interruption of side missions based around the enslavement of your fellow man.
You’ll be on your way to a story mission (there are 9 memories to “sync”) and see a slave running for freedom, begging you to stop his captor from catching him. You’ll be able to stop slaves from being tortured, release others from prisons, and even free entire plantations. Hundreds of overseers will meet the sharp end of your machete as combat is essentially the same, although Adewale feels like more of a brute force than Kenway. Perhaps it’s the righteous anger created by the subject matter, but I found myself choosing to kill my enemies more often than sneaking around them. They deserved it.
The missions of “Freedom Cry” center on building a revolution and freeing your fellow man. You will add to your resistance by liberating slaves and perhaps the most interesting new addition in terms of gameplay is that how you approach some of your efforts could cost the lives of your fellow men. If you garner too much attention during a plantation liberation, the overseers will begin killing slaves to quell a potential revolution. Your gameplay failure could lead to the deaths of slaves. That’s intense and a narrative turn that we haven’t really seen before.
Sadly, I hoped for a bit more that I hadn’t seen before during “Freedom Cry.” It’s a solid 4-hour adventure (and much more than that if you choose to explore, hunt, pillage, etc. like you can in the full game for hours and hours), especially given its cost, and it looks INCREDIBLE on the PS4 – arguably the best graphics currently available on the next-gen system – but the fact is that you’ve seen most of what “FC” has to show you in the first hour of its gameplay or in “Black Flag”. It doesn’t really unfold from there like the game does and I hoped for a bit more deviation from the full game. As I mentioned, Adewale is a different kind of hero but he behaves in essentially the same way, even if I do like how much the writers of this game make it clear that his race changes the way he must move through this world (such as the “Jailers” who are constantly on the lookout for people with his skin color.)
It’s a tough decision to make critically. Do we compare “Freedom Cry” to “Black Flag” or to other DLC add-ons? It’s not as polished or refined as the full game (even if it is notable ambitious thematically) but it creatively decimates most modern story DLC, even the episodic “King George” from this very franchise. With that in mind, one has to recommend “Freedom Cry,” even if just to encourage Ubisoft to not only take more risks like this in terms of subject matter but to keep coming back to this world of pirates, assassins, and human struggle. There are more stories to tell here. And I can’t wait to hear the next one.