With the latest installment in Ubisoft‘s flagship series, Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag righting the ship (pun intended) after a somewhat divisive predecessor, the development team has released the first story-based DLC that is, itself, pulling no punches in terms of story and themes.
Placing Adewale, the runaway slave and former confidant of Black Flag‘s hero Edward Kenway as the new protagonist of ‘Freedom Cry,’ players will bring the values of the Assassin Order to bear on the African slave trade of the Caribbean. Can the DLC campaign, like Adewale himself, follow Kenway’s lead?
First things first: it was a pleasant surprise to see the usual DLC formula flipped on its head with Assassin’s Creed 3, with the developers granting players a chance to see an alternate take on ‘The Tyranny of King Washington’ as opposed to merely more missions or locations. The twist worked for some and not for others, so given how much Black Flag improved over most aspects of AC3 (read our review), it would have been no surprise if Ubisoft decided to play things safe, and concoct a new adventure around Edward Kenway.
Instead, the team decided to take things in a new direction. Set fifteen years after Black Flag’s events, ‘Freedom Cry’ tells the tale of Adewale, once Edward Kenway’s quartermaster, now a fully-fledged member of the Assassin Order – and still a pirate, in possession of his very own ship.
Where it was accurate to claim that Black Flag managed to succeed, in many ways, by casting off the usual gameplay implications and story conventions of previous games, the Assassin/Templar conflict is more strongly alluded to in ‘Freedom Cry.’ It might be an exaggeration to say that players will get to experience the best of both worlds with the DLC – the pirate’s life and the mission of the Assassin Order – but with Adewale’s turn in the spotlight, the balance is struck far more successfully.
The first trailers for the DLC showed Ubisoft wasn’t shying away from the uglier side of history; Adewale had been raised as a slave, experienced the harshest aspects of it, and taken lives to escape. But luckily, the writers resist the urge to stand atop a soapbox or preach altogether, instead showing the realities of the slave trade without much spectacle.
The bad news is that the strong, swelling story and characters hinted at in the DLC’s launch trailer are a more accurate sign of marketing than reflective of gameplay. Most of the characters pale in comparison to Black Flag’s, and the overall story isn’t going to be what pulls players through to completion. In ‘Freedom Cry,’ as in Black Flag proper, it’s the systems at work that tell the real story – and the game is better for it.
As a hero, Adewale shines as a result of being well-written, well-acted, and well-designed in the first place. And as most players of Black Flag will be fond of the character from the game’s campaign (exchanging dialogue with Kenway aboard the Jackdaw), there was no denying that the character was kept in his place, with the racial elements of that fact only ever hinted at. So from the game’s outset, the ability to play as an experienced, lethal, and most importantly, active version of the character sets the stage for most of ‘Freedom Cry’s themes.
Shipwrecked on Port-au-Prince, Haiti in the game’s opening sequence, Adewale finds himself dropped smack in the middle of a bustling slave market; overseers beat African prisoners on street corners, the raised voices of auctioneers selling off slaves carries for blocks, and runaways sprint across rooftops with slave drivers close behind them.
But what keeps this experience a distinct entry in the Assassin’s Creed fiction is that every offense, every occurrence is explicitly based on mechanics or scenes already established in the series. It is only the context that the developers of ‘Freedom Cry’ have changed, and as is usually the case, context is everything.
Cinematic cut-scenes and in-game dialogue can establish the racism and brutality of the time, but when specific classes of French soldier become instantly suspicious of Adewale, much of the story never needs be spoken. The same goes for even the most irritating of AC‘s gameplay: chasing an overseer to spare the life of a runaway slave is far more compelling than chasing down a courier for the money he carries, and assassinating a slave driver alone is worth having to deal with the half dozen soldiers who react.
But the most telling twist on the formula can be found on the game’s new plantations. Freeing slaves or helping prisoners escape helps swell not only Adewale’s crew, but the ranks of the resistance group he soon aligns with. Which means with each plantation liberated, dozens are recruited to the cause. Unfortunately (or so some will think) liberating an entire plantation means moving slowly, and silently.
There are few elements of Assassin’s Creed more criticized than its take on stealth, but even players who prefer a loud approach will have a hard time not picking their way through plantation fields, luring overseers from their posts, and picking them off one by one as those working the fields remain silent. The mechanics are the same, but in changing the context of who is being hunted, Ubisoft may have stumbled on the real problem that always plagued their insistence on stealth: this time, players might actually want to eliminate their enemies, not slip by them unnoticed.
Once combat breaks out, Adewale is free to show that the developers weren’t exaggerating when they claimed he was one of the most brutal Assassins ever. The weapons and items added with the DLC – a blunderbuss and firecrackers – are passable additions (with the blunderbuss’ potential for memorable ambushes undeniable), but the animations and executions brought by Adewale’s machete are enough to keep things fresh, especially in this length of DLC (nine mission, about four hours).
In the end, Ubisoft used an established combat and traversal system to tell a story set in an explosive and ugly period in history. And by letting the gameplay do the talking, it largely succeeds. Sure, the new locations may be smaller than some might like, and the same technical and traversal issues of Black Flag aren’t mysteriously erased here. But in examining the setting with restraint, basing the experience on a likeable lead, and handling some truly memorable set pieces (on the water and off it) with some class, ‘Freedom Cry’ is an experience that fans of the game will enjoy, and other studios could learn from.
Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag‘s ‘Freedom Cry‘ DLC is free to Season Pass owners, or $9.99 and available now for the PS3, PS4, Xbox 360 and Xbox One. A PC release is being delayed for “extra polish.” Game Rant played the Xbox 360 version.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andrew_dyce.