Saturday, December 21, 2013

Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag: Freedom Cry review

      Assassin's Creed: Black Flag is, as I've mentioned earlier on my blog, my favorite of the series. I felt it managed to inject a large amount of audacious fun and carefree joy into the narrative, something I hadn't felt since Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood.

      As a result, I was disappointed with the revelation that Edward Kenway (the game's star) wouldn't be appearing in the game's first major piece of DLC. Instead, the star of Freedom Cry would be Adewale, Edward Kenway's quartermaster and best friend. Still, I'm a huge fan of Assassin's Creed so I was willing to give it a shot.

    My overall opinion? Fun but a very different experience from AC4.

The game goes out of its way to give Adewale "brutal" weapons like the blunderbus and machete.
     Freedom Cry's premise is fairly simple. During a routine mission for the Assassins, Adewale is washed overboard and ends up in Port'au'Prince. Given this is the 18th century, the city is a massive center for the slave-trade.

    This evil trade is on display with no whitewashing of the cruelties involved. While Adewale is eager to get back to the Assassins, he finds himself compelled to involve himself with the local resistance in hopes of liberating as many people as possible.

    Individuals hoping for a continuation of the main game's pirate theme will be sorely disappointed. There's no joy to be had in Freedom Cry as we are exposed to slavery's horrific dehumanizing conditions.

    People are marketed like cattle, whipped like animals, forced to move in heavy chains,. and killed whenever they attempt to escape. The most horrible part of it all? This is all true to life and the conditions depicted in the game aren't even a fraction of the real-life suffering endured by those forced into bondage.

The interactions between Adewale and the Maroon resistance are short but sweet.
    While no fan of darker and edgier for its own sake, the stakes feel high in Freedom Cry. There's numerous opportunities to free slaves spread throughout Port'au'Prince and I felt horrible whenever I wasn't able to do so. Adewale, himself, comments he feels guilty about "playing pirate" whenever he thinks about his past life as a Quartermaster versus his role as an Assassin. Knowing it'll be decades before the nation of Haiti is born and the world's first successful slave revolt occurs, the DLC is kinda depressing.

    Improvements to Black Flag's gameplay include plantation raids, rescuing imprisoned slaves, and raiding slave ships. The plantation raids are the biggest change as you're often required to kill upwards of thirty Overseers, all without triggering an alarm bell. If an alarm bell is triggered, the Overseers will attempt to kill the slaves around you in order to prevent their rescue. It's a tense and nail-baiting mechanic that makes for exciting situations.

Adewale's brutality would feel upsetting--if not for the fact his victims are slavers. Truth be told, I haven't felt this good about being brutal since destroying Paradise Falls in Fallout 3.
    Unfortunately, the gameplay isn't always perfect. Adewale feels clumsier and less of a badass than Edward Kenway, despite the fact he is significantly more vicious and has more brutal combat animations. Edward Kenway was able to effortlessly take out legions of foes with his sword while Adewale seemed to take forever killing his opponents with his machete. Even when the machete was fully upgraded, melee combat felt less fluid.
    Likewise, I can't say naval combat was all that much fun either. Taking down slave ships was a tedious affair given Adewale's stolen vessel was significantly less durable than the Jackdaw. While there's the option to upgrade Adewale's vessel like Edward Kenway, it involves the very sort of piracy the character disdains in his dialogues. I can't help but feel Ubisoft shot themselves in the foot by making this decision.

    The DLC's signature new weapon in the blunderbuss is another failed experiment. Whereas Edward Kenway's four pistols always gave you plenty of extra ammunition to kill your enemies, I felt the blunderbuss was near worthless. The weapon was only effective at ultra-short range and it seemed to do precious little damage when I wanted to use it at anything further than spitting distance. The weapon also took forever to reload, meaning I was inclined to rely on either my blowpipe or machete for the majority of my fighting.

Freedom Cry mercifully replaces AC4's constant tailing missions with slaver-murder.
     One thing I did like about Freedom Cry was the fact the DLC shies away from the Templar vs. Assassins conflict. Adewale does some fighting against the former at the start of the game but, for the rest of the conflict, he's against unaligned slavers. These enemies proved far more enjoyable to kill than the increasingly sympathetic Templars. Much like killing Lauren Prins, I think Ubisoft should look into killing evil historical figures over the Assassin's traditional enemies.

    Storyline-wise, Freedom Cry is one of the strongest in the series. Despite containing only about six-hours of gameplay, Adewale's journey is surprisingly nuanced. The penultimate mission is also perhaps the darkest and most moving in the whole of Assassin's Creed. Adewale's story, or something very like it, easily could have been its own 40 hour game. It's a pity the liberation of Haiti probably won't be its own story now.

Raiding slave plantations gives a real sense of accomplishment--until they return to operation just a few turns later.
    I would be remiss if I also didn't comment on the DLC's racial politics. It's nice to see a black lead in a Triple AAA game (even if it's only a spin-off). Ubisoft has shown its commitment to breaking the "brown-haired white guy" stereotype of video game protagonists. With an Arab, Mohawk Native, French woman of color, and Adewale--we've got a fairly diverse collection of protagonists.

    Is it perfect? Not quite. As much as Ubisoft deserves being lauded for its progressiveness, Adewale fits some uncomfortable black stereotypes being the most vicious and physically intimidating of Assassin's Creed's heroes. I would have preferred to have this element toned down or eliminated, to be honest, as I preferred Adewale the Pirate to Adewale the Psycho-Killer (even if his victims have it coming).

    Should you pick up Freedom Cry? Yes, yes you should. It's a very different experience from Black Flag, however, so gamers should be warned. The relentless darkness and grim subject matter can wear on the soul. Likewise, the gameplay is significantly less fluid than in the main game.


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