Assassin’s Creed IV: Freedom Cry

Review in Brief
Game: A stealth-oriented action-adventure game set in colonial Port-au-Prince and the surrounding seas.
Good: An enormous amount of new gameplay and content, much of which surpasses the original game itself.
Bad: Leaves you wanting more; the add-on pack is too short to really fully explore of the excellent new mechanics.
Verdict: So good that it ought to be the basis of the next major release in the franchise.
Rating: 9/10
Recommendation: Easily worth the $10, a must-buy even if you were only lukewarm to the original game.

“With mere quantitative improvements, this could have been Assassin’s Creed V.”

In game development, there are at least two different kinds of changes that can be recommended for a game. One would be ‘qualitative’ changes: these would be changes to the game’s engine, gameplay, story, plot, etc. They are truly “changes” in that they replace what is present with something different. The second and more minor kind of change is the ‘quantitative’ change: nothing changes about the gameplay or engine of the game, but there is simply more content included within the same engine. A bigger game world, more missions, more sidequests, more weapons, and more upgrades. For the most part, these changes don’t change the fundamental make-up of the game, they just give more opportunity for the game’s existing engine and gameplay to be used.

Assassin’s Creed IV: Freedom Cry is a remarkable bit of DLC in that it supplies all of the changes and improvements to the gameplay engine that one would expect from a full sequel. The difference between Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag and Assassin’s Creed IV: Freedom Cry is approximately comparable to the difference between Assassin’s Creed II and Assassin’s Creed II: Brotherhood (and, arguably, even greater than the difference between the latter game and the subsequent Assassin’s Creed II: Revelations). There is a surprising number of new mechanics, an entirely new cast of characters, some notably fundamental changes to the engine, and the obligatory new weapons, tools, and locations. All of these changes are improvements as well; with no major exceptions, I preferred the Assassin’s Creed IV: Freedom Cry instance of every gameplay device to the original game’s, from its weapons to its story to its characters to its sidequests.

The only significant flaw in Assassin’s Creed IV: Freedom Cry is that these excellent new mechanics and content elements are squandered to a large extent on a main story that is too short in a game world that is too small. On the one hand, it is difficult to criticize size in the add-on because, after all, it is merely a $10 DLC expansion, not a standalone game. The mechanics, however, had the potential to buoy an entire new release, or at least a more significant add-on, and it is a bit frustrating to see them relatively underused due to the shortness and smallness of the add-on’s length. I earnestly hope that some of the mechanics seen in Assassin’s Creed IV: Freedom Cry make it into the next (presumably pirate-themed) Assassin’s Creed game to see them in their true potential glory.

The Game
The first add-on downloadable content pack for Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, Assassin’s Creed IV: Freedom Cry puts the player in the shoes of Edward Kenway’s long-term right-hand man, Adewale. Born a slave before finding freedom on the open seas, Adewale eventually made his way to Tulum and joined the Assassins. Now, ten years later, he finds himself shipwrecked at Port-au-Prince. While he tries to find his way back to the Brotherhood, Adewale finds himself caught up in the slave trade prominent in modern-day Haiti. To earn a way off the island, Adewale agrees to work with a local group of liberated slaves dubbed the Maroons fighting for their freedom and independence from the slave traders.

In terms of gameplay, Assassin’s Creed IV: Freedom Cry builds on the Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag engine and preserves the majority of the gameplay mechanics. There are, however, some significant new additions. The major addition is the slave liberation sidequest; slaves can be liberated from plantations, slave ships, markets, and various other locations. Freeing slaves earns Adewale new upgrades and weapons as he earns the trust of the Maroons’ craftsmen. Each way of freeing slaves involves a different strategy or approach, and even the same methods can involve multiple strategies (such as approaching plantations by day or night, or luring guards away to open cages rather than confronting the guards head-to-head). Rather than the swords and pistols, Adewale wields a machete and a “blunderbuss”, a colonial-era shotgun. The game takes place primarily in Port-au-Prince, as well as some of the surrounding seas, giving Adewale access to naval battles and off-site plantation raids.

The Good
In many ways, I would say that Assassin’s Creed IV: Freedom Cry goes so far as to surpass Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag itself. What’s remarkable about that is I adored the original game on its own, so it’s not that it simply set a low bar to reach. Rather, Assassin’s Creed IV: Freedom Cry takes everything that made the original game good and improves it tremendously.

A New Game’s Worth of New Content
For a $10 downloadable expansion pack, Assassin’s Creed IV: Freedom Cry supplies an absolutely amazing amount of additional content. I was expecting merely a new protagonist set in the same game world with a new set of missions, requiring only additional plot writing and mission design rather than a full approach to changing the fabric of the game. I was completely wrong.

First, Assassin’s Creed IV: Freedom Cry supplies an abundance of new mechanics to enjoy; as I mentioned previously, this add-on features almost as much new content as was introduced between the major releases during the Assassin’s Creed II trilogy. There are several new mechanics, most notably slave liberation: Adewale’s objective is to free as many slaves as he can, with a dozen different ways they can be liberated each demanding non-trivial planning and strategizing. This new overall mechanic trickles down into various different elements of gameplay, from introducing new dynamics on plantations to creating new approaches to ship battles or fights around town. The mechanic on its own is so deep and thoroughly fleshed-out that it easily could have bolstered an entire major release in the Assassin’s Creed series.

Aside from the unexpected major engine additions, Assassin’s Creed IV: Freedom Cry also features some of the incremental additions you might expect from a full sequel, but likely would not expect from DLC. There are not only new weapons, but new entire classifications of weapons. Adewale’s major tool is a machete, which functions similar but not identical to a sword. His firearm is a blunderbuss, a colonial-era shotgun capable of taking out several enemies at once, rather than a pistol. For a distraction, Adewale can toss firecrackers, a tool that seems relatively simple but proved itself far more useful and interesting than many of the tools provided in the original game.

The city where the game takes place, Port-au-Prince, is completely new, and compares favorably in size to the cities from the original game, likely falling between the sprawling Kingston and the more modest Havana. The sea around it isn’t as populated as the sea in the original game, but it’s certainly not restrictive and provides plenty of room for the sprawling sea battles that make this latest installment so great overall. There are all new characters in the game, including the local, Madame Bastienne Josèphe, the leader of the Maroons, Augustin Dieufort, and a prominent French scientist, Louis Godin. These characters demonstrate an all-new plot as well, comprised of nine new story missions. Altogether, it’s far more qualitative expansions on the original game than I would expect from a $10 DLC pack.

Surpasses the Original Game
What’s truly remarkable about Assassin’s Creed IV: Freedom Cry, however, is not just that it is surprisingly different than the original game; it’s that in many ways, it actually surpasses the game on which it is based. That is no easy task as Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is, in my opinion, one of the top three or four games released this year, so this is not a matter of having lots of room for improvement. Rather, this is a matter of Assassin’s Creed IV: Freedom Cry managing to surpass even its predecessor’s already-high standards.

This starts with an element near and dear to my game-playing heart, the stealth incentive. For the past several games in the Assassin’s Creed franchise, I’ve ranted on the lack of a good incentive for the series’ stealth gameplay. The incentive was typically either artificial, like the requirement to remain undetected, or non-existent, such as the relative ease with which one can usually dispatch with massive numbers of enemies. By the time Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag rolled around, I had relegated this rant to a mere footnote in my reviews – one can only hold the franchise to the standard of its original game for so long. And while the fourth numbered installment in the series made some strides in making it more difficult to survive fights against enormous numbers of foes, it still rarely provided any incentive to take advantage of the improved affordances for clandestine combat.

Assassin’s Creed IV: Freedom Cry, however, supplies that. In the DLC, there is finally a real, believable incentive to stay undetected for significant portions of the game. During many of the slave-freeing sequences, especially on the plantations, enemies will start executing slaves if they sense an uprising is inevitable. Witnessing you sneaking around the plantation is enough to raise their suspicions and turn them against the very slaves you are trying to liberate. So, stealth is a major concern during these segments. This incentive is excellent: it is natural in that it actually makes sense in the context of the plot; it is sufficiently incentivizing in that the reward associated with the stealth is great; and it is not demotivating in that failure to remain undetected is not an instant loss, but rather is simply a cause for a smaller reward. It’s a perfectly-structured incentive and one that I hope the rest of the series emulates, whether in the same plot context or a different one.

The plot as a whole is significantly improved compared to the original game as well. My only major criticism of the original Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag was that its plot was largely uneventful and meandering with no major climaxes or tension. Assassin’s Creed IV: Freedom Cry doesn’t have the best plot in video game history, but it is certainly a significant improvement. The characters are far more interesting, with clearly conflicting motives and some eloquent wordplay surrounding their negotiations. Adewale himself is a superior protagonist to Edward Kenway in nearly every way; Bastienne Josèphe describes him aptly, saying, “You have the brand of a slave, the eloquence of a scholar, hands of a sailor, and an Assassin’s hood.” His ruthlessness and physical prowess is worthy of the example set by the game’s earlier protagonists, but his eloquence and philosophizing puts him with Altair and Ezio as the franchise’s most exemplary assassins, leaving the Kenways in the dust. Although the story is disappointingly short, it packs significantly more emotion than the original story in its brief scenes, and the climax is ultimately far more satisfying when you have a strong understanding of the precise evils that the antagonist has committed.

Finally, I was impressed that Assassin’s Creed IV: Freedom Cry managed to provide even more variety than the original game. It preserves almost all the side tasks and gameplay mechanics present originally, but the new sidequests add almost an entirely new dimension. The different approaches to freeing slaves are particularly engrossing. In one instance, I slipped behind a guard, stole the keys to a cage, dropped some firecrackers to lure them away, and snuck behind them to open the cage and release the slaves. The entire sequence felt entirely natural, not as if that particular approach had been scripted but rather as if the game had simply given me the leeway to plan and execute my own approach. There is also an engaging variety in the main missions, including one that involves conducting various subtly different investigations around Port-au-Prince and another that involves approaching an entire plantation of troops unarmed.

And, on a minor final note, the music in Assassin’s Creed IV: Freedom Cry surpasses that of the original game as well. I was surprised there even was any new music in the downloadable pack, but there is, and it is much more engrossing than that of the original game. In nearly every way possible while remaining a downloadable content pack, Assassin’s Creed IV: Freedom Cry surpasses the original game from which it is based.

The Bad
The only major flaw in Assassin’s Creed IV: Freedom Cry is itself something of a back-handed compliment: the DLC pack is so good that it makes the player wish they had more to do in it.

Too Small
Ultimately, Assassin’s Creed IV: Freedom Cry only has one major flaw: it does not give the player enough time or space to truly appreciate and enjoy the excellent new dynamics and mechanics that it supplied. Liberating slaves is a fantastic sidequest, but you need to do very little of it to succeed in the game; the maximum reward comes with freeing 500 slaves, and yet you almost have to free that many just to complete the main missions. Those nine missions themselves mandate a couple plantation raids, a couple one slave ship raids, and several smaller liberations. Those alone get you up to around 350 liberated slaves, requiring relatively little individual pursuit of the maximum reward. More generally, the upgrades as a whole do not scale very well for this same reason. Most upgrades come every time you liberate 25 to 50 new slaves, but almost that many come from a plantation raid on its own. You end up unlocking all of the upgrades before you ever really spent any time playing without them.

The game supplies only one town, and while it is impressive that a whole new city was designed for the pack alone, it is a bit restrictive to not have more areas to visit. The plot adequately explains why Adewale is not journeying to the rest of the Caribbean where he made his rounds with Edward, but such exploration would still have been a significant boon to the game. The game world outside Port-au-Prince is relatively sparsely populated. There are a handful of islands marked by icons, but these only contain a chest or two more similar to the world map chests in the original game. Beyond that, there is relatively little of interest in the sea; had it even been as densely populated by chests and secrets as the original game’s oceans, the add-on would have been much improved. Instead, this smattering of extra collectibles feels more token than anything.

Many of these criticisms are somewhat understandable; after all, the game is a mere $10 downloadable, it is reasonable to expect it to be small. Still, however, the potential offered by the game’s mechanics is such that it seems like almost a waste to have so little to do with them. Why, for example, was Adewale not given access to the full world map from the original game? It would have taken relatively little work to scatter a smattering of cages and platforms around to create slaves to liberate around the original game world, and the plantation raids from the original game were already suited for inclusion in the downloadable pack. It may have felt a bit redundant to simply explore the same world with a different character, but redundant is better (in my opinion) than restrictive, especially when the pack has already done more than enough to warrant its price tag. The pack is still worth $10, but it had the potential to be worth far more – perhaps even $60 under the name Assassin’s Creed V – with only quantitative improvements.

Minor Problems
Lastly, Assassin’s Creed IV: Freedom Cry exacerbates one of the minor issues from the original game, and has an additional minor issue of its own. The first issue is that mission objectives stay visible during the course of a mission, complete with the mission subgoals. They also stack when you encounter sidequests or other events. What this means is that on multiple occasions, almost the entirely of the left side of my screen was taken up with text: a heading for my current mission, a heading for the fleeing slave that just ran by, and a heading for the slave ship that has inexplicably pinned itself to my optional task listing. On two occasions, I went and defeated a slave ship not because it was fun or because I needed to liberate more slaves, but rather just to get it out of my face on the HUD. The original game had this issue as well, but it never became as invasive as it can be in Assassin’s Creed IV: Freedom Cry.

Secondly, there are a few mechanics in the game engine that were clearly designed with certain features of the original game in mind. With the new weapons in Assassin’s Creed IV: Freedom Cry, a little balance is lost from the lack of these weapons. For example, two tasks involved in boarding ships are shooting scouts and detonating gun barrels. In the original, these were relatively easy with the pistol. In Assassin’s Creed IV: Freedom Cry, the blunderbuss replaces the pistol, and it lacks the range to shoot scouts from other platforms and the quickness to destroy a powder barrel real quick in the midst of combat. So, some little interactions like that became frustratingly difficult in the add-on because of the lack of weapons from the original.

The Verdict
Ultimately, the major achievement of Assassin’s Creed IV: Freedom Cry is that it manages to surpass the incredible game on which it is based. It provides an amazing amount of new content for a $10 downloadable pack, but that new content is not merely quantitative: the changes made to the gameplay engine itself are remarkable and truly add a new layer to the depth of the game’s strategies. The game’s plot, while short, still tells a better story than the original game’s meandering narrative, and the characters are far more compelling and fitting for the franchise than the pirates of the original game or even the Native Americans of the previous installment. Perhaps above all else, the game handles the sensitive issue of the slave trade in colonial times with maturity and respect.

The only real problem with Assassin’s Creed IV: Freedom Cry is that I want to play it more, but I can’t. In a few short hours – five or six to be generous and include the time I spent aimlessly boarding ships around the Caribbean – I had milked the game content for all it was worth, but yet I still felt I barely scratched the surface of the mechanics. I had liberated as many slaves as the game would ask me to seemingly immediately, and the upgrades to both Adewale and his ship flowed almost as freely. I would love to see the exact characters and mechanics of Assassin’s Creed IV: Freedom Cry used as the basis for Assassin’s Creed V; Adewale is a much more fitting heir to the franchise than Edward, and the competing worldviews of the Assassin-Templar rivalry maps very cleanly onto the colonial slave trade.

My Recommendation
Easily worth the $10, a must-buy even if you were only lukewarm to the original game.

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