Assassin’s Creed IV: Freedom Cry manages to condense into one neat package much of what made the base game great. The naval aspects are present, though they receive noticeably less emphasis, as would be expected. The land-based gameplay is still there, and the stealth system is as solid as ever – not great, but functional and very satisfying. The platforming is there, too, and the rush of climbing higher and higher is still there, though the height of most climbable objects is rather low. Still, the maneuverability is impressive and this swiftness of movement and flexibility ties in directly to the stealth – flanking and constant redirection are key if a level is to be ghosted. So the core gameplay is there: sailing around the game world, scaling buildings, synchronizing viewpoints, silently assassinating foes or engaging in them in open combat; very little has changed in the core blueprint, which is expected considering this is but a DLC. But what does the expansion do that is different?
The biggest difference is perhaps related to the shift in protagonists, the former slave Adewale replacing plucky, charismatic Edward Kenway. As a character, he is fairly interesting. Unfortunately, his past is only developed in a brief database entry, which glosses over his history and role in the Assassin’s Brotherhood. We do see aspects of his character furthered in his encounters with other characters, particularly the brothel owner he converses with often, and who serves most of the time as the main mission giver. She seems a very kind woman, who instantly takes a liking to Adewale. He is charming and passionate in these exchanges and is thusly quite likable. He gets dragged into the conflict between slave and master, desperate, perhaps, to please his new friend and acting generally through his sound morals. They do play up his skin color – even if discreetly – and this establishes a firm link between himself and those he sets out to rescue. If Edward were to perform similar objectives, the resonance might not be there. Adewale, an ex-slave, has certain motivations, hoping to liberate men from the oppression he no doubt experienced himself. Initially reluctant to involve himself in these perpetual skirmishes, he takes up the cause with great enthusiasm when he sees the potential benefits that his actions can achieve.
Really, the expansion is all about this struggle. On the progression screen, we learn that Adewale has been an assassin for over a decade now. But beyond that mentioning, the assassin/templar feud is totally absent in the narrative. This shift in focus further differentiates the expansion from the base game. It is a very human, grounded story, at times dark tonally, fitting well with the somber situation at hand, slaves imprisoned or being abused all across the game world. While the tone is consistently mournful, the liberation of the slaves is almost trivialized. It can be exciting at first, when you consider that these are physical people that you are rescuing. But beyond that, they are quickly de-humanized; they become just a number, almost like a currency system, their freedom tied directly to the progression systems. There is a strange sort of dissonance here; what could be considered the most compelling feature quickly loses that compellingness. Still, it can be rather fun to explore the map, see a slave-related event on the mini-map and swoop in for the kill. But they are everywhere, to the point where it becomes almost annoying. This is tricky. Luckily, there are a few other options for freeing the slaves which are far more exciting and rewarding.
Spread across the smallish map, there are both plantations and slave ships. The slave ships are protected by a convoy, which you are encouraged to destroy before proceeding on to the slave ship. This mechanic of disabling and then boarding is the same as it was in the base game, though here you are not intended to damage the slave ship in any way; should you damage the ship, the lives of slaves could be lost. This can be fun, but I only did it once or twice when the story required it. Other than that, one of the most productive ways of liberation is related to the plantations scattered throughout the land. Stealth is key here, as you maneuver around the area, secure in the underbrush and sprouting sugarcane. It is very enjoyable, as you are tasked with killing a set number of plantation overseers. These assaults were, for me, the highlight of the entire expansion, more so than any of the main missions. True, there were a few frustrating moments in the plantation assaults, as an assassination went astray, or a dart missed. But most of the time, the systems worked well, even if in terms of diversity, Adewale is lacking in comparison to Edward.
There are only three new tools in the expansion: firecrackers, the blunderbuss, and the machete, which serves as the primary melee weapon. The firecrackers have the potential to be useful as a diversion, but there is no reticule, so it is almost impossible to determine where it will land. I used it only rarely. The blunderbuss can be very exciting to use, and they manipulated the guards in certain ways to encourage its use; rather than two guards standing side by side, there is now a cluster of three or four, prime targets for the primitive shotgun. The machete is very satisfying to use. While the counter system is the same, the animations for this new weapon are both impressive and savage. It is very fun to use and helps to distinguish Adewale from Edward. Beyond that, the arsenal is basically the same. The dart rife is still there, as are the smoke bombs and the very situational rope darts. There is some innovation, then, but not very much.
Even with these new weapons and an inspired motivation, the main missions are pretty hit or miss. One mission early on has you assaulting a small cove, which ultimately ends in a cinematic chase after a fleeing boat. The camera is fixed for a time, and it is thrilling to engage in pursuit, even though it is very scripted. Beyond that mission, there are very little highlights. Maybe half of the missions require you to tail a target or eavesdrop on a conversation. It is not fun. One mission has you disguised as a slave, to infiltrate a plantation. All your weapons are stripped from you, and this encounter is quite rewarding. The eavesdropping missions can be especially frustrating, as the conversations you are meant to over here are surrounded on all sides by guards and restricted areas. It becomes like some great puzzle simply to get there and do the actual objective. There are also snipers on the roof which further complicate matters. I do enjoy a good challenge, especially in this series because challenge is often a rarity, but some of these missions often devolve into the cheap. There is another cinematic moment, when you board a slave ship which is quickly filling up with water. On a short time limit, you liberate as many slaves as possible. With this tension and the constantly rising water level, it is a memorable mission. Lastly, there is the final mission, which fittingly ends with an assassination. You again assault a mansion, crawling with guards to an even greater extent. I remembered a hole in the fence I had found at an earlier visit. I clambered over it, then I climbed the plantation house proper. There were a few scouts I dispatched. Stealing the rifle of one man, I lined up a headshot and killed the ultimate antagonist. It was a great encounter, and a satisfying way to end the campaign.
So, Freedom Cry isn’t abounding in novelty or originality, especially in terms of gameplay. True, it has an interesting protagonist, with unique, altruistic motivations. Unfortunately, an interesting character cannot carry an entire game. It seems like they took some of the worst elements from the base game and applied them here; the objectives people often bemoan about the tailing and eavesdropping missions finally resonated with me. I was always able to tolerate them in earlier games, but the missions here really got to me. The primary town is interesting – if small – while the ocean itself is rather lacking in terms of exploration opportunities. They retained the ship upgrade systems from the base game, though there really is no incentive to actually invest the time to fully do so; it is a feature which could have easily been left out; as it is, it is sort of half-baked. The progression system is straightforward, and I rather like it this way. In the end, do I like Freedom Cry? Yes and no. It was great to see a secondary character like Adewale the former quartermaster receive further development, while the world he explored was beautiful if confined. There is a clearly established main antagonist, whom we are meant to hate as a result of his great cruelty to the slaves. That Adewale has such clear motivations gives overall direction to the story. Edward could kind of roam around, bouncing from location to location without really doing anything or having some definite objective. I prefer how it is in Freedom Cry. Freeing the slaves is exciting at first, though the luster soon rubs off, save maybe in the plantation assaults. Despite a solid, grounded, and human story, Freedom Cry suffers from inconsistent mission objectives, sometimes fun, sometimes not. Even while fun, it never soars to spectacular heights. Still, I am glad to have played it, especially as it seems to be one of the last vestiges of traditional Assassin’s Creed gameplay before the series went astray.