In some respects, Freedom Cry, the first major DLC released for Assassin’s Creed IV is superior to its parent. By the nature of its DLC origins, it’s a smaller, more focused experience that takes all the major features of its parent, and distills them into more refined experiences. But there’s one area where Freedom Cry absolutely trumps its elder; this is a better story, and a better historical experience.
Freedom Cry takes place 15 years after the events of AC4, and focus not AC4’s protagonist, Edward Kenway, but his former quartermaster, Adéwalé, who is now an Assassin himself. Stripped away are the modern day elements; the first civilization conspiracy, and even the focus on the age old Templars vs. Assassins conflict. Instead, the game focuses on Adéwalé’s growing sense of outrage over the continuing enslavement of Africans in the West Indies during the 18th century.
The game bears all the hallmarks of its parent; there’s still sailing the seas, naval conflict, melee and gunplay on land, and even surveillance and assassinations. But all of this is confined to the area around Port-au-Prince, the city that would eventually become the capital of Haiti a nation forged in the fires of slave rebellion. Here, Freedom Cry steps out of the comforts of simple good guys/bad guys conflict and presents a virtual recreation of a slave culture in full swing, complete with plantations and authentic work songs sung by the slaves as they toil in the sugar cane fields.
The AC series has always been at its strongest when it ignored its own plot and allowed the natural appeal of history to shine through. Freedom Cry embraces this, creating a minimal MacGuffin in the form of a Templar package to act as the engine that drives players to see a world in which a person’s musculature is touted as a literal feature or selling point for the purchase of that person in labour. Ubisoft Quebec has taken the stand that the unpleasantness of the slave period in Caribbean history should not be erased, or ignored, it should be acknowledged so that people have a better understanding of why it is so horrifying to the people of today. It’s one of those rare occasions when a game—better than any other medium—offers an opportunity to people to not just watch or read about the subject matter, but explore and interact with it. It’s one thing to hear about slavery, it’s another thing see it in action and be given a chance to do something about it.
That’s not to say that Freedom Cry is an improvement in every way. Some people will miss the huge scope of AC4. Others will moan at the fact that tailing/eavesdropping missions are still present. There’s even a rather unfortunate (and, I’ll keep telling myself, unintentional) irony in which the merchants that sell Adéwalé his ship and weapon upgrades are black people with the word “BUY” hanging over their heads. It’s also clear that it wasn’t as thoroughly optimized (at least on the PS4) for more powerful systems as NPC pop up occurs with alarming frequency while running through towns, a gaffe largely absent in current gen versions of the main game. However, from a gameplay and thematic perspective, the smaller scale and missions focused around emancipating slaves carry a greater sense of urgency, perhaps even appeal, than Edward Kenway’s eternal crusade for riches. Adéwalé is a compelling hero, and one of the few black protagonists in games that isn’t simply a gangsta with a heart of gold trying to protect his hood. This is a game that is both fun to play and sobering in its unromantic view of slavery in the 18th century. It’s a weird claim to make, but Freedom Cry is a recommended DLC purchase because it’s both fun AND educational, and at $9.99 for between 4-8 hours of gameplay (depending on how thorough you are), it’s fair amount of value as well.