Giant Bomb Review

102 Comments

Assassin's Creed: Freedom Cry Review

4
  • PS4

It's easy to imagine a big-budget game tackling slavery with the subtlety of a hammer, but Freedom Cry is an emotional triumph...with some ethical issues.

As risk averse as some (most?) big-budget games are, we often see publishers loosening the reins with downloadable content. Ubisoft has shown itself as a publisher willing to take a risk, exemplified by Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon and the recent Assassin's Creed IV: Freedom Cry. The latter was just made available completely separate from Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag (except on Xbox), and it's crazy more people haven't been talking about it. Freedom Cry represents a AAA publisher trying to make the deplorable, shameful act of slavery both a narrative and mechanical part of a game. It's not without problems, but it's a hell of a try.

Black Flag players have already met the main character of Freedom Cry, Adéwalé. The add-on is set years after the events of Black Flag, but does not remark on them, except for the occasional mention of the main game's protagonist, Edward Kenway. Adéwalé, now an active member of the Assassins brotherhood, intercepts a Templar package. It's unclear what's inside, but it's clearly important, so Adéwalé makes off into a deadly storm with it. Nature tears apart his ship, and he wakes up on the shores of Port-au-Prince. Slavery was mentioned in Black Flag, but it's central to the economy in Port-au-Prince and the nearby islands. Adéwalé becomes involved in the brewing revolution, promising assistance before returning to the Assassins.

Even though Black Flag represented a welcomed return to form for a series that was almost made irrelevant by its third major entry, there was so much to digest. I spent more than 30 hours as a pirate on the high seas, and it's easy to imagine how one could more than double that. So I wouldn't blame anyone for being tired of Black Flag by the credits, especially since Ubisoft is likely to deliver another Assassin's Creed this year. In that regard, Freedom Cry doesn't do much to mix up the formula that's worked so well for the series since finding its footing with Assassins Creed II. On-foot missions are still largely about frustratingly trying to eavesdrop on a group of characters who constantly look behind themselves for no good reason, killing a set of assigned targets, and generally stealthing around. Life at sea has not changed very much, either, but it remains damn fun.

What has changed in Freedom Cry, however, is the context of your actions. The ongoing, mostly tired tug-of-war between the Assassins and Templars is merely window dressing in Freedom Cry, with Adéwalé's central motivation a desire to free his brothers from the shackles he once found himself in. There's a good reason games have largely steered away from the subject of slavery. It's harrowing, personal, and deeply emotional. Even though the Assassin's Creed series is one born of a fantastic premise, one cannot invoke the very real concept of slavery without strict scrutiny alongside it. And this is where Freedom Cry both soars and stumbles.

I could never muster the desire for the optional objectives in Assassin's Creed. It's a feature for completionists, and seemed to encourage player behavior that highlighted the very worst parts of Assassin's Creed gameplay. But I often found myself trying to do everything in Freedom Cry. It's one thing to ask the player to try and air assassinate a target, and quite another to ask them to rescue a group of slaves on the compound you're exploring. This is a fictional experience, but that's a powerful string to tug at. As a player who often errs on the side of helping, it was hard for me to justify not making sure these types of objectives were completed. It not only made sense for the type of character I play as, it perfectly lined up with Adéwalé's deeply personal reasons for action in Freedom Cry. It's not that Freedom Cry completely reinvents the often boring objectives that drive missions in Assassin's Creed, but the contextual reframing gives them a powerful emotional component.

But there are reasons to raise an eyebrow, as well. Rescuing slaves is one of the key gameplay additions in Freedom Cry, and you're constantly reminded of ways you can help. A slave may be trying to escape from their captor, and you can stop the chase. Another group of slaves may be in the process of being sold, and you can step in, buy them, and set them free. Some of them may join the fomenting revolution in Port-au-prince, while others are simply allowed to live their lives. This makes sense, and from the perspective of designing a fulfilling open world, this gives the player regular, meaningful actions to participate in while getting to the next mission. What's questionable is Ubisoft's decision to turn the slaves into a form of in-game currency, a cruelly ironic twist. The more slaves the player frees, the more upgrades available from vendors that support Adéwalé. This generates a horrific disconnect from the very human tragedy the upgrade system pulls from. It's an especially gross feeling to be running around a town square, waiting for slaves to spawn on the map because you're only a few away from unlocking that really sweet machete. (This actually happened.) It's mostly unnecessary, too, as players accrue most of the upgrades simply by engaging with the required mission objectives. That includes rescuing slave ships, which can house nearly 100 captives at once. There's already an in-game currency the player uses to buy stuff, so while it's understandable Ubisoft designers wanted to reward players for engaging in side objectives, it only undermines the seriousness with which the game otherwise treats the subject.

And there are genuine moments of emotional heartbreak where all of these concerns, for the moment, fade away. An especially trying moment involves Adéwalé defying the recommendations of his fellow revolutionaries, and attempts to free a nearby slave ship. It all goes horribly, horribly wrong, and puts the venomous, inhuman contempt of Port-au-Prince's cruel rulers on full display. When you can't save everyone, who do you save? It's a moment in which Freedom Cry poignantly layers the draw of a spectacle that is only possible in a big-budget video game with the subtlety we have come to expect from our best independent productions. One section involves Adéwalé climbing up a wall, the same way a character in Assassin's Creed often does, but what surrounds you is...unforgettable. When the mission was over, I had to set the controller down. I was drained, and Adéwalé's pain was my own. We were both equally seeking blood and revenge.

Freedom Cry is about hope. It's about hope for a people, even if it feels futile and fleeting. You don't solve the problem of slavery in Freedom Cry. The way slaves and plantation owners constantly cycle back into the world, no matter how many you liberate, also works as genuine commentary on the state of slavery at the time. It might just be a way the game keeps the world from becoming empty...but it works. The add-on also gives hope for what's possible when blockbuster-driven creators take risks with material. There are missteps in Freedom Cry, more ethical than mechanical, but it hits as often as it misses. That's undeniably an important step forward.

Patrick Klepek on Google+
130 Comments
  • 130 results
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
Edited by MikeW1980UK

@PatrickKlepeck I'm curious what your thoughts are on the board game Freedom: The Underground Railroad. As you can guess, it also deals with slavery.

Edited by avantegardener

I thought Freedom Cry was a really interesting self contained adventure, tackling a very sensitive issue in mature fashion, and gave me at least a small insight into the oppression and the various national interests of the time, also a shotgun.

Edited by Marokai

Complaining about the way you accrue rewards in the way Patrick did here just feels like he's opening a really dumb can of worms. Start going down that path and you can complain about every game ever having some "horrific" "ethical issues." I feel like every game that comes out that Patrick ever touches from now on you could be snarky about him finding "ethical issues" with because "you did this thing and got a reward for it, what does that really say about us?!"

There often comes a point where you're simply over-thinking something.

Posted by Shoey920

why is this not available as a standalone on Xbox One? I really don't want to fire up my 360 to play this :/

Online
Edited by Chris2KLee

The criticism Partick raises is important, because if games are gonna grow and try to tackle more complex issues and narratives, game design needs to grow also. Ubisoft was definitely looking to take a risk with this DLC tackling a touchy subject. Just look at the trailer it released for it, it's supercharged and meant to drive home the sadness and rage of a young slave being torn from his family and shackled. And I commend Ubisoft for trying this. But you want to go there, you better not just half-step it and repaint your systems without thinking about how it gets your message and story across. Narrative dissonance in a story driven action adventure is a perfectly good reason to dock a game points.

Mass Effect 3 is another good example of this, the systems that had proven themselves well in the first two games did not fit the story they were trying to tell in the third. Going on side quests and building relationships with your crew was all fine and dandy when the threat was just mean aliens with bad intentions. But when the universe is on the verge of ending, your homeworld is burning and your mentor is desperately fighting for his life, going on a sidequest to grab a space widget so your significant other will bone you one last time seems kinda dumb.

4/5 is a a pretty good score. It just means they didn't stick the landing on something, and in this case it was the tone and story they wanted to convey. Good well explained criticism of that isn't pointless and for players that enjoy narrative immersion, it's something they'd probably want to know about.

Edited by patrickklepek

@hellknightleon said:

Haha that's kinda neat. Its super funny. I don't know if that's a burn but I would love someone making that of me. Awesome work to whoever did that. Oh and AC Black Flag slave whatever dlc seems ok.

I take that as a compliment. :D

@PatrickKlepeck I'm curious what your thoughts are on the board game Freedom: The Underground Railroad. As you can guess, it also deals with slavery.

I haven't played that, but I'll try to check it out--thanks!

Edited by swiller

Agreed with Marokai on this. Patrick is over doing his point to make something thought provoking out of a fairly uninspired add-on. The perk comes from FREEing slaves. How is that morally questionable? Harriet Tubman may have a few words. Adwale as a character and the pitch for this dlc is the most interesting part. The execution is thinly-veiled AC gameplay paint by numbers. Neither inspiring or offensive.

Posted by rethla

@weslash said:

women and children (including those of mixed race) were slaughtered by black slaves during the uprisings in the caribbean. It's hardly something that should be celebrated in videogames or anywhere else for that matter.

Well then then stop celebrating fourth of july becouse women and children got slaughtered in that war aswell... (including those of mixed race)

Online
Edited by BBQBram

@weslash said:

women and children (including those of mixed race) were slaughtered by black slaves during the uprisings in the caribbean. It's hardly something that should be celebrated in videogames or anywhere else for that matter.

Hey now don't be so nuanced. They're black slaves, obviously they're all paragons of virtue and suppressed humanity.

Edited by swiller

@marokai: Well said. I can understand some interesting discussion in a personal game with something to say like Papo y Yo, but this dlc is just more AC padding to a game that has tons of it already! I mean how different is freeing slaving from freeing pirates in the main game? All the missions play the same with a few cut scenes to create some difference? The idea works like a nice, enticing wrapper to get to the same filling. AC often works like a charm because of all the history it can pull from and exploit. That's where the emotional impact comes from. Not to say that hasn't worked on me too. I keep buying them. ;-)

Edited by duttyfoot

the last AC was very boring, the only thing i enjoyed was being in the beautiful forest hunting animals or destroying the british soldiers who crossed my path. gameplay and story wise i think ac4 should have been the version after revelation. i picked up the pc version for a really good price and i am really enjoying it all.

Posted by Generic_username

This review is interesting, unfortunately, my platform s the Xbox, and I don't have the money to buy both ACIV and this, otherwise I'd be picking this up today.

Edited by i_Dead

@duttyfoot: Its time for a new ip or resurrection of some old ones. its just getting old

Edited by Xeirus

I personally have skipped all the AC games since playing (and enjoying) 2. This is some good DLC, especially if you don't plan on playing the main game like me.

Anyone saying not to buy this is CRAZY.

Posted by Spokker

I used to be a big advocate of slavery before I played this game. Now I see that slavery has some downsides.

It's great that a big-budget developer can take on some of those raw ethical issues that really makes you think.

Edited by Jamin724

I would rate this 3 stars only because of mission 6, but I am a completionist and I know Patrick is not. MISSION 6 BLOWS IF YOU WANT 100%!!!!! I have beaten every AC and have platinum every AC. I enjoyed all them (even revelations) besides 3. AC 4 I did enjoy as well. I just do not know if my game was glitching or what not but to get 100% on mission 6 is dumb. **Spoilers*** To not kill anyone I had to do the mission 7 times!! and the last 3 times I did not even use a weapon before that I was using barehands which in all AC did not count as killing someone. Took me 2hrs to do one stupid mission that the story does not even make any sense!!!

Posted by blacklab

Rather than using the actual slaves as currency, they should have incentivized other main game actions with them. Give the player a sort of kudo or reddit up vote type thing for rescuing slaves, which would translate into a progressively deeper discount at merchants.

Posted by NTM

I just beat it, and it was pretty dull overall. It did use old tricks; tricks that didn't work as well here as it did in the main game, and even came with two mission bugs that made me have to start over. The story wasn't great; making me feel little for anything, and Adewale's not an especially interesting protagonist. I thought the music was decent, though at times it felt like it was trying to win the Academy Award, in other words, it seemed like it was trying too hard.