Giant Bomb Review

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Assassin's Creed IV: 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.

No Caption Provided

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.

No Caption Provided

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 CommentsRefresh

Avatar image for ntm
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.

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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.

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Edited By Jameboycolor

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!!!

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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.

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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.

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Edited By i_Dead

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

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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.

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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.

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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. ;-)

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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.

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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)

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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.

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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!

Avatar image for chris2klee
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.

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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 :/

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Posted By HellknightLeon

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.

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Edited By Scotto

@vorhenze said:

@jerseyscum said:

The AC series is FAR from perfect and some of the gameplay just feels goddamn dated. I still loved Black Flag and was shocked with just how good Freedom Cry turned out. It takes serious balls for a major publisher to release any kind of product, let alone in the AAA realm that deals with subject matter like slavery and human trafficking.

I didn't see the liberation benefits as in-game currency. In the process of freeing slaves, the local resistance gains new recruits. The abolitionists grow in numbers and gain more influence and logistical support as a result. The benefits don't conflict with the narriative as a result.

If you literally used the liberated slaves as a resource that you used to purchase ship upgrades....that would be completely fucked.

Which is what the game set you up to do, which is not really fucked because I'm not a sensationalist, but not really good gameplay either.

Ship upgrades are purchased with the usual goods from AC4. Only armaments for Adewale himself are gated by the number of slaves you free (well, some are - some you find around the world).

As I said in my original comment, I don't really see the issue with this. They are implementing a gameplay feedback loop to encourage you to free more slaves. Your movement grows in strength and power, and your armaments improve as a result. I suppose it's a little odd, but hardly an "ethical issue".

If you were literally trading slaves for stuff like coins, that would be messed up -- but you aren't.

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Edited By Mentaur

Interesting that this is getting a standalone release. Oscars tie-in with a certain movie perhaps?

Avatar image for vorhenze
Posted By vorhenze

The AC series is FAR from perfect and some of the gameplay just feels goddamn dated. I still loved Black Flag and was shocked with just how good Freedom Cry turned out. It takes serious balls for a major publisher to release any kind of product, let alone in the AAA realm that deals with subject matter like slavery and human trafficking.

I didn't see the liberation benefits as in-game currency. In the process of freeing slaves, the local resistance gains new recruits. The abolitionists grow in numbers and gain more influence and logistical support as a result. The benefits don't conflict with the narriative as a result.

If you literally used the liberated slaves as a resource that you used to purchase ship upgrades....that would be completely fucked.

Which is what the game set you up to do, which is not really fucked because I'm not a sensationalist, but not really good gameplay either.

Avatar image for weslash
Edited By weslash

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.

Avatar image for alexandersheen
Posted By AlexanderSheen

@scotto said:

The number of slaves you rescue isn't "currency" so much as it's more of a gating system for new upgrades. You don't "spend" slaves to get new gear - as you save more slaves, merchants sympathetic to the cause (usually hiding in wooded areas) reward you with more stuff.

I suppose this creates a small amount of ludonarrative dissonance, but it isn't quite the giant matzah ball of sad irony Patrick makes it out to be. I also thought it made an interesting (if possibly inadvertent) point - no matter how many saves Adewale saves, it's never enough. You come back to Port-au-Prince five minutes later, and it's like nothing has changed.

And as Scoops himself points out, "farming" slaves in the game is completely unnecessary anyway, because once you start attacking slave ships you're going to hit the upgrade "cap" quickly.

I have to disagree. Treating slaves as currency sounds way more logical than thinking of it as NPCs sympathising with you and with your cause. I'm sorry, but you're making too much sense.

Avatar image for jerseyscum
Edited By jerseyscum

The AC series is FAR from perfect and some of the gameplay just feels goddamn dated. I still loved Black Flag and was shocked with just how good Freedom Cry turned out. It takes serious balls for a major publisher to release any kind of product, let alone in the AAA realm that deals with subject matter like slavery and human trafficking.

I didn't see the liberation benefits as in-game currency. In the process of freeing slaves, the local resistance gains new recruits. The abolitionists grow in numbers and gain more influence and logistical support as a result. The benefits don't conflict with the narriative as a result.

If you literally used the liberated slaves as a resource that you used to purchase ship upgrades....that would be completely fucked.

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Posted By Fram

Did Patrick ever say he docked a point? Is every game a five-star game unless something is broken?

"I can see and hear this game, and sometimes when I press stuff, shit happens on the screen. Five stars."

People are weird.

Avatar image for welvax
Posted By Welvax

I don't feel compelled to play this game primarily to explore the issue of slavery, or feel righteous. This is probably mainly because I steer far clear of anything attached to absurd conceit that is the Abstergo Animus. Unless maybe you throw in a drivatar.

Patrick you understandably don't mention the spoilerific story specifics of the emotional engagement that you as player and the character go through in your anti-slavery fervor. I can’t speak to this build up. Yet despite your actions, no matter how many missions you perform, you can't change the world, and slavery just continues. I guess the message is that like war, "slavery never changes."

Compare this to the slavery depicted in the "war never changes" universe of Fallout 3. Fallout features some of gaming’s greatest moments in the triumph over thralldom. Two of the my biggest gaming moments centered around Fallout 3 and slavery. A low: nabbing a woman runaway slave and returning her to Tenpenny Tower for some quest, then trying to free her later by gingerly removing her slave collar (failed attempt, I don’t feel so good, head explodes yipes). A high: leading the group of runaway slaves to find new digs at the Lincoln Memorial. And the world changes a little for the better. That’s me they’re talking about on the radio, in between the ghouls are people too announcements.

That said, thanks for review. I didn’t know ACIVFC had the same topical issues we face in 2277.

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Edited By Gunharp

Who says I docked it a point for that? That's not how review scores work. Review scores are a gut feeling, not a specific plus/minus system based on what you liked/didn't like about the game.

I've no idea how review scores work 'round here nor have I ever really cared for them. I read reviews for the opinion and thoughts you guys end up putting down. However I find this statement curious. Is this just how you personally do reviews or is this true of all of GiantBomb these days?

I mean I know that's not how everyone does reviews on the internet.

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Edited By greyfoxv1
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Posted By DukesT3

So many games... and no time... goddamn you adulthood!

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Posted By vorhenze

@chango said:

I'm going to get the standalone version soon. Like many others, I feel worn out on AC. I haven't played AC4, and despite the rave for it, I just can't get the enthusiasm to play it. But for $15, I'm willing to try this out.

This DLC is a much smaller and not nearly as good version of AC4. Aside from the fun of taking down slave ships, it adds little else. Also, the annoyance of missions forcing you to worry about completing a mission at the loss of hearing main story dialogue is at its worse. Followed by the continuous respawning of slaves in need of saving wiping out world believability makes this DLC hard to recommend. But hey, some people seems to love it.

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Edited By dr_mantas

Oh bother.

Also, I wonder if there comes a time and one of these reviews will say - hey, killing people for currency is immoral. There should be less violence in these here video games.

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Edited By Jazz_Lafayette
@skippysigmatic said:

Is gaining unlockables for freeing slaves somehow more ethically "questionable" than flat out murdering people for unlockables? I mean, you were a PIRATE in the base game! You boarded ships and murdered people for in-game currency! This is sensitivity taken way, way too far. It's a video game with progression mechanics, which happens to actually tackle interesting ideas in history. Given the fact that these video game tropes are very deeply integrated at this point, I simply do not see the ethical problem here.

Sometimes it seems like Patrick is reaching too hard for "big" ideas and issues in the industry, when in reality they're just trivial.

This guy knows what I'm saying.

Videogames are still developing and so involved with the internet I feel like they just can't get away with one tiny bit of what any movie or TV show can because people even look at the characters and say things like they are "morally questionable" so they are wrong. When like you say, it's all morally questionable.

And no one gives a fuck when Walter White is morally questionable. No one mentions negatively in their review of Breaking Bad that they didn't like how Walter White started acting.

Okay, there are two separate issues, here, and you're lambasting Patrick unfairly for at least one of them. Nowhere in this review does he imply that the morally reprehensible actions of the game's antagonists soured his opinion of the experience. If anything, his language suggests that the power of his emotional reaction to those developments was what engaged him in the story, and motivated him through what he considers to be middling mechanical structure.

To say no one cares about the immorality of Breaking Bad's main character simply false, a huge number of critical pieces have been written regarding the greater implications of that show's format. There's a very good reason the majority of critics don't pick that aspect of the show apart, however, because it creates no cognitive dissonance within its own internal logic. Patrick's criticism is regarding that exact issue: he felt the narrative design and mechanical design of Freedom Cry were at odds with each other. One wanted him to empathically regard the plight of slaves, and the other asked him to calculate the rate at which he could accrue them.

And this issue hasn't arisen from nowhere: if you want examples of the entire Giant Bomb crew discussing the problem of conflicting story and gameplay, the subject has come up for many AAA titles over the past several years. I particularly recommend their conversations about Uncharted 3 and Bioshock Infinite.

@patrickklepek said:
@artisanbreads said:
@mercury45 said:

I'm not into AC at all but I was curious to read about Patrick's perspective on the issue of slavery, especially given the context and the format this is presented in. Some of these things like the vendor upgrades do sound questionable, but overall this does sound like a mostly-forward step, and I guess there's gotta be missteps as well as triumphs if we're going to have a proper portrayal of these issues.

I agree, but when games pretty much never tackle anything with any importance to it you have to give them slack. Making a game fun in addition to having a message is great and is only something to celebrate. I love that this even exists. Don't think many game companies would take the risk.

Basically docking it a point for that? Really silly to me.

Doesn't matter to me really I just think that's lame to see.

Who says I docked it a point for that? That's not how review scores work. Review scores are a gut feeling, not a specific plus/minus system based on what you liked/didn't like about the game.

Tough to judge the points I just don't see many other complaints. I don't care about what score you gave the game really, like I say.

Anyways, I just object to the idea, for the reasons I say. Totally get there can be more elegance but I hardly see it as an ethical question more than simply one of elegance. If they are tackling tough subject matter it would be nice to have the game's mechanics reflect that, but again, no games even do much of this. It's cool to see a big budget one tackle this and maintain it's gameplay, with that same satisfying progression.

It's just a balancing act for the people making the game and for me, they seem to have done about as well as they could in this position. They built off the game with DLC that has it's own unique angle. This wasn't a new game that could design its mechanics around a message.

Anyways, it's just magnifying a small issue to me. I don't care about the point in the score, but you lead with it on the description for the review. I just don't see the need. Like you say, it's a triumph.

The review process is meant to be a very subjective thing, and if the intrusion of the game's currency mechanics affected Patrick's play experience drastically enough for him to feel it warranted an entire passage in his review, it would be dishonest of him to blow it off with a couple of throwaway lines. To suggest he is being "sensationalist" when he devotes time to consider the problem is to suggest either that you believe the game shouldn't be criticized or that you think his review is dishonest as it stands.

@artisanbreads said:

@forkboy said:


@artisanbreads said:

Oh god moralizing down a review score...

You don't think there's something messed up in that mechanic, treating slaves as currency? Fuck off.

Fuck off hahahaha okay dude.

It's a game where you are liberating slaves... you think they didn't want to make that and instead made a racist game where you make it seem like slaves are free but really, THEY'RE CURRENCY STILL OH GOD!?

No dude, they just made a DLC with a message on top of a game with collection based progression mechanics, and so they kept that in there. They weren't making a whole new game and I'm sure they had a small team and a short deadline. That's all.

But magnify it and make it a huge issue. That was Ubisofts intent I'm sure!

This is an argument that Patrick simply cannot bear to consider as a reviewer. The more that the intent of the developer enters into review consideration, the more compromised the entire piece becomes. As far as he and any other editor on the Giant Bomb staff is concerned, whatever interesting stories or clever/brave/novel ideas lay in a development process have to cease to matter as soon as they sit down to write one. Their job is to summarize their experience with and opinion of the game as neatly as they can to try and convince the reader of the validity of their conclusions.

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Posted By Chango

I'm going to get the standalone version soon. Like many others, I feel worn out on AC. I haven't played AC4, and despite the rave for it, I just can't get the enthusiasm to play it. But for $15, I'm willing to try this out.

Avatar image for roboculus92
Edited By roboculus92

I haven't played this so I can't really judge it's ethical qualities but the little footage I remember seeing about this dlc regarding the saving of the slaves seemed to be more disappointing/boring than cruel. If you were actually trading the slaves for resources then there'd definitely be more red flags regarding this but just having it tied to upgrades doesn't seem that offensive (then again you shouldn't be telling other people how they should feel or react to something so even if I am not offended, I"m not gonna get up in your grill because you're offended). I'll agree that it could take away some of the impact of the story since I think the main story of this dlc is about saving slaves so to just have them basically be collectibles that you run into here and there does make it feel less interesting and less significant. Still gotta give props to Ubisoft for tackling this kinda subject matter.