Downloadable content can often be a mixed bag. Sometimes it’ll simply be superlative; a reskin or the addition of extra customisation, a set of options with which fans can tinker to their heart’s content. Other times it can be a worthy expansion, offering gameplay to tide you over until the next instalment. And then there are those which offer more than a simple set of missions – there are those that rewrite the feeling of the game.
If Edward Kenway’s story was a rollicking jaunt through Caribbean piracy, Freedom Cry – with the focus squarely on his first mate Adéwalé – brings a serious, contemplative and challenging tone to the Assassin’s Creed formula. It’s amazing what a few tweaks to the gameplay and nomenclature can do to an emotional response, for this is an expansion that deals with the weighty issue of slavery. Gone are the rum-soaked layabouts that served as your crew – instead here are slaves running from tyranny, with only Adéwalé and his machete between escape and death at the hand of a plantation overseer. The spectacular naval combat takes on a new importance once you realise slave ships are amongst the vessels traversing the waves, their plunder going beyond simple value. Everywhere you look there is evidence of slavery and the effect it has on culture, the environment and the people themselves.
In terms of gameplay, Freedom Cry sticks close to the mission types found in Black Flag. The nine sequences see you eavesdrop, take on ships in open water and assassinate prominent historical figures. Without the context of slavery there’d be little to differentiate Freedom Cry from the main campaign in Black Flag, but the placement of these missions within the role of liberator gives them an importance not seen in the franchise to date except within Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation. The plight of Native Americans (touched upon in Assassin’s Creed III) became muddled with the addition of Templar and Assassin conspiracies; Freedom Cry does away with this extraneous material to present the shocking reality of slavery in all of its devastating guises. One mission set aboard a sinking slave ship particularly drives home the atrocities of the trade.
Stick to the missions and Freedom Cry will feel short in comparison to Black Flag’s extended campaign but a new area of open sea – complete with shipwrecks, convoys and new locations – offer plenty to discover away from the narrative. Liberating plantations not only adds new recruits to the Maroons – a group of renegade slaves – but feels like the correct thing to do. Although the means of clearing plantations is rudimentary (often simply killing a requisite number of overseers will do the job), the execution can be dismissed given the motive. Liberating slaves takes many forms; streetside auctions can be disrupted or the slaves bought from your own pocket, keys can be stolen to free the incarcerated inhabitants, one man can be killed to save another. All of these lend Adéwalé an importance within the world – a true saviour. There’s an inherent brutality to Freedom Cry that makes Black Flag feel like a Saturday matinee in comparison.
The main plot sees Adéwalé shipwrecked on the Haitian shore, an island at the very centre of slave trade. An ex-slave himself he resolves to free as many slaves as he can, his main point of contact coming in the form of Bastienne Josèphe, the madam of a brothel with connections to the local government as well as underground slave movements. Through Bastienne, Adéwalé makes contact with the Maroons and therein begins the fight back against oppression. It’s not a particularly deep plot – there’s the commingling of fact and fiction that has been a franchise hallmark – but what characters there are feel rounded. Adéwalé becomes a far more compassionate character than what amounted to a short side-role in Black Flag.
For a franchise that predominantly features people stabbing other people, Freedom Cry ratchets up the violence in keeping with the subject matter . Aside from the horrific acts enacted upon those shackled masses, Adéwalé combat style feels raw and downright vengeful. The two additional weapons included with Freedom Cry are the machete and blunderbuss. The latter can take down swathes of enemies in a single shot but takes an age to reload; the former is wielded as a butcher would a cleaver, driving deep into the cartilage of enemies and ungainly in its blood-spattered use. Both entirely befit the atmosphere of Freedom Cry, where brute force is often the result of unleashed anger and vengeance. Adéwalé pilots a new ship too – one adorned with reminders of his freedom and of those still in chains. As with the Jackdaw, the Experto Crede can be upgraded in order to sustain and deal greater damage. Gone are the jovial sea shanties, your crew now comprising freed slaves.
If there were any criticisms to be be levelled at this DLC they would essentially echo the same problems to be found in Black Flag. The plot is intriguing but the brevity of the game means it does feel a little choppy at times. Likewise, anyone not enamoured with eavesdropping or tailing a target will not welcome a few of the missions. Freedom probably doesn’t surpass Black Flag in quality but that’s no problem given the superb fun of the original game. Where the DLC does radically change things - in the subject matter, tone and character - it succeeds with ease. Even the soundtrack has seen an overhaul. The usual Assassin’s Creed stings are there but are replaced by Olivier Deriviere’s new score, lending the game a mournful past. Traditional slave songs and African folk music can be heard throughout, a phrase from one serving as the sting when synchronising atop a viewpoint. Combat sees the orchestra kick in; success sees a traditional African choir erupt over the music in celebration of your noble success. Every possible part of the game is there to remind you what you’re fighting for and it works.
Perhaps the greatest achievement of Freedom Cry is in bringing history alive. It sounds clichéd and has already been something for which the other games in the series are praised but the medium of games tacitly ties players to events, decisions and emotions. Playing as Adéwalé you feel the need to rescue slaves – even though they are really just another number that unlocks added bonuses. You’ll feel rage burning in your veins and the gut-punch of some of the later missions really hits home the barbarity of the time. Nowhere is it diluted by narrative embellishment – it is all about human rights at its core. In bringing the challenging subject of slavery to the forefront of such a blockbuster franchise, Ubisoft has shown that games are the perfect vehicle to reopen discussion and confront darker moments of history. Freedom Cry may not be particularly long or radically different from Black Flag but as a companion piece it feels important, imbuing its protagonist with a desire for retribution and justice that bleeds through the screen and inhabits your own persona. For that reason alone it deserves your attention.