I haven’t played an Assassin’s Creed game since AC2 was released in 2009. While I enjoyed my time with that game, I hadn’t seen anything since that made me want to dip back into the series. When naval combat was introduced in AC3, I regained some interest, though not enough to warrant a purchase. When I heard ocean exploration was being refined and expanded in AC4 however, I felt that perhaps the time had come for me to jump back in. My only misgiving was the daunting nature of the title. I was hesitant to commit sixty-plus hours to a game that I no longer felt any significant connection to. The storyline was a distant memory and the characters never interested me much in the first place. What I was interested in, however, was the gameplay. Enter Freedom Cry, the brilliant answer to my conundrum. The compact (around 6-8 hours) side-story of an escaped slave gone assassin/pirate releasing as a standalone package, was the best solution I could have hoped for. Not only was it cheap ($15) but it didn’t require any previous knowledge of the lore.
In Freedom Cry you play as Adaewale, an escaped slave who has since spent time as a pirate and as an assassin. He is a fantastic lead character, expertly voice-acted and unique in appearance and personality. Your mission is a simple but noble one: travel around the Caribbean islands and free as many slaves as you can while helping to strengthen the existing resistance movement. It’s pretty heavy subject matter, but care is taken to neither trivialize nor exploit the theme, and the story here feels more personal and meaningful than anything I remember from past Assassin’s Creed games. While the narrative is somewhat nuanced, the way you go about completing your mission is relatively simplistic. Essentially you go around killing dudes. There are a few missions that require a different approach, such as spying or thieving, but for the most part it’s a straight forward affair. Found a plantation you want to liberate? You better kill everyone that runs it! Boom, freedom! It’s a tad ridiculous but it works well enough and feels satisfying, although just how satisfying depends on your approach. It’s easy to use cheap tactics to kill twenty guards in under a minute with relative ease (I’m looking at you berserk dart and smoke bomb), but that gets boring after a while. Another method is to turn off the HUD completely and use your senses to take down each guard silently and skillfully without any special items. The only problem is that the game doesn’t reward you for such high-level tactics and it’s damn hard to do. The best approach is to do what feels right to you at the moment, instead of sticking to one style the whole time. For instance, every now and again I would run into the middle of a group of guards in broad daylight, kill all of them for some good catharsis, free some slaves and then walk away like nothing ever happened. Most of the NPC’s would do the same (because they are dumb) and then I’d go back to sneaking around. When things felt too easy, I would challenge myself by turning off the mini-map and doing things the hard way. I just wish the game were designed around that challenge and that it didn’t feel like I was forcing it to happen.
My time on land was fun, but what really struck a chord with me (as I had hoped) was the naval exploration and combat. Travel is handled deftly and your ship is a real joy to control and behold as it cuts through the choppy waters. The camera handles more smoothly than on land and the graphics are noticeably better. The water, especially, is absolutely stunning and feels alive. Often I would find myself just drifting along, enjoying the sunset, forgetting for a moment the mission at hand. I also found the combat to be much more intense and satisfying on water. Battles are visceral; filled with thick smoke and violent cannon volleys. Some of the later battles, where you must take on multiple enemy ships at once, play out like choreographed dances. They are also quite difficult, but that only adds to the feeling of satisfaction upon completion. After crippling an enemy ship, you are given the choice to either board it or destroy it. The former can be quite tricky, but also fun and rewarding. In either case, the plunders of battle can be used to upgrade your ship with more powerful weapons and armor. Besides engaging in epic battles, you are also free to explore various small islands, underwater shipwrecks and hunt down some mammoth sea creatures. All of these are nice little distractions, but not at all necessary for progression. It would have been nice to see some deeper, more varied side activities but what you get is reasonable.
Overall I loved my time with Freedom Cry and I highly recommend it to veterans and newcomers alike. I do not plan on purchasing the full game (I got what I wanted out of Freedom Cry alone) but I am much more likely to give the next game in the series a go.
What I liked:
Adewale is a great protagonist, only outshone by the incredible ocean environment. The visceral and exciting naval combat is complimented by top notch voice acting and animation. Freedom Cry is a great way for those unfamiliar with the series (or hesitant to purchase the full game) to experience the world or Assassin’s Creed.
What I’d fix:
As lovely as the character animations are, while on foot I felt like my character was stumbling around and doing things I didn’t want him to about fifty percent of the time. The game is too easy (almost broken) when using items such as the berserk darts and smoke bombs, and unbalanced when not using those items or the HUD. The AI is questionable at best. Because Freedom Cry is available as a stand-alone product, the game could use a tutorial for players new to the series.
Played on: Playstation 4
Also available on: Xbox One, Playstation 3, Xbox 360, Wii U, PC