Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Ebony Sails: Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag (Freedom Cry DLC)

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag (Freedom Cry DLC)

Downloadable content (DLC) has been an inherent function of the video game industry for over a decade now, and it’s become both a blessing and a curse: it allows us to dive back into the virtual worlds we love and live in them for that much longer, but this comes at the risk of being nickel-and-dimed to death. Some unscrupulous video game developers have been known to split a full product apart and sell you the smaller pieces after the initial release, as though they were designed as "additional" content. The scrupulous ones, on the other hand, invent all-new content which enhances and builds upon the original experience, but instances of this kind of craft are rare in the industry. The Freedom Cry DLC for Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag would have no place in the narrative of its mother game (simply because there just isn’t enough room), and so it sets out to justify its existence through a strong standalone story and engaging new mechanics. Black Flag was the story of Edward Kenway, legendary pirate, and this plays almost like a fan fiction set in that world – it’s a rich enough realm that it feels natural to visit it again through a different character's eyes.

Freedom Cry pushes former supporting character Adéwalé into the spotlight. It’s fifteen years after he acted as quartermaster under Edward Kenway, and after a terrible storm he washes up in Saint-Domingue without a ship, a sword, or a coin to his name. A former slave, Adéwalé takes great offense at the trade in human cargo he witnesses, and vows to put a stop to it, using his training as an Assassin and a roster of new weapons and abilities.

At just over four hours of content (a pitiful fraction of Black Flag’s muscular length), does Freedom Cry take the time to develop Adéwalé as a character? Barely. It asks that we accept the waving away of many important character beats (his life as a slave before he took to the sea, or his induction into the Assassin order, for example) and enjoy playing as him simply because he looks badass and embodies a dime-store morality (i.e., slavery is bad). It can't be denied, however, that Adé is a badass – hacking away at slave traders in righteous fury with his broad-bladed machete is brutally fun – and he's certainly more terrifying than Kenway. But is it enough? The series has reached a precarious point with this many iterations under its belt, where the costume has started to mean more than the character, and this may prove problematic for future installments. But this is a much smaller experience than Black Flag, in size and in scope, and it’s not fair to hold it to the same standard.

The new mechanics in Freedom Cry are immediately engrossing. It introduces a new currency system: the freeing of slaves and the recruitment of freedom fighters. Accomplishing these tasks is how you unlock the upgrades necessary to complete the game, so if chasing after gold and glory wasn't enough of a motivator in Black Flag, there's the addition of a more ethical imperative here, and it makes Adéwalé's quest a personal affair for the player. New weapons include a street-clearing blunderbuss which must be seen to be believed (I admit an uncontrollable cry of shock escaped me when I first pulled the trigger and saw five men blasted away from me through the air), and a set of firecrackers which serve as a distraction for enemies. Adé is eventually equipped with his own ship as well, and rather than plundering innocent cargo vessels, his aim is (unsurprisingly) to liberate slave ships instead, and this is how you spend most of your time at sea. I was disappointed that these parts of the game were few and far between, because they represented my favourite thing about Black Flag, and one of the most memorable gaming experiences of the past several years.

Freedom Cry is no purposely-withheld piece of a larger whole, but a full-fledged story in its own right, and one worth telling by the end. It doesn’t rock the boat (if I may be allowed yet another nautical pun) but it manages to earn its place alongside Black Flag by delivering a tale that both meshes with that world and creates its own as well. I was delighted by the chance to strap on a buccaneer’s boots once again, and would have paid almost any exorbitant price for the privilege. In the end, I paid little, and received much in return. This is how DLC should be done.

Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid gamer and industry commentator since he first fed a coin into a Donkey Kong machine. He is currently pursuing a career in games journalism and criticism in Toronto.

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