Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag Freedom Cry

After six years, there's now an accepted tendency to ignore the Assassin's Creed franchise's grander sweeps into historical fiction and just focus on the gameplay.

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Important characters and eras are problematically mired in the need to have an historian's knowledge to appreciate the deep-rooted issues to which each game's multi-year stories only offer a snapshot of.

Black Flag handily side-stepped some of those issues with its larger than life characters and scenarios that - despite the creators claims to the contrary - were more in line with modern Hollywood excess than historical conservatism. The problems in succinctly conveying to the player historical factoids still remained, but were pushed to the background as the swagger of the pirate's life took charge.

Freedom Cry is set some years after the events of Black Flag, but stands alone in story rather than offering any particular epilogue to Edward's tale. It's easy, once its four-something hours wrap, to view it as a microcosm of the main campaign. There's sailing, though the horizon doesn't stretch as far. A ship to upgrade, though not as extensively. Fish to harpoon, towns to visit; neither as plentiful in number as before.

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag
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Adewale, now some years running as an Assassin, comes replete with the Creed's full weapon repertoire, but trades in dual swords for a single machete with a handful of brutal finishers attached, while pistols are replaced by the short-range but crowd-downing blunderbuss, the shotgun of the Caribbean. Both make little difference to combat, but help emphasis Adewale's heavier, muscular bulk versus Edward's lighter Errol Flynn-like shape.

His DLC introduction mimics Edward's; a ship battle ending with him waking up on shore of an unknown locale. The game keeps you landlocked for a duration. You've once again to earn yourself a ship, while intercepting another potential Templar plot.

While the game slowly wraps larger missions around each Memory fragment - nine in all, and all set within the same time frame - there's a selection of side activities, which, like the main missions themselves, are built around the game's central themes: the slave trade and freedom.

The content makes for uneasy subject matter, even if it gives added incentive to those side activities. You're compelled to stop and complete them now. Neither your conscience nor ears will let you walk by as slaves are whipped, burnt with pokers, auctioned off, herded into cages like cattle or paraded through streets. It diversifies later as you rescue escapees either from their pursuer, or carry wounded to a safe haven.

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Overseers patrol the streets and will give chase as soon as they identify the colour of your skin. Here you'll find the same dominant control problems that've dogged Assassin's Creed in effect still, killing your enthusiasm immediately and repeatedly. We've managed to accept those issues in Black Flag, as the rest of the experience is much more enriching.

Large parts of the game consist of sprawling plantations that you need to infiltrate and liberate. The more guards you kill, the more you swell the freed - and now armed - groups of workers, Get spotted and workers will wade in, turning a series of methodical stealth takedowns into a panicked speed run to clear the fields of well-armed guards before they start slaughtering your companions.

Ironically - and it's hard to tell whether the creators are purposely making a point here - freeing slaves is the main way to unlock upgrades. You start toting up numbers to reach milestones - bigger ammo pouches, better weapons - and head to plantations and towards liberating slave ships (once you're back on the water) because they offer the biggest influx of freed workers.

As a repercussion you become slightly immune to it all. But this, in part, is because you're more aware of how quickly the game regurgitates side activities. The smaller map sees you spending far longer at one port, so it's all too obvious to see the game's small number of systems repeating to seed you upgrades.

Even before this situation erodes the immersion, the game's subject matter is tough to swallow. Is it salacious, or even trivialising such sensitive issues in that freeing slaves is little more than a means to gameplay progression? When you start seeing it like that, it's hard not to be repulsed.

War as entertainment is something that we've acclimatised to through multiple generations and mediums. Prisoners of war and human trafficking however, is a different issue entirely. Whether the subject matter should be treated isn't so much the question; it's more how it's been treated. Ubisoft's decision to venture into this territory is contentious, and a discussion about the content needs to happen, but it's one that should be had - at length - elsewhere.

While the game's story arc projects the build towards a full-on rebellion, this doesn't translate into an endgame payoff, nor do the cut-scenes offer satisfaction; in fact the DLC's epitaph coldly enforces the inability to change deep-rooted prejudice, and that there's little justice through revenge.

It's a message that should have power. After Edward's descent into plunder and glory, Adewale's altruistic arc proves a strong counterpoint that's equally more about the man than the Creed he operates under.

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag

'Should'. We circle back round to the franchise's middle-act issue, interacting us with characters and situations that we feel that we should know better than we do, and leave us more baffled than they should. After six years, it's all-too easy to go on auto-pilot during cut-scenes and loose the import of what's been discussed. And after over half a decade, plundering the in-game Database to wade through words in order to flesh out circumstance and faces still doesn't entice.

So we stumble into a concluding duo of Memories that firstly hammer you with a gameplay sequence that's riveting as it is terrifying, and directly follows it with an act of vengeance, the end of which freezes your anger to ice, and punches you in the gut. We're left frustrated, both with ourselves and the franchise, that the storytelling is obtuse enough to hamper a powerful issue. It feels like Assassin's Creed has finally something to say, but it's fumbled the delivery.

Yes, the majority of the DLC's five hours is as much the same as the previous twenty hours. Yes, it's got the same niggling issues, and a smaller map and less locales gives you the thirst for the wider ocean and that endless horizon. But if you've seen Edward's piracy through to its end, then you're likely itching for more. If you want to see what the franchise's been capable of doing since inception - retelling interactive flash points of history with more conviction and power than the dry texts of a history book - then you should play this. Even if the execution isn't as sharp, nor perhaps as genuine, as it could be.

08 Gamereactor UK
8 / 10
More of the same gameplay
Content is contentious, game feels too small in comparison to main campaign.
overall score
is our network score. What's yours? The network score is the average of every country's score

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