The designers of the hugely popular, reliably excellent “Assassin’s Creed” series put a heavy premium on verisimilitude. Each entry in the open-world game series provides a self-contained adventure set in a particular era of world history – the medieval Crusades, the Italian Renaissance or the American Revolution.
Players get historically realistic details in all aspects of the game, from clothing to music to architecture, plus a wealth of written material that can be read as you play along. You’ve gotta watch yourself playing these “Assassin’s Creed” games. If you’re not careful, you just might learn something.
The latest installment in the series, “Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag -- Freedom Cry,” (Rated M; $14.99), was originally released as a single-player add-on module for “Black Flag,” which moves the action to the 18th-century Caribbean and the Golden Age of Piracy. In an interesting move, developer Ubisoft later released “Freedom Cry” as a standalone title for Xbox One and Playstation 4 – that is to say, you can download the complete game without having purchased “Black Flag” at all.
It’s a good option for new Xbox One or PS4 owners who have already played though 2013’s “Black Flag” on the older console systems. Since I was hopelessly addicted to that pirate game, I was eager to check out the new adventure on the souped-up hardware specs of the PS4.
The improved graphics are put on display immediately, as you navigate a fierce Caribbean storm aboard a fully detailed pirate ship. Returning players will recognize the protagonist of “Freedom Cry,” liberated-slave-turned-freedom-fighter Adalwale, who abandoned the pirate life in “Black Flag” for the righteous cause of the Assassins. (In the mythology of the game series, the Assassins are the good guys.)
As in “Black Flag,” the storyline in “Freedom Cry” deals directly, and frankly, with the historical slave trade in the 18th-century New World. Specifically, Adawale finds himself in temporary alliance with the leaders of slave rebellion in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
Unlike “Black Flag,” however, the liberation of slaves is the primary focus of the game and goal of your character. As you move through the game’s eight levels, you’ll encounter cages and auctions, slave ships and barracks. The game doesn’t blink in its depiction of the slave trade, and this raises the emotional stakes enormously. It’s undeniably cathartic to ally with the rebelling slaves and terminate, with extreme prejudice, their oppressors.
Tactical twist: Liberate
Because it’s not a full release, “Freedom Cry” is necessarily a smaller and shorter game experience than “Black Flag.” You can tear through the main storyline in about five or six hours. The good news is that the add-on includes pretty much all the optional open-world elements of the main game. Adawale can take to the seas to explore deserted islands, dive for underwater booty, or even hunt whales and sharks.
An interesting tactical twist is introduced in the naval battles: Rather than fight enemy ships head on, you’re required to liberate slave ships – which means taking out the escort boats without damaging the lead vessel. This requires a much more judicious fighting strategy as you aim those cannons and mortars.
Hand-to-hand combat remains essentially unchanged. Adawale’s main weapon is a machete, rather than a pirate’s cutlass, and you’ll quickly gain access to more exotic weaponry – blow darts, smoke bombs and a primitive shotgun device called a blunderbuss. Be careful with that thing; it’s about as precise as a TNT barrel.
The music in “Freedom Cry” is uncommonly pretty, and according to the press materials, based on traditional Afro-Haitian songs. Wander around Port-au-Prince, and you’ll find all sorts of historically accurate window dressing, from the merchant’s wares to the craftsman’s tools.
“Freedom Cry” is another fine installment in an ambitious franchise that encourages players to travel through time, explore the world, meet interesting people and kill them. But, you know, in a good way.
“Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag – Freedom Cry,” is now available on PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One and PC.
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