Alongside the launch of its blockbuster Assassin’s Creed III on Xbox 360, PS3, and PC Ubisoft also delivers a brand new side story on the Vita with a new playable character and a completely new setting. Handheld gaming isn’t unfamiliar territory for the series, following the very disappointing Bloodlines and several mobile offerings, and Ubi needed to make sure that the debut of the Templar/Assassins war on Sony’s powerhouse handheld was a solid one. What they’ve managed to accomplish is equal parts impressive and disappointing, marrying some of the series’ greatest strengths with some very unfortunate missteps in other key areas. What we’re left with is a solid, if uninspiring, addition to the Assassin’s Creed universe that is worth playing but lacking just enough to prevent it from being a must-have.
The story drops you in the shoes of Aveline de Grandpre, the daughter of a wealthy shipping merchant and a mother whose mysterious disappearance drives much of the narrative of the game. Delivered to you via an Animus system commercially released by Abstergo and set in 18th Century New Orleans, the story in Liberation winds in all the directions you would expect from a game set in the AC universe. Unfortunately, when I say “drops you,” I mean it. The majority of Liberation feels like walking into a movie theater an hour after the film has started. You can relatively quickly pick up on who each person is, but the expectation that you will care about them or know how they came to be where they are is completely lost.
The game almost seems to believe that you already know huge chunks of Aveline’s story as it references people and events with little to no exposition. The overall narrative here tells a pretty good story but it lacks the level of detail and sophistication that Assassin’s Creed II brought to developing the character and motives of Ezio. Of all the aspects of the series that would translate to the handheld relatively easily I expected this to be the primary one. Ultimately, despite generating several legitimately interesting characters (Aveline among them), Liberation’s weak build-up prevents it from living up to past entries in the story department. Despite these missteps, the story does an admirable job of addressing an incredibly sensitive subject by tackling slavery head-on rather than skirting the issue like much historical fiction.
One aspect that has made a very impressive transition to the small screen is the instantly familiar AC gameplay. This truly is Assassin’s Creed in your hands as everything from free-running to combat plays almost exactly like its big brothers. The enhancements that AC3 got to the combat mechanics and animation systems make their way into Liberation, as well, which results in a gameplay experience that is surprisingly faithful. In an attempt to separate herself from the pack though, Aveline has a few brand new tricks up her sleeve.
The biggest difference between past Assassin’s Creed games and Liberation comes in the persona system. Based on her social standing and heritage, Aveline is in the unique position of being able to easily transition between three separate personas that function independently of each other. The lady persona is Aveline as the majority of New Orleans knows and respects her. In this persona, she is clothed in a full-length, proper 18th century dress, substantially limiting her movement. She does still have access to her hidden blade and another weapon available to her later that I won’t spoil. The key to utilizing this persona correctly is to leverage her looks and social standing to charm guards into following her into dark alleys where they can be assassinated in silence. This persona can also access areas that are off limits for the others.
The second of Aveline’s available personas is the Slave. This option allows Aveline greater movement and weapon flexibility and the opportunity to hide in plain sight by pretending to work alongside groups of slaves. This is a well balanced persona that is only limited by the somewhat clunky method of slipping in and out of groups. Finally, the last persona available is the Assassin. This is the area where most fans of the series will find themselves most comfortable with full access to all of Aveline’s skills and weapons. The drawback to this persona is the fact that she will always have at least one level of notoriety.
I love the concept behind the different personas, and it fits in perfectly with Aveline’s character. Unfortunately, it isn’t executed as well as it needs to be. The Lady persona seems to be seriously negatively unbalanced; the penalties to movement meant I really only used it when I was forced to. Also, each persona accumulates notoriety independently and has its own method of reducing it, some of which can only be accomplished by other personas. This makes sense from a balance standpoint, but the options to lower don’t really seem to match up as well as they should.
Liberation lives up to the series’ reputation for interesting historical environments by recreating not only 18th century New Orleans, but also the Bayou, an environment completely unlike any other that the series has seen. Visually the game is very impressive and is let down only by the fact that it is not in the Vita’s native resolution. Character models look great for the platform, though, and it’s certainly battling with Uncharted for best-looking photo-realistic Vita game.
Unfortunately, the polish ends there, as technical issues drag the overall experience down in some odd ways. The framerate experiences occasional dips. These aren’t necessarily gamebreaking unless you are sensitive to framerate problems, but they do pop up often enough to be annoying. You also experience some legacy problems that have plagued the series in the past, like pop-up and characters getting stuck on geometry. Perhaps the oddest visual glitch I ran into during my time with the game was random NPCs completely changing into different people as they walked past me, which was as jarring as it was hilarious.
There is an additional mini-game to earn money on the side that revolves around shipping goods from port to port while navigating things like storms and pirates. This is an entertaining distraction in the vein of the Brotherhood missions in the last couple console AC games. The game also features an asynchronous multiplayer mode that functions like a mix between Risk and any of the one hundred iPhone resource management games available. It’s a fun idea, but I would have loved to see a four player version of the traditional AC multiplayer. The short sessions would seem to be ideal for the platform.
Liberation could have been a fantastic game and a very worthy entry in the overall AC canon if it had been given a couple more months in the oven. As it stands, it’s certainly an enjoyable romp and well worth playing for fans of the series, but the technical issues and sub-par narrative exposition really hold it back. Hopefully future handheld entries in the series will learn from the missteps here and create a true masterpiece.
Review copy of game provided by publisher.