Assassin’s Creed III Liberation excels at providing series staples, but falls flat on execution
Assassin's Creed III: Liberation
The first thing you do in Assassin’s Creed III Liberation is try to catch a chicken. You play as Aveline, a young woman of mixed French and African heritage in colonial New Orleans who occupies a place of wealth and status thanks to her wealthy merchant father, Philippe de Grandpre. Aveline will make a big mark on New Orleans as the historical Louisiana Rebellion develops, meet many important and powerful people, but spoiler alert: she never catches that chicken.
Assassin’s Creed III Liberation has everything you’d expect from an Assassin’s Creed game, but it just doesn’t feel up to snuff. Maybe we’ve gotten too used to the high quality of Assassin’s Creed on console, but the game feels like it can’t live up to expectations, keeping it just beyond the reach of true enjoyment.
Vita la revolution
The PlayStation Vita serves as an excellent vehicle for Liberation, with its bright screen, processing power, and dual touchscreens. City streets are surprisingly busy and bustling, with many characters onscreen at one time. This may almost be a minus for the Vita, as games tend to hit a kind of portable uncanny valley: They look better than most portable games, but that only serves to highlight the sections that don’t match console standards. The framerate tends to dip noticeably any time you’re down in the thick of New Orleans, and combat is slow and imprecise. When you’re watching Aveline execute a combo that should be badass and inspiring, it often feels like watching bad fight choreography.
The controls map well to the Vita, since they closely mirror what you’d find on a PlayStation 3 controller, and the new features help round out the game play. You can wear disguises now – the Lady, the Slave, the Assassin – each with their own abilities and separate notoriety meters. Theoretically, you’ll switch between these frequently. In reality, it’s likely you’ll only do so when forced to by the game. The Lady is particularly useless, as she can charm guards but not climb anything. You don’t appreciate how smoothly Assassins have been moving through the city until you’re forced to stick to the streets.
There are fun new features though, including the new pick-pocket mechanic. You pick-pocket by targeting your mark, moving in close, and swiping down on the Vita’s rear touchpad. It feels natural and smooth, like you’re really a professional thief, rifling through a victim’s purse.
You can also pinch-zoom on the map, and many times during the story the Vita’s unique features get used in one way or another. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. I thought it was neat to open a letter by “pinching” the top of the Vita on both the front and rear touchpads while steering a carriage proved frustrating. You must use the left stick to steer, and front touchscreen to speed up and slow down.
The game otherwise plays as you expect, with the usual Assassin’s Creed features: viewpoints for synchronization, haybales to hide in, crowds in which to lose yourself, buildings to free-run on, and side-missions to undertake. There’s even asynchronous multiplayer, but it’s literally a game of tapping on nodes to play tug of war. It’s as dull as it sounds, with no actual combat.
The new girl on the block
While the story becomes more interesting as it goes along, exploring the moral gray area of the Templars vs. Assassins conflict at the heart of the Assassin’s Creed games – something Assassin’s Creed III also does very well – it still feels toothless.
Aveline is a mixed-race woman living in a time of slavery. Her mother was a placée, a freed slave not legally recognized as a wife. That’s a fascinating concept many people don’t know about, but it’s barely touched on. Aveline’s father’s position and wealth shields her from many of the repercussions she would otherwise have for simply existing, and the game doesn’t seem ready to go there. The conversation about people owning people is drowned out by the conversation about the Templars owning free will. There was the possibility for a much larger conversation about our racial past, but the game largely shies away from it.
The game goes from 0 to 100 in the first hour or so of the plot, bringing in characters left and right while never giving them proper context or introduction. Aveline’s father is introduced as a merchant first and her father second. There are ways to handle that sort of reveal, but here it’s too clumsy. This sort of storytelling may have worked in Assassin’s Creed III, but the team behind the Vita game may not have been up to the task. Even Aveline herself begins as a mystery; she gets separated from her mother while chasing the aforementioned chicken, and a town guard knocks her out. She wakes up an adult, wearing slave garb, in the middle of a street fight. For all we know, she might as well have been in a coma, or kidnapped and sold into slavery. Either option would have had more impact than the time simply disappearing, only to be lightly discussed in an in-game biography.
Assassin’s Creed III does a much better job at turning its characters into people who seem real and, while it may seem unfair to judge the two games against each other, that’s the price you pay with two releases in the same series this close together. We still have the taste of this game’s larger sibling on our tongues. The Vita shouldn’t provide games that are good for a portable release, it should provide good games.
It becomes difficult to sort through, though the voice-acting – Aveline’s especially – is well-done. The writing is also at the quality it should be, and once a proper arc and game-long objective is set in front of Aveline it’s a fun and exciting ride overall.
Assassin’s Creed III Liberation is a fine enough portable version of a console franchise, but both Sony and gamers were likely hoping for more. The technical and design mistakes are forgivable, but the letdown is still palpable. The Vita needed a system-seller, and Liberation is merely a passable game in a popular franchise.