In the interests of not turning this review into a treatise on why Sony’s PlayStation Vita needs more console-style games, I’ll just say this at the outset: Ubisoft Sophia’s work on Assassin’s Creed 3: Liberation is outstanding, amounting to the best AAA-quality Vita game yet in many ways. It’s not a perfect experience by any stretch, but any flaws are easily and happily overlooked once you realize that you’re playing a full Assassin’s Creed game during your commute. Vita fans that have been waiting for that experience since day one, need to wait no longer.
Okay, great. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s dig into Liberation and take a look at why this is also a game that fans of the Assassin’s Creed series and lore should care about.
A Different Kind of Killer
Liberation is full of firsts for the series, starting with newcomer protagonist Aveline de Grandpré. Aveline is a biracial former slave who ends up in the care of a high society family in late-18th century New Orleans for reasons that are made clear as the story unfolds. She’s a member of the Order of Assassins, though it’s clear that lending a hand to the downtrodden is more important to her than the age-old struggle against the Templars.
It should be mentioned at this point that there’s a fictional meta-element to AC3: Liberation. It’s framed as a game within the series’ fictional world, one delivered by Abstergo, the modern-day corporate face of the Templars. Liberation is entirely separate from Desmond Miles’ travels through history in the console series; without delving into spoilers, it’s best to look at the Vita game as a sort of companion piece to the established canon rather than the next step. If you have played the multiplayer components of the AC console games, which are also presented as Abstergo recreations, you’ll have a sense of what the bigger picture is.
Since Aveline’s story doesn’t exactly fit into the larger part of the lore that Ubisoft has been building around Desmond there’s more room to dig in with a personal story, and that’s exactly what Liberation does. It was a very calculated move, making the game’s protagonist a half-black woman in the colonial South. You’ll be infiltrating plantations, guiding slaves to freedom, and generally fighting to create a better world.
That said, the writing definitely feels “safe” in a lot of ways. For all of this series’ adherence to historical accuracy, Liberation stops short of accurately portraying period-specific racism. It’s certainly there in the makeup of the world, but not so much in the way other characters respond to Aveline or any of the slaves. It manifests more in specific mechanics, such as through restrictions imposed on the Slave persona that Aveline can don (see below).
The narrative may skirt around the big hot-button topic of the period, but it’s also one of the most female empowerment-oriented tales in games. Aveline herself is an absolute badass, whether she’s stabbing dudes in the throat with her hidden blades or keeping those who oppose her at bay with the new blowgun or whip (among others new weapons). The main cast is filled out with other powerful women as well, while all of the male characters of any significance are relegated to supporting or villain roles.
The only real weak point here manifests in the overall presentation. Some corners had to be cut in bringing a proper Assassin’s Creed game to the PS Vita, and cutscenes fall into one of those corners. While Liberation isn’t completely lacking in proper cinematic exposition, more than a few story moments play out as back-and-forth dialogue between characters standing in the game world. It strips some of the narrative punch out of the unfolding story, though there’s fortunately a solid voice cast in place to keep things from veering completely off course.
Born on the Bayou
On the gameplay side, Liberation borrows heavily from the new systems and mechanics introduced in Assassin’s Creed 3. Free-running and combat are the most noticeable tweaks, though the Vita’s more limited physics don’t come close to capturing the agile physicality of AC3‘s Connor. It’s an acceptable fake though, given the limitations of the hardware, and Liberation is designed in such a way that you’ll never really notice the difference as you play.
Combat is similarly drawn directly from AC3‘s Arkham Asylum/City-like focus on counters, with the added tweak of a Vita-specific feature that allows you to freeze the action, tap-to-mark a set number of enemies (based on a meter that you fill through combat), and take them down in an unbroken string of stabbings. If you’re familiar with the “Mark and Execute” feature from Ubi’s Splinter Cell: Conviction, it is essentially that.
Unfortunately, the other Vita-specific features in Liberation don’t fare nearly as well. Touch-based menus are fine and even welcome, but having to do things like drag your fingers across the top and bottom touchscreen simultaneously to tear open a letter is downright annoying. Even worse are the Vita-specific features that take “advantage” of the other unique aspects of the portable device. The built-in gyroscope is an utter failure in the game’s Labyrinth-like tilt maze. Worse still is a recurring moment that requires you to point your Vita’s back-mounted camera toward a bright light. In my case, it took a Maglite; an overhead fixture, a daylit sky, and an iPhone’s LED flashlight didn’t cut it.
Fortunately, these are all fleeting moments within the larger whole. The core of an Assassin’s Creed game is here, with all of the key advancements filtering in from the latest console entry in the series. The only thing that’s really lacking is the more optional stuff that serves to further flesh out the world and provide a deeper gameplay experience. There are collectibles to be found in Liberation along with a handful of optional quick-hit assignments. A slightly altered (and entirely optional) version of AC3‘s convoy trading is here as well, though it’s only minimally useful for building your income — not that having a fat wallet really matters for much beyond new weapons and outfits.
The city of New Orleans and the sizable bayou region that Aveline is able to explore are, as you would expect, the real stars. New Orleans definitely feels similar in some ways to AC3‘s Boston and New York, though definitely with its own unique cultural and architectural flavor. The Bayou is similarly Frontier-like, with flat expanses of bog and twisting, gnarled trees replacing the mountains and forests of the console game. You feel some technical concessions here as well, with fewer people walking the streets and less of a “living world” surrounding you, but it’s nothing that ruins the experience.
There’s also a major new mechanic that Liberation introduces in Aveline’s multiple personas. The new protagonist is in a unique position among the assassins we’ve met so far. She’s basically Bruce Wayne, able to kick tail as a badass assassin one moment and score tail by charming random gents on the street in the next. Players are able to swap between three different personas for Aveline, each with its own benefits and restrictions.
In her high society guise, Aveline’s movement is restricted by a dress, which means she can’t climb or sprint, and she can’t carry any weapons other than her hidden blades and parasol blowgun. She’s much more capable of blending in among the New Orleans elite, however, and she can use her womanly charms to shmooze her way past guards. The stealthier slave persona is limited to small concealable weapons, but she can climb and sprint. She’ll build up notoriety more quickly, but she’ll also pass unnoticed more easily in otherwise restricted locations since slaves are a constant. The assassin persona is Aveline at her most badass, with full access to all weapons, but she’s also always riding along with a base level of notoriety that keeps guards suspicious whenever they see her.
It’s a really cool mechanic that is used to great effect, though some might take issue with the slower pacing imposed by forced use of the Lady persona early on in the story. Assassin’s Creed is one of those rare video game franchises that can get away with putting story ahead of gameplay on occasion, and it qualifies here. Liberation weaves an absorbing tale, and much of the payoff’s value grows out of that slow burn early on. All I can say is to stick with it. It’s worth the ride.
The quality on the single player side is enough to offset the baffling inclusion of a multiplayer mode that bears no resemblance to any online play from previous AC games. It appears to be a Risk-like global strategy game focusing on the war between the Templars and the Assassins. You pick a side and send your forces on missions of various sorts. At least, I think that’s how it works. There’s nothing even resembling a substantive tutorial for this confusing, out of place multiplayer component. So much so that I wasn’t even able to figure out how to quit back to the main menu. There may well be something worthwhile here, but damn if Ubisoft doesn’t make it impossible to figure out exactly what.
This review runs through a lot of negatives that are all 100-percent true, but don’t let that dissuade you. Assassin’s Creed 3: Liberation is one of the best console-quality PS Vita game I’ve encountered yet. It’s also lots of fun to dig into and explore if you’re a fan of the Assassin’s Creed series, offering a new perspective on the ongoing Templar/Assassin struggle that falls outside of what we’ve seen from Desmond’s adventures. It complements Assassin’s Creed 3 in some surprising ways that you’ll have to play both games to really comprehend, but it also stands just as well on its own two feet as it plunges you into colonial America’s deep south (or what would become colonial America after the Louisiana Purchase) as a badass lady assassin.
Score: 8 out of 10
(This review was completed on the Vita using a copy provided by the publisher)