One charge that can never be levied at Ubisoft is a lack of ambition. After five console Assassin's Creed games in just six years, and a smattering of handheld offshoots, the French super-publisher has set it sights on the one device that could be called upon to bridge the gap between fighting the Templars at home, and fighting them wherever one goes: the Playstation Vita. Its first attempt at this is no mere toe in the pool, either, but a full-on dive into a new setting, protagonist, and storyline that runs concurrent with the series' main continuity.
It's a hefty undertaking, and the weight of Ubisoft's drive has definitely buckled some of the more reliable structures of the Assassin's Creed series. Liberation is unique, but critical plot issues and a raft of technical shortcomings encumber much of the more interesting ideas at play.
Liberation immediately shows that it's not content with simply replicating the core gameplay of Assassin's Creed on the small screen. The protagonist is Aveline de Granpre, a French-African orphan who finds herself cast into the Louisiana aristocracy via her caring (and maddeningly underdeveloped) adoptive parents. Liberation doesn't just make her another Assassin character, but instead attempts to incorporate all aspects of her socio-political standing into the gameplay.
The vehicle for this is the Persona System, which consists of three special outfits that Aveline can change into at special locations around the world map. These personae are the “Lady,” an aristocratic dress, the “Assassin,” natch, and the “Slave,” a set of inconspicuous work clothes. Each persona has different uses, from the business acumen of the Lady, to the the Slave's ability to incite distracting riots, but without question, the Assassin persona is the most versatile and fun to play.
Ostensibly, each of these disguises should serve to make Aveline's work as an assassin that much more easy, but Ubisoft dictates most of their use at mandatory intervals, which makes it hard to find the emergent use for them while exploring 1765 New Orleans. In addition to this, each persona has its own notoriety meter, which often complicates the utility of switching outfits to escape vigilant enemies. Instead, most of the more interesting aspects of Aveline's diverse wardrobe are found in the moments when Ubisoft chooses to show them. It would have been great to, say, incite a riot as the Slave, and then use the panic of the noblesse to escape into a guarded area as the Lady, only to reveal herself as the Assassin when the moment is right, but a set-up like that can't be generated by the player. Liberation definitely contains some interesting scenarios, but the sense of preparation and experimentation that's found in the best Assassin's Creed games feels frustratingly constrictive here. It's a general mix of sword-play, free-running, quasi-stealth, and Vita gimmicks, but rarely does it let the player combine those elements into an original strategy, which feels counter-intuitive in an open-world title.
Ambition, once again, proves to be Liberation's greatest asset and its greatest foe. Ubisoft has brought the same Anvil 2.0 engine that powers Assassin's Creed III on consoles to bear in this Vita release, and the results are initially impressive. Sure, textures are scaled down, aliasing is more pronounced, and the resolution has taken a hit, but these things are fair trade offs considering the disparity in hardware. In particular, the lighting is quite striking, and at rest it's possible that Liberation could be mistaken for its console sibling. At rest.
All of the above considerations are suddenly cast into the wind the second Aveline begins to run. At all times, Liberation's framerate walks a tightrope between tolerable and busted. It makes for uncomfortable playing when the action gets frantic, and it renders AC's trademark mob combat almost unplayable. When Aveline finds herself in the middle of a large fight- and she will -the ability to find rhythm and effectively counter enemies is put into serious jeopardy. It wouldn't be too bad if the game was more accommodating of stealth, but open combat is simply too common for this to not be a problem. Liberation will test one's patience for sub-par performance yea mightily.
Liberation has many more problems to speak of, but it's important to not lose sight of its novelty. Yes, while there's much about it that's unimpressive and trying, it still generates a bit of a thrill just to be playing console level (if not quality) Assassin's Creed in your palms. It's further helped by the fact that Aveline herself is an appealing character, even if she's not given nearly the same amount of backstory and development as Ezio and Connor. A cynical person might say that's because she's literally a checklist- black, French, female -of everything the other protagonists are not, but the strides Ubisoft has made to reflect her station and gender into the gameplay acquit her of this. Even if those gameplay innovations aren't always compelling, their addition sends a message that Ubisoft was eager to think out as many implications of Aveline's unique position in her time.
On the other hand, this makes all of the things Ubisoft didn't think out that much more baffling. At first blush, Liberation feels like an Assassin's Creed game at half tempo, restrictive mission structure and technical limitations presiding, but while playing, it's the logic problems and ludonarrative hiccups that feel most damaging.
Aveline's various personae shoulder much of the blame for this. The idea behind the Persona system is that Aveline's ability to adopt different social standings at will should change the way people interact with her, but given the game's notoriety system, which is unique to each persona, a disguise only affects NPC behavior if the meter is low enough. It doesn't matter if you run around causing havoc as the Assassin, if you change into the Lady to take the heat off, guards will come after you with the same stabby tenacity as they would a common street thug. Even if it's defensible from the “it's only a game” stance, because “games need fail states and adversarial elements,” it doesn't feel historically true to how a well-to-do lady, even a criminal one at that, would be pursued and dealt with in the Revolutionary-era Bayou. It might be a matter of detail, but it still torches a lot of the historical illusion that Ubisoft works hard to establish.
The notoriety system feels equally mismanaged. Each persona has their own meter, which can only be lowered in a particular way. If the Slave is drawing too much attention, then Aveline must find posters of her slave identity and tear them down. At the opposite end, if the Lady is under suspicion, eye-witnesses have to be killed to lower notoriety. This plays out in an especially dumb way, because eye-witnesses always spawn in the same locations on the map, and are always talking to a pair of accomplices, which means that Aveline's only way of dealing with them is to walk up in plain sight and stab them on the spot. If the assassination is low profile, then the accomplices won't enter an alert state and cause more trouble for Aveline, but it still doesn't change the fact that they stand there cluelessly while she de-jugulars their friends. Again, it's just part of the game, but it's a stupid part.
Assassin's Creed III Liberation is possessed of many ideas, and for that, Ubisoft should be applauded. They've managed to pare AC's entire open-world design, with new mechanics to boot, down onto the Vita's hardware, and that alone is worth a look.
However, this go-around isn't the success it could have been. Liberation is held down by poor optimization, strange, distracting game logic, an inconsequential story, and a protagonist that's more feature than character. Nevertheless, it dogs the player with promise, and Aveline feels as if she can stand tall with Ezio and the rest. Like an heirloom flintlock pistol that's been lost in the Bayou, Liberation doesn't produce much of a spark, but one hopes that Ubisoft can find a way to get it firing once more.