Ubisoft won the hearts of many at E3 when it showcased Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation, and even won some awards in the process, but consumers are another matter entirely. The Assassin’s Creed series has an immensely loyal following that demands games to be better as they grow and diversify. Ubisoft has a lot of ground to cover with Liberation, and the portability of it isn’t enough on its own to make it cover that ground. Bringing an Assassin’s Creed title to PlayStation Vita shows us that Ubisoft wants Sony’s portable hardware to be successful as well, but does it do the handheld any favors? Well, the answer to that is yes and no, it’s about 80-20, respectively.
Liberation plays out the life of Aveline de Grandpré, but her story isn’t as clear cut as previous hero Ezio Auditore. Instead of a definitive role in the conflict between the Templars and Assassins, she tries to establish herself through her beliefs as those around her pull her every which way through the plot. What’s unique about this experience is that it’s not entirely clear if she’s working for the Templars or the Assassins, and this theme continues for about half of the game. What is certain, however, is that Liberation has a story that twists and turns until it all comes crashing together in the final sequences.
Ubisoft appears to be using this opportunity to extend the light narrative aspect from the multiplayer modes of previous titles. It’s revealed early on that the story of Aveline is intended to train new recruits at Abstergo Industries to become Templar fighters. This initially feels like a negative way to present a game, since a story manipulated by Abstergo’s Templars would make it one-sided and not interesting. Alongside that is the fact that the core storyline only lasts about twelve hours. However, with the help of an unknown character, Citizen E, players begin to see the truth of Aveline’s story intentionally hidden by Abstergo. This may be too revealing, but this part of the story is introduced in the beginning three sequences and the bigger twists happen much later. Citizen E shows himself in the main storyline, but he branches off into the traditional breakdown of other side quests–like fist fights, assassinations, and gathering quests–that happen to come along during the story. It’s also important to mention that the default ending is not the true ending. Trust me when I say that it’s intended, and the "actual" story is unlocked when more collectibles are gathered.
As we’ve seen with Assassin’s Creed: Bloodlines, it can be hard to translate the much-loved gameplay of the series into a handheld, but Ubisoft has managed to find the perfect middle ground between the console games and the PS Vita hardware. Acclimatising to the controls takes a little time especially with other AC games fresh on your mind. Liberation only has two exposure levels instead of three, so all running, climbing, and robust killing outside of combat is executed by holding L1 alongside other assigned controls. Since there’s no full sprint present, the game starts off slowly. In assurance, the game flow speeds up quickly; in fact, the controls become fluid in the game very early, combining traditional commands and planned automation. Things like long jumps while traversing or aerial assassinations are performed by holding L1. Under a microscope, this lack of involvement in gameplay sounds boring, but the joy to this game is simply watching Aveline parkour across buildings with minimal effort. Better still is navigating the Bayou, a rich swamp that becomes more engaging than New Orleans. Flying across strategically-aligned branches and fallen trees is so engrossing that it replaces the simplicity of actually doing it. It’s also advantageous to the experience itself, leaving the game open to the discretion of the player rather than forcing a struggle with complicated controls that normally plague handheld renditions of console titles.
Much like its console counterparts, store fronts, and dressing houses that are used to change personas, can be bought and used to customize attire and provide weapon and bag capacity upgrades. One unique addition, though not quite as involved, is the ability to buy ships and use them to import and export goods to and from the colony. These don’t really affect or even create any sort of actual economy, but it does give players some familiar content from other titles.
Ubisoft has visually created a proper Assassin’s Creed title with Liberation. Streets are bustling, but not brimming, with both soldiers and citizens that live their lives and react to aggressive and murderous behavior. When the streets are calm, the French inhabitants converse in their native tongue collectively. Citizens will also panic as expected when fights break out and dead bodies are left in the street.
The sights and sounds truly grasp the variety of each of the three areas. Footfalls make the most impression, especially outside of New Orleans. The different sounds of different objects underfoot are so meticulously placed that Liberation should require headphones to play it. The icing on this audible cake is the soundtrack that’s almost perfectly underlaid throughout the entire game. New Orleans sports a traditional score echoing the success of the soundtrack from popular movie series Pirates of the Carribean with a beautiful cello lead, and the Bayou recedes to a more calm background track that truly accentuates the natural sounds of the swamp. It’s only nearly perfect, because many would-be tense scenes are overlaid with songs that are much livelier than what’s relatively appropriate.
As the Assassin’s Creed series has progressed, more and more characters from different nationalities have been given dialects that sound much more American than expected. Liberation pushes to break itself from that pattern, with every character possessing a voice appropriate to their nationality and geographical influences. Rich in the variety of nationalities, Liberation is so filled with well-delivered dialogue from Spanish, French, and Cajun speakers that it makes deceptive characters a little more predictable to attentive ears; that is they’re more predictable if you’re not as engrossed in the performance as I was, but hindsight’s 20-20.
With this character diversity comes different levels of culture, and each can be manipulated in their own way. Aveline has three persons throughout, which are Lady, Assassin, and Slave, and she uses them to make her way through missions in different ways. The Lady Persona allows her to charm noblemen but hinders her parkour abilities entirely and the Slave Persona only limits her ability to wield her full arsenal of weapons but grants her the ability to blend in and rally slaves to her cause. Both of these personas can use her hidden blade, but the Lady Persona has a very unique projectile umbrella at its disposal.
What’s unfortunate about Liberation is that, even through its more simple execution, combat is still plagued with issues native to the Assassin’s Creed series. Many times, I had enemies that wouldn’t follow a kill animation because of geographical interferences, so kill chains would be interrupted and enemies would often converge on me and deal major damage. The whip is a new weapon to the series, and it’s as much of a bane to combat as it is an easy button. It can be used to rope enemies from anywhere, allowing you to pull enemies off ledges, pull them towards you, or even hang them from a roost. If everything goes perfectly, enemies can be unrealistically dispatched with minimal effort, because they don’t attack when the whip is being used or chained for kills. However, the whip mechanic is incredibly sensitive. If any environmental influence makes the enemy stumble or slow down, the attack no longer works and it leaves you open to attacks. More often than not, I avoided combat altogether, instead using the new blow pipe that can shoot multiple types of deadly darts–one of which makes enemies go crazy and retaliate at other enemies nearby before falling dead to the poison.
Touchscreen plays a very useful role in gameplay, taking on more minimal functions. Excluding the one dancing scene in the game, the touchscreen is limited to puzzles, navigating the mini-map, picking pockets, and equipping weapons. Puzzles are only present in certain cases, but letters found throughout the game can be interacted with. Much like in Uncharted: Golden Abyss, you hold up the letters to physical light in order to find maps in invisible ink, and then turn the on-screen lens with the front touchscreen to make the discovered images more clear. The back touchscreen is used to pickpocket by slowly sliding down the back as Aveline does the rest. Pickpocketing is a finicky process which doesn’t always work. Often times, I’d find myself staring at an NPC’s back waiting for the game to recognize that I was trying to pickpocket. Even little dots on the screen would follow my finger movement, but the act of pickpocketing wouldn’t always register. Opening the weapon menus is clean and initiative. Touching the on-screen weapon display would open up two menus, one showing melee weapons and the other showing ranged weapons. The only part that was frustrating about these menus is that only one change can happen when they’re opened. So, if you want to change both weapons, you’ll have to open them twice.
The camera is only limited by the perspective. Even the HUD isn’t in the way, which is impressive since the screen is small and AC games usually have a lot on the screen at once. The camera does everything it’s expected to do, but it feels a bit too close to Aveline to really take in what the landscape has to offer. It works beautifully in New Orleans, since everything is evenly mapped out. The Bayou, as well as the deep, beautiful caves, are held back just enough by the viewpoint itself that the scope of what’s being done takes some time to appreciate. This might be intentional, so we’re more interested to stop and look at the view, but doing this has taken away those jaw-dropping scenes that even graces Uncharted: Golden Abyss. It’s not a deal breaker, since the story is driving, but the slight lack of appreciation that Ubisoft has put on its own work is undeserved.
The game has small, technical errors throughout. These aren’t major, but they tend to pop up at inconvenient times. Glitches like swimming in air performing melee kills at range are really hard to find, but they do show up if you dig deep enough into the game. By that time, though, they’re easily overlooked and forgotten about.
Outside of the small issues and little inconsistencies, the only part to Liberation that truly disgusted me was the online multiplayer. The term "multiplayer" is used in a way that’s used in cell phone games. Essentially, the multiplayer functions like recruiting assassins in Revelations: you take recruited assassins and pit them against challenges and other players in simulated combat. Multiplayer doesn’t include any actual gameplay, which only highlights itself by the way that the single player existence disconnects the PS Vita from any wireless connectivity. This mode may be designed to play alongside Assassin’s Creed 3, since the online missions in Liberation are time-based leaving a lot of time waiting for energy to regenerate like it does in so many small, mobile games.
Multiplayer is represented on a globe of Earth, with big cities across it as venues for the fight between the Assassins and Abstergo. You can also pick which side you wish to represent and fight for the cause you see fit. More and more fighters are assigned through leveling, which is accomplished by fighting other characters and completing missions. Home bases can even be chosen from the hundreds of represented cities on the globe, and missions and fights won "close to home" yield more reward and experience. Sadly the multiplayer mode overall feels like a waste, since it doesn’t really show the multiplayer ability that the PS Vita may or may not have. Since it doesn’t validate Liberation like the campaign does, it might have been just as well to eliminate it from the game entirely.
The strength of Liberation is in its favored delivery of the story which truly represents an Assassin’s Creed story in a unique and interesting way. Visually and audibly, the game is astounding, showing off the PS Vita’s ability to maintain and perform on a similar level to its console cousin. Though the online is a major blemish and it has its fair share of technical issues, Liberation brings to the PS Vita exactly what fans want and more by showing that the hardware is more of a new way to do it rather than a hindrance.