Review: Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation

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Over the holiday break I had the chance to catch up and play Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation, the Vita little sister to the main console big brother version that I already reviewed back in November. In my review of the console Assassin’s Creed III, I pointed out some faults pertaining to the unexpected lack of polish from such a huge holiday release. Those faults unfortunately made for a less than endearing experience which soured my view of the overall franchise. So, with a little trepidation I plunged into Ubisoft’s portable 18th century experience set in and around New Orleans, starring Aveline de Grandpré, the series’ first female protagonist.

The first thing that stands out is how, as the game loads up, the Ubisoft logo swirl appears and then another title card shows up reading “Animus,” quickly replaced by “Powered by Abstergo.” These two little indications set the tone that this game is clearly not the same as the main console series. In the last few titles, the multiplayer side of the game has taken on a life similar to that of the future envisioned by The Matrix movies. Abstergo, a front for modern day Templars, has built an online interactive game called the Animus which is in fact secretly training real people to hunt and kill Assassins. It makes sense then to extend this idea out to a more focused single player experience, which fits perfectly on the go on the Vita. Pushing out new characters in one-off stories (as told by Abstergo) allows for gamers to experience the joys of what makes running around as an assassin fun, without necessarily cluttering an already muddy Desmond Miles story.

Aside from the fact that Desmond Miles is missing, the conflict between Assassins and Templars is just as rich as ever and the new characters introduced in Liberation are just as varied and well crafted to deserve a large screen audience. Aveline was born from a rich French merchant father and former African slave mother. The game opens with Aveline as a child who is separated from her free mother as they are walking through the streets of New Orleans and encounter a slave auction. Mistaken slavers attempt to capture Aveline after her mother mysteriously disappears, but she is saved by Agaté who ends up becoming Aveline’s assassin mentor. While this seems a bit contrived, the quick setup allows for the rest of the game to play out at a more natural pace.

Aveline grows up in the comforts of her rich father’s home and is cared for by both her father and stepmother Madeleine. Secretly, Aveline also is trained by Agaté. This upbringing allows gamers to swap out three different persona that Aveline lives. A “Lady” persona which allows Aveline to dress as a rich, upscale citizen who doesn’t raise the alert of guards nearly as quickly if she does something out of the norm. The Lady persona doesn’t allow for climbing parkour style, but offers the ability to charm guards or other citizens, as well as shoot poison darts from her parasol unnoticed by citizens walking nearby. The second role Aveline takes on is the “Slave”. Playing as a slave allows full parkour movement, as well as the ability to pick up crates to blend in with actual slaves so she can sneak past guards and learn information on assassinate targets. Of course she also gets to assume the full “Assassin” role. When walking around New Orleans in the garb of a true assassin, Aveline’s notoriety is already at a heightened level and guards are immediately alerted if she walks past them. The benefits to playing as the assassin persona aren’t really any different than playing as the slave, but the costume choices look cool and are more in line with what gamers familiar to the franchise would expect.

The story that unfolds in Liberation starts with Aveline helping run some of the shady sides of her father’s business, by dealing with competitors. Taking care of competing business owners reveals that a larger conspiracy is at work masterminded by Templar influence. Along the way Aveline discovers that her mother’s disappearance plays into the larger Templar story and ultimately plays out with a reveal that can only be described as the usual Assassin’s Creed franchise twist ending. While the ending may not be as mind melting as the end of AC2, Liberation provides a fun experience throughout. Liberation also feels like a more focused game than its older console brother. That’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of collectibles to spend time chasing down, or unique side missions that help flesh out the overall story, but compared to AC3, Liberation doesn’t make it feel like you’re going through the motions of so many uninteresting side missions without a real sense of pay off and accomplishment.

One aspect that comes across as just as clunky as in AC3, is the business management of ship trade. Similarly played out by the crafting/trade system in AC3, Liberation offers Aveline a chance to buy ships in various port cities around the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean for buying and selling goods. You select a port with a ship, buy goods, tell that ship to sail to different port, wait the allotted amount of time, and come back to check on whether or not the ship actually survived pirates or bad weather. Then you choose to sell the goods at which ever port it arrived at or tell the ship to sail to another port. Because the ships all look the same (as do the ports), having to select each port to see what goods they offer or require becomes a bit of a tap happy memory game that bears no true relevance to the story proper. The only thing this mini-game provides is a means to earn money, which can more easily be accomplished just running around killing any and every guard that crosses Aveline’s path. In a game about assassins, stabbing dudes with hidden blades wins out every time over static money management.

Liberation suffers from the franchise engine at times, too. The developers still have not perfected what I like to think of as “assassin intention.” For example if I intend to have Aveline jump from one spot to another while moving the Vita sticks in a specific direction, yet the game doesn’t get my intention and instead jumps Aveline another direction. To be more specific, during one moment when running from a large group of guards, I had Aveline sit on a bench to blend in with two normal citizens. I watched the large group of guards walk by, except the last one. That last guard turned and slowly walked toward the bench where I was blending. My intention was to quickly stab the guard and then go about my merry business. Instead the game interpreted that I wanted to stab the nice woman sitting beside me and not the guard who was standing directly in front of me. Goofy things like this have been a part of the franchise from the beginning, and they still have not been fixed in Liberation.

AC3 had a large number of glitches, and sadly Liberation doesn’t go scott free either. Fortunately, the glitches are much more minor in my experience and none so mission breaking as insta-fail stealth missions like in AC3. The few glitches that crop up tend to be where items don’t appear in the game even though they show up on the map (collectible treasures are a prime example). Or there are times when I was expecting an NPC to appear in a location (specifically to pick pocket him for a VooDoo doll), yet the NPC was nowhere to be found.

The worst glitch in the game though (and I’m not sure if you can call it a glitch versus poor design and implementation) is how missions handle secondary objectives. In AC3, when a mission began secondary objectives would be listed below the main objective. Miss or fail the objective and it would flagrantly stick out in red like a sore thumb until the mission was over. In Liberation, some–not ALL mind you–of the secondary objectives will flash at the beginning of a mission and be removed from the HUD. I imagine that the secondary objectives are removed from the screen to help reduce the amount of visual clutter on the Vita’s screen, which I appreciate. What sucks, though, is when a mission has two or three stages to it and once the first part is completed, secondary objectives for the second or third stages don’t appear on the screen. UNLESS YOU FAIL THEM. Yes, that’s right. You have no idea that there are secondary objectives to attempt to meet on later stages of a mission, unless you miraculously finish them without realizing they are part of the game, or you fail them. At which point they show up in red like a sore thumb.

Good God I hate how Ubisoft has gone down the rabbit hole of “gamifying” missions by forcing secondary objectives in this franchise. I understand it to some extent. The games are fairly easy. The stories are typically compelling. Adding extra gamification provides extra incentive to folks who want to experience and re-experience certain moments of the game. Except more often than not the “assassin intention” issue I mentioned above gets in the way of making the gamification fun. A prime example of this for me is fairly late into Liberation. A mission out in the bayou requires Aveline to “escort” a cargo boat through the swamp. Stationed on the boat as it moves through the bayou, I’m confronted with enemy guards shooting down at the boat from the shore. So I switch to my pistol and shoot one of the guards. First secondary objective strike flashes in red: “Use only melee weapons to kill guards.” What? I’m on a fricking boat. You want me to jump off the boat and kill the guards while the boat keeps moving? Fine. So I jump from the boat to a branch and take out one or two guards. By the time I dispatch them, the boat has moved on too far for me to just jump back in and keep moving so I jump into the water and try to swim back to catch up. Now a second strike against me flashes on the screen: “Don’t swim.” What the fuck?!? I’m on a boat. Boats move best in water. You want me to kill enemies without using a gun, which means I must kill up close. Fine, but if the boat gets too far away you can’t swim in the water to catch up to the boat. Meanwhile all of these secondary objective shenanigans are being prompted to me after the fact while a “known” secondary objective keeps flashing on screen: “Don’t let the boat’s health drop below 50%.”

So basically to make the mission “fun” by adding secondary objectives, I have to do the opposite of what I’d instinctively do. All for the sake of making a game more game-like. This is seriously the worst example of “gamification” I have encountered throughout the entire franchise. Overlooking all the minor glitches this game has, this one moment proves that making a game into more than what it already is just destroys all sense of pacing and “in the moment” atmosphere that had been building up to that point. It breaks the illusion of what had up to that point been really enjoyable. Seriously Ubisoft, stop putting this shit into your games.

Missing somewhat from AC3 were the hidden glyphs left by Subject 16 and the substory that if followed, allowed for some fun conspiracy theory head scratching fun. Liberation brings a little bit of that fun back with the inclusion of Citizen E. During certain cut scenes, the Animus appears to shimmer and glitch out. At a later point during missions where those glitched cut scenes play out, Aveline has the chance to use the assassin Eagle Vision to seek out and kill Citizen E. Doing so unlocks the shimmery glitch from the past cut scene to reveal the true conversation. These moments don’t necessarily offer any deep reveal, but give a sense that Abstergo is forcing a narrative in one direction, while someone else has hacked in and wants to reveal the truth that Abstergo is hiding. This minor touch is one of greatest additions to the title and helps to propel the mythos of Assassins fighting Templars beyond just the characters you play inside the Animus.

One final thing I want to talk about is the inclusion of a multiplayer facet. While the past few titles in the franchise have included full on real-time combat, Liberation provides a fun asynchronous multiplayer component that is simple, yet deceptively addictive. Incorporating the GPS data of the Vita, multiplayer in Liberation pits Assassins against Templars in regional “card game” combat. Players start out with a few character types found within the single player story and select cities around the globe to either attack or defend from the opposing faction. Once a character card attacks, they have to wait a specific amount of time for their energy to become restored. Direct conflict with other characters has a 30 minute refresh period while attacking economic targets requires only a 10 minute recovery. As attacks are performed, each character card has the chance to level up their skills. Once all nodes in the world have been captured by one faction the game resets and combat starts anew. This type of asynchronous multiplayer is perfect for the Vita as it doesn’t require a constant connection and provides a quick diversion while playing the main story.

Aside from my griping about the secondary objectives being a problem (not just with this title but the franchise as a whole), AC3: Liberation truly is a great experience. The story and growth of Aveline was more compelling to me than Connor’s in the larger console title and the game explores the moral ambiguity of which side is better, the Assassins or the Templars, to almost the same success that came about with Haytham and Connor. But the real gem of this story comes from the social examination of slavery and ownership. Obviously America outgrew the belief of owning slaves and viewing one racial group as property, but Liberation helps explore this dark moment in history with a strong female lead who can hold her own with any of the male assassins who have come before her.

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Pros:
+ Strong female lead character
+ Different personas allow for approaching tasks in multiple ways
+ Fun Assassin’s Creed combat on the go
+ Unique and addictive asynchronous multiplayer

Cons:
– Poor secondary objective implementation and explanation
– Combat and parkour can be janky, just like the console titles
– Weird glitch with collectibles not appearing
– Ship trade mini-game is not fun

Game Info:
Platform: PlayStation Vita
Publisher: Ubisoft
Developer: Ubisoft Sofia
Release Date: 10/30/2012
Genre: Action/Adventure
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1 (2-64 asynchronous multiplayer)
Source: Game purchased by reviewer

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About the Author

Tim has been playing video games for more than 20 years. He manages to find time to game in between raising three kids and working as a network administrator. Follow Tim on Twitter @freemantim.