It’s an indication of just how much faith Ubisoft has in the PS Vita that it’s willing to create an entirely new Assassin’s Creed adventure for the format. This isn’t some tacked-on side quest featuring one of the franchise’s established heroes, but an all-new outing built from the ground up to take advantage of the unique features of Sony’s handheld. Sadly, Ubisoft’s enthusiasm is largely misplaced, as Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation never soars to the heights it deserves to for a multitude of easily avoidable reasons.
Set during the same time period as Assassin’s Creed III and boasting some neat crossover with Connor’s home console adventure, Liberation focuses on the story of African-French heroine Aveline de Grandpré, a fledgling member of the Brotherhood of Assassins and the daughter of a former slave. The setting is arguably one of Liberation’s strongest elements, and during the course of her quest Aveline will face such thorny issues as racism and slavery, making it one of the first videogames to give a real insight into the history of America’s slave population. Such a stance is commendable, but Liberation does a sloppy job of fleshing out this volatile and fascinating period of human history; the chance to address troubling elements of America’s past are largely squandered or shoved aside in order to facilitate the less exciting mission assignments.
For the most part, Liberation manages to nail the Assassin’s Creed feel when it comes to controls and general gameplay. Leaping from rooftop to rooftop is just as exhilarating as it is in the home console releases, and the Vita’s dual-stick arrangement means that nothing is compromised when it comes to the interface. Combat retains its depth and challenge, although there are a few moments when attacks don’t connect properly or the auto-targeting fails to function as it should do. On the whole, though, the developers deserve praise for managing to scale down the experience of previous Assassin’s Creed entries for the handheld format.
Liberation’s biggest innovation is its ‘persona’ mode. The ultimate form of concealment, the three personas in the game allow Aveline to switch from deadly Assassin to a seemingly harmless lady of leisure. There’s also a slave costume, which maximises Aveline’s ability to blend into the surroundings and move unseen by attentive eyes. The concept behind these costume changes is solid, but the way in which they’re deployed in the game is disappointingly cautious. Rather than allow the player to approach each mission in their persona of choice, Liberation forces the selection upon you. Later in the game a little more freedom is afforded, but there are numerous assignments that make you crave the opportunity to tackle them in a slightly different fashion to how the developers intended.
Like so many early Vita titles, Liberation has an unhealthy preoccupation with making use of all of the console’s unique functions, irrespective of whether or not the gameplay suffers as a result. The front and rear touch panels are used at various points, the most jarring being the opening of a letter. The mechanic is abysmal, and rather than drawing the player into the game further, it serves as a massive barrier to immersion. Other elements, such as a tilt-based mini-game and a section that uses the Vita’s camera to illuminate items, are similarly botched. Hopefully, in the not too distant future, developers will realise that just because elements are present in the hardware, they don’t have to be consistently used in the software.
It’s obvious that a lot of effort has gone into rendering 18th Century New Orleans, and there are moments in the game – usually when you’re perched atop a tall building – where it looks genuinely breathtaking. Sadly, when you’re closer to the ground, which is for the majority of the game, the graphics are somewhat less striking. Liberation suffers from crippling frame rate problems, no doubt exacerbated by the densely populated environments and proliferation of buildings and additional elements. Other visual problems further erode the sense of immersion; it’s not uncommon to witness a character skating awkwardly across the landscape, caught in some kind of spasm caused by buggy animation.
Aside from a strangely vacuous multiplayer mode, which sees you battling other players for control of a map but never actually engaging in any gameplay beyond tapping the screen, Liberation offers little else to keep you occupied once Aveline’s mission is complete. A rudimentary attempt is made to make use of the Vita’s ‘Near’ networking system, but it’s piecemeal at best and won’t interest many players.
It’s a real shame that Liberation is saddled with so many problems, because protagonist Aveline is worthy of a better game than this. Hers is a complex and multifaceted story, which shines a light on one of America’s most troubling legacies, but the game’s narrative never carries through on this promise with the conviction that is required. Aveline becomes little more than a puppet, making it hard for the player to invest any kind of emotional attachment. It’s a wasted opportunity to give the Assassin’s Creed series an additional layer of historical depth, and is compounded by the technical problems and the tiresome need to incorporate Vita-specific features, which hinder rather than enrich the experience.
While Ubisoft’s commitment to the struggling Vita format is to be applauded – the console is in dire need of exclusives of this calibre – Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation lacks the lavish quality of its big-screen relatives. Hardcore fans will not doubt be more forgiving and will quite rightly warm to the game’s feisty heroine, but she deserves a better vehicle than this to showcase her talents.