The Assassin’s Creed series has a long and celebrated history, but the handheld side-games in its ranks have not always fared as well as its flagship titles. Previous attempts such as Bloodlines and Discovery on the PSP and DS respectively have tried hard, but never really reached the level of recognition of their console brothers. Liberation, the day-one release side title to Assassin’s Creed III, is definitely a step in the right direction, with a much more well-rounded and cinematic feel more in line with the series’ core values.
In addition to being released on a new handheld system, Liberation also has both a new lead character and approach to the game’s setting. Liberation is introduced as an entertainment product release by the anonymously evil Abstergo corporation, with no link to Desmond Miles or the modern-day Assassin troupe. You play through the life of newly introduced female Assassin Aveline de Grandpre, the noble daughter of a French diplomat in 1700’s New Orleans. Born to a white father and an African mother, Aveline lives a rich life — but that doesn’t stop her from stabbing a bunch of people in her spare time.
As a character, Aveline has many facets that have previously been unexplored by the Creed games. She is a far more light-hearted character when compared to Altair, Ezio or Connor, often joking with her allies in-between mission cutscenes. This is a welcome change to the eternally-serious and often vengeful male Assassins of games past (but we’ll try not to take that as a commentary on men in general!). In addition, Aveline is able to use her ethnicity and gender to approach the world in three distinct guises — the Assassin, the Lady and the Slave. Each role is critical in certain missions, and each gives Aveline different ways to approach her surroundings.
The Lady doesn’t have access to the traditional free-running parkour skills the games are known for (not surprising in her giant froofy dress) and can be confronted by NPCs from poorer castes of New Orleans society, but can bypass guards with charm or bribes. Passers-by or soldiers can be conned into fighting for her, but she still has her hidden blades if it comes down to it. The Slave persona attracts attention for disgressions more quickly, but can blend with other civilians or carry crates to remain unnoticed by guards, as well as being able to parkkour with the best of them. The Slave also has mid-level combat ability with access to hidden blades and small weapons, and blowpipe darts to take down enemies form a distance. Finally, the traditional Assassin persona has a full array of weapons and abilities, but always has a baseline alert level for guards – they will always spot her and pursue, leading to combat if you’re not quick to move on. Mixing and matching between these three roles can vary the game experience greatly, and truly makes you think before you decide how to approach a goal.
Story-wise, Liberation follows Aveline as she navigates New Orleans and the Bayou in search of her mother, and answers for the mysteries surrounding the Spanish occupation of New Orleans. One of the great things in this title is that all the major players are actually female — our protagonist, the leader of the Bayou smugglers and Aveline’s step-mother, who often helps her smuggle slaves out of the city to freedom. Male characters generally act as supporting cast or antagonists, presenting an interesting take on gender roles in 18th century America; whilst officially the men are in charge, the women are the ones pushing the story’s events forwards.
An interesting dynamic is added in that there are “glitches” present in some of the cutscenes that are revealed to be moments of the story cut out by Abstergo to obscure the truth — references to the Templars are eliminated entirely, until they’re uncovered by a mysterious hacker going by Erudito. This name may be familiar to those who played the Facebook companion games for Assassin’s Creed II, where he/she played a similar role. In this case, Erudito (Italian for ‘truth’, by the way) introduces Citizen E to the simulation — randomly encountered NPCs who unlock the missing chunks of story when murdered. Whilst these missions are optional, they reveal a true ending to the game, beyond that unlocked by simply completing all the memory sequences. Other side missions seem more a diversion than any great contributor — I wasn’t able to figure out whether they changed much in the game environment.
The game definitely isn’t perfect, however — there are bugs to be found, and some awkward gimmicky controls which are always common when a platform like the Vita is still fairly new. Occasionally objective markers would not activate, or enemies would not react correctly to attacks. Whilst reviewing the title a patch was released however, and these issues mostly seemed to settle down. Of greater inconvenience were the gimmick controls; occasionally you’re forced to pickpocket someone by tenderly stroking the rear touchpad, or discover a hidden map on a letter by pointing the Vita’s camera at a light source. In both cases the controls are a little clunky and unresponsive, and in the case of the letters not very well explained. These uses of the Vita’s inputs feel forced, and somewhat untested for their reliability. In one case I was actually stuck on a story-critical mission purely because the game would not acknowledge my pickpocketing attempts… When the same function is achieved on the PS3 merely by HOLDING DOWN THE CIRCLE BUTTON, I’m at a loss as to the need for the change.
All in all the game is quite an enjoyable experience — the draw distance of the world is very impressive, even though the New Orleans/Bayou maps are much smaller than Assassin’s Creed III‘s maps out of necessity. At no point does the game feel stunted because of its platform, and I found the characters as equally engaging as those of their larger-game counterparts. I cross my fingers in hope that Aveline will return in future titles, or at the very least that Ubisoft will continue to explore additional Assassins’ stories. I wouldn’t mind more time as this particular French Assassin lady-pirate, though.