Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation is the most ambitious Assassin’s Creed handheld game ever attempted – and it’s also the best. Fitting a console-quality Assassin’s Creed game into a tiny game cartridge is no easy task, and while Liberation has its faults, the overall package is quite impressive.
There have been plenty of attempts in the past to create portable Assassin’s Creed experiences, such as the many Nintendo DS and iOS spin-offs, and the PSP-exclusive Bloodlines, but none of them have the ambition or scope of Liberation. The PS Vita-exclusive game is the first full-fledged Assassin’s Creed game, designed from the ground-up to be as large and as deep as any of the main console entries. All the series staples are here including a historical open-world setting, free-roaming movement, rich graphics and voice acting, and a fluid combat system.
Despite retaining the fundamentals of the Assassin’s Creed series, Liberation takes strides to separate itself from the pack. Most notably, the game stars the series’ first female protagonist, Aveline de Grandpré, born from a wealthy French business man and an African slave mother, in 18th century New Orleans. Just like Assassin’s Creed III on consoles, the story of Liberation takes place as the American Revolution is heating up in the north, though the focus of Aveline’s story is heavily placed on historical events in Louisiana where Spanish forces are posing a new rule.
Aveline’s set-up is interesting and engaging: having lost her mother to the slave trade at an early age, she enters the Assassin’s Brotherhood aided by her mentor Agaté, an escaped slave, in attempt to free her people and her land from the invading Spanish forces. Aveline leads a fascinating double life as a stealthily trained assassin in the Brotherhood while also maintaining a highly visible position in society as the daughter of a wealthy merchant. Aveline's affluent upbringing plays a central part in her story, as she takes full advantage of her privileged status to mingle with high society to gather intelligence or assassinate key players.
Further differentiating Liberation from past Assassin's Creed console games is that this is the first to eschew the story of Desmond Miles, who has tied all previous games together, in favour of a story told from the perspective of Abstergo Industries, the organization that serves as a front for the Knights Templar (the sworn enemy of the Assassin's Brotherhood). The Liberation story is, in essence, a propaganda training tool used to educate Abstergo trainees, which recounts the life of Aveline yet purposely distorts her history to show the positive aspects of the Templar movement, while also depicting a disorganized Assassin’s Brotherhood. The concept is fresh and opens up some interesting possibilities for future Assassin's Creed titles beyond the formulaic Desmond bloodline titles.
Throughout the ten chapters of Liberation, which takes 10-15 hours to complete, Aveline will visit a range of historical locations such as a gorgeous, recreated 18th century New Orleans, the swampy Louisiana Bayou, some ancient Mayan ruins, and she even has a cross-over with Assassin's Creed III's Connor Kenway (but I won't give away any spoilers). Each location has its own visual flair, from the tall New Orleans' cathedrals and coastal shipping docks, to the Bayou treetop hideouts and smuggler camps, and graphically it's all very impressive.
The standout new feature in Liberation is Aveline's ability to don different personas depending on the specific situation at-hand. She can use her high society upbringing to transform into the "Lady", outfitted in flowing dress and a feathered wide-brimmed hat, to charm guards or work her way into high class affairs. Using her "Slave" persona, Aveline can blend in with street workers by carrying boxes or sweeping with a broom, and at times she can also incite riots. Finally, the familiar "Assassin" persona controls exactly like Altair, Ezio, or Connor, giving Aveline the ability to free-run/climb, use of all weapons and perform her full range of combat moves. The persona mechanic does add variety to the gameplay; however, it is a bit disappointing that far too often, especially early on, the game forces you to choose a particular persona in order to complete the mission, taking away the opportunity to strategically approach situations from different personas.
Another differentiating factor between the three personas is that each has their own notoriety meter, and each gain notoriety in different ways. The Assassin persona is very quick to gain the attention of nearby guards, and it's more difficult to reduce notoriety once gained (nearly the whole game my Assassin has some level of notoriety). On the other hand, the Lady gains notoriety very slowly and has to kill eyewitnesses if caught performing a suspicious act. The Slave is a balance of the two, gaining a medium amount of notoriety for questionable acts, with notoriety reduced through the tearing down of "Wanted" posters.
Gameplay in Liberation is a slick as you'd expect from a full Assassin's Creed game. With the PS Vita dual-analog sticks, the console controls translate very well, from the free-running to vertical climbing to hand-to-hand combat, everything controls as you'd expect. There was the odd time that I missed a landing or had Aveline perform an unintended move, but these rare blunders happen at about the same frequency as they have in any previous Assassin's Creed game (so not very often). Liberation incorporates the new Tree Navigation system, also seen in Assassin's Creed III, which allows Aveline the ability to effortlessly hop along the treetops, which is especially fun to do during the heavily forested Bayou missions.
Aveline has a wide range of weapons to choose from, from the common Assassin hidden blade and sword, to the new sugarcane machete, poison-dart blowpipe and whip. Weapons are selected using an easy-to-navigate weapon wheel, and can be done using manual controls or the PS Vita touch screen. There are some new motion controls moves, that range from the intuitive slow-motion chain killing (think Splinter Cell marking) to the imprecise and downright aggravating pickpocketing (done using a swiping motion on the rear motion pad). Thankfully, most of the motion control moves can be done using the regular input buttons, so you rarely have to swipe the touch screens.
Missions in Liberation are the usual type: investigatory, escort, stalk, rescue, and assassinations. Sure we've done it all before, but at least Liberation varies the objectives enough that they don't feel repetitive like in the original Assassin's Creed. There is plenty to see and do beyond the assigned mission, such as completing challenges of the "defeat
No review would be complete without mentioning the asynchronous multiplayer game, however it really wasn't my cup of tea. The premise is bit like the boardgame Risk, with opposing Assassin/Templar teams attacking and defending nodes on a real-world map. You don't actually control any of the action, but rather make strategic decisions to dispatch your Agents to war or home defense. Once deployed, battles take place in real-time, over the course of many hours, with the team who sent the more powerful force after time runs out winning the node. I can see the multiplayer being the occasional diversion, but long-time appeal seems limited.
For the most part, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Liberation, but there are a few bleak spots. By the conclusion of the game I was disappointed with how little of Aveline's backstory was given (the timeline jumps from her as a child to full-grown adult without much about her evolution as an Assassin). There's also some draw distance graphical problems, with far away buildings covered in slight haze, which is especially noticeably when Aveline climbs up the panoramic View Points to perform the signature Assassin's leap of faith. Also, in very rare situations I noticed a drop in the framerate, mostly when Aveline is dashing through crowded city streets or in combat with multiple enemies.
Assassin's Creed III: Liberation is a superb attempt by Ubisoft to squeeze every bit of quality of a console game into a handheld experience. The small number of technical faults are not enough to detract from the hours of enjoyment that are contained in the lengthy campaign. With plenty of hidden items, side quests and mission challenges, there is plenty of replayability with Liberation. Assassin's Creed III: Liberation is a great addition to the PS Vita library and will keep you entertained for as many hours as its big console brethren.
Assassin's Creed III: Liberation is available now, exclusively for PS Vita. The game was developed by Ubisoft Sofia and published by Ubisoft Entertainment.
Assassin's Creed III: Liberation is rated M for Mature by the ESRB.
[This article originally appeared on the Future Shop Tech Blog]