In my mind the PlayStation Vita has been struggling for sometime now. While the mighty pocket-sized console has seen a handful of decent games, it has been a long time since we saw a triple-A title where players can immerse themselves in a rich story-driven campaign.
Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation has all of the credentials to change that. For starters, it’s a spin-off from an acclaimed franchise with high production values and a solid gameplay engine. Also, the game offers a whole new story arc and introduces a completely new lead character, both of which have been exclusively created for Sony’s handheld.
Liberation takes place in the city of New Orleans between the years 1765 to 1780 – a timeline that is shared with its bigger sibling, Assassin’s Creed III. New Orleans is vast and spans from the busy, disjointed streets of the city right through to the swampy wilderness of its neighbouring bayous. As you would expect from an Assassin’s Creed title, the attention to detail is stunning, and acts as a good example for what the Vita can truly deliver in terms of visuals.
The game also marks the first ever female lead in the Assassin’s Creed franchise. In Liberation players will take control of a female assassin known as Aveline de Grandpré, a woman from a poverty stricken childhood who is discriminated against because of her mixed heritage. Recruited into the Brotherhood of Assassins, Aveline becomes a freedom fighter for the people, and soon becomes entangled in a political uprising driven by treachery and greed. The game even manages to deal with some heavy ‘race issues’ and the sexist prejudice that ran rampant in the 18th Century.
As previously mentioned, Liberation has all of the hallmarks of being a must-have Vita title. Unfortunately, there are aspects of the game that prevent it from living up to the high standards of its predecessors. While Ubisoft deserve a high-five for their technical achievement in delivering an Assassin’s Creed experience in pintsized form, they have taken some obvious shortcuts in the graphical department. There are times where the game looks stunning, such as when perched atop a structure observing the streets below. But when on the ground running through these same streets, the framerate drops significantly and an all-too-obvious blur effect dampens the visual impact.
Control wise, Liberation takes full advantage of the fluid, single-button movement that made Assassin’s Creed so enjoyable. Holding down X and using the analogue stick sends Aveline running, climbing and jumping across the rooftops of New Orleans like a nimble gazelle. Even the combat controls, which introduce new weapons such as a whip, work just as they should – allowing the user to counter-attack, evade, and kill with ease. Fans of the original games will be pleased to hear that throwing smoke grenades, assassinating with your hidden blade, and taking out long-range targets with a pistol are just as satisfying in this portable form thanks to the dual analogue sticks.
However, like so many Vita titles, Liberation falls victim to the ‘forced interactivity’ mechanics that the hardware seems to demand. Often throughout the game you’ll need to paddle a boat or pick-pocket passer-bys using the rear touch-pad. Or worse yet, use your ‘Finger of Death’ to mark enemies for an animated sequence where you can simply sit back and watch Aveline automatically dispatch multiple targets at once. It looks great, but being able to pause the game, tap on the screen and ‘instantly win’ seems to take all of the fun and excitement out of the experience.
While these touch controls are optional, the same can’t be said for the minigames that pop-up every now and then. Such as having to hold your console up to a light source to decode a message, or rolling a marble around on screen to solve a puzzle using the tilt controls. They’re cute and function just fine, but they distract from the core gameplay and come across as a ‘novelty’ by the end of the game. Although it should be noted that the touch screen UI is utilised beautifully for navigating the menu and map screens, and these are a joy for your fingers to swipe and tap away at.
One of the better additions to the gameplay isn’t executed as well as it should be either. Liberation introduces the concept of costumes, where Aveline can change her garment to help aid her in certain missions. For example, she can dress in rags to look like a slave girl, which means she can easily blend into crowds and her comfortable (albeit a bit crappy) duds allow her to climb and run efficiently.
Meanwhile, when dressed as an upper-class aristocrat, her cumbersome flowing gown and expensive frilly hat restricts her movements – but she is now able to grace past male guards and enter areas without raising an alarm. The concept of disguises is something that would work beautifully in Assassin’s Creed, but in Liberation they are used in a preset manner, often forcing you to play in a particular garb for certain missions. Again, the novelty of them wears off fairly quickly and this feature would work better with a wider range of costumes - combined with the freedom to choose any to suit your need.
Despite these niggles, Liberation is a great little add-on to Assassin’s Creed III. More importantly, it’s inspiring to see developers creating a whole new identity to their handheld spin-off, rather than just rehashing the same ‘big console’ experience. Ubisoft promised a “full Assassin’s Creed experience” with this Vita release and it comes extremely close. Where it falls short is mainly in terms of the depth of story and character development, as players will never really feel emotionally engaged with Aveline. But this can be easily justified due to the handheld format where frequently players want to access the action quickly, while on the go.
Often they don’t have time to sit around and watch a ten minute cinematic, so the story-telling is consequently watered down in Liberation. Following on from this the load times are also nice and brief, all of which makes it a good “pick-up and play game,” while still maintaining plenty of depth. From start to finish, you’ll get a solid ten hours of gameplay, with at least another two hours to further explore unlocked content afterward.
The multiplayer extends the value out a bit more, but unfortunately takes the form of a turn-based ‘domination mode,’ which plays out like a strategic game of Risk, with cards and a world map. It’s a completely different experience and sadly, you won’t be able to run around assassinating fellow Vita players as seen in Brotherhood (for instance.)
It will take a truly dedicated fan of Assassin’s Creed to require both versions. But for Sonyphiles, one extra incentive is that Liberation includes exclusive content for owners of Assassin’s Creed III on PS3, including a new mission featuring the other game’s protagonist, Connor Kenway. For those who can’t get enough, Liberation is a handy portable companion to Assassin’s Creed III, but it is definitely a lighter experience both in physical form and in terms of content.