Sony's PlayStation Vita boasts some impressive specs, but a lack of compelling software has thus far meant slow system sales. In fact, as of the last financial quarter, the Vita had yet to surpass the Nokia n-Gage in units sold. Sony has tried to address the issue by promoting Cross Buy, a scheme where purchasers of select PS3 titles would get the Vita version for free, but that doesn't address the root of the problem, as the free games are still just ports.
Thankfully for Sony, Ubisoft decided to forgo Cross Buy with Assassin's Creed III and instead create an entirely original (and from what we've seen so far, an entirely kickass) spin-off title for the Vita. We spent an hour last week playing through one of the early sequences in Liberation, and it was difficult to think of it as a "portable" game. Based on what we saw, Liberation is just as deep and packed full of content as any major PS3 or Xbox 360 game on the market.
The star of Liberation is Aveline, a female assassin with a mix of African and French ancestry. Unlike Altair or Ezio, Aveline isn't wholly down with the authority thing. While she generally follows orders, this assassin tends to do things in her own way and on her own terms. Even with limited time spent playing the game, it was easy to see that Aveline is a character all her own, and she's definitely one we would like to get to know better.
As far as gameplay is concerned, everything you've come to expect from the Assassin's Creed franchise is here. You have wide latitude in taking out enemies, with various melee and ranged weapons at your disposal. When fighting in close combat, each of the weapons feels different. For example, using the tomahawk makes for brutal, close-in hits (and a satisfying thud when it connects), while the sword offers up more elegant combat. A counter system discourages button mashing, instead requiring you to use proper timing to gain the advantage.
On the ranged side, we quickly fell in love with Aveline's blowgun. The default dart is a great way to silently kill a selected foe, though the "rage" dart is the one you'll probably want to use all the time. Fired like a normal dart, the "rage" dart sets whichever enemy it hits on a murderous rampage. Taking out a group has never been more painless.
Maneuvering through the world is just as painless in Liberation as it is on the console versions of Assassin's Creed. Aveline moves just as deftly through the rooftops as she does the city streets. You still have to be on the lookout for guards when you're wanted, but having the option to move both vertically and horizontally makes for plenty of escape routes.
One aspect of Aveline's character that promises to add a new twist to the adventure is her ability to change into a new outfit. Aveline can adventure in the standard assassin's gear as well as wander around as a lady or a slave. Changing outfits can only be done in selected locations, but it is by no means superficial. When Aveline changes, her abilities and weapons change, as do the manner in which other characters interact with her. For example, when she's dressed as a lady, the guards may defer to her as a member of the upper class, making it easier to access certain areas. She's not quite as mobile while in fancy dress, however.
If Liberation is going to make any missteps, it is likely going to be in the area of catering to the various Vita-specific input features. Some of them, like the touch-screen weapon selection, are useful and don't really intrude into the game. Others, like using the back touch-screen to paddle a canoe, are more annoying than anything else. It's moments like these where the controls feel tacked on just to hit a bullet point rather than being implemented because it was the best option. Thankfully, there appear to be standard button equivalents for most of these, so you can safely ignore anything superfluous.
After making it through an adventure with Aveline, we shifted over to play some Assassin's Creed III multiplayer on the Xbox 360. When the first thought that crossed our minds was, "Why isn't Aveline a choice on the console?" we realized how impressive the Vita game really was.
Our time with Aveline may have been brief, but in that hour, she left quite an impact. Assuming the full Assassin's Creed III: Liberation experience is just as polished all the way through, Ubisoft may have done what Sony couldn't: created a Vita system seller. Keep an eye on Liberation, even if you aren't currently a Vita owner.
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