Now that I've finished both Assassin's Creed III and Assassin's Creed III: Liberation, I find myself disappointed in both titles, but for completely different reasons. AC3 offered up all the size, scale and graphics that I was craving from the game. The well-realized, outdoor environment saw me bounding from tree to tree in an early America setting. While the game had some frame rate issues, I can't fault its presentation, but the other elements — combat, side content, and story — were a mess. Liberation is nearly the exact opposite. It gets the story elements right, Aveline is a much more likeable protagonist, side missions are more akin to Assassins Creed II and its spin-offs, and combat isn't simply about pressing the counter button and winning. Alas, it faces problems on the technical side, and the forced Vita mechanics detract from an otherwise enjoyable, portable Assassin's Creed experience.
Let's start off by talking about the technical issues because there are a lot of 'em. Liberation seems to have an awful lot of bugs and glitches. I've encountered enemies trapped in environmental objects like houses, rocks, trees, etc. I've seen alligators float in mid-air, enemies get stuck in water, sudden deaths and endings to story events that certainly weren't meant to end when they did, and other issues. Some of these problems required restarting missions and checkpoints, which is always aggravating. I've also heard of save bugs, which are either patched now or will be soon, but if encountered — and they often cropped up late in the game — you would lose all progress. Frame rates are a huge issue in Liberation, much more so than in AC3. You'll see Aveline slow to a crawl when she hits the streets of New Orleans and engages in combat with more than a few foes. I love that the city streets have a fair number of citizens milling around, but the loss in stability is tough to bear.
When Liberation isn't bogging you down with bugs and issues, it's a pretty fun portable version of a typical Assassin's Creed experience. Most of what you'd expect to see from the series is intact, unlike other portable offerings found on the DS and PSP. This does, minus a small loss in scale, feel every bit as familiar as any home console offering for the series. You'll have two large environments to explore: the streets of New Orleans and the surrounding bayou. The bayou essentially represents the outdoor area found in AC3 as the frontier, giving Aveline the opportunity to scale trees, bound from branch to branch, and take part in a much more varied setting than a typical city. New Orleans presents the opposite and suffers a little from the boring architecture that I felt stifled New York and Boston in AC3.
Both environments offer the trademark additional content you'd expect to find outside of the main story missions. The additional content here hews a little closer to AC2 and its spin-offs instead of the ill-advised changes found in AC3, giving you more typical assassination side missions, treasure chests and other collectible items to hunt down. The economy system in Liberation is better realized than in AC3 because it didn't overload me with surplus money and nothing to spend it on. Merchants are plentiful, and while the game features the same recharging health system from AC3 so that armor upgrades aren't necessary, the weapon upgrade system is pretty much identical to AC2, so you'll be able to tell the difference when you're outfitted with upgraded weapons.
Liberation has a few unique mechanics. A major gameplay element is Aveline's ability to switch between three different personas, each of which has benefits and drawbacks. The personas typically come into play during story events, which require you to adopt a cultured, posh appearance; don the clothes of a slave; or go out in full assassin gear. The lady persona can't climb structures and doesn't have the combat capabilities of the other two, but she can get past certain guards, charm guards into following her around, and even get them to defend her in a fight. The slave persona is a little weaker than the assassin and doesn't get the full array of weapons but can better blend into environments, often going unnoticed by guards. The assassin persona makes Aveline a force to be reckoned with but constantly comes with a level of notoriety attached, making her more susceptible to wayward glances by guards and more likely to get spotted. It's a fun system that works in the story missions, but it doesn't come into play enough to matter outside of them. It stands out from the rest of the series and gives Aveline a unique quality when compared to Altair, Connor and Ezio.
Unfortunately, other additions to the gameplay aren't quite as fun or interesting. Since the system's inception, developers have felt an awful need to shoehorn every control-specific element of the hardware into the games, and Liberation is no different. There are a few elements that work because they're easy and don't interfere with combat or traversal, like sliding your fingers across the rear touchpad and front touch-screen to rip open a letter. Other elements, like tapping targets and then swiping down the rear touchpad to steal, don't add much context to the game and would be better performed with button presses. I don't understand why there isn't a more traditional option so I don't have to hold my Vita up to a light source to unlock the code on a letter, and these little inclusions are far more frustrating than they are fun or interesting. There's an awful tilt puzzle in the middle of Liberation that, if I weren't reviewing the game, would have made me quit playing altogether. These elements pop up infrequently, but when they do, they ruin any good vibe from the rest of the game.
Players who own this Vita title and AC3 on the PlayStation 3 are privy to exclusive content, including a mission playing as Connor, an in-game version of Connor's tomahawk, a character skin, a multiplayer character and an upgrade of all ammunition pouches. I played AC3 on the Xbox 360, so this wasn't available to me, but the option is there.
Then there's the multiplayer, which is a severe departure from the series' excellent multiplayer since Assassin's Creed II: Brotherhood. I didn't expect to see that carry over here, but the option given in lieu of that system is perfunctory at best. Multiplayer gives you a world map, separated by a series of nodes that are controlled by either the Assassins or Abstergo. When you boot up the multiplayer for the first time, you're given the option of choosing a side, and then the Vita attempts to pick up your home location and advises you to choose a starting point on the map relatively close to where you actually live. This gives you a bonus when you're attacking or defending near home, and it's the only cool element.
The purpose of the multiplayer found in Liberation is to wrest control of these map nodes from the opposing team. To do so, you're given a number of unnamed character archetypes to either attack or defend nodes, depending on whether your team does or doesn't control that particular point. There's little to either system, though. When attacking, you'll choose your combatant and then pick from three preselected opponents. There's a short, two-second silhouette fight, and then you win or lose, gaining points for your victory that go toward your team's total for that node. The gains seem so incremental that you'll rarely see victory in the sense that a node actually turns from Assassin red to Abstergo blue after your battles have concluded. It definitely diminishes the feeling that you're having an effect on the outcome. Defending is even more boring, as it just allows you to station your characters at different nodes and then prompts you to leave multiplayer altogether when finished. You only know the outcome after you return to the game after some time has passed. All in all, the experience feels like a waste of development time that could've been spent fixing the technical issues in the single-player portion of the game.
My gut wants to give credit to Assassin's Creed III: Liberation for being a sizeable, faithful rendition of the Assassin's Creed series on a portable platform. However, I can't overlook the glaring technical issues, and I have a hard time seeing past the forced Vita-specific control gimmicks that mar the single-player campaign. If you're willing to put up with a lot of rough edges, you'll find aspects of Aveline's story to be superior to that of Connor's from AC3, despite the loss of scale in both the literal and figurative sense. I know the Vita is capable of producing better results than this, and I hope that Ubisoft puts some more polish into its next Vita title.
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