The PS Vita's hardware is impressive, but tons of gamers are nevertheless still waiting for a must-have game to justify the purchase of Sony's latest handheld. Today, I must regretfully report that Assassin's Creed 3: Liberation is probably not that game.
Release date: Oct. 30
I wanted to love it. I really did. I already love the way the PS Vita feels and looks, the way its dual sticks allow for decent controls, and the way its touch mechanics can be subtly integrated with traditional controls. And I love the Assassin's Creed series—including Assassin's Creed 3, my review of which is coming later this week.
Liberation isn't a bad game. Aesthetically, it's superb, for a portable. And it's got plenty of good ideas. But many of them, like the "personas" system, are marred by major flaws. As a result, it's just not the best game that it could have been.
THIS TOOK GUTS
Assassin's Creed 3: Liberation more closely resembles its bigger, better cousins on consoles than any past portable spin-off, but its narrative structure is hugely different. There is no present-day frame in Liberation; not in any real sense, at least. The experience is presented as a simulation in Abstergo's newly commercialized Animus, a machine that lets you relive your ancestors' memories. But despite the fact that Aveline, the series' new protagonist, is an Assassin, most references to the Brotherhood and its rival Templars have been "censored" out by Abstergo, the public face of the modern-day evildoers.
So what we're left with is a sporadically interesting and often poorly-told tale about a free black woman helping slaves and killing lot of people in 18th century New Orleans. The game begins with a dream-like sequence showing a young Aveline being separated from her mother and set upon by attackers, then jumps ahead in time to a point at which she's already become an Assassin. A lot happens in between, and though much is revealed here and there throughout the game, it still feels like a huge chunk of the story is missing.
In Liberation's favor, I can't think of many games that star black females or deal so directly with serious topics like slavery. But compared to Assassin's Creed 3, which spends its first five hours just setting up the main character, Liberation can feel downright sloppy at times.
YET IT'S ASSASSIN'S CREED
Narrative gripes aside, Liberation certainly feels like an Assassin's Creed game, if one that's slightly watered down. Aveline's got a full arsenal, including useful new tools like poison darts and a bitchin' whip, and though the series' signature free-running movements aren't as reliable as they are in the console games, everything still feels smooth. That proved true particularly out in the game's bayou environment, where fallen trees mark the beginnings of lengthy and satisfying branch-to-branch running paths.
Combat feels slightly more awkward on the Vita, though for the most part it's fair. Stunning groups of enemies with smoke bombs and strangling them with Aveline's whip as they recover is loads of fun, and sometimes it's nice to simply use Liberation's limited auto-kill mode to tap enemies on the screen and have her do the work for you. It's like a fast-forward for tussles, and while I didn't use it often, I was glad for it when I did.
The real star of any Assassin's Creed game is the environment. While the Vita's versions of New Orleans, the Louisiana bayou, and a small section of Mexican jungle aren't nearly as large or elaborate as Rome or Constantinople in past games, the detail Ubi has packed into them is impressive considering the hardware. And the number of characters Liberation manages to jam on-screen is even more impressive.
THE LITTLE THINGS
When Liberation lets you play it like an Assassin's Creed game, free-running and sneaking around and killing Templars from above, it feels like the game that it should have been 100 percent of the time. Unfortunately, linear missions, awful AI, and some really strange design decisions prevent it from always feeling that great.
One late-game mission could have been challenging if it simply asked you to find a way to distract a nearby blacksmith. Instead, the mission goals become a linear checklist: Pick up that powder keg. Place it right there. Grab a musket. Shoot the keg. MISSION COMPLETE. On you go.
Let's talk about the "persona" system, the elephant you didn't even know was in the room. Aveline has three identities: Assassin, Slave, and Lady. They involve a change of clothes, equipment and abilities, and each has a separate notoriety meter (a "wanted level," in Grand Theft Auto terms). The Slave is a weak fighter, but can run and blend in easily with other slaves. The Lady's even worse in a fight, and can't free-run or jump, but can charm guards. The Assassin has it all, but enemies are automatically suspicious of her.
The first problem is that Aveline can only change personas in designated "dressing chambers," as if any haystack or nearby alley wouldn't work just as well. To compound this, many missions force you into one guise or another. I became stuck on a mission that required playing as the Lady when that persona's notoriety filled up so high that guards attacked her on sight, despite her pretty dress. Every time I turned a corner to kill another witness and reduce her notoriety, there was another pack of guards waiting to pounce. There's no running away as the Lady—she's too slow. So the only option was to fight, sending her notoriety skyrocketing back up. That was a frustrating hour or so.
A side note: besides tapping the screen to open the map and weapon selector, every "unique" PS Vita mechanic involving the gyroscope, camera or touch pad in Liberation is gimmicky and poorly implemented. Please stop doing this, developers.
Let me make something clear: given how ambitious the Assassin's Creed series is, I can excuse the bugs and other problems brought on by the PS Vita's powerful, but still relatively limited, hardware. But add to those the game's narrative issues and mechanics that force you into certain roles and actions—even when they don't make sense—and Liberation is stopped short of true excellence.
That said, I still had a ton of fun with Liberation at certain points, and there's a lot of content in this small package. Nothing approaching the complexity of side quests and diversions in AC 3 proper, but a rudimentary online multiplayer mode (claim nodes on a digital globe) and a Drugwars-like shipping game proved entertaining enough distractions.
And playing as a black woman in a country driven by slavery is certainly an illuminating experience. Whether by design or not—it wasn't always clear—citizens would often attack in packs if I so much as bumped into a male NPC. Groups of them wait in alleyways to grope and harass Aveline. It's really quite unnerving.
I respect Ubisoft for undertaking risky projects like Liberation, and even if it doesn't go down as a system-seller for the PS Vita, you've got to admire its ambition.