You can’t fault Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation’s ambition. Ubisoft Sofia’s sprawling PlayStation Vita exclusive not only faithfully repurposes the free-roaming elimination escapades of its console counterparts, but through the corrupt recollections of mysterious protagonist Aveline de Grandpré it also attempts to imbue the franchise with something new. Frustratingly, a lot of the spin-off’s most fascinating ideas are unfathomable at the best of times.
In an industry that’s devoted to the whims of focus groups and feedback forms, Liberation is an unfortunate outlier. The portable parkour simulator underlines the advantages of play-testing, as it consistently fails to communicate its most complex gameplay systems and plot points. Persevere with the pocketable quest and you’ll eventually find plenty to admire about its ambitious approach – even if the narrative ultimately succumbs to its unnecessarily complex aims.
Indeed, the tale of love child Aveline is merely the surface context for Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation’s gameplay. Ditching modern day protagonist Desmond Miles, the plot is instead presented from the perspective of shady Templar organisation Abstergo. The conceit is that the game – the one that you’re playing – has been constructed as light historical entertainment by the antagonistic corporation. As such, Aveline’s actions are at the mercy of an unreliable narrator. But, as you progress through the game, it transpires that the software has been hacked by an Assassin force, granting you access to the real events of the turn of the century drama if you can locate and eliminate a handful of mysterious NPCs named Citizen E. Are you keeping up?
For as clever as the set-up is, you’ll spend the majority of your time with the title pondering what is actually going on. Unexpected twists, a seemingly never ending list of adversaries, and poor writing culminate to create one of the most baffling plots in years. And yet, there are moments where Liberation shows signs of brilliance which tease what the title could have achieved with a little more restraint.
Indeed, while the overarching fiction fumbles its way through layers of science-fiction mumbo jumbo, the developer tends to forget that it has a fascinating protagonist at the heart of its adventure. Aveline is sincere, likeable, and most importantly unique – but the plot never even bothers to answer the most basic questions about her background. There’s additional information hidden in the game’s customary narrative database, but it fails to delve deep enough into the character’s origins as an Assassin. As such, for all its ostentatious ideas, it fails to explain even the most rudimentary elements of its plot.
Fictional faults aside, though, Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation is an enjoyable adventure to play. All of the bells and whistles from the franchise's home console counterparts have been faithfully converted for this handheld release, prompting an impressive on-the-go experience. Sprinting across the rooftops of 18th century New Orleans feels as functional here as it does on the DualShock 3, while breathing down the necks of gullible guards is a particular treat.
In scaling the experience down for portable play, Ubisoft Sofia has sacrificed some of the series’ more recent bombast, which results in a purer experience than the superfluous activities of filler entry Assassin’s Creed: Revelations. That could be perceived as a negative, but Liberation feels more focused than any of its more recent peers as a result. It turns out that the title’s snappier missions and simpler objectives are welcome respite for a series that’s arguably been expanding in the wrong areas for the last couple of entries.
That’s not to say that the handheld release doesn’t have its own share of optional side-quests and mini-games, but they are much more interestingly implemented than Ezio’s short-lived turn at tower defence. One particular highlight includes buying and trading goods in an economy management simulator that’s far more addictive than it deserves to be. Careful transactions provide an easy method of accruing cash, although unfortunately there’s not a lot to splash it on in-game. Still, we appreciate the inclusion all the same.
Liberation’s biggest gameplay evolution is its implementation of the personas system. Like the rest of the title this is agonisingly under explained, but it breathes new life into the series’ tried and tested stealth gameplay. Dressed as a slave, you can blend into groups of workers in order to slip into high-profile areas. Meanwhile, the lady form allows you to charm or bribe unsuspecting guards and take a more direct approach. The final guise available is the traditional assassin form, which gives you access to all of your weapons and skills.
Switching between these three distinct outfits allows you to approach missions in different ways, though there are occasions where the game will expect you to do things in a specific manner. This is most evident at the start of the title, where you’re forced to play as each of the personas for a set span of time. Some may find being restricted to the lady form – which is unable to run very fast or climb – an exercise in their patience, but it all depends on your tolerance for sloping through the streets of New Orleans at a barely brisk pace.
There’s certainly no shortage in visual interest to keep you motivated as you shuffle through the city’s alleys and shopping districts. Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation is a staggering visual experience, packed with crowds of people, animals, and interesting architecture. At times the emphasis on texture detail prompts the game to chug as the Vita struggles to load in all of the appropriate objects, but it’s a small price to pay for the title’s incredible graphical achievements.
Things get even more impressive when you eventually venture into Louisiana’s bayou area, a swamp-like bog populated by murky puddles and dense foliage. Climbing through the trees demonstrates the outstanding number of animations in Aveline’s portfolio, and it does feel appropriately liberating as you dash from one mission objective to another, clambering through the woodland and waters.
Aveline is appropriately equipped in combat too, with an arsenal of blow darts and whips about her person. In truth, the poisonous blow darts make staying concealed a bit easy, but there’s something supremely satisfying about making an enemy hallucinate by simply targeting them from the tree-tops above. The whip is similarly useful, as it allows you to pull enemies in close. Unfortunately, the melee combat itself is still slow and clunky – though that’s a trait shared by the main series.
You can change weapons by tapping the screen, which is one of Liberation’s more useful Vita exclusive interactions. Other attempts – such as holding the system up to a bright light in order to reveal the text on a mysterious document, or using the console’s gyroscope to guide a ball into the centre of spherical puzzle – prove much less successful. The latter, in fact, is one of the game’s most infuriating moments, as you’re forced to wrestle with the console’s motion sensors in order to progress through the main storyline. Pick-pocketing with the rear touchpad feels fine, as does hitting the touch screen in order to automatically target foes for Aveline’s slow-motion special attack.
The title’s complemented by a sweeping score with some truly memorable motifs, but its quality is undone by some awful sound compression on the dialogue. Conversations sound tinny, as do some of the ambient sound effects, which break the illusion of the aforementioned visual presentation. The voice acting is particularly poor too, with forced accents and disjointed deliveries adding to the audio’s woes.
Outside of the primary single-player campaign, you’ll uncover a separate multiplayer experience which sees you attempting to capture and defend global nodes as the Assassins or Abstergo. Its asynchronous, social game-inspired origins make it a perfect fit for portable play, but Ubisoft Sofia’s inability to effectively communicate the mode’s rules make it another infuriating exercise in trial and error. We’ve spent a fair few hours with the mode now, and while there’s something compulsive about sending your characters out to capture real-world destinations in a Top Trumps-esque fashion, we can’t confidently claim that we know what we’re doing. At least the obligatory Near implementation is a touch more understandable, allowing you to trade artefacts found in the single-player campaign with friends and those surrounding you via GPS.
In many ways, Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation is suppressed by Ubisoft Sofia’s own outrageous ambitions. The plot meanders between ingenious and incomprehensible, sadly settling on the latter for great chunks of the single-player campaign. The gameplay is recognisable and confidently recreated, and there are moments when Aveline’s pocketable adventure threatens to outdo its console counterparts – but the experience is mired by a communicative murkiness that’s not entirely unlike its depiction of the Louisiana bayou’s bogs.