Review by DDJ
Why upgrade the graphics without fixing the bad, glitchy gameplay?
Review in Brief
Game: Assassin's Creed goes to colonial New Orleans to free the slaves and uncover an ancient relic.
Good: Some interesting new ideas; a fantastic twist on the frame story; the series' best music.
Bad: Glitchy; disjointed gameplay and plot; incoherent story; frustrating game world; lazy sidequests.
Verdict: A year after the original release and it's still a glitch-ridden mess in nearly every way.
Recommendation: Skip it.
"Why upgrade the graphics without fixing the bad, glitchy gameplay?"
After a solid first release and an even better follow up in Assassin's Creed II, the Assassin's Creed franchise was caught in a downward spiral for the next several releases until a franchise savior in the form of Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag. I previously regarded Assassin's Creed III as far and away the franchise's low point, a glitch-ridden, poorly-designed mess of a game that entirely wasted some of the richest source material the franchise has attempted to use. I wouldn't go so far as to say Assassin's Creed III: Liberation is even worse, but it certainly reinforces the third generation as by far the weakest in the franchise.
For some reason, though, Ubisoft decided the game still deserved an HD release on the full consoles. In a way, I understand the decision: Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag builds directly on the revised frame story seen in Assassin's Creed III: Liberation, and from that perspective it makes sense to attempt to bring the game more attention than the Vita's limited audience can provide. The significantly lower price also serves to cover some of the game's flaws: at $20, it's unfair to come into the game expecting an experience that can compete with the big Assassin's Creed releases.
When reviewing games, I think it is important to compare games against what they themselves attempt to do, and the value they attempt to provide in doing so. No one would compare Angry Birds to Assassin's Creed for example, but a polished game with solid, if simple, gameplay and loads of content for $1 is superior, in my opinion, to a state-of-the-art AAA release that is nonetheless overloaded with glitches, obvious gameplay flaws, and poor design choices for $60. In the case of Assassin's Creed III: Liberation HD, the game might only cost $20, but it fails at providing value for that price and at realizing what it itself set out to achieve.
That's bad in and of itself, but here's what makes it inexcusable: this is an upgraded rerelease put on sale over a year after the original game. That's an entire year of players playing the game and encountering glitches and bugs. That's essentially an entire year of beta testers for the console release. And yet, when Assassin's Creed III: Liberation HD is finally released, it is completely packed with glitches and fundamentally bad gameplay design. The game was modified compared to the original with updated graphics, so why not fix some of the glitches while you're making changes? And if these glitches weren't present in the original release, then the fact that they were introduced in the console release is even more unforgivable: how do you set about porting a game to a more powerful console and yet somehow make it worse?
Set in New Orleans in the colonial era, Assassin's Creed III: Liberation follows Aveline, a young black girl who has been adopted into a rich white family (although the specific details of her lineage remain murky throughout the game). At some point in her past, she joined the Assassins, and now spends her days living two lives: one as a well-to-do aristocrat and the other as an assassin, occasionally disguising herself as a slave to try to work towards freedom for the slaves. As with all Assassins, she finds herself swept up into the conflict between themselves and the Templars, even as it seems like their interests occasionally align. Aveline must navigate these tricky relationships to find the fate of her true mother, a secret artifact from the First Civilization, and the truth about her family members and fellow Assassins.
In terms of gameplay, Assassin's Creed III: Liberation is a relatively straightforward implementation of the mechanics that have been used through the series. A third-person action-adventure game with significant stealth elements, Assassin's Creed III: Liberation tasks you (as Aveline) with assassinations, reconnaissance, and other missions around New Orleans and the surrounding bayou. Head-to-head combat is largely melee-based with a heavy emphasis on blocking and counter-attacking. Outside of open combat, there is a significant stealth focus. Typically you can remain incognito, but fighting and killing will raise your notoriety, causing guards to attack you more quickly in the future. Within missions, you can also remain undetected by moving around rooftops, hiding in bushes, etc.
Assassin's Creed III: Liberation does add a few new twists to the Assassin's Creed formula. The major one is the persona system: Aveline can take the persona of either a slave, an assassin, or a lady. Each has its own notoriety meter, each has its own way of decreasing notoriety, and each has its own skills and limitations. The lady, for example, can charm enemies but cannot free-run, while the slave can free-run but cannot wield heavy weapons. Each persona can reduce each other's notoriety, so if you achieve high notoriety as a slave, you can reduce that notoriety as an assassin. The other major new additions include a chain kill system, which allows for a powerful attack to kill multiple enemies, and a new trading-themed minigame.
Assassin's Creed III: Liberation HD does exactly three things well. It's an Assassin's Creed game, so it has all the free-running, jumping, assassination gameplay we have come to expect, but after a half-dozen releases that isn't exactly impressive on its own.
Interesting New Ideas
Coming into Assassin's Creed III: Liberation, one criticism I anticipated having was that the game does not attempt to anything new for the series at all. It's the series' first release on a truly modern handheld (sorry, Nintendo DS), and as such it might have been content just to be a prototypical Assassin's Creed game and let its portability be its selling point. That might be fine for the PlayStation Vita, but it would represent precisely no reason to place Assassin's Creed III: Liberation HD for the PlayStation 3.
However, the game does try to change things up a little bit. There are the usual expected new elements, a new cast and a new city, but there are also three gameplay variations that are significant additions to the franchise. The first, as described above, is the persona system. Aveline can take the personas of a slave, a lady, or an assassin, and each has its own strengths and weaknesses. The assassin has all the combat abilities, but she is inherently a little more notorious. The slave gains notoriety quickly and cannot use heavy weapons, but she can also blend in with other slaves and enter restricted areas. The lady cannot free-run or use either heavy or light weapons, but she gains notoriety much more slowly and can charm or bribe enemies.
The notoriety system likely experiences the biggest impact of the persona system, and while the notoriety system is still absolutely awful, the persona system at least adds an interesting element to it. Each persona has its own notoriety level, and each persona loses notoriety a different way: the lady through murdering "witnesses" to her transgressions, the slave through ripping down wanted posters, and the assassin through bribing officials. The three ways are directly copied from the earlier games, but the mapping of one method per persona is new. Most notably, any persona can lower the notoriety of any other persona, so if you become notorious as the slave, you can rip down wanted posters as the lady. That means if you become notorious, you no longer are essentially trapped in an endless battle trying to find an official to bribe or poster to destroy, solving one of the major weaknesses in the original Assassin's Creed III.
There are also numerous missions and sidequests that are specific to the different personas. One major quest line involves going to a slave camp away from New Orleans, which requires you to be in the slave persona. Another requires you to infiltrate a party, which mandates use of the lady persona. These add some interesting twists to the gameplay in Assassin's Creed III: Liberation. Ultimately, I think they are underused, but at least they're present, and inject a little intrigue into the stupid notoriety system.
The other two main additions are considerably more lightweight. One is a chain kill system that essentially allows you to execute a multiple-enemy counter-attack without waiting for more than one enemy to attack at once. It doesn't add much, but it's at least something new beyond what I expected. The other is the trading minigame/sidequest, which is reminiscent of the dispatch missions in the latter Assassin's Creed II games and the trading screen in Assassin's Creed III. Like most of the other systems, it isn't well-designed, but it is also considerably less complicated. Where the trading system in Assassin's Creed III was so overly complex with such an intractable user interface that it was effectively useless, the system in Assassin's Creed III: Liberation is straightforward, which helps disguise the interface inadequacies.
Fantastic Twist on the Frame Story
In my review for Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, one of my big points of praise was for the reinvention of the frame story, moving away from Desmond and toward a fantastically meta portrayal of Abstergo as a video game developer and the Assassin's Creed games as their releases. We know that Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag was already in development prior to Assassin's Creed III, and it shows with the frame story in Assassin's Creed III: Liberation. From the beginning, you discover that Assassin's Creed III: Liberation is a game within a game: Abstergo has "developed" Assassin's Creed: Liberation, but altered its portrayal of history in ways that become clear as you move along.
In the case of Assassin's Creed III: Liberation, it actually does not add all that much, but in many ways that is exactly what makes it a smart direction in which to move. The frame story has never been the engaging part of Assassin's Creed (although it was certainly an excellent piece before it jumped the shark around the time of Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood), and with the new twist on it seen in Assassin's Creed III: Liberation and Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, a much more sustainable formula is available for justifying numerous new games in different time periods without retconning the original story.
Of course, I wouldn't complain at all about some retconning if it got rid of the stupid First Civilization plot. Assassins vs. Templars throughout various arenas of history is more than enough to carry a franchise.
The Series' Best Music
I usually don't comment on games' music in my reviews because honestly, not many games have music that really stands out. I think it's silly to rate the music and sound in every single game, as many reviewers do, because in 95% of games, it neither adds to nor detracts from the game.
Assassin's Creed III: Liberation, however, is one of those rare games where the music actually does add something to the game. The background music is memorable in many places, occasionally reminiscent of Final Fantasy VII and some of the other great soundtracks. It's the first time in the Assassin's Creed series I can remember the music particularly standing out at all. It is varied throughout the different settings, typically matches the scene or action at hand, and enhances what little meat there is in the plot sequences.
The flaws in Assassin's Creed III: Liberation are incredibly bad on their own. When you take into consideration the fact that the game was released once already, giving the developers a chance to fix the problems, those flaws become unforgivable.
I don't know what it is about the Assassin's Creed series that makes it so perpetually prone to glitches, but if I were to think about the constants throughout the series, the glitches rival the gameplay elements. Looking through my old reviews, glitches were one of my biggest complaints about two of the Assassin's Creed II games and Assassin's Creed III. At least Assassin's Creed III: Liberation stays true to the series, then: it's as glitch as any of them.
Let's see, what glitches did I encounter. There was the time when the game kept replaying the "interference" effect that takes place before and after missions, forcing me to reboot. There was the mission to investigate a clue where the investigate action would never trigger, forcing me to restart the mission from the beginning. There was the battle where Aveline froze in place at the beginning, unable to move or act. There was the whip swing, required to get through certain sections, that apparently will only trigger if you seduce the controls with a sacrifice to the almighty god of the L1 button. There was the "new hat available" message reappearing nearly every time the game returned to the open world after a mission. There was the time "Find Agate within one minute" stayed on screen for ten minutes after I'd actually found Agate. There was the alligator that insta-killed me while I stood on the shore. There was the battle that continually retriggered (playing the sound effect and moving the camera) every second for the duration of an entire battle. There was the wanted poster that kept reappearing immediately after being torn down. There were the dozens of enemies that were never marked on the map, but appeared the moment I stepped out of line.
But if I had to choose one glitch to rant about most, it's the tutorials. When you have the tutorials enabled, they appear as somewhat unobtrusive boxes in the top right. Generally they're easy to ignore, except when something new appears it's natural to glance up there. That's the point, after all ? it's supposed to get your attention. That would be fine... if a tutorial message didn't appear every five seconds for the entire game. Tutorial messages appear about everything, but especially to direct your attention to the sidequests. One sidequest, for instance, tells you to charm certain people to get certain brooches. This tutorial message appeared for me every time I walked around the city, as any persona, at all times. In theory, a tutorial message should only appear at the beginning, not throughout the game. Even if it's going to appear throughout to remind you of a skill or ability, it should only appear when it's contextually relevant. But, no. It appears all the time, everywhere, even when there is no such target anywhere nearby.
90% of what the tutorial tells you is redundant, unnecessary, or even inaccurate. It continually reminds you to lower your notoriety even when there's a tiniest little sliver of notoriety above zero. It tells you that R1 allows you to free-run while free-running. It's hardly ever relevant. So the logical solution is to turn off the tutorial. But that won't work either: the tutorial gives you information that you absolutely need in lots of situations. For example, disabling the tutorial disables the alert that a target of a projectile weapon is out of range. It also tells you when a whip swing is available, which are barely visible without the alert. So, disabling it is out of the question, but leaving it enabled is infuriating.
I don't think I went five minutes throughout the entire game without encountering a significantly impactful glitch. Companies have gotten lazy about glitches with the availability of downloadable patches, so it might stand to reason that these glitches will be fixed in the coming weeks... but this is a game that came out a year ago. They've had the time to fix the glitches. Instead of fixing them, they just upgraded the graphics and rereleased it, glitches and all.
I've seen the word 'disjointed' tossed around by others to describe Assassin's Creed III: Liberation, and it's an accurate descriptor in more ways than one. While the glitches contribute to this to a large degree, even without them the game still feels very disjointed throughout.
Half of this comes in the gameplay, or at least facets of the gameplay the drive the overall progression of the game. The missions within the game seem to be plopped in out of nowhere, and there's little gameplay continuity behind what happens before, during, or after a mission. Many missions are started in one location that immediately teleports Aveline to somewhere else. Many others jump around within the mission. At the end of most of the missions, Aveline is teleported to a random, unconnected place. Oftentimes, this involves a random costume change as well from one persona to another. While most open-world games have the continuity of starting a mission where the icon lies and leaving the player wherever they end up upon its conclusion, Assassin's Creed III: Liberation seems to use the game world just to plop random icons to launch separate mission routines. There's no gameplay continuity through the game world and missions.
Another gameplay piece of this is that the mission objectives are often arbitrary and unconnected to what little plot exists in the game. For example, in one mission, you are tasked with staying undetected while tailing an enemy. As soon as you complete that phase, though, your task is to jump down and kill the enemy. Nothing is said between the portions of the mission, so why not just kill the enemy earlier? It seems like the game has a quota of certain types of missions to include, so it just drops them in at random. There's the collecting missions, tasking you with going to random waypoints around the area and pressing square to collect a belt or trigger a riot or something. There's the tailing missions that rarely seem to actually give a point to the tailing beyond the fact that the text says to. There are the stealth infiltration missions where you could easily kill all the potential enemies on your own. There is, of course, the obligatory race mission, and it's as bad as ever. Overall, there's no context given to the missions; they're just dropped in out of nowhere.
Of course, that reflects something about the plot as well. The plot is not nearly coherent enough to actually do a good job justifying and contextualizing different missions in the first place. I'll get to the overall incoherence of the plot in a bit, but this applies to the actual progression of the game more narrowly and significantly. The scenes within the plot do not flow from one into the other at all. It is never clear at the conclusion of a mission what the next step in Aveline's journey ought to be, nor is it clear at the beginning of a mission how it relates to everything that has come before it. The scene seemingly jumps around relatively at random, pushed forward merely by Aveline's attempts to find some character known as the "Company Man". There is no discernible pattern to the narrative, which means the gameplay comes across as a series of disjointed mission icons to be crossed off your checklist.
But let's talk about the plot a little bit more. The plot of the game is utterly incoherent. There are approximately a dozen characters, and the game drops references to the plans that the different characters have, the backstories and relationships among the characters, and the different intersections between the plots, but absolutely none of it is fully developed. The scenes perpetually come across as a series of entirely disjointed mini-episodes that lack anything tying them together. Characters react in unpredictable ways to different events, which suggests that there are stronger relationships underlying the game than it ever really lets on. The betrayals and twists in the game lack any substance because there was no momentum in a different direction in the first place; you can sense that the game expects you to be shocked (given that Aveline herself is shocked), but you're not entirely sure what you're actually supposed to be shocked about.
It's a frustrating problem because for what little we see of the characters, they actually do seem interesting. Aveline is one of the more interesting protagonists in the franchise, arguably second only to Ezio (Altair and Edward were serviceable, but not terribly memorable on their own; Connor is just awful). The game does the female protagonist well, avoiding significant sexualization while still preserving her femininity. The other female characters in the game are similarly strong, and the men seem interesting on their own as well. But without an underlying narrative to really weave the characters together, it's impossible to really get a sense for how interesting the characters are. They're largely wasted on the game's completely incoherent story.
Frustrating Game World
Assassin's Creed III: Liberation has a surprisingly big game world, I'll give it that, but the game world loses a lot of its value based on how bland and frustrating it can be. The game world is divided into three parts: New Orleans, the major city; Chichen Itza, a slave camp Aveline can only access in disguise; and the bayou, a big uncivilized area analogous to Assassin Creed III's wilderness. The bayou is massive, which would be good if it weren't for several major problems: first, it is very difficult to navigate. It's mostly rivers and water separated by small pieces of land, meaning that slow swimming is the main way to traverse it; canoes are available, but they're rarely in the right place, and even when they are they're still not nearly as fast as free-running would be. Second, there is no fast travel within the bayou: you enter it at one point, and from there have to run everywhere. Third, the high points don't actually reveal everything in the bayou; much of the map remains hidden, including lots of sidequest elements. Fourth, and most problematically, what little there is to do in the bayou is spread out incredibly. That means that to complete everything in the bayou, you have to largely manually swim around the entire map to find all the sidequest icons, an endeavor that takes forever and isn't fun at all.
The problem with the highpoints, however, applies to the rest of the game as well. For the first time in the Assassin's Creed franchise, both Assassin's Creed III and Assassin's Creed III: Liberation do not reveal all the sidequests when you view all the highpoints. In Assassin's Creed III, this was a minor problem as relatively few areas were not revealed. In Assassin's Creed III: Liberation, it's an enormous issue. Aside from chests and a couple of the mission-based sidequests, none of the sidequests are revealed through the highpoints. The game has a lot of sidequests, from pickpocketing voodoo doctors for voodoo dolls to charming wealthy men for brooches to beating up muggers for Assassin's coins, but none of them are revealed to you. To find them all, you have to go running around the city aimlessly hoping to come within a block of one of them to trigger that irritating tutorial notification and see the icon on the minimap when you're already right on top of it. Or, you can just look up a map online, but that still involves going back past the ones you already hit because there's no way to know which you're missing because the icons don't appear on the map. It ultimately mirrors the bayou problem a lot: to finish the sidequests you have to spend a lot of time just aimlessly running around.
On top of that, the game world that you have to spend so much time running around is bland in and of itself. There are few notable areas within New Orleans; it's mostly just a collection of randomly placed copy/pasted buildings. There's no broad organization to it besides a fort in a corner and the harbor on one side. There's no fast travel within it, so if your next mission is randomly dropped on the other side of the map you have an arbitrary three-minute run to get there. The bayou is massive, but it's all effectively the same: random trees forming pathways around the branches, miscellaneous islands, etc. Even Assassin's Creed III did this better: the burned-out parts of New York, the different areas of the wilderness, the openness of the homestead; the game world was at least varied and dynamic. In Assassin's Creed III: Liberation, it's incredibly bland.
Part of the reason the game world is so bland, however, is that one of its typical functions is to contextualize and position the game's sidequests. That becomes a problem in the case of Assassin's Creed III: Liberation because of the...
Above I vented about the way the game portrays its sidequests, but even if it did that better, it wouldn't save the fact that the sidequests are awful in and of themselves. The late Ethan Schaeffer coined the term 'Assassin flags' to refer to the original Assassin's Creed's sidequests surrounding just collecting random flags from the game world. This kind of sidequest is usually defined by little to no story explanation given for its purpose, little to gain besides a token unlockable or achievement, and little involved in actually executing the collection of the items. For example, the random items found throughout the Uncharted games could be called Assassin flags: they have no plot significance, they're not hard to get when you see them, and they have little reward associated with them. They're just a Skinner box; you press A at the right time and get rewarded with that nice pleasant bell chime.
Generally, Assassin flags are a lazy way to do a sidequest, but they're excusable because there's nothing forcing you to do them; as long as they're not the only sidequests available in the game, they're acceptable. In Assassin's Creed III: Liberation, however, they're basically all there is. There are a couple sidequests that involve completing actual missions, but they only involve a small number of missions and the missions themselves are very short (and they, too, have no story justification whatsoever). The vast majority, however, are merely collectibles: go to a certain place, press a certain button, the end. There are lots of these: diary pages to pick up, alligator eggs to steal, Mayan statuettes to grab, Assassin coins to plunder, brooches to woo from wealthy gentlemen, voodoo dolls to pickpocket, pocket watches to purchase, and mushrooms to pick. Beyond those, there are a few additional missions: freeing slaves, helping pirates, defeating rivals. These are slightly more compelling, but they are not sufficient to be the game's entire side content.
Open-world games only work if the world is compelling, dynamic, and full of activities to complete. The game world in Assassin's Creed III: Liberation is bland and sparsely populated, and what little population it has is not engaging at all.
Having looked at the graphics of the original Assassin's Creed III: Liberation, it is safe to say that Assassin's Creed III: Liberation HD represents a worthy graphical upgrade. Graphically, the game is worth the $20 downloadable console release. However, in every other way, the game does not measure up to either its price or to what it itself tries to achieve. It is full of glitches, the gameplay is lacking, the narrative is incoherent, and what few good elements it provides are mitigated by a matching set of flaws. It has some interesting new ideas, but it doesn't use them nearly enough. It gives a refreshing reinvention to the frame story, but here that's little more than a three minutes of extra scenes. The music is great, but you're not going to keep playing longer just to listen to the music more.
As a rerelease, some of these flaws weren't going to be fixed in Assassin's Creed III: Liberation HD. I wouldn't have expected them to rewrite the plot or make fundamental changes to the gameplay. It still would count against the game, of course, but it would be forgivable. However, most of the issues could easily have been fixed for the rerelease. The glitches should have been fixed with a patch for the original game, so the fact that they're still here (or newly introduced) in Assassin's Creed III: Liberation HD is absurd. It would not be difficult to add some more dynamic side content as well, such as the contract missions (actually I believe some side content was added in just this way, but not nearly enough). The result, however, is a game that is far too flawed to be worth the price and contributes nothing but confusion to the Assassin's Creed universe.
Definitely skip it.
Rating: 2.0 - Poor
Product Release: Assassin's Creed Liberation HD (US, 01/14/14)
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