Review by anaximenes
Best served as an appetizer for other Americas-based AC games
Assassin's Creed: Liberation is an unusual entry in the Assassin's Creed franchise. It was originally designed for the handheld PS Vita (shortly after ACIII released for the PS3/Xbox 360), and given that many AC fans have never had access to a Vita, it could not originally be developed as an essential component of the Assassin's Creed saga. And yet its gameplay was mainstream enough that it could not be discarded as a negligible spinoff title such as, say, Altair's Chronicles. The net result: it was ported to PS3/Xbox 360 as Liberation HD with a graphical upgrade, allusions are made to its main character (Aveline) in later titles, and yet its story can be entirely ignored without losing sight of the main AC continuity.
Here is the basic skinny on Liberation: If you come to it having played more recent titles like Black Flag, Rogue, or Unity, you will almost certainly find it hard to come back to. It does have its share of bugs, it is rather modest in its scope (for an AC title), and the production values are low. On the other hand, if you're just starting out on the Americas portion of Assassin's Creed, or if you want a light sampler of the AC franchise, you can get plenty of enjoyment out of this game--so long as you don't come into it with high expectations. I certainly did.
What follows are some justifying details.
Anyone familiar with the Assassin's Creed franchise knows that AC titles always have two narratives--a historical narrative centering around some assassin of an earlier era and a meta-narrative set in the present day. The main continuity for the franchise centers around its meta-narrative. So, how does one fit a meta-narrative into an AC title that is not supposed to play an essential role in the saga?
Ubisoft's solution is clever. The player is inserted into the meta-narrative while the game is loading. After the familiar Ubisoft logo splashes on the screen, we see that the game is brought to us by "Animus...powered by Abstergo". Those are glaring code words for any AC fan. Presumably the game itself has been created by the Abstergo corporation, which is a front for the modern day Templars. And presumably it has been manufactured by making use of the Animus--a device which can capture genetic memories concerning assassins of yesteryear. And yet, not everything you play is quite an accurate portrayal of what really happened during the historical events being narrated. Throughout the game, you will have opportunities to uncover the truth that Abstergo does not want you to see.
The historical narrative is set in 18th Century New Orleans and its environs (with a couple brief jaunts to Chichen Itza, Mexico). For once, the assassin protagonist is female. This generates another little puzzler. How can you have a female assassin in a patriarchal society, up to the typical assassin-style antics of previous titles, without abusing historical credibility? Again, Ubisoft's solution is pretty clever.
In a first for the franchise, Aveline has three different personas. She is racially mixed and has a foster family of means; as a result, she can "pass" as a rich socialite (fancy dress, parasol and all), but can also wear the attire of a slave. In either role, she can perform violence from a position of stealth, but in each case, with a set of limitations. When in "Lady" persona, she is athletically limited--she cannot climb buildings, for instance. (On the other hand, she has access to a wicked, stealthy parasol gun.) When in "Slave" persona, she is limited in her arsenal (she can't go walking around with a sword or a pistol), and while she can climb buildings, any time she is caught doing so, her notoriety meter goes up. But Aveline also has an "Assassin" persona, where she is fully armed, rather like the male assassins of other games. But unlike those other assassins, she cannot pass as an unnoticed blade in the crowd. A female in military attire (in this society) is bound to attract attention, and so she will always have at least some notoriety while in the Assassin mode.
This is my catch-all category for graphics, sound, ambiance, story, the size and structure of the game's world. The basic question to ask here is this: Is the world created by the game a compelling place to be?
My basic answer is "yes," although it's certainly not the best the franchise has to offer. The main plot is a bit of a hackneyed confection of several different subplots sewn up together. Ultimately, the plot does build to an engaging climax, but you have to work more than you should if you want to follow the main story arc. The music is good, but the voice acting varies between mediocre and laughably poor. There are some graphical glitches, and there are some places where the game's handheld origins are visually apparent.
Nevertheless, it is easy to enjoy the atmosphere of the three varied hub areas. Of course, as an urban setting, colonial New Orleans can't hold a candle to well-developed European cities in other AC titles. Those other cities have centuries of unique history and architectural marvels. Colonial New Orleans has neither. Still, I enjoyed walking its streets, the dynamics of which do change at times with the historical events narrated. The city has a harbor and a fort, some fine mansions and churches, which stand out in contrast to poorer and industrial areas, and a plantation just outside its walls. The game also supports a very small but intriguing area among Mayan ruins in Chichen Itza.
But the real star of the show is the bayou. The bayou is a large open area of wooded wetlands, populated by the occasional alligator (and other wildlife), navigable (more or less) by canoe, and supporting various forms of intrigue. The viewpoints in the bayou are the best in the game, and they typically involve working your way to the top of very tall trees. The trees also offer some of the best parkour opportunities in the game--both for simply getting around the bayou and for dropping in on enemies during missions. The bayou is home to an enemy fort and lighthouse, a small village, a smuggler's camp, and your mentor's hut, and you'll encounter other interesting features in your wanderings. It is true (as others have complained) that the viewpoints fail to uncover much of the bayou map, but since the map unfogs wherever you go, and since the bayou is fun to explore in its own right, you'll find the map unfogging naturally as you play.
Add in some unique areas that you explore in a handful of main missions, and Ubisoft has--per usual--developed an interesting AC world to discover.
So far, so good. But what is there to *do* in this world?
For a Vita crossover, quite a bit, actually. The main missions are a bit hit and miss--sometimes they can be drab affairs, but other times they will be inventive, taking good advantage of the terrain, and sometimes taking you to new terrain entirely. The game offers a wealth of sidequests as well. Most of these are pretty simple, although they can sometimes surprise you. Many sidequests are persona-specific, as Aveline will have special tasks to complete in each of her three different guises. And many sidequests allow you to purchase shops across New Orleans (or even the bayou), which in turn provide reduced prices and a place to conduct a business mini-game.
This mini-game is the analogue of brotherhood missions in the latter Ezio titles or the fleet missions in Black Flag and Rogue. This time, however, it's a more peaceful affair, as your goal is simply to send your ships on trade routes along the Gulf of Mexico, and later, the Atlantic more broadly. This activity can become pretty engrossing, and it ultimately becomes your primary source of revenue for the game.
As has become standard for AC titles, Liberation is chock full of collectibles. Most of these seem like filler, providing content without a whole lot of innovation behind them. Others are more interesting--forcing you to battle gators, or to solve minor environmental puzzles, or to take on a camp of bad guys, for instance.
Combat in the game is quite simple for the most part. Your enemies very politely take turns attacking, at which point you can counter. Some enemies are more dangerous than others, but none are particularly challenging. While the developers would have you believe that combat is easier in the Assassin persona (and indeed, your health meter is longer when playing as Assassin), it is easy enough in most any persona. Smoke bombs continue to be an easy way of getting out of trouble. Unique weaponry in this game includes the parasol gun (in Lady mode), but especially the whip--which is useful not only in combat, but occasionally in parkour as well. All in all, however, combat in Liberation is not particularly different from other AC games.
Despite the variety of things to do in the game, this is easily the shortest of all the AC titles to make it to major consoles. Even if you're taking your time, you can easily full sync the thing in under 25 hours.
I have heard complaints that Liberation is horribly buggy. I find these complaints to be exaggerated, but not entirely groundless. I encountered my first bug in Sequence 2, when my canoe got hung up on a corner of an island in a scripted sequence. I often ran into graphical glitches when entering a shop, as if Aveline were walking right through the door. These were minor affairs. But there are also more annoying bugs: some shops, even when purchased, still functioned as if I did not own them, and even if you collect every chest in the game (including ones hidden away in certain missions), according to the bugged menu, the most you can collect is 92%.
Indeed, the DNA menu is full of strange quirks. You can buy every dressing chamber in the game (and have the trophy to prove it), but be told you have only 99% of them. (You can get around this by replaying Sequence 1 Memory 7, by the way.) There are some activities to do in the game--Bayou Fever missions and Smuggler missions--that don't even show up in any form in the menu. And for each kind of mission in the game (Business Rivals, Ship Crew, you name it), the menu never tells you a percentage of that type completed, so you cannot be certain whether you've fully completed that activity without consulting a guide. Indeed, if you're a completionist type, I'd heavily encourage you to consult a guide or two, to keep up on your progress--including what collectibles you've nabbed. I rather like the FAQ by LiKuid Fox on this site, and the good folks at ps3trophies.com have some very good stuff as well.
Make no mistake--Assassin's Creed Liberation HD is *not* a high quality game. Its ambitions are modest, its development is sloppy in certain respects, it has its share of empty filler, and its story is inexpertly developed. But if you keep your snobbery in check, you just might find yourself enjoying it. That leaves the question of *who* is likely to enjoy the game.
The folks at Ubisoft clearly think of Liberation as the game you play immediately after Assassin's Creed III. There is logic to this, if you want to follow the main plot slavishly--after all, if you want to maintain the flow of the Desmond story arc, you would not want Liberation to interrupt the narrative continuity between Revelations and ACIII. Nevertheless, I think that anyone who follows Ubisoft's recommendation will likely find Liberation to be a bit of strange little appendix to tack on to the end of the ACIII saga. ACIII has a much bigger, much more impressive world, and coming to Liberation will feel like a bit of a letdown. In addition, Liberation has an almost entirely independent plot, and it does nothing to spoil the plot of ACIII.
For these reasons, I think that Liberation functions best either as a light introduction to AC for the uninitiated, or as an appetizer for the other much more substantial and impressive Americas-based Assassin's Creed titles (ACIII, Black Flag, and Rogue).
Rating: 3.5 - Good
Product Release: Assassin's Creed Liberation HD (US, 01/14/14)
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