It could have been the same. Ubisoft could have quite happily pared down a version of Assassin’s Creed III and squeezed it on to the Vita. A little draw distance trimming here, a drop in polygons there, and it may not have been the prettiest looking adventure but it would have no doubt kept the punters happy.
So it is to their massive credit that Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation is a completely fresh and different take on Assassin-Templar universe. A game that plays to the series’ strengths, utilises the console in a couple of interesting ways, and comes up with its own unique approach. The most prominent of which is Liberation’s protagonist.
Aveline de Grandpré is a former slave in New Orleans, taken in as a youngster by a well-to-do couple and raised as their own as a Lady. Though this chance at a better existence sees her hobnobbing with the town’s high society, she eventually chooses to lead a double life; out in the Bayou another former slave has taken her under wing and taught her the ways of the Brotherhood.
Looking back at previous assassins they have all been somewhat one-dimensional, but here the social and political setup of Aveline’s situation opens up layers to explore. It’s a potential that, whilst not fully utilised, lends itself to a twisting story and a does come across heavily in the gameplay. You no longer run around town exclusively in your peaked hoody like some homicidal adolescent, there’s scope to meander through the streets dressed in your best frock, creep through the worker districts with barely a glance in your direction disguised as a slave, or go balls out – so to speak – with her assassin’s outfit.
What this leads to is a unique approach to taking on missions, whereby picking the right outfit tailors you either for a covert mission or an all-out assault. Early on you’re asked to sneak into a ball. Dressing as the respectable Aveline will see you able to enter through the front door; your slave persona will be able to enter through the servant’s quarters. The third option of course requires a more stealthly approach, silencing witnesses as you go, but the concept is a great one, opening up Assassin’s Creed to be so much more than a series of dramatic kills from rooftops with your hidden blades. It adds a freshness that the annual franchise has, in my mind, been needing for a couple of years now.
The core of the series is still intact however. Missions still revolve around either tracking down a person or some evidence or disposing of them. Though there seems a reduction in the amount of killing our Assassin partakes in. Most of the sequences end up in one large hit at the end but many of the preceding missions are about building up the tale of the continent, about the new Spanish Governors and the slave trade, fleshing out the world a great deal and bringing out the unrest of the period
Between the main quest and the numerous sidelines available, bloodlust will be satisfied. Informers and business rivals have to be eliminated. Though how is generally up to you and what outfit you’ve a penchant for, a new subtle subgoal for each mission helps add diversity. A kill is a kill, but it may suggest you kill them through an exploding barrel, or that you dispose of them with not a soul setting eyes upon you. It’s a little addition but one that help demonstrate the number of ways a single task can be approached and the relative richness of the world.
And nothing has been lost of that richness in packing it onto a Vita with each of the three main hubs taking up a sizeable piece of land. New Orleans has houses, shops and dock fronts, all there to free-run over or meander through, pick pocketing the unwitting. The Bayou is a murky swampland dotted with homesteads, through which you’ll find the trees your fastest route from A to B. In both, the free-running is still as accomplished as ever, and navigating the initially disorientating system of trunks and branches soon proves easy as your eye picks out certain landmarks. At times it’s almost too simple, as you scale a synchronisation point with barely a second thought, but it’s a balance that has to be struck and it’s clear that the studio opted for elegance in movement over anything else.
At ground level you’ll find the streets bustling with people. Most are there just to add character to the city, nonetheless there are also guards and mercenaries that pay you close attention if your notoriety level is high enough. Once upon a time, this series set the benchmark for cinematic combat, now, post-Batman, the scuffles you enter into never feel as though they have a sense of jeopardy. Assailants will queue up one by one to attack you, and the counter is so simple to execute that execute you will and even the supposedly weak Lady persona has little trouble in seeing off large mobs. It’s not bad by any stretch, but by current standards it promotes stealth on the pure basis of not wanting to be engaged again in another melee battle.
It’s only one of a few missteps Liberation takes. There’s a poorly thought-out trading game that takes far too much time and investment for relatively poor payouts, a distinct lack of replay or freeplay options, but they do little to tarnish an otherwise solid portable outing. Even the Vita specific controls, that of pick pocketing through touch screens, unearthing secrets by shining light through classified documents, and marking targets for your pistol, are all welcome additions rather than forced mechanics.
Assassin’s Creed fanatics will find everything they expect from series packed into Liberation. Practicing parkour over the rooftops of New Orleans, silencing elevated guards before plunging down to street level to send their target to parley with their maker. Those wanting a departure from the formula will find it with Aveline’s alter egos, the interesting historical settings, and the distinct lack of Desmond.
The apparent freedom offered to Ubisoft Sofia to create an entry in the series that continues to carry the torch and yet make their own mark has paid dividends. Liberation has emerged and instantly become one of the flagship titles for the system.