Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Assassin's Creed III: Liberation - An Assassin That Needed More Training

At the same time that Assassin's Creed III was released, October 30, Ubisoft released a related game on the PlayStation Vita named Assassin's Creed III: Liberation, which was to focus on a new female Assassin in a different setting taking place at around the same time. This game happened to be released in a bundle with a special white Vita, which I received as a Christmas present. After finishing Metal Gear Solid 2, I immediately jumped at the chance to see how Liberation played on the Vita, only to find it lacking in quite a few areas.

Assassin's Creed III: Liberation follows the story of Assassin Aveline de Grandpré in New Orleans near the end of the French and Indian War. As I don't own the manual or the game box, since the bundle just has the game with a 4GB memory card between two pieces of plastic, I must garner the basic premise through other means. From what I gather, Aveline uncovered a plot by the French governor Jean-Jacques Blaise d'Abbadie, who made a deal with the Templar Rafael Joaquín de Ferrer to stay governor of New Orleans. Following this, Aveline trails someone known as the Company Man while also assassinating Templars for some reason or another.

I'll be honest, I'm not really quite sure how the story is supposed to go even if I read a plot summary of it online. Unlike the tale of Connor Kenway in Assassin's Creed III, Aveline's story has almost no narrative flow, since her goals and motives change constantly. During my playthrough I kept asking myself questions to try and make sense of it all, questions such as "Why should I care about this Baptiste fellow?"; "What was the setup for this minor character's betrayal?"; "Why is Aveline suddenly poking around in caves for First Civilization technology?"; "What is the purpose of going to Chichén Itzá?"; and "When the heck did the Company Man suddenly become an issue?" Unfortunately, it seems that the development team must have been pressed for time, as the potential of Aveline being born from parents of two different social classes is wasted, as is the backdrop of the French and Indian War, which just barely qualifies as a factor in the events. The ending also felt a bit rushed while also introducing new characters and plot threads at the last second, something a good story should never expect to get away with. It's a shame that they couldn't have done more with the very first female Assassin in the franchise.

Fortunately there is a gameplay system where the ever-mysterious Erudito will reveal an extended version of six of the game's cutscenes if you manage to find and kill six of someone known as Citizen E. Unfortunately, the extended versions don't make the story anymore comprehensible, seemingly serving mainly to shoehorn in references to the Templars. You also unlock the real ending of the game this way, but sadly there is no real reward for actually killing every Citizen E beyond getting the extended cutscenes. I just felt that there should have been something more for going through the effort.

Moving onto the gameplay, it's no easy feat trying to replicate the Assassin's Creed III experience on  a handheld, which the development team manages to do a decent job of. Navigation is easier thanks to the presence of two analog sticks on the device, as opposed to single thumb stick nub, though the lack of being able to click either stick means a completely manual camera operation. Not really a problem though, since I got used to it pretty quickly. However, the running action sometimes didn't seem to react, which I think is a slight problem with reading the R button to perform the action, that or it's pressure sensitive somehow, which would just seems pretty odd to me either way. They managed to retain the fluidity of Connor to some degree, which is a very welcome touch.

The environments themselves are very beautifully detailed and look great on the Vita's screen. New Orleans and the bayou are the most impressive, since they seem to have received the most attention due to how often you're going to be in them. What I noticed though was that while the number of unique locations is limited like previous games in the series, they also seem to be much smaller, likely due to the space available on the Vita cartridges. However, this means that there is much less to explore as well, so eventually you will have seen it all and will still need to cross it multiple times. After a while I got a little tired of following the same paths over and over again, but I suppose it was good to have a mental map of everything for a bit.

One unique gameplay mechanic exclusive to Aveline is the Persona mechanic. During the course of the game, Aveline can switch between three different Personas, Assassin, Slave and Lady, to accomplish her missions, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. The Assassin Persona is the strongest, but always has a minimum Notoriety of 1; Slave is weaker in combat, but can blend in more easily; and Lady is able to charm guards and more easily kill people without anyone noticing (even if the death happens right in front of guards), but is the weakest in combat and has a movement speed that makes every location seem like they take up miles. Juggling the three Personas via dressing chambers is key to victory, as well as getting a 100% completion rate. This is a unique idea, though the game doesn't really require a Persona change that often and in fact may have you just sticking with the Slave Persona anyway since it's much easier to lower the Notoriety level; it's interesting how a game about being an Assassin doesn't take full advantage of being one out in the open.

Being a relatively early Vita title, Liberation also feels the need to take advantage of as many features of the system as it possibly can, for good or for ill. Using the touchscreen as an alternate means to navigate menus and open up the weapons wheel or map makes sense, since the capability is there and it is thankfully very responsive. Beyond that however, some of these features seem very gimmicky. Pinching the touch screen and rear touch pad to open letters was the most interesting use by far, though a gyroscope puzzle became a little infuriating and having to put the Vita up to a physical light source to read a secret and then having to use the touch screen on top of that was annoying due to having to frantically search for a light at an odd time of day while lying on the floor. Overall, some of these features seemed superfluous to the overall design and didn't really improve my experience with the game.

Liberation also has connectivity with Assassin's Creed III, which allows access to, among other things, the ability to play as Connor in a certain mission. Yeah, there's a mission where you meet Connor in the Frontier between New York and Boston and he helps Aveline to invade a fort and catch the Company Man. Naturally this piqued my interest, so after completing the main campaign I went back to that mission to play as Connor and...found myself a little disappointed. Controlling him takes you through almost the exact same path as Aveline, you just do a couple things as Connor that are different, being from his perspective and all. It was cool to control him and see the thought they put into his design here, yet unsatisfying to use him due to the execution of the idea. Essentially, I wish that there was more than maybe a 30% difference between the two of them in the mission.

Combat is an important part of the Assassin's Creed franchise, especially considering the improvements they made in the third main installment to make it more exciting. Aveline has access to the regular arsenal, including expies of Connor's weapons, such as the use of a blowpipe to shoot two different dart types or a whip that functions similarly to the rope darts and allows easier platforming. The free-flow combat was kept in as well, which is good news since combat pretty much works as intended, that is except for the ability to counter. It seemed to me that the counter button was very unresponsive, since when I pressed it in combat, it only visibly worked when the enemy had a yellow triangle over their heads. Perhaps they changed the timing window or I'm simply not doing it right (it's been a while since I played Assassin's Creed III after all), but it made combat a little more complicated than it needed to be, forcing me to rely mostly on offensive tactics and running away to give space to perform said tactics. I died more often than I should have in a couple plot-specific fights, but I was at least able to get through it despite the failure to counter.

The game's sound design is also up to par, largely using the same sounds and similar, if not the same, soundtrack as its parent game. Voice acting is also good, with good performances all around. I'm not sure what else I would say about this, since I don't really have that much of an opinion about it.

Assassin's Creed III: Liberation has a lot of interesting ideas, but was unable to execute a lot of them properly. Its environments are great and unique mechanics function well, but the narrative seems to skip around and the use of the Vita's capabilities seemed unnecessary in the long run. I had hoped for something much better out of Aveline, but it seems that we are stuck with this product anyway. I'd only recommend this to the most die hard fans of the series or Vita owners looking for a big name to have in their library. Otherwise, it is not required to go on this adventure.

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