Ubisoft continues its quest to keep you playing “Assassin’s Creed” games exclusively for the rest of your life by upgrading their PlayStation Vita hit “Assassin’s Creed: Liberation” with an HD coat of polish, putting it on the PSN store for download to your PS3, and daring you to stop sailing the seas of “Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag” for a few hours to experience the saga of Aveline on your HD TV. While it may seem unfair to compare a game that came out a year before “Black Flag” in its original incarnation, the fact is that we’re here to discuss the 2014 PS3 version, which will surely be compared to the best “AC” game yet (and even its thematically similar “Freedom Cry” DLC). And so what felt a bit like treading water to a relatively success if not franchise-forwarding degree when this game was played as a companion to “Assassin’s Creed III” now feels like less in the long shadow of “Black Flag.” This game has its moments and the HD-upgraded cinematics look better than on the Vita but it’s just too thin for PS3 gamers, both in terms of narrative/character and gameplay. The opportunity to really be an enhancement to the “AC” canon with a female protagonist and historically-rich setting feels squandered. Instead of a canonical expansion, “Liberation” will be a footnote.
Set between 1765 and 1777, “Liberation” features something all-too-rare in the action game industry – a female protagonist. Aveline de Grandpré is an African-French assassin in 18th century New Orleans – that sentence alone should hint at hours of narratively dense video game storytelling and yet “Liberation” is, to be blunt, just poorly written. Aveline has to change outfits throughout the game to better blend in to certain social situations and the concept that this chameleon could pass as a socialite or a slave should have been a great foundation for gameplay but too much of “Liberation” has been designed around a thin plot. Worst of all, the memories to play through have a shocking degree of fetch quest problems – go here, get that, come back. These kind of simple missions may have felt relatively inspired on the Vita but stand out as a product of the past generation when there’s a PS4 in your house.
To be fair, there are some positive technical elements of “Liberation” that can’t be denied. As is so often the case, the score and sound effects are well above average. Voice work is confident and combat is smooth in terms of graphics. And the game is relatively large for the price point. I do wish that it encouraged exploration as much as the best “AC” games. A lot of the world of “Liberation” that doesn’t involve your immediate action doesn’t thrive like it should. The NPCs go through obviously scripted routines, and often don’t like they’re doing much of anything at all. The best “AC” games offer players worlds that feel alive down to every detail. The game also gets a bit glitchy – clipping through walls happened to me more than once and there are times when jumps or movements need to be overly precise for the system to register what you’re trying to do; canoeing has never been more annoying – and it’s clear that most of the PSN upgrade budget was spent on the cinematics, which have definitely been upgraded from their Vita origins. I wish more time had been put into the actual gameplay even if my main issues with the game come down to actual storytelling and mission architecture – two things that can’t be altered with an HD coat of paint.
Ultimately, “Assassin’s Creed: Liberation” is to “Assassin’s Creed III” as “Assassin’s Creed: Freedom Cry” is to “Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag”. Follow me? “Freedom Cry” is a notable expansion on a notable game. “Liberation” is working off a model of gameplay and development from a title that doesn’t really work all that well in the first place. The step down from “Black Flag” to “Freedom Cry” isn’t that big of a deal because the former is such a fantastic experience. Stepping down from the relatively mediocre “Assassin’s Creed III” to “Liberation” makes for a steeper downgrade overall. It’s not that “AC3” or even “Liberation” are awful games, they’re just more indicative of how this series was floundering creatively in 2012, pre-“Black Flag”. Now, 15 months after its Vita release, “Liberation” is mostly a curiosity. Here’s where this series was before “Black Flag” kicked it in the butt. Let’s not go back there with the next “AC” game.
Disclaimer: The publisher provided a copy of this game for review.