Between the 5.5 and a 4.5 awarded to the first two entries in the series, Destructoid is perhaps somewhat known for not being keen on Assassin’s Creed. At least until Nick and Maurice both tried to ruin the Fonzie-cool image after being tempted by the admittedly great multiplayer components the two spin-off games had to offer. Despite this, my opinion of the franchise certainly leans toward the Burch and Sterling camp.
While most appear to be whetting their appetite for Assassin’s Creed III, which seems to be the runaway heir apparent to this year’s Game of the Year awards and biggest title of the sardine-packed autumn release calendar, I’m approaching it with caution, so as to avoid getting swept away in a sea of hype for a sequel in a series I don’t like.
Indeed, I’m actually more interested in Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation, the PlayStation Vita offshoot, which I got a chance to play last week. My optimism level is still set at “cautious.”
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Assassin's Creed III: Liberation (PlayStation Vita)
Developer: Ubisoft Sofia
Release: October 30, 2012
I’ll be glib; my initial interest in Liberation stemmed from the fact that its star is a woman; not enough decent female protagonists in games and all that. I figured if Ubisoft was going to do something as different as create a female lead (albeit for a portable spin-off...), maybe it would make some much needed changes to everything else, ideally remedying the things I dislike about the series (stupid plot, repetitiveness, bad stealth, general mediocrity).
Of course, it’s telling of the state of games that an AAA franchise suddenly pitting a woman in its offshoot’s starring role is enough to warrant attention. I’m sure plenty people are already doing finger calisthenics in preparation for telling me why Assassin’s Creed is actually, objectively totally great or why I should cease examining the title from a gendered perspective, so I’ll try my best to not agitate any third perspective as I carry on.
Liberation’s lead is Aveline de Grandpré, the daughter of a wealthy French merchant and the African slave he effectively (but not legally) married. The 10- to 12-hour narrative spans the late 18th century, from the end of the French and Indian War to the middle of the American Revolution, and will take place across three major locales: New Orleans, the bayou, and Chichén Itzá (Mexico). There is some undisclosed link between Aveline’s tale and the console Creed -- Aveline will actually cross paths with Connor Kenway at some point in her journey. Thankfully, Aveline shares no relation to that tosser Desmond Miles, so I won’t be seeing any of him on the Vita.
The first bit I played was a mission in the bayou. With the help of her (female!) friend and confidant, Aveline is searching for a group that claims to be led by Agate, who is an escaped slave and the mentor who recruited Aveline into the Brotherhood of Assassins in the first place. Navigating the lush, dense swamp required a canoe, the locomotion of which rested in Vita specific touch controls. Basically, alternating swipes on the back touch pad represent paddling on either side of the sea craft. Once I got a bit better at it, I was actually in a state of novel amusement, though it certainly tiptoes the line between an unnecessary gimmick and a cool thing you can do, and it definitely took some getting used to.
Once I got out of the boat, things got a bit more familiar -- if you’ve played Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. Because I got attacked by a crocodile. And not an amiable, jazz-hound trumpeter like the one in The Princess and the Frog’s bayou. This one wanted to eat me. In this sense, the bayou is a direct parallel to Assassin’s Creed III’s untamed frontier. It’s even traversable up in the boughs of swamp trees, whereas staying on the ground is a good way to get spotted or attacked by vagabond crocs. You can swim and even dive under water, but shallow water, naturally, impedes your movement, and if you’re shuffling through the swamp it’s probably the case that others are around; others that you don’t want noticing you, like the group I stumbled upon.
Liberation runs in the same engine as console Creed, so anyone who has played the series will be familiar with the movements and controls. I was deftly, quietly able to kill every last one of the miserable wretches I came across, abetted by a touch-screen weapon wheel for quick access to murder implements. On the right, stealth items: a gun -- which needs reloading after a shot, of course -- a poison dart, a dart that turns an enemy against his comrades (voodoo?) and a whip for Scorpion-style “get over here!” yanks. On the left: a machete, a sword, and the staple hidden blade. Turns out Agate had nothing to do with the miserable lot; their leader was an impersonator. But at least I plundered their fat loot they left hidden in the carcass of a derelict ship.
The next mission I played took place in New Orleans, which looked mighty impressive. Infiltrate the barracks with familiar parkour, don’t get seen, kill a guy, and leave dozens of other bodies in your wake because the Assassin’s Creed series has, ironically, never been too assassin-y. That being said, I was also introduced to the same mission coupled with the added wrinkle of Liberation’s new “persona system.” Visiting clothes shops scattered throughout town lets you change into one of two disguises, both of which change the gameplay significantly. While “Japanese high school student and demon fighter extraordinaire” was not among the options, an elegant, classy “Lady” outfit and a working class “slave” outfit are.
As a member of the buttery, flaky, upper-crust bourgeois, Aveline’s movements are restricted. After all, she can’t climb in a dress poofy enough to smuggle several children under. However, she was able to bribe her way into the barracks (with a straightforward “more offered means a higher chance of success” system) and then use her feminine wiles to charm blokes into escorting her like lap dogs with but a conversation. She can then use the escort to help her walk about unmolested, or take him down a back alley and shank him; and yes, I’m slightly uncomfortable that “feminine wiles” is suddenly an actual gameplay mechanic. While the high-class persona is understandably devoid of any barbaric weapons, she retains the hidden blade and adds a dainty parasol that’s actually a Penguin-style concealed gun.
The slave persona is a bit more brazen than the delicate lady, yet still stealthier than the default “I’m some sort of badass pirate lassie” look. She retains the whip and field work machete, losing the sword and the gun. Its stealth comes from being largely ignored. You can perform menial tasks, like sweeping floors, to fit in with groups of other low class workers, or pick up a random box and walk right into the barracks unnoticed under the pretense of work. While slightly less offensive than the default persona, down a sword and the gun, Aveline in the slave outfit can still hold her own in combat, stealth killing with gusto, and, importantly, she retains full mobility in terms of climbing and the like. It’s a nice blend of adventure and subversion.
Assassin’s Creed III could be cool, but I remain more invested in how Liberation will turn out. I feel the setting has a bit more unexplored character and I was delighted to learn that I would not have to deal with any Desmond. While the persona system remains a rather fixed approach towards divergent gameplay that falls short of something like, say, Hitman, I'm glad more options are there.Really hope Ubisoft surprises me and knocks this one out of the park, because the framework shows off a heck of a lot of potential.