All the pieces were in place to make Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation a system-selling title. New assassin? Check. Companion story to the newest console outing? Check. Powerful handheld hardware that can make the most of the series’ open world experience? Check. Somehow, those components don’t come together into the wonderfully blended gumbo I had hoped for.
There are some fantastic ideas put forward by Ubisoft’s Sofia studio, but glitches, confounding mission design and clunky Vita-specific mechanics pop up so frequently that it’s hard to love this iteration no matter how much I try. Part of what makes Liberation jarring is its narrative approach. Each of the console titles embraces duality, with a significant presence outside the Animus to complement the majority of the action that is a look back in time. We’ve been told that Abstergo’s machine is designed to extract genetic DNA from memory, and its use has been to capture those born into the Assassin brotherhood and mine them for information.
Liberation is positioned quite differently. This Animus machine is a consumer model, with a level of polish not found in the one Desmond Miles spends so much time in. Instead of the glitches and gridlines, the loading area is soft-focus reds and blues. Instead of blocky pixelation highlighting key mission objectives and collectibles, perfect spheres highlight your target. This polished approach works perfectly with the concept that this device is ready for public consumption, though not everything is as it seems.
What does strike me as odd is that you, the user, just happen to have Assassin lineage and can access the memories of Aveline de Grand’pre. It isn’t ever fully explained, though I suppose it’s easy enough to imagine a scenario in which Abstergo targeted you after learning about a parentage of which you were never told. Still, it’s just one of the many things in the game that could have used more attention. It’s frustrating when symbols pop up on the map with no explanation or understanding of their significance. These can be ignored by those more interested in just playing through the story. One of the Vita-specific “features” requires that you shine a bright light into the camera to proceed. It doesn’t work well, and I became entirely stuck more than once, with a force quit the only way to move forward. This and other problems I encountered directly impact the gameplay experience.
Like most Assassin’s Creed games, the tutorial is extensive. Here, you’ll learn about the unique persona system in place. If Aveline were a superhero, her Assassin persona would be her guise as a crime fighter. At home and about the streets, she can either dress as someone of her noble heritage in her Lady costume, or hide herself in plain site in the attire of a slave. Each has different benefits. The Assassin is most agile, but always has a base notoriety that will pique the interest of guards that see her. The Lady can charm lone soldiers and bribe her way past guard encampments, but she runs slowly and can’t climb or use overt weaponry. The Slave can sneak past guards by carrying boxes and hide by sweeping, and in terms of combat and maneuverability splits the difference.
As each is seen committing illegal acts, the notoriety for that persona rises. Lowering it is handled differently for each: bribing magistrates, tearing down wanted posters and killing witnesses. It’s an interesting mechanic, but it’s not often used to great effect. The few moments it’s employed well, there are multiple approaches into a restricted area. At its worst, the persona mechanic is a gimmick. The most frustrating instances involve secondary objectives that require a specific guise, but no way to switch without failing and restarting. These moments required me to quit out of the mission, change clothes, and reinitialize. This leads to another major convenience issue.
There is no way to skip lengthy dialog or cutscenes after restarting at a checkpoint. One particularly egregious instance takes place at the end of the first memory sequence. Aveline is in open combat against a brutal opponent with no clue offered to players that there is a trick to defeating him. After taking a machete to the face multiple times, I started experimenting. Each restart was met with a 15 second or so load time followed by another 20 – 30 seconds of villain monologuing. Faster load times and or a checkpoint triggered after the monologue would have helped this, but so would have the lock-on system.
The Assassin’s Creed games have used the same basic control scheme since Altaïr’s adventure in the holy land. One of the standby mechanics is the simple lock-on with the left bumper. Aveline can employ this tactic, but it doesn’t always work well. During the aforementioned battle, the game would allow me to lock on to the foe, but the camera wouldn’t swing around to face him. This was made worse by starting me facing away from him.
Another change in Liberation is to one of the most valuable combat tricks in previous entries. In the first Assassin’s Creed, countering was pretty much the only way to survive open combat. As Ezio’s trilogy progressed, combat matured to include grabs and block-interrupting kicks. Aveline has access to these, but the counter has been horribly complicated and doesn’t always work well. When triggering a counter with a well-timed press of the circle button, the game goes black and white allowing Aveline to trigger a throw, disarm, tool attack (like a pistol) or killing blow. Why anyone would want to waste time with anything but a riposte that slays is beyond me.
When playing as Ezio, these trigger the ability to chain one-hit kills that can quickly end a fight. Aveline will only take out one or two enemies depending on how many she is countering. It’s imprecise and can’t be counted on, making open combat less enjoyable. To compensate, there is a chain kill feature, but that doesn’t always work well either.
It’s triggered by pressing right on the D-pad. Once the mode is activated, touching enemies with a symbol above their heads marks them for death. Exiting the mode and executing the chain doesn’t always work properly. It’s a major problem since the counter attack doesn’t function well either. I’ve had the game lock up on me multiple times when using this mode, which led me toward avoiding it all together. The best situation is when it suddenly cancels out of the chain-kill. The worst is when it gets completely hung up, requiring a reboot.
All of these control glitches are compounded by mission bugs, unavoidable insta-failing due to being discovered without any warning, graphical glitches and other convenience issues that make Liberation harder to play than it should be. More than once, I’ve gotten stuck on the environment. Restarting missions often switches your persona, sometimes randomly. I lost a huge amount of money when an upgrade to my poison pouch disappeared between sequences (the segmentation of the game’s story chapters). At checkpoints, my weapons would randomly be changed, and it’s cumbersome to switch them back. There are two weapon hemispheres, but they are triggered by pressing the same area, and you can’t change both your primary weapon and tool at the same time. Much of this is a lack of polish that seems like it could have easily been fixed with UI testing.