(Disclaimer: Review Copy provided by Ubisoft.)
There's a secret history of Assassin's Creed games that many may not be familiar with: the handheld games. There are actually 4 Assassin's Creed titles that were developed exclusively for handheld devices (Altair's Chroincles [DS], Bloodlines [PSP], Discovery [DS], and finally Liberation [Vita].) Unsurprisingly, I haven't played any of these titles since I'm not a big handheld gamer. While I don't have any tattoos or anything, I consider myself a fan of the franchise, so having such a huge gap in my knowledge is disappointing.
But with the recent announcement of Assassin's Creed: Liberation being ported to the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 with a HD visual redesign, I received an opportunity to see what that side of things is all about. It was an exciting development which would help give me insight into a subset of games that I have been missing. Liberation HD is very successful in not feeling like a Vita title with a face-lift, but it doesn't take long to find fatal flaws beneath its surface.
Assassin's Creed: Liberation HD follows the life of Aveline de Grandpré in the French colony of New Orleans, the first female and black assassin in the storied franchise. After having been abandoned by her mother, she has been raised by her business-minded white father, Philippe Olivier de Grandpré, and assassin mentor, Agaté. This dual lifestyle has prepared Aveline for a difficult life of balancing her social, racial and gender status with her rebellious and empowering life as an assassin. It's a promising tale of grand liberation, but instead feels more like a messy and inconsequential college student riot.
Liberation HD has the shortest wind-up of any Assassin's Creed title yet (including ACIV: Black Flag) but in the process fails to properly characterize Aveline. For the most part she shows little motivation apart from accomplishing what she's told to do and trying to discover why her mother left her. She takes a page out of the Altair and Connor school of thought: a stoic, unmovable and lifeless object. By the end of the game Aveline does develop a little more agency, but this development feels unearned and unrealistic.
Without a solid character to latch on to, the nonsensical plot left me floating adrift in whatever the hell was going on in Liberation HD. Side characters acted without proper motivation or consistent logic and frequent leaps in the timeline were confusing. That's not to mention that Liberation HD has, by far, the worst integration of the science fiction aspects that is commonplace in the Assassin's Creed universe to date. Assassin's Creed games, even when poorly designed at least usually have an interesting story or compelling characters to keep me going, but this was not the case for Liberation HD.
And with Liberation HD firmly centered in Assassin's Creed III design philosophy, the gameplay did indeed provide poor motivation to push forward. It's a supremely linear game where missions, stealth or combat alike, only have one effective solution to complete them. When you try and diverge from the path in the slightest, the level and mission design break from the slightest amount of stress, instantly failing you for straying from the decreed plan. And with a continued over reliance on the holy trinity of Assassin's Creed mission design (Eavesdrop, Tail and Assassinate) Liberation HD feels dated almost immediately. When the game does get away from those tired-and-true design philosophies, it's always fetch-quests, which is extremely annoying as a person with blades attached to their wrists and razor-sharp reflexes.
Speaking of reflexes, as originally a Vita title I was worried that Liberation HD would feel clunky and unwieldy. But that's thankfully not the case. While she doesn't feel as fluid as her older assassin brothers, Aveline controls just fine on rooftops and in combat. Her biggest handicap though is the new Persona system. You can switch between three different costumes (assassin, slave and lady) at specific stations which give Aveline different abilities. Unforunately, they don't give her any new abilities that past assassins hadn't already had, just splits them up into three different "personas". It's easier to blend in in the slave costume, but less capable in combat, while the lady doesn't draws much attention though can't run around or climb on buildings at all. The Assassin costume gives her full traversal and combat skills, but draws the most attention. It's a cumbersome system which has no real benefit for player agency and just feels like busy-work, especially when missions start requiring you to change into specific outfits for them. It's baffling and frustrating why it's there.
I still really like how Assassin's Creed games play. The fluid, seemless combat and empowering parakour systems are still enjoyable to engage with on, but practically every other thing built around those mechanics in Liberation HD constantly tested that belief of mine.
Liberation HD fairs slightly better with its production values, but only just slightly. The game is about on par in technical graphics and animation complexity with Assassin's Creed II. It's certainly a marked improvement above what the Vita can do, but as the Assassin's Creed franchise has always been one that is defined by its scope and technical excellence, Liberation HD looks low-budget, its existence perplexing when disregarding its Vita lineage. This even comes across in its level design, with the city of New Orleans coming across as a stereotypical looking Assassin's Creed town, lacking any personality of its own. It's second main environment, the marshy bayou, has myriad invisible walls and a lifeless color palette, making especially boring to traverse.
From the audio side of things, Liberation HD is also fairly weak. The soundtrack hops between being extremely lacking to incredibly overbearing with its more whimsical compositions. The sound design is totally passable, if unremarkable, but the voice acting is a fairly bothersome aspect. The acting is poor for every single character in the game, even for Aveline, which is disappointing considering the franchise's consistent track record of strong performances for their main characters. It feels like an B-Tier cast of actors fills the ranks, which is somewhat suitable considering all of the characters feel like B-Tier machinations themselves.
Assassin's Creed: Liberation HD is an interesting look into what the franchise's history on handheld systems looks like, but in a nicer looker context. If there's anything positive to say, it's that Liberation HD doesn't feel like a compromised Vita title. While initially this would be considered a success, this makes its low-budget nature even more jarring once that crutch is taken away. Poorly designed, lacking in every single category apart from the very base gameplay, Assassin's Creed: Liberation HD feels like an amateur entry in the franchise.
So then, it may not escape its Vita bloodline after all.
TWO OUT OF FIVE
(A bad game with an abundance of flaws which outweigh its positive aspects)