This would be acceptable on a handheld. That’s the ugly sentence that persistently barged its way to the forefront of my mind from the absolute beginning to the very end of my time with Ubisoft’s Assassins Creed: Liberation HD. When the title initially launched exclusively on Playstation Vita in 2012 it wasn’t considered perfect, honestly it racked up critically somewhere between good and okay. It had many problems including: a niggly persona system, a choppy framerate, a lot to be desired on the story front and a mission structure that rarely strayed from three or four archetypes. As a straight port this Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 re-release does little to fix gameplay issues; more disconcertingly it suffers from many of the same glitches and performance problems that plagued the original, though no where near as extreme. Many of the problems that were pardoned, or excused because of the ambitious prospect of a full-fledged portable Assassins Creed experience no longer apply; as a result it’s a harder experience to recommend.
Aveline, the headstrong genuinely interesting female protagonist, is once again the experiences largest saving grace – female heroes are a rarity in gaming, and engaging ones even more elusive – it’s great to see Aveline join the sadly small exclusive club. In her home of New Orleans Aveline is one the few free African Americans – as per the time period the majority are cruelly kept as slaves. Adopted by a well off family she’s living a life many could only dream of, let alone a slave, she’s cared for, undoubtedly rich, and has stake in the successful family business. Like Batman though when night falls Aveline transforms into a hero of sorts, stalking the city of New Orleans as an assassin, freeing slaves, accepting contracts and of course combating the evil Templars.
It’s a great set up, bursting with potential; a chance to tell a different type of tale from those the franchise is known for, and it does for a little while – before disappointingly gravitating back to series standard “Assassin stops Templars from obtaining a powerful artefact” plot. Additionally sinking it’s narrative potential Liberation’s storytelling is choppy at best, it’s genuinely difficult to follow at times feeling like lumps have been cut out, at worst it loses a natural flow altogether becoming almost difficult to fully understand. Even when I did know what was going on though I was going through the motions, completing story missions just ’cause. I didn’t care, it’s irritating that Liberation fumbles it’s promising set up quite epically, betraying it’s unique possibilities.
One change from the series formula I did appreciate on Vita is equally welcome this time around, the lack of sequences set in the modern day. All of the titles prior to latest entry Assassins Creed IV: Black Flag failed to make the modern day scene’s engaging, or at the very least as fun to be in as the starring historical era – personally I always found them intrusive. Liberation does away with that, the reason being that unlike her male counterparts from the main series we aren’t privy to who Aveline’s modern day descendants are. Instead her memories have been uncovered from a donor who gave their DNA to Abstergo Industries, the modern form of series history spanning baddies, the Templars. A new division of the corporation has begun selling the unlocked histories as entertainment products, the player is one such consumer, ingeniously assuming the role of purchaser just by playing.
It’s an interesting role to inhabit too; like many of Liberations smart ideas though it isn’t fully capitalized on. Many of the narratives most important points have been edited by the Templar’s putting together the game which opens up the interesting citizen E sections. Citizen E is a hacker whose left open ways to uncover how doctored events really transpired, contrary to what players a’re initially shown. Sadly the intriguing plot device is utilised far too little; even worse of the few times it is used some are missable with the game failing to properly prompt when the player should investigate. Only three Citizen E sections are mandatory, the rest can only be uncovered by annoyingly replaying chapters – as the most experimental captivating story-telling device it really feels as though these should’ve been unavoidable. Besides that missing them only compounds issues with the already muddled story.
Whilst Aveline’s adventure remains wholly unchanged it’s obviously the updated HD visuals that present the largest difference. Being ported to the PS3 and Xbox 360 has naturally afforded Liberation a higher visual fidelity than was possible on the original Vita edition. Character models look noticeably better, and textures look crisper – as expected. Aveline herself looks more impressive, her facial animation in particular is markedly improved. Even so this is still a Vita port meaning it isn’t quite up to the two systems graphical standard. It’s not an ugly game, but by the same token it’s not a pretty one either. Climbing to the top of a viewpoint to peer over the city fails to inspire a sense of awe – the first time the series has ever failed to produce a “wow” from me at the very first climb. Even the Vita entry coaxed a reaction due to the impressive visuals squeezed out of handheld – this big screen version falls way short of the series reputation.
The Vita versions relatively incredible visuals came at a cost however, AC: Liberation was notorious for it’s plethora of performance issues. Frame rate was the most cited nuisance, on the ground it was bad; at times free running over city made the game unplayable. That combined with Assassins Creeds typically finicky controls made for navigation that at times felt impossible. I wasn’t shocked to see many gameplay and story problems return, a HD version can only do so much. What did surprise me was that even with the extra horsepower the consoles should afford Liberation still suffers from occasional slow down. They were multiple times when running through the streets I’d notice it, it’s no where near as dramatic a problem as on the Vita, but it’s definitely still here. Even worse on at least three occasions I had to reset the game because of various technical problems, including crashes on load screens.
What remains in terms of gameplay is similar to all of the previous Assassin’s Creed titles. Prepare to encounter the same problems that the others share, including the frustrating climbing controls that regularly see Aveline take an undesired course of action – throwing herself of buildings or leaping to a totally wrong ledge. Combat is acceptable, following the wait and counter model, but somehow fails to capture the occasional excitement of it’s console siblings. Where it differentiates from the formula is with the inclusion of the persona system. As Aveline balances her real life with her secret assassins life she has a selection persona’s that help conceal her true identity, utilizing the best for any given purpose.
As a slave she is limited to only using light weaponry, but is capable of free running and able to blend into crowds with ease. Assuming the role of lady Aveline dons a posh frock reflecting her upper class parentage, though she’s unable to free run in this guise or wield weapons she is able to cartoonishly charm guards into fighting for her or bribing those who are blocking her way. Finally as the assassin she is capable of anything the standard series protagonists are – with addition of a whip weapon which only she wields. Not only does the whip add to Aveline’s individuality, but it’s practical purposes include a way of closing the gap in combat as it pulls foes into Avelines merciless grip, and a way of jumping even further whilst free running. The persona’s should add a level of depth, but instead the lady and slave simply add frustration blocking the ability to be a full-time assassin, which is really what I wanted to do – so I could have access to all my tools.
Like it’s forebearers Liberation is collectable heavy, the largely forgettable city of New Orleans is stuffed with a wide variety of treasures waiting to be hoarded. There’s the typical chests scattered around, thugs ready to be beaten up for their rare coins, gentlemen who when charmed will give up precious jewellery and more side-quest than you could shake a hidden blade at. Leaving the city behind there’s also the swampy bayou filled with alligators and yet more collectables – it has the potential to be a great pace changer. But instead it devolves into a monotonous run from branch to branch, and if you fall you’re forced to wade through waist high water, slowing Aveline down for no reason other than to be an irritant.
Overall Liberation HD is a disappointment. Not just because it isn’t up to the series standard high quality, no it’s more upsetting to see it’s brave willingness to implement new ideas fall flat on it’s face in almost every aspect. If you’re looking for more Assassin’s Creed for a low price, and you’ve played every other entry then there may just be something here you enjoy. If you do take the plunge be prepared to battle some performance issues and grapple with the bothersome persona system. Aveline’s story may be a series low point, but the character herself is thoroughly likeable. If you’ve just come of Assassins Creed IV, and are hungry for more beware – Black Flag, this is not.