"Playing as a black character and freeing slaves is GREAT for my white guilt."
Way back when the Vita was supposed to be a place to find console-quality games on a handheld device (before it turned into an indie machine), Assassin's Creed III: Liberation was Ubisoft's attempt to bring the Assassin's Creed series to the small screen. Unfortunately, it didn't work out too well. Liberation had more than its fair share of bugs (even as far as Assassin's Creed games go), below-native-res graphics that still ran at a sub-20fps framerate much of the time, and finicky touch and motion controls for certain mechanics and mini-games.
Assassin's Creed: Liberation HD, the PlayStation 3 port of that previous title, tweaks and changes a lot of these things, but doesn't quite go quite far enough in the attempt.
Liberation HD stars Aveline de Grandpré, the daughter of a white New Orleans businessman and his “placée” (common-law slave wife), making Aveline both the first black and the first female player character in the series' history (for that matter, black female main characters in video games in general are rare enough that Aveline may as well be a unicorn).
When Aveline was 12 years old, in 1759, her mother abandoned her in the streets of New Orleans. From there, Aveline was almost immediately mistaken for an escaped slave child and captured, only to be freed by her eventual mentor, Agaté, who would induct her into the Assassin Brotherhood.
This unique character background lends itself to Liberation's most obvious unique feature, the Persona system. By changing her clothes and mannerisms, Aveline can pose as a debutante, a slave, or an Assassin. The Assassin persona can use many weapons and run and climb freely, but she's always “notorious.” Guards are constantly on the lookout for her and will investigate or attack her whenever they spot her. The slave persona is limited to hidden weapons (such as the hidden blade) or otherwise inconspicuous weapons (like the machete), and will only be noticed by guards if she does something strange. The lady persona only has access to two weapons: the hidden blades and a parasol that fires poisonous darts. The lady persona can't run very fast, or jump, or climb anything that isn't a ladder, but she can “charm” certain male characters into following her or even fighting for her.
Unfortunately, the persona system feels more like a restriction than an interesting mechanic. Anything but the Assassin persona feels gimped, with strengths that don't really make up for their shortcomings. The lady persona, specifically, is a drag to use. She moves slowly and can't reach many places above the streets. The fact that you can only switch personae at specific “dressing chambers” scattered around the map means that even if you come across a situation where another persona might come in handy, the need to backtrack will probably cause you to just make do with whatever persona you're currently using, anyway. You will likely never play as anything other than the Assassin persona unless you absolutely have to switch.
Persona system aside, Liberation HD is pretty much like any other Assassin's Creed game, for better or worse. It features the quirks series veterans have come to grudgingly accept, such as not-always-reliable context-sensitive controls and a disjointed story that skips ahead years at a time with little fanfare. The touch and motion controls have been replaced with button presses. Aveline's “chain kill” ability (which allows her to kill several enemies in succession) is no longer mapped to the touch screen, and targets are instead selected with the control stick and the Square button. Picking pockets now works the same way it does in Assassin's Creed III: by simply holding the circle button when near an NPC.
The game's roots as a handheld spinoff are still apparent, though. It's smaller in scope than its big console brothers, with shorter missions and a few missing mechanics (Aveline can't pick up bodies and dump them in haystacks, for example). You can fully complete the game, including all of the side missions and collectibles, in less than 15 hours, much less than the time it takes to 100% complete Assassin's Creed III or IV. In fact, some may consider Liberation HD's smaller scale one of its strengths. Missions aren't as ambitious or varied as in the game it's spun off from. They mostly amount to "use your spider sense to find and kill the bad guy" or "run to the green dot on the map and stab what you find there," but even if they're not all super interesting, none of them are frustrating like the prison and Paul Revere missions in ACIII. The Louisiana bayou is Liberation's answer to III's frontier area, but it's much smaller and much more traversable than the frontier. You'll never spend 10 minutes trying to find a way up a cliff to collect some doodad that was randomly placed up there.
Liberation HD doesn't look quite as good as the other PS3 Assassin's Creed offerings, but it also doesn't fall terribly short. Some environmental textures are muddy, and minor character models lack detail, but major characters (the ones the camera will actually give special attention in cutscenes) are much improved. Environmental geometry has barely been improved, meaning many buildings look like boxes with a few accoutrements. Liberation HD may not look up to snuff after playing Assassin's Creed IV but it's not so ugly that you'll want to recoil in disgust. The framerate could probably stand to be better than it is, but it's greatly improved over the Vita version. It mostly hangs around 30fps with a few dips here and there.
With a few gameplay tweaks, Liberation HD is much more playable than the original version, but a few of its quirks still remain. Liberation HD is pretty buggy, especially in the bayou. Swimming is a crap shoot. You'll never know when the game is going to forget where the air ends and the water begins. It's not uncommon to dive into the water and end up walking through the ground, or swimming through the air while soldiers look on confused. Aveline may get stuck on rocks or bushes from time to time, or mission-important NPCs may mysteriously stop moving. Thankfully, checkpoints are frequent so you're unlikely to lose much progress when you run into these bugs, but they happen often enough to give the game an unpolished feel.
Assassin's Creed: Liberation HD is a fairly by-the-numbers Assassin's Creed game, which can be good or bad. Thanks to the changes to this version of the game, fans of other games in the series will find plenty to enjoy. On the other hand, it doesn't bring anything new or interesting to the table, and it no longer has “a lot like Assassin's Creed III except on a handheld” to fall back on as a selling point. If you've finished the made-for-consoles main entries in the Assassin's Creed series and still want more, check Liberations HD out, but less hardcore fans of the series would be better off giving Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag a try, and will likely be satisfied until the inevitable Assassin's Creed V arrives later this year.
Staff review by Rhody Tobin (January 18, 2014)
Rhody likes to press the keys on his keyboard. Sometimes the resulting letters form strings of words that kind of make sense when you think about them for a moment. Most times they're just random gibberish that should be ignored. Ball-peen wobble glurk.
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