Assassin’s Creed 3: Liberation (PlayStation Vita) might be the first game I’ve played where I’ve experienced what it might be like to be a woman targeted with sexual assault.
I’m not going to say it was a completely accurate representation of such an awful and demoralizing incident; I’d be an idiot if I thought that. But it was one of the most genuinely unsettling things to happen in Liberation, a game, for the most part, filled with familiar trappings of Ubisoft’s expansive open-world, parkour-and-daggers franchise.
While walking the streets of 1770s New Orleans, your main character Aveline de Grandpré will sometimes be approached by a group of men. They’re called “bullies” if you’re a dressed as a slave and “muggers” if you’re dressed as a society lady. It makes no difference; they’re all thugs.
They surround you, jeer at you in Creole, and shove you around incessantly. They always do it in groups of three. Eventually the familiar alert noise blares and it turns into a typical Assassin’s Creed fight, allowing you to stab them with impunity. But for a precious few moments, you’re at their mercy.
The storyline starts with some touchy material from the get-go. Prospective slave owners inspect a black man’s legs and teeth for suitability on their plantations. Amidst the markets a young Aveline and her mother Jeanne – a placée, or the unofficial wife of her owner – walk into a bad situation featuring more muggers, possibly with more sinister connections than your average drunken sailor.
Somewhat jarringly, we then join Aveline in her young adulthood as an assassin. Her mother has disappeared, and instead she lives in a palatial mansion with her father and kind stepmother. With the help of her slightly foppish business partner and Brotherhood informant, her main missions involve searching for clues as to why black men and women – some slaves, others freed – are disappearing in substantial numbers.
LOCATION, LOCATION, ASSASSINATION
Like past Creed games, you’ll traverse and explore multiple locations to complete story-based missions, hunt for treasure and climb the highest peaks to get the bird’s eye view of the landscape. You start out in New Orleans, the most familiar location with its bustling markets, shanty towns and substantial port district. Southern-style balconies give it a Creole flavor but for the most part it’s familiar territory.
The Bayou relies on navigating trees and other natural growth instead of man-made buildings. When it works, Aveline sprints and leaps along branches and stumps with astonishing fluidity and ease of navigation. When it doesn’t, she’ll fall flat on her face or into the water – leaving you to painstakingly swim the rest of the way to the closest swampy islet.
A smaller location in a Mexican plantation sets the scene for inventive stealth-based missions where Aveline investigates what appears to be a façade for a Templar plot, dressed as a slave like the rest of the weirdly content workers. You’ll go on short missions in the nearby cave network, much like the temple missions in past Creed games. They work as well as they always have, and the interiors of the cave networks evoke the simple beauty of Dear Esther.
PRESENTED BY ABSTERGO
Unlike other Assassin’s Creed games, we’re not playing Aveline’s history through the Animus or modern-day assassin Desmond Miles. Instead the game itself is an Animus entertainment product, “Powered by Abstergo” in the pre-game credits.
The fourth wall conceit rears its confusing head here in the form of Citizen E, or Erudito to those who remember the AC: Brotherhood Facebook tie-in Project Legacy. Seeking to undermine Abstergo’s censored version of the events, Citizen E leaves behind virtual people that at particular moments in the storyline must be killed to reveal the “director’s cut” of cutscenes you’ve either seen before, or completely new scenes that add precious context to the storyline as it relates to the Templar-Brotherhood conflict.
Every Citizen E segment is required for the full ending. Miss them and you’ll get the “fake” or incomplete ending, complete with a false credit sequence in a clever nod to the boss fight of Donkey Kong Country. It’s a cool idea that takes the concept of the unreliable narrator to new territory, but it requires you to hunt out Citizen E – oftentimes a frustrating scavenger hunt – to get a sense of the disjointed and obtuse storyline.
It’s a shame, then, that even with these glimpses into the “true” story we’re given precious little context for the conflicts, missions and plots that run through Liberation until the final third of the game. Aveline is a compelling protagonist with a gut-wrenching past, but the major players tend to stand in the background until the final act.
I’ve been dancing around this with other examples, but the new element that sets Aveline apart from her fellow assassins is the Persona system. When visiting your headquarters or other dressing chambers around the world, you can choose to dress either in your traditional assassin’s garb, as a slave or as a well-dressed society lady – the Aveline de Grandpré with whom aristocrats in New Orleans’ social circles are familiar.
Each persona has its own notoriety index, so murdering Spanish soldiers in the streets as an assassin bears no effect on your other personas. In fact you’ll regularly remove wanted posters and bribing magistrates as one persona to “clean up” the messes left by your other ones.
Interestingly, the slave accrues notoriety far more quickly than the lady. Do so much as bump into a few pedestrians and soon you’ll have the guards down your throat. The lady, meanwhile, has abilities designed specifically to skirt the rules. You can bribe guards to look the other way while you stroll into restricted areas, charm them to defend against muggers or other guards, and generally push around other people with no consequence.
To balance that you can’t do any climbing or free-running while wearing your elaborate dress. It makes sense in terms of the narrative but becomes too restrictive since the city is built around your free-running ability. The mission-specific objectives for the lady persona are some of the game’s most inventive, though. Infiltrating a ball, charming your target with your grace and beauty, leading him to a secluded corner of the garden and then gutting him with your hidden blades hits all the right notes.
DESPERATELY AVOIDING ’99 PROBLEMS’ PUNS
Assassin’s Creed 3: Liberation is a broken game. A litany of bugs, glitches and design oversights will elicit your rage multiple times playing through the game. Ubisoft Sofia must have had a hell of a time cramming all the locations, missions, and delightfully fluid animations of an Assassin’s Creed game into the Vita, because there are cracks all over the place.
The glitches get in the way of enjoying, or even completing, mission objectives on a regular basis. Get used to seeing dancing corpses and floating alligators. Get used to navigation errors sending you flying off a building when you’re just trying to run in a straight path.
Add to that some baffling design decisions and you’re in for a hell of a time. Early on you’re stuck in the Persona costume specified for one particular mission, but without any ways of reducing your notoriety. The Lady is particularly afflicted; you’re expected to walk past guards at certain points but it’s impossible with a Level 3 Red status that you’re unable to reduce within the mission’s time and space constraints.
The touch pad and camera controls, in addition to being completely tacked on, simply don’t work. You’re often asked to hold up the rear camera to a light to “see” invisible ink on a stolen letter. Often it simply doesn’t work, and you can’t opt out for later.
Rowing a canoe requires you to swipe at the rear touch screen, but the navigation that uses both the right control stick and the Vita’s gyroscope will turn you about 130 degrees with the slightest tap or twist. In the few sections you’re forced to row your way out of danger it feels like attempting a driving test with your hands duct-taped to a broken steering wheel.
It’s simply unacceptable to have released Liberation in its current buggy, broken state. It’s an utter shame too, because what Ubisoft Sofia have gotten right is intriguing, thought-provoking and new in so many ways.
Aveline joins Gravity Rush’s Kat in a growing list of strong and inspiring female protagonists on the PS Vita, while the plot for all its faults deals with some strong subject matter that I doubt its higher profile counterpart game for the consoles would ever dare to touch.
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