It is a frail creature, this franchise; fearful and superstitious. It cloaks itself in the guise of authority, draped about with cityscapes of precise, stunning detail, speaking in languages with care to not sound too modern. Underneath that cloak, though, we know there lies nothing but bones; all the form under its facade is of fat and gristle, of excesses and formulae, striking out further and further, hoping it will be seen as something it is not. Its brilliance lays in its ideas, and its gross squalor is strewn about with the trappings of its potential, squandered most disgustingly.
Let us not speak of mid-life crises and passive racism. Put out of your mind the idea of Desmond and the things his games could have been, and were not. We are not here for them. Today, we speak of the best of these games, the game that stands tall amongst its brethren, the game that only came out on the Vita until February this year.
Let us speak of Liberation.
The Battle of New Orleans
Assassins Creed: Liberation is a smaller Assassins Creed title, pushed out on the heels of Assassins Creed III, set in and around New Orleans. The previous handheld games in the Assassins Creed lineage featured the same protagonist as the main game, and their story just expanded in a little cul-de-sac, or tried to be an abridged version of the same story. Assassins Creed: Liberation breaks this pattern by introducing us to Aveline.
Aveline is a biracial woman of colour, a noble lady of the moneyed class in a city whose economy turns through the efforts of slavery. The daughter of slave and her owner, she starts the game as an Assassin, and the story follows the arc of her contesting with the confusing, conflicting forces that control New Orleans. As with all Assassins Creed games, there are ancient historical artefacts, meaningless prophecy, and a healthy dose of the greater framing device of Abstergo and conspiracy, but thankfully, they’re less obtrusive than in other games. In fact, the framing device is pretty sassy – you, the player, are playing a ‘video game’ created by the company Abstergo, designed to give you, the player, a false view of the Assassins throughout history. Just imagine that! The videogame’s framing device is your playing a video game. That’d almost be clever if it wasn’t so ridiculously unnecessary.
Framing device aside, though, the choice of character is fascinating and excellent. The Creed of the Assassins is a simple phrase, seemingly nonsensical phrase, which when carried to its logical conclusion, can be an oath of power for the powerless. It can be a cry of justice for the oppressed. It puts the power to change the world in one person’s hands, allowing one to dare everything. In Altair’s story, this idea was barely touched-on. In Ezio’s, it was completely ignored. Connor’s struggle against oppression had to – for ‘historical accuracy’ – accept that no matter what he tried, his people were doomed. The Mohawk people of his upbringing were casualties of narrative pathos. In Assassins Creed: Liberation we are given our first protagonist subject to deeply-rooted oppression. Aveline is a woman, and Aveline is black.
The clever mechanic that underpins these devices is that Aveline can change outfits, and in so doing, change the way the world around her treats her. When Aveline walks down the street in her noble garb, guards will not harass her, as they recognise that she is moneyed and not likely a criminal. Muggers, however, will try to stop her for money. Men will catcall at her, and block her path. The lady Aveline can charm men to follow along with her – and while she’s accompanied, she will go unharassed by muggers. If Aveline lashes out against muggers and attacks them – which, by the way, she can do with wonderful viciousness – then she increase s her notoriety as a lady.
When Aveline dresses as a slave, she can walk past muggers unbothered; after all, she has nothing worth stealing. Guards will bar her path and sneer at her. She can’t travel into certain buildings, or do business – and if guards see her climbing buildings, they get suspicious. You can’t pickpocket as readily, but you can blend into groups of people. Also, when you’re carrying a box, guards will assume you’re working, and leave you alone.
The third outfit Aveline can don is that of an Assassin – pirate hat, no exposed skin, punch-daggers, axe and sword. The Assassin can’t blend in and her notoriety is always higher than the others. What she earns in exchange for this – aside from looking awesome – is that she can chain-kill enemies with a special little interface that lets you take out three targets at once. I’d have thought, once upon a time, that I’d hate that mechanic, where you just point and click and choose for people to die in sequence, but then I played with it a bit and I love it. The animations of fights in Assassins Creed games are swift and chaotic, but also very stylish. The Chain kill lets you enjoy those kills in their full glory.
This outfit-swapping also brings with it another cute mechanic; each of the three identities can have their notoriety adjusted in different ways. The Lady needs to eliminate witnesses, the Slave needs to tear down wanted posters, and the Assassin needs to bribe magistrates. These are three mechanics used for the same effect in earlier Assassins Creed games, but here, they’re used to create further separation. If you run up notoriety as the slave, you can spend your afternoon as the Lady tearing down her wanted posters. The Assassin can eliminate witnesses for the Lady. The Lady can even slink up to magistrates. In the sandbox parts of the game, when you’re playing around fulfilling side quests and seeking out pages of your mother’s diary, you can weave these things together in a really lovely sequence. Use the lady to reach an area, the slave to eliminate a threat, the Assassin to mop up witnesses.
It’s almost a footnote, because Ubisoft have been behind almost every good parkour game in the past ten years, but the parkour is really lovely in this game. While there isn’t anything as ostentatious as Constantinople’s spires, or as soaked with reverence in our culture as Venice’s cathedrals, the game cuts between New Orelans’ easily-climbed walls and interconnected rooftops, and a bayou full of fallen logs and suspiciously sturdy, unmoving branches. I criticised Assassins Creed III for its unclimbable trees and slogging snowdrifts, but scudding through the treetops in the bayou feels just right by comparison. You even get a whip to let you make long, arcing swings through the treetops, and there are even points where the game creates checkpoints midway through parkour puzzles.
Murder Is Harmless
Normally I malign Assassins Creed games for pulling further and further from what I ostentatiously consider their core game experience. Especially in Assassins Creed III, the game spent a very long time setting Connor up to find a target, plan a line of attack, then stab him to death while wearing a bed-sheet. Does Assassins Creed: Liberation return to this core experience very well?
Assassins Creed: Liberation is still an Assassins Creed game. It is still fraught with missions that have nothing to do with assassinating people. Most assassinations you do are at the end of linear paths with single possible solutions. Almost all of the key targets you eliminate aren’t assassinated – they’re defeated in fights, with special guards and special rules. This, I feel, misses the point of a gameplay model that cares about stealth. In all situations, these fights are remote, so you don’t worry about notoriety.
If this was the first Assassins Creed game to do this, maybe I’d have it in me to be sad about it, but these days I just don’t. Stealthing around, picking targets, planning ahead and eliminating people quietly is a component of a few missions, but it’s almost always a footnote. There’s none of Altair’s desperate, leap-across-the-roof-top plunge-kill-listen run madness that made the first game such a wonderfully vivid experience for me. At a certain point, though, I have to accept the choices this game series has made about its identity. Maybe five years is enough time for me to accept that Assassins Creed does not want to be a stealthy, clever game about sneaking up on targets, taking them out, and making your escape. Maybe I just need to respect that it wants to be a parkour-and-combat simulator like Prince of Persia was.
The Lowering Of The Bar
The narrative is less grand in scope than other Assassins Creed titles. You don’t roam through multiple cities, building and renovating them all at once. You instead spend most of your time focused on one city and a few smaller levels for exploration. The story is… well, okay, the story is a bit bad? With Aveline as its centrepiece, the rest of the supporting cast come across as exaggerated and clumsy, bobbing and jiggling their way through conversations, and it makes it very hard for them to sustain a dramatic or romantic moment. There’s some ugly utility in cut scenes – text-dumping how you feel in loading screens, for example – and the ending is a depressing letdown. That is to say, it’s pretty much just like the other games.
I mentioned that Assassins Creed: Liberation is a port from the Vita, and once you’re aware of that, you’ll see all the little seams and cracks of a game that was just a bit too burly for the hardware. Zones are just a little bit small, compared to the typical monstrous sprawl of Assassins Creed cities. Some things control in the strangest of ways, like the rowing. The camera periodically jumps into the wrong spot, and the controls will at times act more like a big sticky button than a precise mouse click.
This port, though, and the limitations of the Vita that the game inherits, work in its favour in places. Rather than devote a third of the game to slowly introducing game mechanics, the tutorial for Assassins Creed: Liberation is whip-fast. Bam, here’s how stealth works. Bam, here’s how combat works. Bam, we’re starting the plot now, do keep up.
I rarely mention when a game crashes, because I’m aware that my play habits are non-standard. I alt-tab a lot, for example, which isn’t something games like Far Cry 3 handle well. Still, about every two hours, something in Assassins Creed: Liberation would fail at a loading screen, and Uplay would intrude between me and it trying to fix it. Eventually I’d have to jump to task manager just to shut down a program that was already telling me it’d failed and had to shut down.
Ultimately, Assassins Creed: Liberation is an Assassins Creed game, with almost all the baggage that that entails. It’s not a very good stealth game, but it’s certainly a pretty interesting game, with some pretty locations and fun climbing/exploring puzzles and, if you want to do it, a big ole sandbox to get lost in. Assassins Creed: Liberation is better than all the other Assassins Creed games, and yet, somehow, not the best.
You can get it on Steam.
Buy it if:
- You liked previous AC games and want something that refines Brotherhood with a more interesting protagonist.
- You want to play a game that uses the social limitations of being a women of colour as game mechanics.
- You enjoy the combat interface for Assassins Creed III and want a more linear experience focused on them.
Avoid it if:
- You want an experience more like Thief or Dishonored.
- You want a really excellently paced plot.
- You deal enough with oppression and marginalisation in real life.