Last week, I reviewed Assassin's Creed III: Liberation. I scored it a 6.5. At various points in the comments, this led people to pronounce that I was surely (A) a Vita hater, (B) a horrible monster, or (C) a horrible, Vita-hating monster. But as these things tend to go, the reality of the matter isn't quite as exciting as the theories: I'm simply a fan of the series who enjoyed Liberation but felt its flaws--technical and otherwise--were substantial enough to warrant a score in the "approach with caution" range.
And yet, in spite of the frame rate issues and misguided touch controls, there's something about Liberation that's stuck with me over the past week. It's a deeply fascinating game, one that takes risks and introduces new ideas to the tried-and-true Assassin's Creed formula. These ideas don't always come together especially well, but they're almost always interesting. And, for me, no part of Liberation is more interesting than its narrative ambitions.
This is a thematically rich game. Kotaku posted a terrific piece last week that goes into great detail about the subject matter in Liberation, the way it places the issues of slavery and racial identity at the heart of its story. And for that, I think Ubisoft deserves a great deal of credit: these are themes few games have ever dealt with, and Liberation confronts them right at the outset.
But therein lies my disappointment with Liberation's storytelling efforts. So much of what makes the narrative interesting is backdrop and backstory, whereas so little of it is character development and sustained plot. It starts out promising, and coasts on that promise for the rest of the game.
Ubisoft deserves a great deal of credit: these are themes few games have ever dealt with, and Liberation confronts them right at the outset.
A big part of that is how the game handles its protagonist, Aveline de Grandpre. Aveline is a rare sight in video games: an empowered female protagonist whose mixed ethnic background touches on powerful, resonant historical themes. She's the product of two completely different worlds: her father is a wealthy white trader, and her mother is an African slave brought to America by way of Haiti. After her mother mysteriously disappears when Aveline is still a small child, she is taken in by her father and raised in a society that will likely never fully embrace her.
But as the story wears on, the plot is so rushed and concerned with uncovering a dizzying string of Templar threats that hardly any time is spent exploring Aveline's motivations. In fact, Aveline's most important characteristic as an Assassin--why she became one--is almost entirely ignored. Does she join out of revenge? A grand plan to see New Orleans slaves set free? We don't know, and that lack of knowledge removes vital context from Aveline's story.
Now contrast that with Connor's story in Assassin's Creed III. Yes, ACIII gets off to a remarkably slow start, but that's because the game makes a profound investment in fleshing out its main character. It takes its time explaining who Connor's parents are, the trauma he experiences during his youth, and why he's so motivated by anger that he often struggles to align his own goals with those of the Assassin Brotherhood.
I would love to have seen that time and attention afforded to Aveline in her story. So many of the story's most interesting developments--a hinted romance between Aveline and a longtime friend, or her inability to inherit her father's business despite being an only child--are quickly glossed over, and we never see how they motivate her, how they affect her.
Does it want to be a handheld game with a quick, punchy story, or does it want to take on an ambitious narrative and explore one of the darkest periods in American history?
Ultimately, Liberation feels like a game that isn't sure of its own identity. Does it want to be a handheld game with a quick, punchy story suited to those playing it on the go, or does it want to take on an ambitious narrative and explore one of the darkest periods in American history? In the end, I feel like Liberation tries to do both and suffers for it.
And yet, I keep thinking about it. A week after posting my review, Liberation's story lingers in my head: "If only this, if only that…" Clearly, Liberation has done something right. Its narrative ambitions may not have led to the most elegant story, but Ubisoft has succeeded in sparking a train of thought that has lasted well beyond the closing credits.
That's why I hope to see Liberation as the first step on the road toward something more. When Ubisoft inevitably continues to expand the Assassin's Creed franchise, I would love to see them return to this era of American history and, if not continue Aveline's story directly, at the very least continue to explore the powerful themes it's touched on here.
Remember, this is a series that has now had five primary installments and at least a half-dozen portable spin-offs. The fact that it's still able to be so interesting is a triumph in and of itself. Now take what makes Liberation so interesting and build on it. Give the story the breathing room it deserves. Forget the rules of storytelling on handheld systems and give us a narrative that plays by its own rules.