Why I Keep Thinking About Assassin's Creed III: Liberation

Shaun McInnis shares his thoughts on why Liberation came so close to greatness, and his hopes for what's to come.

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.

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Discussion

7 comments
Dark-Exsphere
Dark-Exsphere

Honestly, i hated this game ever since i started playing it.... when i'd jump from roof to roof it would look so stupid because the framerate was so bad. some of the animations were weird and the combat for me felt like it had no impact. however; when i beat the game and started going after the trophies i somehow fell in love with the game. the combat is awesome. i finally figured out the timing for the counter attack. the whip had more than one function and it was just amazing. after i 100% this game im playing it again. i stil think it deserves a 7 or 7.5. its really not that bad to get a 6.0. i would say theirs a learning curve higher than the console versions in this game.

Derugs
Derugs

Jolly good idea :) 

fedetaco
fedetaco

I am another proud owner of a Vita, I think Liberation is pretty acceptable, I recommend Vita to any who is interested in getting one, it is not  a ps3 but it is portable you will get the least you think you deserve.... then when you have it in your hands you wont be dissapointed...only the memory cost will dissapoint you....it's too expensive... I wish there were more platform games such as Crash Bandicoot and castlevania....

rageyoishi
rageyoishi

atleast 7.5...for a handheld game..AC3 liberation its fantastic..

theshonen8899
theshonen8899

I am a very proud owner of the Vita but I too found Liberation to be flawed. Although the game is still good, tinny audio, bad frame-rate, inconsistent graphics, and meh voice acting bring it down. Still a great game and definitely recommend people to pick it up.

WeeGee9000
WeeGee9000

In my humble opinion, the only part of Assassin's creed Liberation that really sucked was the DAMNED CAVE LEVEL

Skrilla_XS
Skrilla_XS

I wouldn't think a 6.5 would be considered "so close to greatness." Especially on a 10 point scale, I would think great-NESS would at least be 8.5, so 2 points really doesn't seem to be that close.

times4
times4

I really respect Shaun, not only did he give an actual REVIEW of a game, but he gave it a true score. None of the "7-10" B.S that has been the way of the industry since the start of this latest console generation. Shaun points out reasonable flaws and shortcomings that the game has, and I don't understand why people think a 6.5 is a bad score. There is no reason for such an uproar over such a good review, a review that points out both the good and the bad and judges it accordingly. Thank you, Shaun. Don't ever change!

Fearless_BadAss
Fearless_BadAss

Its just a game.  Why this guy's articles try to make them more than that is beyond me.  You know whats really sad?  He based his score on the story.....that is at most 10% of the time you spend while playing the game.  Why not cover the areas where we spend the other 90%?  And one other thing, while I can understand how bugs can be an issue, if you wait a few weeks that issue is usually taken care of by a patch.  Lower a game's score if it doesn't get a patch otherwise don't bomb the game just because the developers/publishers/whomever made a mistake or two.

bojox3m
bojox3m

My respect with Shaun has been restored.

avatarIVN
avatarIVN

"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." If I remember correctly, commenters didn't exactly said that. They used more #$@%&, f********* explicit words. 

Anyway, I have to agree that flaws in storytelling are a real letdown to me. That's because I care for protagonists with motivations, strengths and weaknesses.

NikIvRu
NikIvRu

NOWHERE in the text or the review or anywhere it is said that Liberation is developed in Bulgaria. Unbelievable!

Okamiiiii
Okamiiiii

Nobody can't respect other peoples' opinions these days. That makes me sad.

robbiejones
robbiejones

wouldnt mind seen a ressi 6 article bout "why kevin still thinks bout it" lol jks

Yuna08
Yuna08

respect, one of the few people who reads readers' comments and write an article about it

12eece
12eece

Am I the only one who, after hearing that the story was missing elements, immediately thought........ additional content? Maybe they glossed over it so they can release it later and charge you to find out what should have really been in the game in the first place!

Clynol
Clynol

The main protagonist also looks black so that lowers the score to. LOL

jflkdjs
jflkdjs

Excellent review by Shaun McInnis! :)

fend_oblivion
fend_oblivion

AC Liberation, was probably rushed to meet the deadline and I'm guessing most of the story and features were put on the cutting block. And probably, they didn't have time to optimize the engine to utilize the PSVita's strengths.

 

I wish the devs would adopt the mantra of releasing games when they are fully complete, rather than releasing an incomplete and inferior product.

CLOCKWORKIAN
CLOCKWORKIAN

I always felt that "Assassin's Creed III: Liberation" sounded like an adult film title... But I thought "Dark Souls" was supposed to be a comedy, so I guess I'm not the best person to judge video games. Welll better get to bed. Tomorrow is going to be a long work day for me at the ESRB.

Col_Swamp
Col_Swamp

I picked the game up and have been pleased so far. Not as many frame rate issues as I thought there would be. As far as vita games go it's worth a go for sure!

 

Reuwsaat
Reuwsaat

Can't get Danny's voice out of my head, the intonation on that "G dollar" comment. Just.Delibateraly.

HonorOfGod
HonorOfGod

I will say this again.. I like this game better than AC3.

phillybro806
phillybro806

I don't care about the freaking story! I just want to know if the game is fun. So many reviews grade on the story and not on how much fun the game is. I guest that's what happens when you have a reviewer who is a hybrid between a journalist and a gamer. We just need more gamer reviewers. 

Sasuke_jin
Sasuke_jin

@fedetaco  so.... is this game worth the price or should I wait till its like $19 used?

Dark-Exsphere
Dark-Exsphere

@WeeGee9000 

actually the worst part was using the vita's functions.... i would put the damn thing against a bright light and nothing would happen.... and in that maze level where you move the ball, that was dumb too because it was so unresponsive to my tilting...

 

times4
times4

"Don't bomb the game just because the developers/publishers/whomever made a mistake or two"

 

Would you not be mildly upset if you ordered a cheeseburger but got a chicken wrap? What if you bought an expensive pair of headphones, but the sound quality was cutting out when you turned your head? The same applies to a video game - you spend $40 on a game, you expect it to be a finished product. If you read his review, you would understand why the game got its score (which isn't a bad score, 6.5 is pretty good on a 1-10 scale)

shaunmc
shaunmc moderator staff

 @NikIvRu How so? Kevin's review of AC3 doesn't mention that it was developed in Montreal. 

blackfire
blackfire

@Clynol Wow it's 2012 hard to believe there are still racist a$$holes around?

evil_m3nace
evil_m3nace

 @fend_oblivion Blame the publisher, not the developers. But do it WITHOUT the pitchforks an...oh it's too late, the horde is coming.

Wawas20
Wawas20

 @HonorOfGod yeah there is no way this is better then AC3. AC3 is best game i have EVER played. and AC3L is good but the story is crap

robbiejones
robbiejones

 @phillybro806

 i c where ur gettn at, i do like story most of the time, but most days after work i dun really wanna sit down with a controller in my hand and watch a long cut scene like mgs4 etc. i really luv dark souls demon souls etc. while there is a story in those games i enjoy the gameplay much much more. its near perfection so a souls game on the vita would suit me just just fine

ahpuck
ahpuck

 @phillybro806  I think you should find another hobby, or stick to your CoD type kiddie games.

senseless_dj
senseless_dj

 @phillybro806 AC is "fun" when you know what you are doing in the game and the story is there to tell you what to do, whats your motivation for assassinations. If you don't care about story then that's your issue, others who likes story deserves to hear about the criticisms about the story. I think Shaun did a great job and you are in no position to criticize his credibility.

Kevin-V
Kevin-V moderator staff

 @phillybro806 The AC games spend hours upon hours telling their stories; how well they tell their stories is a vital aspect in determining how good the game in general is. 

 

Furthermore, it should be obvious to anyone that has played a game in the last decade that games are more than just throwaway fun. They strive to do more than just entertain you through mindless activities--they strive to move you, to invest you, to excite you, and more. They do that in all sorts of ways, from gameplay, to challenge, to audio, to visuals, to dialogue.

 

If you don't care about story, that's fine, I suppose--but you are missing out on some incredible games whose delights are primarily in the stories they tell. I struggle to think how you would look at classics like Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy VI, or modern games like To the Moon or Heavy Rain. Meanwhile, a critic's job is to evaluate the entire experience. And I am glad that most critics (and most gamers) aren't so shallow as to not care about story. 

shaunmc
shaunmc moderator staff

 @phillybro806 If a game spends time trying to tell a story, we kind of have to judge the story. 

TriumphantToad
TriumphantToad

 @phillybro806 The story IS part of the game, and it's definitely a part that plenty of people who are not journalists care about.

Granpire
Granpire

 @shaunmc  @NikIvRu I'd say it's important to distinguish between Ubisoft Montreal and Ubisoft Sofia.

 

Not relevant that it's developed in Bulgaria, but relevant that it was developed by a specific development team.

NikIvRu
NikIvRu

 @shaunmc NOT DEVELOPED in Montreal.How about mentioning the actual city or at least country where the game has been made.

matthewmtg
matthewmtg

@Kevin-V @phillybro806  "aren't so shallow" - Labeling people as 'shallow' clearly contains a negative-bite towards such people, which I"m not so sure would be a professional thing to say as a staff member.

Ironically, stating such a thing could easily be argued that you, in fact, are displaying a level of 'shallowness' by being so narrow-minded and 'quick to wrap a bow' around those people that simply do not value stories to the level that you may do in video games.

Bottom line is simple, truly.  People are motivated to play video games so that they may enjoy themselves.  How one achieves this enjoyment in video gaming clearly will differ among the people.  Some will value the story-telling in video games, surely.  Some won't care so much about that, and would rather just 'pull the trigger and witness brain matter splat onto nearby walls' without feeling the desire to follow some deep-rooted story.

Planning strategic entry-points, and/or paths to traverse in the old Rainbow Six days on the PC (assume the "story" was ignored by user)  could easily be argued that the usage of mind during such acts would have well surpassed that of someone following the "story" in your COD's, or Bioshocks, AC's, etc.  Does this make the old Rainbow Six player shallow?  

Hardly.

To conclude that certain groups of people who do not value story-telling in games are 'shallow-minded' individuals was a mis-step on your part Kevin.   


Love your reviews & keep up the good work.


-Matt



Luizao2779
Luizao2779

 @Kevin-V  @phillybro806 It is the same with movies when you want to watch them and enjoy the full experience from it, camera angles, editing, etc. Most people look at you in a weird way if you say that the photography in a popular movie was not that good or something around those lines. I think that some games even if they didn't get a perfect score are still enjoyable and fun, they just could have been better. I guess that is what happened to AC3. I haven't finished it but I am having a great time flaws aside.

Granpire
Granpire

 @ClaudiusCaesar It's still important to distinguish between studios, and give credit(or discredit) where it's due. 

 

Besides, Liberation's shortcomings don't sound as if they stemmed from technical issues so much as a lack of game design and storytelling experience or ability. If the game had been developed by Ubisoft Montreal, it would likely be much closer to the console release's quality.

ClaudiusCaesar
ClaudiusCaesar

 @Granpire  Well, I don't know any work from Ubisoft Sofia to judge that. Vita is a new console that any team could find difficult, mostly for a very ambitious game.