Liberation succeeds in merely mimicking the series' acclaimed ethos, but never manages to fully capture it...

User Rating: 6 | Assassin's Creed III: Liberation VITA
After completing a playthrough of Assassin's Creed III: Liberation that I knew to be somewhere in the realm of 12 hours or so, I went to check my exact play-time in the game's stats screen. According to this submenu, my week's worth of multi-hour play sessions had, in truth, only lasted 42 minutes. As bizarre as this error was, I didn't think much of it as I had already encountered dozens of similar flaws by the time I had completed the campaign; in a game as sloppy as Liberation, the flaws are so manifold that it's hard to take particular note of any one of them by the time all's said and done. Whether its a chugging frame rate, an incoherent narrative, clunky combat, or serious glitches, there are more than a few punches to roll with while playing Liberation. Still, it's quite hard to call it a bad game, and this is simply because it manages to mimic the series' acclaimed ethos, even if it never fully captures it. The hugely inconsistent experience that results is generally a mess, but the mere fact that it achieves even the slightest success in upholding the franchise's stellar ideas and mechanics allows it to, intermittently, be quite brilliant.

One of the game's occasional bursts of cleverness comes in the establishment of its unique framing device. Instead of following the core console series' formula in which a modern-day protagonist straps into the Animus and lives out their ancestors' memories, Liberation's historical narrative is presented as a propaganda-laden consumer product released by the franchise's chief antagonists, the nefarious Abstergo corporation. If the game had executed on this concept with any grace, the adventures of 18th-century New Orleanian Assassin Aveline de Grandpre would have had an enticing air of deceit about them. Unfortunately, whoever's coming up with the slanderous propaganda over at Abstergo exercises surprising restraint, leading Liberation's narrative tone lacking in any sort of clarity; it's rarely apparent which sections are doctored memories and which are the real deal. What follows is a continuously off-putting plot that's wholly unreliable simply by accident and lack of foresight on the part of its writers.

The historical plot, even when distilled from its ill-conceived framing device, doesn't fare much better. The game's focus on the dichotomy between New Orleans' upper-class merchants and the suffering slaves that fuel their wealth seems like a promising setup. Similarly, the fact that Aveline is of mixed heritage, with one parent on either side of this class and racial divide, makes her a fitting anchor for this seemingly fearless tale. The fact that these themes are presented, however, doesn't mean that they're explored all that thoroughly. In fact, the plot largely glosses over its weighty subject matter in favor of a more straightforward whodunit mystery, thus completely squandering its impactful potential. Mostly good voice acting and memorable character designs keep story sequences from being a complete bore, but it's still unfortunate that the game doesn't capitalize on its fascinating foundations.

It's odd, but no less impressive that the best realization of Liberation's thematic ambitions is achieved within a small gameplay subsystem. During the first half of the game, Aveline is often required to change into one of three different outfits: the Slave, the Lady, and, of course, the Assassin. Each Persona, as they are called, affects both Aveline's moveset and the way the world responds to her. The Lady costume's restrictive corset, for example, prevents Aveline from stashing very many weapons or from engaging in the series' signature free-running mechanic. To make up for this seeming disadvantage, the citizens of New Orleans are much less suspicious of her, and some particularly chivalrous gentleman can help her blend into crowds or assist her in dealing with muggers. The Slave costume has its own set of perks and pitfalls, and the Persona system as a whole provides a refreshing twist on the usual Assassin's Creed formula.

Perhaps the best part of this system, however, is in how efficiently it characterizes Aveline. Though the game's lackluster cutscenes fail to give her many defining traits, this system eloquently shows her resourcefulness and knack for assuming the various societal roles that comprise the world around her. The Personas thus video game storytelling at its most ideal, as gameplay actively enforces the narrative shown through more traditional means (never mind how poor that plot is in the first place).

As fun as it is to experiment with the Slave and Lady costumes, the latter half of the game has you donning the Assassin's garb most frequently. It's here that Liberation returns to playing like Assassin's Creed as players know it, complete with death-defying platforming and swift, brutal combat. But while the series proper has perfected its core gameplay to the point of mechanical sublimation, a myriad of issues keep Liberation from attaining that same level of quality.

Though the excellent ambient sound design and lush art direction that bring New Orleans and the surrounding bayou to life create a wondrous sense of place, the immersion is all but broken once things pick up speed. As powerful as the Vita is, it's still unable to handle quick movement through such a large and detailed environment while maintaing a steady frame rate. Thus, the sense of speed and effortlessness that gives Assassin's Creed's parkour its thrilling edge is more or less nonexistent once the game begins to frequently dip into lows of 15-20 FPS. Still, the series' free-running system have always succeeded in inducing a sort of trance-like state thanks to its combination of stunning environments and detailed animations, and this effect is nevertheless achieved despite Liberation's relative sluggishness.

Combat, similarly, can yield some satisfaction despite never quite feeling right. Fights control much in the same way they do in Assassin's Creed III proper; the old block-counter routine of games past have been removed in favor of an Arkham City-esque control scheme centered around aggressive attacks and rhythmic parries. While this might sound perfectly entertaining, the game is oddly inconsistent in registering your counter-attacks, and you'll often find enemies proceeding to successfully wounding you despite your best efforts to get the upper hand. The same goes for stealthy kills; the game fails to recognize up-close assassinations rather often, leaving you to fumble around for another way to quickly dispose of your foe before getting caught up in an all-out brawl.

Luckily, Liberation almost seems to acknowledge its problems, and quickly introduces you to a vast array of instant-kill maneuvers to ease the pain that accompanies its poorly made combat structures. A pistol, multiple poison darts, liberally dispersed muskets, and a mark-and-execute system lifted straight from Splinter Cell: Conviction provide Aveline with plenty of ways to end violent encounters quickly and decisively. It goes without saying that none of these elements bode particularly well for the game's core fighting system, but they serve as apt crutches for its shortcomings.

Liberation further suffers from the same sort of arbitrary integration of the Vita's many control options as Uncharted: Golden Abyss did earlier this year. Swiping the screen to paddle a canoe or open a letter, using the gyroscope to solve a digital version of a magnetic handheld maze (don't even ask), and pointing the camera at light sources to illuminate invisible ink are about yield no enjoyment, and are readily visible as the needless stopgaps they are between the moments of more meaningful action.

The game also features a peculiar asynchronous, strategic multiplayer mode that plays out like an extension of the Brotherhood meta-game found in later console entries. You and your opponent vie for control of various cities across the world and achieve dominance by going on missions, and, of course, killing each other. All of this action takes place on a world map and within submenus with no real-time gameplay to be found. Though it's certainly atypical, this multiplayer mode simply isn't compelling enough to deserve much of your attention, and its social game trappings that limit the number of actions you can perform in one sitting lessens its appeal even more.

Though it's technically a spin-off of Connor Kenway's bloody campaign in Assassin's Creed III proper, Liberation is most reminiscent of the series' first entry. Altair's first outing is much like Aveline's in the degree to which it is defined by unrealized potential. Conceptually, everything is in place for one hell of a game. From a memorable protagonist and an immersive setting to a cool frame narrative and tried-and-true gameplay concepts imbued with a few innovative twists, Liberation has it all - on paper anyway. The slew of technical problems and ludonarrative inconsistencies that plague every facet of the game keep it from ever living up to its grand ambitions, and rather unfortunately renders the original Assassin's Creed its most fitting analog. All we can do is hope for a sequel that we might just as easily compare to Assassin's Creed II.

+Persona system is a great bit of ludic characterization
+Strong audio
+Great concepts...

-...that largely suffer from poor execution
-Data-corrupting bugs
-Arbitrary, uninteresting use of the Vita's many control options
-Poor frame rate