Aveline de Grandpre is a fascinating character. Not only is the heroine of Assassin's Creed III: Liberation the series' first female protagonist, but her backstory deals with one of the darkest periods in American history. This is a woman born from the romance between a wealthy father and a slave mother, someone who has overcome her uncertain upbringing to find a new life in the Assassin Brotherhood. She's the sort of figure capable of anchoring a truly special game--making it all the more disappointing that Liberation, taken as a whole, is a bit dull.
It's not that Liberation lacks for new ideas. In fact, this Vita spin-off introduces a number of intriguing concepts. Rather than one of Desmond Miles' trips through the Animus, the narrative in Liberation is framed as a piece of historical entertainment delivered by Abstergo Industries, the illusive corporation that serves as the series' overarching antagonist. It is, in other words, a story about Assassins as told by Templars.
There's great potential here for the type of storytelling unique to an unreliable narrator, yet Liberation takes little advantage of its own narrative format. Though the story deals with such heavy themes as slavery and the cultural identity of a city transitioning from French to Spanish rule, it's a largely aimless and hastily delivered plot that sees Aveline bounce around like a pinball from one enemy to the next for the bulk of the game. There are occasional flashes of excitement when a mysterious hacker infiltrates Abstergo's narrative to offer you the "truth" about these events, but they amount to little more than a handful of extended cutscenes back-loaded toward the end of the game.
The greatest casualty of Liberation's muddled storytelling is Aveline herself. She's introduced as an intriguing and strong-willed character, but Aveline's personality is hardly explored beyond that initial introduction. Her recruitment into the Assassin Brotherhood is quickly glossed over, while her gender and mixed ethnicity only occasionally factor into the story. These are interesting traits that you wish the game would explore in more detail, but it's more concerned with a dizzying roster of villains and side characters than spending much time on the heroine at its center.
Where Liberation shines brightest is its re-creation of the city Aveline calls home. This is a brilliant version of 18th-century New Orleans, one that beautifully reflects the diverse cultural ambience formed over years of operating as a French trading port. You often venture outside the city too, spending time with smugglers in the bayou as well as journeying to a couple more locations well beyond Louisiana (though to name them would be spoiling things). These locales look terrific, easily rivaling the rich vistas of Liberation's console counterparts. It's enough to make you stop and soak up the atmosphere during those moments you're scaling a church tower to synchronize the world map.
Unfortunately, you really do have to stop to appreciate the world around you because when things get moving, the Vita hardware tends to struggle under the weight of Ubisoft's graphical ambitions. The frame rate drops precipitously when you hit a dead sprint, and large-scale fights against more than four or five enemies will make things chug as well. It's too bad, because these frame rate issues severely impact the fluid and freewheeling style of urban parkour that has long been the greatest strength of this franchise. Likewise, these visual hiccups don't do any favors to an otherwise refined combat system, which disposes of manual lock-on in favor of a more flexible and intuitive approach to swordfights.
It's a good thing, then, that Liberation offers you plenty of opportunities to slow things down and take out enemies one by one. There are occasional bombastic set pieces, but much of the mission design harks back to older Assassin's Creed games, where stalking your targets from the rooftops or silently following them to their hideouts took precedence over vehicular chases and scripted chaos.
Indeed, Aveline is every bit the capable assassin Ezio and Altair were. And in many ways, she's got even more tricks up her sleeve. Liberation introduces a multiple-identity system that allows Aveline to dress in slave garb, ladies' formal wear, or stylish assassin gear. Each guise carries its own strengths and weaknesses, while notoriety levels are split across three separate pools. It's an interesting system in the game's early goings, allowing you to do things like charm your way past guards as a well-dressed lady or infiltrate plantations as a slave. But any strategic depth this identity system offers is eclipsed by its limitations: the slave persona is useful only in extremely specific story moments, while the formal wear prohibits her from sprinting and platforming; she's forced to navigate the sprawling city at a light jog. By the end of the game, you find yourself defaulting to the tried-and-true assassin's attire at nearly every opportunity.
It's especially odd that Liberation would take away your ability to freely dart about the world, because, frame rate issues aside, the platforming is more exciting than it has ever been. As in Assassin's Creed III, you're no longer limited to climbing buildings and man-made structures; you can now dash up trees, scale cliffs, and leap effortlessly from branch to branch. These traversal enhancements are especially highlighted in Liberation's swampy, imposing version of the Louisiana bayou, where fallen trees and endless swamps dominate the scenery.
If only there were more going on out there. Aside from the occasional alligator encounter, there's almost nothing to do in the wilderness. There's no hunting, no cabin in the woods to build up--it's almost entirely navigating from one story mission to the next. That's less of an issue in the city portion of the gameworld, where there is a decent collection of side quests and optional distractions; still, Liberation's New Orleans isn't nearly as rich with content as the cities Ezio explored.
Which is not to say that Liberation is free of secondary content. As the story unfolds, Aveline becomes involved in her father's business empire. This allows you to invest your money in the purchase of ships and various goods (coffee, fruit, leather, and so on) and send those vessels along trade routes all over the Atlantic in an effort to gain the maximum return on your investments. Like managing assassins in previous games, it's an oddly compelling strategy minigame that serves as a nice change of pace from the action surrounding it.
Even more interesting (though perhaps not as well executed) is the online multiplayer, which pits Assassins against Templars in a map-based battle for worldwide domination. It's essentially a card game where you collect assassins of various statistical abilities and then send them into fights across the world in an effort to capture those cities for your chosen side. There's a strange allure in the way it feels like a science-fiction-tinged cross between Pokemon and Risk, but it's hard to imagine this feature has the staying power of the console multiplayer experience.
And yet, such fun diversions are more the exception than the rule. Though Assassin's Creed III: Liberation toys around with intriguing concepts and centers its story around a character you desperately want to know more about, none of it comes together especially well. Liberation often excels, but it stumbles just as much. The result is a game that fails to bear the standard of quality that has defined this series for years.