Since its launch late last year in Japan and early this year everywhere else, the PlayStation Vita has been looking for "a system seller" -- an exclusive title so good consumers would have no choice but to buy Sony's handheld. Assassin's Creed III: Liberation has the bullet points you'd expect to fill this void with the franchise's trademark gameplay and open world, but it's not enough to make it a must own. Liberation is good, but it's not great.
Assassin's Creed III: Liberation casts us as Aveline, a young woman living in New Orleans before and during the American Revolution. When her mother -- a freed slave -- disappears, Aveline falls into the Assassins’ Brotherhood and starts stabbing Templars. If you're looking for a more detailed account of her journey from child to killer, you won't get it in Assassin's Creed III: Liberation, and that's one of its major flaws.
Aveline is the first female lead for the franchise, and her internal struggle could make for an extremely interesting story – she’s the privileged daughter of a slave while slavery rages on. However, Liberation glosses over those threads. Outside of a bio page in the main menu, you're never given any details on how this woman went from a lost girl to an assassin. How did her mentor train her to kill without her stepmother or father noticing?
I keep comparing Aveline's tale to that of Batgirl in the old Adam West Batman TV show -- her plotline is thin and conveniently glosses over facts that would upendit. Our hero's just out to pull missions and then get back to being daddy's little girl. That's disappointing; a more grounded tale would've done wonders for this game.
Luckily, pulling off missions is fun for the most part. The controls that have defined the Assassin's Creed franchise are an excellent fit for the PlayStation Vita and will have players running over rooftops and silently stabbing enemies in no time. Ease behind the Vita's dual analog sticks, and you'll feel at home, especially when missions have you infiltrating parties and killing politicians. The setup and execution of Liberation is just like the other Assassin’s Creed games, complete with the occasional, accidental leap to your death.
The fact that this stuff is still this much fun to do this far into the franchise is partially because Ubisoft keeps iterating on what works. Liberation boasts an active open world for Aveline to explore -- one that stretches from downtown New Orleans to the bayou and a few other places I won't spoil. These locales act as the backdrop for your story missions, but the world is packed with side quests from freeing slaves to buying shops. There are nearly 10 memory sequences to Aveline's story, but there's plenty to do after the credits roll.
Liberation is good, but it's not great.
A big part of that additional content is Personas. Aveline has three Personas in Liberation, acting as costume changes with individual pros and cons. The Assassin Persona gives Aveline access to all of her weapons but gains notoriety quickly -- something that makes patrols more likely to go on alert when they see you. Meanwhile, the Slave persona is weak in combat but can blend in with workers to avoid detection. Finally, the Lady persona is for hiding among the New Orleans elite and charming guards.
It's a three-part system that has its moments of coolness, but starts as a bit of a headache. In the beginning, you're not offered these Personas as choices for tackling a mission; you're forced to use them. All I wanted was to run around the rooftops as the Assassin, but I instead had to be a prim and proper lady for a few quests. You’re given more choice later -- and each persona comes with its own side quests -- but it never becomes the true "choose how you play" setup. Plus, "charming" is one of the most "gamey" moments in any Assassin's Creed. Aveline waves at a guard, a heart fills in over his head, and the oaf will follow you around like a puppy -- even as you march over to kill his boss in a restricted area.
With the exception of the weapon wheels defaulting to hatchet and gun between every load screen, the traditional controls work well here -- until wonky PlayStation Vita-specific stuff gets added in. It's bearable for the most part (swiping the backtouch to pickpocket) and intuitive in some cases (pinch to zoom on the map), but then it gets off the rails. Pinching the front and rear touch screens to tear open a letter pulled me out of the world Ubisoft was trying to create, and decoding letters by holding a light to the rear camera never worked well for me. There's even a maddening ball-rolling mini-game using the handheld's gyroscopes. Liberation is a reminder that games don’t need to capitalize on every available gimmick, and often shouldn’t.
Speaking of tacked on, Assassin's Creed III: Liberation packs an asynchronous multiplayer mode. Here, you'll choose if you're with the Brotherhood or the Templars, and then start tapping nodes around the world. You never engage in any combat, but assign troops to attack or defend a spot. All the other people playing multiplayer are doing this too, so there's a constant tug of war as to who is in charge of the nodes. The mode is boring and poorly explained, and I had it glitch out on me a couple of times to where I couldn't quit. Luckily, this mode isn't why anyone's buying Liberation.
When it comes to looks, Assassin's Creed III: Liberation alternates between stunning and substandard. There are screenshots in our gallery that look jaw dropping, and Liberation lives up to the promotional material. But then things start moving. Assassin's Creed III: Liberation struggles with framerate issues from start to finish. Sometimes it feels like Aveline's running a bit slower than she should be, and other times she'll practically teleport from place to place as the game catches up with her. There's a lot of detail to Liberation, but you pay the performance cost to see it all. Plus while the soundtrack is sweeping, dialogue and effects can sound tinny.
That's the weird thing about Assassin's Creed: Liberation: it goes back and forth from being cool to being lame. You'll earn a chain kill (think 'Mark and Execute' from Splinter Cell) and then have to use the touch screen for something goofy. You'll use your whip to swing from tree branches and then have to watch the framerate slowdown. You'll love the idea of Aveline, but you'll never really get to know her story.