Assassin's Creed 3: Liberation preview: personality, conflict
The task facing Assassin's Creed 3: Liberation may be more daunting than the high expectations of Assassin's Creed 3. The series has never really found a portable home, forcing the game to face double-duty in both subverting negative reactions and living up to the legacy. In an extended hands-on demo of the game, my own skepticism faded and was replaced by hope that the positive signs it shows so far are true indication of its potential.
To all appearances, Liberation may as well be a member of the main series. Ubisoft has figured some way to wring pretty astounding visuals out of the device. While the streets of New Orleans are slightly less occupied than we've seen in the major franchise titles, the city is still lively and bustling. It's not the emaciated community present in the PSP Bloodlines.
The game plays very similarly to the major titles as well -- by which I should point out, it plays very similarly to AC3. The same changes to free-running and the counter system apply, thanks to sharing a scalable engine. Only the R button is required to run, and the counter system slows time to pick your next action. As a companion piece, the two feel perfectly suited for each other, though the time-slow counter mechanic is carried off more gracefully in the main game.
One of the most serious shifts is in this game's heroine, Aveline, who is very different in both story and play style. The obvious changes to her gender and the New Orleans setting give way to more subtle differences. Aveline is the first playable character not related to Desmond, for example, and the game takes place completely within its time period without ties to his meta-narrative.
"This is an Abstergo entertainment product," script writer Jill Murray explained. "They've figured out how to extract memories and package them for your playing pleasure. Then of course the question is, why have they chosen to show us the life of an assassin, and how truthful is their edit? That mystery is part of the story even though it's never explained as such."
Aveline can also perform a few tricks that Ezio and Altair never could, thanks to a new "Persona" system. Her history has an element of duality, being born of a wealthy French merchant and a Creole slave. As such, she's comfortable slipping between worlds. "She's a social shape-shifter," Murray said. "They're not just disguises, she becomes a different person and it really changes the way she relates to the world and the way people relate to her."
In play, this means adopting three very different personalities, but they're not mere costume changes. Everything from her voice actress' mannerisms to her abilities shift. As the Assassin, Aveline enjoys the usual suit of abilities, but has to cope with a constantly high notoriety. To escape suspicion, she can adopt the "Lady" persona, which sacrifices agility for the skill to entice and bribe guards. Finally, she can take on the "Slave" persona, which lets her blend in with other slaves or incite riots. The game doesn't carry all of the city-building mechanics of Ezio's trilogy, but purchasing more tailors helps give quick access to changing rooms.
The missions are a bit shorter, and the city is a bit flatter, but it appears to do a masterful job of capturing the series tone regardless. Ubisoft even promised its own multiplayer mode, though the company played close to the vest with what that meant. It was explicit to point out that it will not be akin to Assassin Creed 3's multiplayer.
While its core similarities are encouraging, some concessions to the device are less so. It felt perfectly natural to use the touch screen as quick access for equipment changes, but other uses -- like pinching the screen and rear touch-pad to tear open a letter -- felt more like a gimmick. Uses like these could be clever if used sparingly, but I was asked to do it twice in a short time with the game. Liberation felt so close to its console counterparts, and these segments felt incongruous with the rest of the experience.
Aside from that minor reservation, however, stepping into Liberation felt like slipping on an old pair of shoes. Everything simply fit, and was immediately familiar. Liberation promises to repair some of the series' portable missteps, but it has the potential to reach beyond that modest goal. The game has some interesting ideas of its own, and it could well be a showpiece for the Vita.
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This Assassin's Creed 3: Liberation preview was based on a pre-release Vita demo of the game at an event where transportation and accommodations were provided by Ubisoft.