Full disclosure: we received Assassin's Creed 3: Liberation code at the end of last week, but there were some unexpected problems with downloading it, which neither we nor Ubisoft could sort until yesterday. So, despite doing our best to devour it whole, it's simply impossible to review one of the Vita's biggest ever hitters based on the amount of time we've had with it.
This is why our full review will follow tomorrow, and why - for now - we'll give you our first impressions, after a solid ten hours with the game. (Crucial bathroom breaks not included.) Think of this as your short taster before our full and unabashed verdict smacks you directly in the eyeballs in 24 hours time.
So, what's clear is that, in Liberation, things are different. You're not male. You're not even white. In what has to be a first for the videogame protagonist, realm of the early 30's white guy distinguished by minor variations in scowls, the game opens with you controlling a ten-year-old African-American girl in 18th Century New Orleans. (Oh, she's posh too.) Aveline de Grandpre was born in 1747 to a wealthy businessman. After being abandoned by her mother as a child, she never regained her trust in people, which made her a prime target for manipulation by the Assassin Brotherhood.
To any fair-minded person, the fact she's a different colour to every single one of Assassin's Creed's long lineage of dark-haired white blokes, and that she's a 'she', should be of no consequence. However, it does, smartly, have a bearing on the gameplay, opening up new opportunities to explore and exploit.
PERSONA NON GRATA
Take disguises. You can enter any clothing chamber you see, drawing the velvet curtain like a latter day photo booth. Inside you've got a choice of personas. Use the Lady Persona, for instance, to bribe guards and charm followers to fight for you, but as a side effect you're weaker in combat, can't climb, and move slower.
Or you could use the Slave Persona, which enables you to blend into groups of workers by triggering a short 'raking the ground' or 'carrying the crate' animation. Alternatively, you can ditch personas altogether. Notoriety will start to mount if you constantly wear your every day garb, but you can lower it by tearing down wanted posters, apparently a legal fix in colonial America.
Dressed in our customary attire, we set out to explore New Orleans, a bit like Assassin's Creed II's Florence, but populated by racists. Slaves were being bargained off with root vegetables on street corners, while pirates unloaded goods of no doubt dubious wares in dank and muddy harbours. Trees lined red brick pavements which, in a nice touch lending parity to Liberation's big brother Assassin's Creed 3, can all be climbed.
Actually, the entire structure is patented Creed: find mission-giver, complete mission, buy new sword, pistol or outfit with the cash, and dive into a well-placed barrel of hay when bored. Where sequels looked to improve on the formula, Liberation is content just to recreate it here, given the constraints of a handheld which can just about squeeze console-calibre titles from best-selling brands, from full voice acting to a length that stretches dozens of hours.
That was evident in an earlier mission, a short sneak into an old, off-white plantation. Dressed in slave gear, we moved from group to group when guards turned their backs, rescued our target, then escorted them out. The whole thing didn't take more than three minutes, a solid slice of action but tried and tested all the same.
It was then off to the docks where we engaged Eagle Vision to hunt for missing shipping containers whilst ducking from or bribing groups of Red Coats. Then, in classic Creed fashion, we tailed a target who stopped every now and then to suspiciously inquire about that bumbling woman behind him, who was carving a clumsy path through a crowd of angry peasants. She was noticeable by her increased polygon count and better animated character model.
So, those were our first ten hours in Assassin's Creed: Liberation, but we're by no means done. Check out our full review, based on every explorable inch of the game, tomorrow.