After the excess and ambition of Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, playing Liberation HD is a bit like finding some change down the back of the couch after winning the lottery.
Black Flag was successful because it freshened the formula, inviting players away from cities for adventure on the high seas. Liberation sends them right back in, however, repeating those stale moments though distinguishing itself for being slightly uglier.
Originally a PS Vita companion piece to 2012's Assassin's Creed III, Liberation already feels out of step. Set in a Spanish-controlled New Orleans and the surrounding bayou, the story plays off both the French and Indian War, and the first half of the American Revolutionary War, focussing in particular on the horrors of slavery.
You play Aveline de Grandpré, a young lady born to a wealthy father and slave mother. Like AC3's protagonist Connor Kenway, she's of mixed race and mixed loyalties. Unlike Connor, who incidentally puts in a Jar-Jar-Binks-style cameo here, she's likeable.
That's not to say Aveline is the next Alyx Vance. She's too thinly drawn, and great swathes of her history are undocumented. Still, she's strong, intelligent and resourceful. She doesn't smarm like Ezio, pout like Connor or rage like Edward, and that counts for something.
Aveline's story occupies the same general space and time as AC3 but its narrative diverges, unconcerned by Desmond Miles's overarch. Here you're not tapping into the Animus while fleeing from Abstergo (the modern-day corporate front for the evil Templars), but instead from within the corporation itself.
"The product you have purchased allows you to access the memories of Aveline de Grandpre," says a cold voice during the game's opening.
Abstergo can't be trusted, and your unreliable narrator raises questions over what's historically accurate. That's where Citizen E comes in, a mysterious agent working for the Assassins. Throughout the game he launches hack attacks via DOS-style screens. "Abstergo thinks it can tack the word 'entertainment' on its name and hide the truth," he writes among dancing command prompts and alien symbols.
The set-up intends to give the game texture, but all it does is confuse. There are too many layers that are poorly explained. This is a time-travelling space onion of a game. What's wrong with simply letting us play a cool assassin in the 18th century? Why must our heads be continually rammed against the fourth wall?
"What's wrong with simply letting us play a cool assassin in the 18th century?"
Liberation's biggest innovation is, likewise, clumsily executed. The persona system lets you change into three different outfits: swap your Assassin's garb for a dainty pink parasol and bonnet and you'll raise less suspicion in public. Slave rags, meanwhile, allow you to blend in amongst plantation farmhands. Both alternatives mean sacrificing weapons and freerunning.
The problem here is the lack of appeal in changing. Whichever costume that lets you stab people in the face is the one you want. To don different outfits you'll need to head to designated lockers, but they're too thinly spread across the city to be practical. That you'll actively circumvent one of the game's main features when given a choice is worrying (some missions force you into certain outfits), because there's not really much else, especially when compared to Black Flag's embarrassment of riches.
After a few hours into the game, you'll venture to a murky bayou. There are no hunting challenges, forts to raid or homesteads to maintain here, and new pursuits such as battling alligators in quick-time-events and paddling canoes down pea-green rivers won't keep you occupied for long. Picking your way through the network of floating logs and swinging vines does provide a different angle to New Orleans' streets and rooftops, at least.
The bayou does however host Liberation's best main missions. At one point you'll need to protect a group of innocent settlers from a crew of enraged slaves out to exact revenge. The moral grey area it occupies for Aveline, the daughter of a slave, trumps the standard "assassinate important person" duties.
Later, you'll crash a voodoo ritual. There are several ways in: you might pick off stragglers from the treetops, which you can quickly traverse through using rope bridges and conveniently hanging branches. Or you could race between piles of dead grass, or silently poison foes with your blowpipe.
More so than AC: III or Black Flag, Liberation encourages acting the Assassin - whether that's whispering words in the ears of a slave to incite a riot, or tailing a target by ducking between haystacks. Not least because being sneaky here is often a requirement rather than an option. If the last two Creeds were action epics, this is a bona fide stealth game.
Of course, if being sneaky doesn't appeal, you can always wade in with hatchet and whip. The quick and nasty counter-based combat system has endured both the port down and the port back up, even if foes are a touch less feisty.
To unlock new weapons, as well as attire and ammo, you'll need money. In comes international trade. You'll purchase ships, load them with sugar and cotton in bulk, then send them on money-making voyages, hoping they don't succumb to hurricanes or pirate raids en route. While no more than navigating a series of menus, it's an extra layer of strategy all the same, and an engaging solution to watching a number in the top corner of the screen representing money slowly increase.
On PS Vita, Liberation's shortcomings were rightly given a pass because of its platform. One could even make a case for its smaller and more focused approach in the face of franchise feature-creep. In joining the big leagues, however, you have to hold it to higher standards. Fittingly for a historical game, Liberation is stuck in the past, proving true the old adage: once you've had Black Flag you'll never go back.
More focused and stealthy than its big brothers, but this HD handheld port suffers in the jump to consoles.
- Encourages stealth over action
- Aveline is a strong female lead
- A shorter campaign and smaller world than console Creeds
- Looks like a HD PS2 game
- Wearing bonnets is rubbish