Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Assassins Creed III: Liberation Review

I’ve been a fan of Assassin’s Creed games since the series had its first reveal at E3. I remember buying the games and each time, being so pleased with freerunning, stylish kills, and inventive storyline that I couldn’t wait until a sequel came out.

I also remember the crushing disappointment that ensued after buying a portable Assassin’s Creed title. Assassin’s Creed in my hand! they said It’ll be great killing people on the go they said. Well they were damned wrong. Altair’s Chronicles for the Nintendo DS was atrocious. I wrote it off due to being on such an underpowered console that a true Assassin’s Creed title could not be achieved. Bloodlines, the PSP title, was different, but still horrible! By the time Discovery came out, I was completely done with mobile AC games.



But hark? What’s that? That shimmering ray of hope on the horizon? Could it be an Assassin’s Creed mobile title that may actually have a shred of quality and some semblance of the gameplay from the main series? Yes, Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation seems to be put to the until-now impossible task of recreating the console title’s look and feel on the handheld. Did it triumph or was I as disappointed with my hopes for a game as I was for Sonic ’06?

Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation has so much going right for it. To start with, they made the incredibly good decision to have the game star an assassin that has nothing to do with the storyline of the original game, nor does it start with some strange, out of place Desmond sequence like its console siblings. Instead, you’re given a quick video about how Abstergo’s product, the Animus, lets you view memories from an ancestor, and how you’re going to look at those from Aveline, a girl living in New Orleans around the time of the American Revolution. That’s it. No “the sun is going to kill us, please help us random bartender” nonsense, just a quick setup to let you dive in to the game.


The Vita also enables this game to have something has needed in order to make the successful jump to mobile platforms: a second thumbstick. Without the ability to control the camera freely and easily, Assassin’s Creed is fundamentally broken. If you can’t quickly find routes in a chase, observe things from a vantage point, or even target characters correctly, Assassin’s Creed quickly loses its appeal as it’s all about freedom of motion. Luckily for us, this game is built on the same engine as Assassin’s Creed III, which means roughly equivalent quality and gameplay. Whether or not that is better than previous titles will have to wait until our review on Assassin’s Creed III.

So did the game capitalize on these correct steps? Could the fun of the series be finally wrestled into submission?

Kinda.


For the first time in mobile titles, combat actually feels like an Assassin’s Creed game, complete with chain kills, focus switching, and parrying. Be it casually sauntering by, stabbing your victim and sashaying away or provoking a group of guards just to hear their blood spill, combat is something they nailed to be as good as its console predecessors.  But if that’s due to the same game engine, what did Liberation do differently?

First, this game features a persona system, allowing the player to change wardrobe to fit certain scenarios. Three personas are available – assassin, lady, and slave – all which have advantages and disadvantages. Assassin allows the most range of movement, armor, and weapon types, but has a higher wanted meter. Lady doesn’t allow freerunning and cuts your arsenal in half, but allows you to charm and bribe people to use more nonlethal ways to accomplish your goals. And Slave can blend into crowds easier and incite riots, but is also much weaker and has less weapons than the Assassin persona. Each persona has its own wanted level that’s decreased by taking down wanted posters or killing witnesses. Overall, the system was a great idea, but ends up being more hassle than it’s worth. Finding places to change personas sometimes takes more time than it’s worth and in some missions, you need a specific persona for full sync, but aren’t told that until the mission is underway. It’s also difficult keeping track of what wanted level-lowering activities affect what persona. In the end, it’s a great idea that just needed more ease of use, more defined perks, and more rewards for appropriate personas to be an important part of the game. As it is, it feels like hindrance more than a feature.


Another strange feature that’s more annoying that fun is the shipping minigame. Aveline can control her father’s shipping empire by sitting at a desk, buying goods at one place, sailing to another and selling it. It’s rather simple, but wholly obsolete. Not only does it take quite a while to get a ship from one place to its destination, but the interface is confusing and the rewards are little. Sure, it only takes a few minutes and you can come back later, but even if you did it once an hour, you’d earn far less in that one hour than you would killing and looting. That’s the other problem—like with other games in the series, this is meant to be a hands-off way of making extra cash, but it generates so little money it’s ultimately useless. Why would I go out of my way to go to the desk, invest an upfront cost and return later to a whopping $500 return on my investment when I could just murder people, an action that has no punishment other than wanted level, and make far more than that? Or even bypassing that, why even try accruing more money? I’ve played the game through and not once have I ever encountered money problems.


Despite those annoyances, the game is assuredly the best mobile game yet. Being built on the AC3 engine has quite a bit to do with that, but it’s also in the story and characterization. Aveline is an interesting, well-rounded character who keeps you rooting for her until the end. Though her orphaning backstory is a bit questionable — who becomes an orphan after losing their mom in a crowd while chasing a chicken? — you’re quickly sucked in to Aveline’s world. From the annoying, stuttering business partner to her well-respected Madam stepmother to the drunken Spanish captain, the characters are all interesting, if one-dimensional. Even the setting is excellent. When thinking of New Orleans now, people picture Mardi Gras party goers being showered in beignets while riding alligators to the Saints winning the Super Bowl.


Just me? Okay.

But the city is shown in its infancy, iconic two story building with wrap-around porches and all. From the colors to the accents to the bayou, New Orleans looks and feels excellent. The mixture of French and Spanish accents with signs showing of the iconic Cajun drawl setup the characters well, making the setting that much more alive.

And though the story may not follow Desmond putzing around in some cave, it’s no less important to the Assassin’s Creed canon, showing different sides of the Templars and Assassin’s Order respectively. It also contributes to the main storyline more than previous handheld games. Granted, it’s not needed to continue in whatever strange direction Assassin’s Creed has taken itself, but it’s a nice addition. Also, the Vita’s touch features are done pretty well for this game, as you can switch weapons by touching the weapons and touching the minimap brings up the full map. I would have liked to been able to select two weapons before backing out of the menu, but I guess we can’t have everything.


Verdict: Hands down, this is the best Assassin’s Creed game on a handheld device. It looks, feels, and plays like a console AC title. I only wish the differences had been better executed. As they stand, the shipping minigame is redundant and the persona feature, while incredibly promising and still cool, feels like the developers wanted to try it before they put it in a real AC game, so they enabled limited functionality here to test the waters. If you like Assassin’s Creed or want a good action/adventure game on the Vita, Liberation is a title you’ll want to pick up.
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