Assassin’s Creed Liberation HD (Video) Review

Aveline de Grandpré is a woman, you can tell. She doesn’t go to the trouble of killing alligators so she can use their skin to fashion a belt, or for food, or for flesh to trade or to not get eaten. She leaves their bodies bloating in the sweltering swamp and instead searches for their nests, since should she gain 12 reptilian eggs she’ll earn a nice new hat.

Disused shops don’t inspire her to invest some money into bringing life back to the high street or enter commercial enterprise; she sees another venue for one of the many changing rooms she uses to switch between her three favourite styles of outfit when she’s out and about. And you’ll never see her leave water with wet hair; it’ll always be dry, as will her clothes – though that’s more about the game engine than it is her desire to not look dishevelled in public. So Aveline is definitely a woman, of that there can be no doubt. She can’t even saunter through the streets of 18th Century New Orleans without men mumbling appreciation in her direction. And should she be wearing her prettiest clothes, she can charm a hapless fellow by beckoning him to come hither with her hand and he’ll follow her around like a giddy duckling – and perhaps even provide her with a special collectable brooch.

A man might employ some whores to act as distraction and cover, or mercenaries for protection, but not our Miss Grandpré. She flirts for presents or, on one occasion, lures a bloke to a private place before stabbing him to death so she can hear his last and protracted final words, because she’s also a member of the Brotherhood of Assassins. Despite being a sister. Now, if you’ve got any questions concerning exactly how a woman of French and African heritage – who exists in a world in which women were second-class citizens, black people were enslaved and racism was good business – managed to find time to train in the noble arts of stealth, slaughter and free-running without anyone noticing, then Liberation certainly isn’t going to go out of its way to inform you.

Originally developed to fit onto the PlayStation Vita, where it did its best to feature many of the usual Assassin’s Creed trimmings, the 360 incarnation hasn’t received an extra training montage or any explanatory sequences. And while it has been ported to include many of the visual pleasures found in the full-fat Assassin’s Creed III (its companion title, notably not Black Flag), it still comes across as an adventure that has been heavily edited down, in what feels like a drunken hurry.

You will actually become more informed as to what is going on as you stroll through those desolate areas of the Animus that act as loading screens than you will by following events as they’re presented in-game. Narratively, you see, it’s often a very confusing and garbled mess. One moment you’ll be in a cut-scene surrounded by soldiers who are all aiming their muskets at your face, the next you’ll be transported into the bayou while wearing your Assassin’s outfit, even if you were dressed in other clothes just seconds before.

Those changing rooms you can install across the map in empty shops so you can swap between your slave, civilian, and killing attires so you can access their various abilities? They’ll ultimately prove mostly worthless, as you’ll generally always enter a mission while decked in the most suitable togs anyway. There’s certainly some potential for adaptability depending on how, for example, you want to infiltrate a heavily guarded stronghold. If you’re wearing your Sunday finest then you won’t be able to climb and, until you receive an umbrella that has seemingly been designed for The Penguin to blow poison darts at Batman, your combat options will be limited – but at least you can flirt, bribe guards, stab and get invited to elegant parties.

As a slave you’ll be able to scale walls and manoeuvre around a variety of tiresomely massive constructs, blend in with groups of slaves and go where slaves go, wield a machete with some level of authority and retain much of your anonymity – but you won’t be able to trigger the chain kills possible while dressed as an Assassin. Be dressed as an Assassin and you’ll have full access to Assassin skills, be adept at suffering more wounds and dealing more damage, but you’ll also be highly noticeable and at a greater distance.

When outnumbered, and should the chain kill be charged, you can pause the action, select three targets and then take them down automatically. During our play-through we did this a total of three times, as it was usually faster to be disguised as a slave and drop smoke bombs before effortlessly butchering more than three enemies in a row as they coughed and spluttered in confusion.

Bizarrely, this all means that if you want to be able to actually get anywhere at any time while remaining as unseen as possible, you would be best advised to remain in your slave clothes and avoid donning more trademark Assassin’s Creed garb. It makes sense, of course – actual assassins don’t generally wear uniforms, for obvious reasons, while it’s understandably tricky to climb trees when you’re confined by whalebone corset and bustle.

It also means that one of Liberation’s unique mechanics is largely a cosmetic one that’s only of any real note should you find yourself completing the game more than once and fancy trying out a different approach to certain situations.

For that to happen you’ll need to have had one sweet time enjoying the game’s nine poorly stitched chapters, tailing people endlessly without even being able to eavesdrop, and really enjoyed holding down the right trigger while steering yourself to avoid accidentally clambering over objects you had no intention of clambering over.

It will certainly help if you haven’ played the less sticky and far tighter Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag, but for that to be the case you’re probably not as much of an Assassin’s Creed fan as you might have thought and could well have wandered through the majority of this review by mistake.

Black Flag’s existence is certainly a problematic one, as it effortlessly overshadows this trimmed-back and low-fat offering at every junction. Its characters are more fleshed out, its toolset more advanced and its Eagle Vision far more functional. Should Aveline engage the mode that makes it look as if she’s put on the One Ring to Rule Them All, she won’t even be able to see anything in her surroundings that would make for effective cover, let alone tag anyone or have a handhold highlighted.

The DLC, Freedom Cry, also has a lot more to say about slavery and its female characters have more to say about being female in a patriarchal world. Undoubtedly it’s a far finer, richer game, but pointing that out is a touch unfair considering the discrepancy in pricing and origin. Luckily, even if Assassin’s Creed IV hadn’t already been created, Liberation still manages to be a lacklustre and cumbersome entry in the series purely on its own merit. There are a total of four locations to explore, and in any of them the most fun you’re going to have outside a mission is when you opt to assassinate a business rival just so you can get a better deal when shopping for supplies, should the option present itself. New Orleans is certainly beautifully constructed and lively, but if you were hoping to learn anything about its history then the usually detailed database won’t assist you. All its entries, be they about characters or places, only enable you to stare at a picture, person or place you’ve already seen or met, which makes accessing the content utterly unwarranted.

Then there’s the swampy bayou and how it suggests that if you want to get about quickly and safely you should paddle your own canoe, despite swimming being a far swifter option. You can scamper over land, cross overhanging branches and instantly dive into water, alligators being so rare and easily avoidable that you’ll mostly only encounter one if you deliberately seek it out for its eggs.

Venturing to the site of ancient ruins in Mexico certainly adds some Mayan spice, but the storyline is woefully anaemic: slaves are offered some level of emancipation should they help Templars search for an ancient alien and unexplained artefact. Kill their boss and (supposedly) set them free and you can return to hunt for treasure and still find them under armed guard. Then there’s the single mission in the snowy wilderness of New York that only serves to explain how Aveline is far more adept at being an assassin than Connor Kenway, because she can use a whip to swing between set points. Connor is also encountered and seen being totally flummoxed by a broken bridge.

Though it was acceptable if not admirable on a handheld console, big screen Liberation lacks a great deal of what makes an Assassin’s Creed game pleasurable and contains an awful lot of what makes them bland, tiresome and tedious. It’s a sizeable step backwards when we’ve just had one almighty leap forward, and is more harmful than helpful to the franchise as a whole. Oh dear.

Verdict:

If you’re still sailing around Black Flag’s Caribbean, mopping up missions and searching for arbitrary items, then whatever you do don’t stop just so that you can play Liberation. The experience, though not a long one, will only numb you to the excesses of the series even as it underlines Assassin’s Creed IV as the far finer game. We’d say it was worthwhile for its story and setting, and if you like the idea of flirting before killing, but only if you can resign yourself to its multiple failings and a lot of incoherence. File it somewhere between the first and second game, and just look forward to the next.

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