Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Game Review: Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation (PS Vita)

Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation (ACIII:L) is the PS Vita entry in the popular Assassin’s Creed series. Players control Aveline, Tyra Banks lookalike and daughter of a successful businessman and his placeé (informal wife). Aveline joins the Assassin Brotherhood after her mother vanishes, and her would-be mentor, Agaté, saves her at the docks of New Orleans. She works with Gerald Blanc, an information officer for the Brotherhood, and with the blessing of her loving father.

ACIII:L feeds into the mythology of the other games in the series, although it usually plays more like a standalone game. That is, until the screen flashes and a distorted voice informs players that “the truth is out there,” and that there’s a “Citizen E” who must be slain to find out what really happened. As I understand, players experience Aveline’s life through an interface that has been tampered with by the Templars. The Knight Templars are the Assassin Brotherhood’s ancient archenemies, with each group constantly trying to outmaneuver the other throughout the centuries.

As Aveline goes on missions and tries to solve the mystery of her mother’s disappearance, players explore 18th century New Orleans, the nearby bayou, Chichen Itza (Mexico), and New York. The locations are beautifully rendered and fun to navigate. Players can climb to the highest points in those places and synchronize, a.k.a. have a dramatic 360-degree sweep of the entire area as a soprano "aaaahs" triumphantly in the background. On the streets, the NPCs (non-playable characters) react believably when Aveline plows into them or shoves them aside, and make a ruckus when she assassinates in broad daylight. They reinforce the game’s theme of stealth and finding creative solutions to, let’s face it, killing people. Mostly Templars, though.

The gameplay is great fun. Like all Assassins, and like Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft and Uncharteds Nathan Drake, Aveline has the upper and lower body strength of a goddess, or possibly a mountain goat. She can land safely from great heights, hop from rooftop to rooftop, clamber up slender branches, and swiftly kill targets. The character is practically invincible and has great finishing moves. However, this is mitigated by the fact that Aveline must don different personas to complete missions. The Slave persona has all the running and leaping skills of the Assassin, and she can incite riots and blend in with other slaves, too. Meanwhile, the Lady persona can’t climb to save her life, but she can charm guards and gentlemen, and she later gets a parasol with a hidden mechanism to launch poison darts at unsuspecting witnesses.

Each persona has a notoriety level that affects how quickly guards become suspicious of Aveline. Players can lower each persona’s notoriety in different ways: bribe magistrates (Assassin), kill witnesses (Lady), and tear down posters (Slave). This diverts precious time from rooftop-hopping and life-depriving, so it’s best to just keep everything on the down low when sabotaging Templar plots.

There’s also a delightful feature where Aveline can expand her father’s business by purchasing ships and then buying and selling goods for profit. Harbors open up as players get deeper into the game, making more products and ship types available. However, there’s always the danger of storms, or worse, pirates. I once lost twenty thousand bucks worth of merchandise to those scalawags! Anyway, Aveline can then use her legit cash to reopen tailoring and weapon shops, develop parlors where she can switch personas, buy weapons and supplies, or bling it up with the blingiest gear for all her personas. A woman must accessorize.

So the gameplay is engaging – except for the bugs. Dear Lord, the bugs. Here are several that had me grinding my teeth:

  • To read secret letters, players are instructed to hold the rear camera up to a light source. It’s actually the front camera, and you don’t even need a light source – just hold the Vita a certain way and tilt it this way and that, and the "assassin lens" works.
  • The mini-map points to treasure at locations where there is no treasure. The icons show up in two places in the west and northwest of New Orleans, and in the west of the bayou. I checked. Nothing. What a tease.
  • The crocodile graphics are buggy – one time, Aveline fought a croc, and she was grappling like she was on top of it, and it was struggling like she was on top of it…but it was three feet away. Another time, the croc randomly floated in the air as we fought. Eek?
  • The two puzzles in the Chichen Itza underground sites were frustrating. In one, you had to tilt the Vita to get a ball into a hole. The Vita was not very responsive to the tilting, and it takes a few tries to get the hang of it. Another puzzle involved moving panels to redirect a beam of light. Except I could barely see the light or the panels. Luckily, I completed that puzzle in two moves by randomly tapping at the screen. I am not kidding.
  • Sometimes, the controls are either too sensitive or unresponsive. It gets difficult to stop Aveline from climbing walls when you just want her to lean against it and peer around the corner. Also, when she’s in Slave persona and blends in with street sweepers, it’s hard to stop sweeping! Hel-lo, I’m trying to tail and eventually kill a person here! Public works can wait!

My other complaint is the non-intuitive method for commanding your ships to sail. I had to figure it out via game forums. But once I knew... buy! Buy! Buy! Sell! Sell! Sell!

Apart from those quibbles, Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation is a fun game with a linear plot and cute French- and Spanish-accented voice acting. The gameplay is interesting, the characters exchange plenty of snappy banter and flirty dialogue, and there are extras to divert players from central missions: sidequests like healing sick patients in the bayou and pickpocketing voodoo dolls; optional costumes, gear, and even jewelry; and a fairly low-risk shipping enterprise for aspiring 18th century merchants. It’s a light yet satisfying snack of an action-adventure game. Recommended.