Assassin’s Creed: Liberation – Discovering A Classic

I’ve just finished playing Assassin’s Creed: Liberation, originally a PlayStation Vita exclusive, now bundled with the recent Assassin’s Creed III remaster.

It feels refreshing and fun to go back to a game that uses the old AC formula, but with a new location, story and character.

And even after a short time playing it, Liberation is probably one of my favourite AC games, easily passing III and Black Flag in my ranking of the series.

So I thought a little breakdown of what I loved about it, and hoped to spread the good word to some AC fans that may want to return to something with a classic feel.

Ragin’ Cajun: Why I love Assassin’s Creed: Liberation

  1. Scope

As mentioned previously, AC: Liberation was originally released on the PS Vita in 2012, to tie-in with the mainline entry ACIII. With the smaller hardware, reductions were needed to be made, but every change seems to benefit the game.

Instead of an intensely expansive world, Ubiosft Sofia (creators of the Prince of Persia HD release as well as the AC spinoff, Rogue) decided to keep things small and contained.

New Orleans and the Bayou, the two main areas of the game, are comparable to AC2’s Florence or Venice than the sprawling maps in ACIII (here is a forum thread of players calculating the size of the cities).

Smaller design leads to more intimate and detailed sections of the map, and allows players to get quickly attuned to their surroundings.

The churches of New Orleans, with their towering spires, become waypoints, allowing players to orient themselves to the location without having to pull the map out every few seconds.

It’s similar to the original Assassin’s Creed in that regard; a small contained map, with distinct areas, and easy, identifiable landmarks. It helps the city feel rich and unique, directly because it is smaller.

This direction of scope is even found in the story and characters. While ACIII spends almost five whole sequences setting up the tragic backstory and family dynamic of its lead, Liberation does it in less than thirty seconds, with only around ten lines of dialogue.

It’s a masterstroke of character and lore-building and gets you right into the story. So let’s talk about that next.

Despite its smaller scale, New Orleans feels as detailed, polished, and alive as later games in the series. (Source: ign.com)

2. The Story

Written by veteran narrative designers Richard Faresee (who worked on Revelations and III) and Jill Murray (who worked on Black Flag, its expansion Freedom Cry, and recently Shadow of the Tomb Raider), Liberation is one of the more unique narratives of the AC franchise, with it winning the Writer’s Guild of America Award for game writing for 2012.

After the Ezio Trilogy, Assassin’s Creed started to play with the formula for its stories. During AC2, Brotherhood and Revelations, the Templar’s were moustache-twirling bad guys worthy of a Saturday morning cartoon.

From ACIII to Unity, the mood shifted to portraying the Templars and Assassins as two side of the same coin, with more in common than what separates them.

Liberation follows this theme, but takes it even further, having a fun meta narrative within the story.  Liberation is in fact a game created by Abstergo Entertainment, a video game branch of the Templar company, wanting to push their propaganda onto the public.

Your game signal is ‘hacked’ by an Assassin, who tells you the Templar’s are hiding the truth. The Templars doctor the events to suit their purposes, so you have to hunt down a ‘glitch’ known as ‘Citizen E’, who then reveals the truth behind each edited scene.

It’s a cool idea, echoing the interrogations and glitches from the first Assassin’s Creed, of a world beyond the one we are perceiving, of secrets and subterfuge that some of the other games have lacked (looking at you, Unity, where nearly every NPC knew who the Assassins were).

The ‘Citizen E’ missions add an air of mystery and suspicion to the narrative, making the player question Aveline, her allies, and her enemies. (Source: assassinscreedwiki.com)

The “Full Synchronisation” elements (where players can complete extra challenges during missions) are well thought out and aren’t just added difficulty. Ever since the concept was introduced in Brotherhood, I’ve felt that this was the most ‘game-y’ aspect of the series and didn’t  fit either with the mission or the previous freedom of gameplay choice.

Here the Full Syncs add to the narrative, giving hints to the main character, Aveline’s, backstory. For example, the first assassination of the game (and possibly Aveline’s first assassination) isn’t with a hidden blade but with a musket stolen from an enemy.

It’s such a small detail but adds a ton of information to Aveline’s first recorded kill just by what weapon was used.

The story, like all ACs, twists and turns, threading the role of women, race, and indigenous people, something powerful and note-worthy in a major franchise like AC.

Another franchise staple, the First Civilisation, is present, but it isn’t treated with the same world-shattering aspects like previous games.

It’s a small thing in the grand scheme of the game (and has a nice twist at the end), so I’m happy that this series thread is kept to the background.

Liberation takes short detours to Chitzen Itza and Mexico, adding First Civilization temples and items, and uses them as standout platforming sequences (Source: assassinscreed.fandom.com)

But the high point of the story is it never loses sight of its lead. The story is squarely on the Assassin, Aveline de Grandpré. We see her triumphs and defeats, and turning from naive freedom fighter, into stalwart Assassin, and finally someone who can see from all sides, and carves out a path of her own. 

Speaking of which…

3. Aveline

Aveline is such a cool character. While it would take another three years until a female protagonist became a lead character (Evie Frye sharing with her brother Jacob in Syndicate), Aveline is no slouch when it comes to characterisation.

Aveline is constantly torn between two worlds, playing all sides, creating an interesting dynamic not only in story but also gameplay.

The most on-the-nose is her status in New Orleans. Born to a white wealthy merchant and a slave mother, Aveline has known both the stuffy aristocratic life afforded to her by her father, but also the hardships of slave life, even having nightmares of being snatched with her mother by traders right off the street.

Throughout the game Aveline switches outfits, from her Assassin ‘robes’ to ball gowns to slave attire, each one with their own abilities and quirks.

Her Assassin outfit is the one suited for combat, allowing for all her weapons and tactics, and also shows some cool details on her personality. For instance, instead of the trademark hood, Aveline uses a tricorn hat, allowing her braided hair to flow freely.

It’s a small detail but something that gives her an edge, of defining herself by her own skills and attire, not standing by the tradition of the Assassins.

When in her ‘lady’ outfit, Aveline can ‘charm’ guards away from their post and has lower notoriety, but is only limited to her hidden blade and can’t freerun.

When dressed as a slave, Aveline also only has her hidden blade, but can blend with other slaves and free-run, while gaining higher notoriety when doing ‘high profile’ actions.

While incredibly gendered, it adds a small layer of choice and tactics to the game, using Aveline’s duality as part of gameplay, with Aveline even altering her speech when wearing different outfits. It’s a great mechanical example of one of the tenets of the creed, “hide in plain sight”.

Aveline uses a variety of disguises to achieve her goals. I love this aspect and wish it would make a return in the series. (Source: siliconera.com)

Storywise, Aveline’s status as an Assassin also rides the dual aspect. Neither her father or mother are Assassins, a far cry from the rest of the series where it is usually a family tradition.

She may be inexperienced, but Aveline has already earned her hidden blades, allowing the narrative to skip the ‘origin’ story and get right into the main events without showing us her discovering the Brotherhood.

The only person who ‘knows’ about her rooftop exploits is Gérald, an employee of Aveline’s father, who holds down Aveline’s base of operations in New Orleans. Gérald gives Aveline information and equipment and knows of the Assassin/Templar conflict, but he is not immersed in the Assassin life.

Aveline is alone in her pursuit, not chasing down her family’s murderers or looking to gain back her family’s honour like other AC leads, but just watching over New Orleans, leaving only when needs must.

She helps free slaves and guides them to the bayou, she disrupts over-zealous colonial rulers and greedy merchants, and kills any Templar that sets foot in her town.

Late in the game Aveline leaves New Orleans for Boston to hunt down a spy and enlists Connor Kenway’s aid. They fight side-by-side in a knockout cameo sequence (Source: assassinscreed.wikia.com)

Aveline’s actions sometimes bring her into conflict with her mentor as she goes against Assassin dogma, not in a ‘trying-to-be-edgy/I-don’t-play-by-the-rules’ way, but as Aveline’s internal struggle with the tenets of the Creed and wanting to act.

It’s such a departure from the rest of the series, but every other attempt at ideas like this in later games has come across as being contrarian for the sake of it (mostly in AC: Unity).

While Aveline is cool and calm under pressure, smart and resourceful, she isn’t afraid to lose her temper or her composure.

There are several stand-out scenes near the end of the game which top any other moment in the series with their levels of emotion, pathos, and engagement.

One other major section that helps build Aveline’s character is…

4. The Combat

Liberation uses the same combat as ACIII and Black Flag, but has its own quirks that for me add to Aveline’s characterisation and to the game as a whole.

Aveline has the regular assortment of swords, daggers, hidden blades, and accessories, but the animations and their usage are so powerful.

Take the sword for instance. While other Assassins are usually hacking and slashing (such as Connor), Aveline’s sword-work is based more on cut and thrusts, disengages and parries.

It’s more intricate and indicates some formal training, indicative of her childhood in one of the more affluent families of New Orleans.

Her short blade is at the complete opposite end of the social scale. In the first mission of the game Aveline frees a slave and then fights off the enraged owner with his own sugarcane machete.

In another slave encampment, she wrestles away a slaver’s whip before turning it on him, and uses it to hang her enemies from tree branches.

It’s a powerful image of a young black woman using the tools of her oppressors against them, similar to Lincoln Clay’s rampages in Mafia III, a game which similarly stars a bi-racial main character fighting against the systemic racial prejudice of the time, also set in Louisiana.

Aveline strangling an enemy with her whip, getting ready to equip her machete to deliver the killing blow (Source: gamerstemple.net)

In the same camp where Aveline gains the whip, she builds her own hidden blades. Pickpocketing materials from around the camp; a small plank of wood here, a kitchen knife there, and finally a few soldier’s belts, Aveline lashes them all together to re-arm herself.

It’s a cool moment after a long section of having to work around enemies rather than face them head-on, now being able to break free and take on the rulers of the camp.

For many missions Aveline has to use her fists, which adds another layer to her characterisation. It’s mentioned in dialogue and appears in-game when she wears the slave disguise, Aveline is attacked by thugs that roam New Orleans.

In direct opposition to her bladework, Aveline’s hand-to-hand combat is brutal and lacks formal training. She swings wide haymakers, incorporates stomps and flying knees, it is the exact type of combat I would expect someone who had to fend for themselves on the street would have. 

And since the game is based off the updated ACIII engine, there is less of the stop/start counter combat from the earlier AC games.

Aveline has all the tools of the trade at her disposal and can easily go toe-to-toe with any Templar that gets in her way. (Source: spieltipps.de)

Conclusion

I did’t have much hope for Liberation when I first booted it up.

I wasn’t a major fan of either ACIII or Black Flag when I first played them, only really feeling the series had won me back when I played Syndicate.

And as the game was a PlayStation Vita exclusive when it first came out, it gave the impression Liberation was an also-ran, a stop-gap that played safe and didn’t offer anything of value.

But I gave it a chance and found myself relaxing into it, feeling comfortable in my controls and abilities, challenged by new locales and events and spirited away by an unspoiled story, but having a sense of familiarity, old yet new.

It’s been almost five years since AC has leapt from action-adventure to the RPG crowd, and I don’t fault it. Sale numbers and audience reception to Origins, Odyssey and Valhalla have been phenomenal.

But if you a looking for a change of pace, a palette cleanser between the big, bombastic games, something that tells a small story in a larger frame, or is just a nice reminder of a time and gameplay styling that has been absent, then AC Liberation might just be right for you.

It’s been a pleasure to play as Aveline, and my only wish is that I wanted more.

Banner Photo Source: gamestar.de

The Best Star Wars Game?

One of the first games I ever played was Star Wars Episode I: Racer. As a defender and fan of the Star Wars prequel trilogy, having a racing game based on the high-octane drag racing sequence was a formative gaming experience, and one of the main reason I play games today.

While the original game was on the Nintendo 64, the game recently got an re-release for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch. The update was a simple polish and shine, updating the graphics and the frame rate so the game would run smoothly (sometimes the N64 would play like a powerpoint) and that was it.

It was kind of refreshing to see a game of a very particular time be brought to a modern console. The early 3D graphics where every shape needs a right angle, the stripped-down story, and sometimes odd animations, it has a retro charm that goes a long way to papering over its failings. Being a Star Wars game it would have been so easy for the Game Overlords that run the SW brand to force micro-transactions or some daft online ranking to the game, but it’s thankfully been kept as pure to its original form.

So, as a defining game of my childhood, I decided to pick it up and blasted through it over a lazy weekend. Despite the rather short lifespan of the game, I loved every moment, so I wanted to list a few reasons why it is one of my favourite games of all time.

Start Your Engines! Why I Love Star Wars Episode I: Racer

1. The Universe

While we’ve only seen pod racing once in the entire cinematic Star Wars canon (in one of the best sequences of the entire saga) the game builds upon the work the film did with new tracks and worlds that are not even seen in the other movies.

I think a lot of SW films are kind of boring when it comes to their landscapes, mainly just reusing the same sand/snow/forest landscapes, but in Racer we have a whole host of planets and racetracks.

While the game has the sands of Tatooine and the snowy mountains of Ando Prime, it also has the methane lakes and geysers of Malastare, the smoky quarries of Mon Gazza, and the modern architecture and rocky cliffs of Aquilaris. Those are just the tame ones.

The game also features some standout tracks such as the abandoned gas stations of Ord Ibanna, suspended in low orbit, just like Cloud City from The Empire Strikes Back. Another is Oovo IV, which is a space prison situated on an asteroid belt, complete with cells and airlocks. My favourite tracks are on Baroonda, a planet of tropical jungles, swamps, and beaches, complete with Moai-inspired statues as well as the odd volcano.

While the locations are a high point, the are pushed even further by their individual quirks that helps bring them to life. Ando Prime is inhabited by monk-like aliens, with statues and flags reminiscent of temples in Nepal and Tibet. The race course on the asteroid Oovo IV has several sections without gravity and rogue asteroids. The spice mines of Mon Gazza feature everything from massive diggers to transports that litter the courses. The machines slowly move backwards and forwards so that they are not in the same place as each tracks progresses.

Each planet has its own look and feel, which leads onto…

2. The Tracks

While the game only has eight planets, it manages to keep each one rather fresh, even while refusing certain sections of a map. When attempting a new course it’s a fun mixture of certainty and fear, knowing how to tackle some corners and sections, while at the same time having to pick up on the fly how to navigate other sections of the map.

While the earlier tracks are definitely the easier and less interesting with wide open spaces and flat plains, there are always a few little extras to spice up runs, be they secret areas obscured by vines or waterfalls as well as branching paths that take you to completely different areas of the track than your competitors, or just really big jumps that let you glide effortlessly above the other racers.

Later tracks becoming increasingly difficult with sequential hairpin bends (with nothing to stop you flying of the side of the rocky cliff face that you’re racing on) or erupting volcanos that change the layout of the course.

Even in some of the earlier tracks there are hazards. Pod racers are good on solid terrain, but when going across the ice lakes of Ando Prime, the swamps of Baroonda, or the methane rivers of Malastare, pods can start to drift, sending them careening off course, usually to an explosive end.

The Boonta Classic, the track that is featured in The Phantom Menace and the last track of the game, also features sharpshooting Tusken Raiders and moisture pockets, both are severe dangers to weave through. These little features are great, as it throws a curveball into racing so even if you’re ahead of the pack, one wrong move could have them catching up to you.

3. The Podracers

Podracing to me is so cool. Taking the high speed of Formula 1/drag racing, place them on dangerous terrain, and just boost everything to as much as it could be. The idea of a small pod that by the sheer speed and force of the massive engines makes it float is such a novel and interesting concept, and Racer replicates that dangerous sense of speed perfectly.

While we only saw a fraction of the racers in the film, the game goes all out, adding all the racers that were included in the deleted scenes, each with different strengths and weaknesses. And while some racing games’ vehicles would be simple re-skins or little tweaks, here every pod racer is unique. You have the monster truck equivalents of Sebulba and Mars Guo, to the dainty butterflies like Anakin Skywalker and ‘Bullseye’ Navoir. My favourite is Neva Kee, who is unique in the fact that his pod has no cables (that purple energy bar that connects the engines), and is essentially just a tiny cockpit glued to two giant rockets.

As you complete each race you usually unlock a new pod racer which can be useful considering the different tracks layouts as you aren’t stuck with one machine. If you’re on a course that has a lot of tight corners, you can choose a racer that is more suited to turning. On a course with long straights, you can pick someone with a fast boost and high acceleration. Size and weight also plays a factor in choosing a podracer. Smaller pods are generally faster, but can’t take as much damage as the larger, slower, pods.

The pods do everything they do in the film, which is something unique in the racing genre. While they have the standard boost, the pods can also flip sideways to fit through narrow gaps and have air brakes that allow you to float over jumps and gaps. It’s thrilling on tracks like Ando Prime where you can boost off the top of a mountain peak and then just gently float across ice gorges and alien monasteries of that planet.

Each pod can be customised, either through buying from Watto’s Shop or by exploring for parts in the junkyard. While these custom options are more for building stats than changing the look of your pod, it’s still great fun to max out your speed and boost stats, leaving you on the edge between ‘in control’ and ‘totally lost it’.

The sounds design helps sell the illusion of the pods with every single engine having a beautiful hum and rev. Even the small things like shutting down an engine to repair it or put out a fire, to the whistling air as you fly across a gap, to the hiss of the air brakes, each one is solid, sounding exactly like what would you think these gigantic machines would sound like, and mixing perfectly with the ‘vroom’ of the pods around you.

And it doesn’t hurt to having the excellent John Williams score layered over the top. Nothing beats hearing the boost of a pod over the pulsing strings of ‘Duel Of The Fates’ our soaring through the air to the blaring trumpets of ‘Battle of Naboo’, and making you want to shout, “NOW THIS IS PODRACING!”

Conclusion

Despite being over twenty years old, I had a so much fun with Episode I: Racer. And while there was a sequel by the same studio for the PlayStation 2 called Racer Revenge, it was met with mixed reviews.

Episode I: Racer is still fondly remembered by many, featuring highly on several ‘Best Star Wars’ game lists, and was happily received with its re-release. It took a sequence that was only about fifteen minutes of the first film, and delivered all the promise that it offered.

I was partly raised on racers, with things like Gran Turismo, Forza, and Mario Kart being pretty much constants throughout my gaming life. And while each of those is fun in their own right…there is just something better about Racer.

I could be biased, but there is just something about the sense of speed, trying to control two full force engines, flying through impressive vistas and winding corridors that no other game has replicated.

The only other game that really worked in the same way is Split/Second: Velocity, a beautifully daft arcade racer, also published by Disney. Split/Second is filled to the brim with powerful looking and sounding cars, interesting and unique locations, and explosive gameplay. It too, like Racer, has been left behind by Disney, a one-and-done game that deserved a sequel.

Despite Disney breathing life back into the Star Wars property, the games have been few and far between, with only two controversial Battlefront games, one action adventure (Jedi: Fallen Order) and one flight sim (Squadrons) being released. With the new trilogy finished, now would be the time for games to fill the space between new films and television shows being created.

If we were to ever get more Star Wars games, I hope that one is based on pod racing. With today machines, Disney could push it further and farther than before. New tracks from planets across the saga, new racers, more customisable options, a strong story, and even the option to build your own pod racer from scratch.

There is so much that could be created and improved…and with a name like Star Wars, it’s all but guaranteed to make money.

Banner Photo Source: nintendo-insider.com