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
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 directions 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.
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’, which 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 “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 it.
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.
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…
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”.
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.
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.
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 and 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 also stars a bi-racial main character fighting against the systemic racial prejudice of the time, also set in Louisiana.
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 while 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.
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 game 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.
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