How much innovation should we expect from any given new game release? It's flat-out wrong to say a game has to contain a new gameplay mechanic or entirely original setting in order to be good. If it’s true that familiarity can breed contempt, though, Ubisoft should perhaps be a bit concerned that Assassin's Creed III: Liberation HD serves to illustrate that the core gameplay of their tentpole franchise is starting to feel very familiar indeed.
Possibly worried that not enough fans of the series got the chance to play it on the PS Vita, Ubisoft has ported Liberation over to PC, the seventh-gen consoles, and a much larger audience. The game kicks off properly in New Orleans in 1765, introducing us to protagonist Aveline De Grandpre, who in something of a surprise move is not just another white dude, but the freedom-loving daughter of a French father and African mother.
Already a member of the Assassin order at the outset of the game (following a brief playable prologue), Aveline works to emancipate and help the slaves of Louisiana against the historical background of the transfer of New Orleans from French to Spanish governance and subsequent citizen's revolt.
The game's handheld origins are evident in the way that this feels like something of a stripped-back Assassin's Creed experience. Although nods to the overarching sci-fi mythos of the series as a whole pop up, there's no sign of the usual modern-day bookend sequences – something for which some may be thankful.
There are a limited number of side activities and smaller areas to explore, and no multiplayer. The visuals are no doubt improved from the Vita version, but of course stack up unfavourably against the recently released Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, especially in wilderness areas.
Even the story seems to be presented in abrupt, choppy flashes, with little of the carefully-paced build up or time spent on characterisation that we've typically seen from the main games in the series.
This largely leaves players with the bare-bones of the series: free-running, sneaking about, and fighting groups of hapless guards in badass fashion. Unfortunately, left to more or less stand on its own, this stuff is starting to creak a bit. Anyone who's played any other games in the series will largely know what to expect, although Liberation's enemies seem considerably less vulnerable to counter kills than in other entries of the series.
The game frames this as having to learn specific tactics to deal with different enemy types, but in practicality it seems to result in longer and more frustrating fights that end up with an undesirable level of random button pushing.
There's a couple of significant gameplay additions in Liberation: a Chain Kill ability from the John Marston School allows Aveline to pause time, tag surrounding enemies, and automatically dispatch them all when time restarts. The other talking point of note is the Persona system.
Seemingly ripping a leaf out of the Hitman playbook, this allows players to switch between Aveline's three Personas – her assassin persona, a slave persona, and her merchant's daughter/lady persona.
Each has differing attributes: the assassin has access to the full range of weapons and tools but immediately makes guards uneasy, while the slave persona finds it easier to pass unnoticed but possesses a limited range of weapons. The lady can charm guards and passes most easily amongst the citizenry, but – good grief – is unable to free run or climb anything. No seriously, this is an Assassin's Creed game and she can't climb anything. Thankfully, she at least has a hilarious parasol dart gun.
The system seems designed to allow players to approach missions in different ways, but many missions lock the player into using a specific persona. Worse still, there's no switching costumes on the fly to improvise in the field; instead it's necessary to pull a Clark Kent and head to the nearest discreet dressing room spot on the map to change.
It all feels entirely forced, and most players will settle for sticking to the assassin persona whenever the game isn't insisting that they complete missions that go something like “Assume the lady persona and make your way slowly across town to have a chat to someone”.
Still, there is fun to be had here. The Assassin's Creed series became gigantically popular for a reason, and there's still satisfaction to be had in stealthily clearing a fort compound of guards, or relishing the “Whoa!” moment when Aveline pulls out a rare and particularly spectacular kill animation. (Furthermore, slavers are a great group of people to administer a good stabbing to.)
The story also eventually starts to pick up a bit, blurring the moral lines between the Assassins and the Templars somewhat, and as is usual for the series, just kicking around the map and picking up collectibles like diary pages and alligator eggs can be fun in itself.
But perhaps the biggest problem Liberation has is the misfortune of arriving after the recent Black Flag, which does does everything bigger and better than it does, and leaves out the worst annoyances present in Aveline's game. This can make it hard to play the former without pining for playing the latter, especially in the middle of the umpteenth “follow” mission, or while continually circling the bottom of a tree in the bayou trying to find the point that Aveline can actually climb on to so she can just get up to the damned viewpoint, already.
It's a sentiment that perhaps suggests that the best parts of a good Assassin's Creed game – or at least the parts that contribute to making the game a good one overall – have, by now, come to be those that are essentially extra to the core gameplay of the series.
It's interesting to wonder just how a juggernaut franchise like this might deal with that issue in the future, but in the here and now, it means that even at a cheap price, the bare-bones Assassin's Creed experience of Liberation HD can really only be recommended to hardcore fans of the series, completionists, and people with a burning hatred of alligators.