Wednesday, January 22, 2014

I'm not writing an Assassin's Creed: Liberation HD review because there's nothing interesting to say about it

I just finished Assassin's Creed: Liberation HD tonight, and with that, I think I've finally hit my breaking point.

You know how people like to rail on Assassin's Creed for being an annual cash cow even though it's got a rich sci-fi tapestry, explores beautiful historical settings not frequented in the industry and genuinely feels like nothing else on the market? It's releases like Liberation HD that perpetuate such notions. What a lazy, slipshod mess this game is.

It's a port of a Vita game, as if that should excuse it of anything. I've been playing my Vita nonstop over the past month or two. I love it. It has proven, through games like Tearaway and Killzone: Mercenary, that we're very nearly at the point of expecting console-level thrills from handheld systems. So I will not be giving Liberation HD any leeway here, partly because it's on a console now and thus has a new set of standards to live up to, and partly because it's a lousy product by any definition.

I say "product" because Liberation HD's problems extend beyond design and into outright technical infidelity. I had to restart the game on four separate occasions when the main character, Aveline, repeatedly clipped through environmental objects and couldn't be dislodged. Two long-running scourges of the series, the stealth and combat, are now made borderline unworkable, the former due to dodgier-than-ever AI and the latter due to certain basic commands frequently not working when you need them to. Cutscenes are static, poorly-acted and often unfold with no accompanying sound effects, or the wrong sound effects. There's a scene early on in which Aveline is playing a piano that is bewilderingly producing the music of a string instrument. How the hell did this get released by one of the biggest publishers in the world in 2014?

(And by the way, yes, I know that a piano is technically a string instrument. You know what I mean.)

Every Assassin's Creed game suffers from the same basic set of issues, and gamers' willingness to invest in this series each and every year - I won't pretend that I'm not guilty of that - is probably to blame for Ubisoft apparently believing that they don't need to fix or fine-tune anything. I might've lost my patience a few months ago had Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag not offered some of the series' best writing to date and a new approach to its open-world design that actually eclipsed its rather stale story missions and made the same old control quirks easier to swallow.

Liberation HD actually exacerbates everything that was already wrong with the series. The stealth has never been this broken, and the combat has never been this clumsy. The basic controls are looser and more fidgety than they've ever been before; getting Aveline to climb what you want her to climb or jump where you want her to jump is deal-breakingly imprecise at times. And what does Liberation HD do to counterbalance this? It consists of one small, generic city (New Orleans), a medium-sized wilderness area awash with collision detection issues and a brief interlude outside of a Mexican temple. The joy of exploring a new historical setting is dampened by this particular setting being so underwhelming, while the story missions follow the usual Assassin's Creed template, meaning that there are a lot of tailing missions, Ubisoft having not yet caught on to the fact that tailing missions are never, ever a good thing.

The only potential selling point here is Aveline, but while she could have been interesting, she's criminally underdeveloped. The game seems to skip past the most exciting and crucial moments of her life, and her motivations are incredibly murky. Worst of all, the fact that she's a black woman in the South during the late 18th century has almost no bearing on the plot, the way she acts, nor the way she's treated by other characters. The same can be said of the fact that so much of Liberation HD revolves around freeing slaves. It's such potentially fascinating material to work with, and yet for all of the weight that Ubisoft places on it, the game could've been about a white man freeing livestock and it would practically be the same thing.

I have two positive things to say about Liberation HD. Firstly, since I've grown so weary of subtitles being nonsense (what the hell is a "shadow fall"?), it's refreshing that this game actually has some liberating in it. Secondly, one of your ranged weapons is fast poison, and every time that the game referenced it, I misread it as "fart poison," which made me laugh, because I am childish.

Don't buy Liberation HD. I say this as someone who has purchased every mainline entry in the series since 2009 and actually gave Assassin's Creed III an undeservedly positive review. This game offers no new insight into the series' overarching plot and nothing that you haven't experienced before in better form, while it intensifies the defects that earned the series so many detractors in the first place. It's a dull and shamefully buggy disaster of a game.

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