A few weeks ago, I wrote a bit about the tediousness of traversing open world environments in recent releases like Batman: Arkham Origins and some slightly less recent releases like Assassin’s Creed III (”Are We There Yet, Batman: The Trouble with Telling the Story of Travel”, PopMatters, 15 January 2014) .
Pleasurable environmental traversal is a pretty key component to a good experience in an open world game, since it is what the player is going to spend a good deal of time doing. Both of the two aforementioned games suffer from some annoying problems with smooth traversal of their cityscapes and wilderness areas. This is a particularly egregious problem for the Assassin’s Creed series, since its smooth and easy free running through ancient urban environments is really what put the adventures of Ezio Auditore on the map.
Assassin’s Creed III, though, introduced significant wilderness sections to the landscape of an Assassin’s Creed game along with colonial American cities with buildings that were spread so far apart that executing smooth flowing free-runs through trees or over housetops became more a chore than a pleasure.
All of which brings me to the recent release of Assassin’s Creed: Liberation HD, a game designed for a handheld system but now ported to PC and consoles. All of my frustrations with travel in the previous console release of its sister game, Assassin’s Creed III are actually resolved in this title simply because of its “portable size.”
What works about the colonial period New Orleans of Liberation, as opposed to the cities of Boston and New York of III, seems to me to be very much related to the scale of game made for a handheld. New Orleans is much denser, fit as it is into a much smaller map. As a result, taking on the role of Liberation protagonist Aveline becomes immediately more fun as getting from point to point in the game is much faster (due to less distance traveled) and much more efficient (due to buildings that are much more closely spaced together making traversal painless and smooth).
While I’ve championed the series since the very first game, I honestly haven’t much enjoyed the simple pleasure of running rooftops and chasing down my prey as an assassin since before the release of Revelations. New Orleans changed all that. Suddenly playing Assassin’s Creed was fun again, simply by making what have become vast and cluttered open world spaces into something like a small open world game. Frankly, more games within the genre would be better served by considering density over size because Liberation proves that there is a lot to be said for spending less time wastefully traveling a city and more time actually getting things done in it.
Unfortunately, while these New Orleans sections are fun to play, then comes the nod to wilderness set pieces—missions set in Louisiana bayou country.
These missions contain all the tedium of Assassin’s Creed III‘s often awkward moments of scaling rocks and trees in the northeastern part of the soon-to-be United States. What makes the bayou especially dismal is the fact that land is, of course (it is a bayou after all), broken up by lots and lots of water. As a result, brief free-runs give way to slogging through knee deep water, then swimming stretches, followed by briefly sprinting on land, but then, you know, more wading in the water. The game offers canoes as a “solution” to the problem of constantly being slowed down by water, but canoes prove to be slow and cumbersome and also offer the most roundabout ways to reach the location you want to reach—you know, a place where something might actually be happening on the map that might be interesting.
I hated the bayou and my only desire when there was to get back home to New Orleans, where I could move smooth and cool like an assassin again and, you know, actually play the game.
The other unfortunate thing about Liberation is its protagonist. Like Assassin’s Creed‘s Connor, Aveline is very simply a dull human being. The first female protagonist in the series and a biracial character at that, and yet, still deadly dull with none of the charm of Ezio or any of the intensity of Altair. Ubisoft seems almost afraid to write anything but a cardboard character when it comes to people of color. Out of this seeming fear of offending anyone by giving such characters any flaws or character quirks comes a couple of boring characters that actually tend through their plainness to lean on familiar stereotypes rather than on any actually human or actually relatable characteristics.
Of course, this is a series that has always apologized for itself, begging off any offense they might inadvertantly cause by taking on issues of race, religion, and politics throughout global history, right on its intro screen. Frankly, if you are creating a series that is going to hit on all of these hot button issues, why not run the risk of offending someone and do something without apology? I realize that the risk of offending anyone has become a cardinal sin in 21st culture, but I’m getting pretty bored of it. If it means showing me something that I haven’t seen before or making me consider issues in a new way, offend me, please. Seriously, please.
After all, some potentially off putting and unusual mechanics were developed around Aveline as well, which should both complement her characterization and afford potentially really interesting story possibilities. Liberation includes a persona system, in which Aveline can disguise herself to pass appropriately in different areas of the city and in different social circles. Since Aveline is the daughter of a black woman and a white father, she is in a unique position to pass as a lady of some social stature or as a slave. Additionally, she has a third persona that she can take on, that of a lawless assassin. Each of these guises works slightly differently in terms of how easily Aveline is spotted by guards, how she assassinates, and the like.
This sounds fascinating on paper, but in actual play, it involves having to locate dressing rooms throughout the city to switch up guises, which is, again, often more a break in the flow of play than an interesting thing to do. But worse still, Aveline’s curious racial and social position is never really explored in any kind of meaningful way. This is simply something that she does, but the game doesn’t seem brave enough to consider the implications of what it means to be a woman who can just as easily sneak into or off of a plantation, mingling with slaves, as get all dressed up for a party with the city’s social elite.
If the plot wasn’t so bland and barring the moments of tedious travel in the bayou, Liberation could have explored some interesting areas of racial politics in colonial America. As it stands, it is just a much more fun platform for free-running than more recent iterations of the series have been.
It plays pretty well. I just wish that it had the guts to dig into the complications of the character that it wants us to experience this world through and maybe even make me see that world in a new way—even if that might offend someone.