If the PlayStation Vita does not develop into a successful handheld platform, then one need only look to a game like Assassin's Creed III: Liberation to understand why. Liberation is emblematic of many of the problems with Sony's technically advanced handheld system. At first glance, it looks astoundingly good, like the true realization of a console-quality experience on a handheld system. Then you dig further into it, and realize why maybe that's not such a great idea.
Essentially, Liberation is big where it should be stripped down, and stripped down where it should be more elaborate. In spurts, it's a great deal of fun, letting you experience the myriad thrills of stealth assassination any time you're on the go. But in between those thrilling moments are as many moments spent languishing in tedium.
Nowhere are these issues more apparent than in Liberation's plot. Taking place in the same general era as Assassin's Creed III, Liberation shifts its focus southward from the console game's Revolutionary War setting to New Orleans and its surrounding areas. This is a time of transition for the city, as French rule comes to a close and the Spanish begin to step in. You play as Aveline de Grandpré, a half-French, half-African woman raised by her white father, after her freed-slave mother disappeared as a child. As you would expect, Aveline's adult life is more than meets the eye. She is of the Assassin's Brotherhood, much like Connor, Ezio, and Altair before her. However, her mission, and the reasoning behind it, remains muddled.
Perhaps because of its handheld nature, Liberation's developers waste little time dropping players into the game's plot. You start out as Aveline as a young girl, suddenly ripped away from her mother in the crowded New Orleans streets. Then, all of a sudden, you're transported to her adult life, where she is already engaged with the Brotherhood. While some details about Aveline's life and history are touched upon, many seemingly important details remain unclear. This is partly due to the game's story framing device, namely that the simulation you are experiencing has nothing to do with the continuing adventures of series protagonist Desmond, but rather is created as part of a program from evil corporation Abstergo.
An unreliable narration device sounds like kind of a neat idea, but it's not constructed well here. The idea is that because of Abstergo's interference, you're only getting the details they want you to see. A subplot involving a hacker pops in later in the game, wherein he begins offering you "the truth" in the form of some lengthy cutscenes, but actually finding that guy and getting access to those scenes is arguably a lot more of a pain than it ought to have been.
Because of this, Liberation's story never fully coheres. Which is a shame, because Aveline is an incredibly interesting character. Her back story alone is enough to pique a player's interest, but so little of it is properly addressed that I found myself less and less engaged with the story as it plodded along. Aveline's sensitive role within the hot-button racial issues of the time is fascinating, but without a strong, coherent narrative, much of that potential is wasted.
Similar issues plague the gameplay. While there is no mistaking Liberation for anything other than an Assassin's Creed game, some of those hallmark gameplay elements don't quite work as well as they should. Combat remains fluid, but enemies are often pretty brain dead. The game attempts to counterbalance this by forcing you into more required stealth sequences than in other recent franchise entries. Fortunately, the stealth functionality works well. I only ran into a few weird spots where I found it incredibly difficult to stay hidden, or otherwise keeping enemies unaware of my presence. Then again, they're not very smart to begin with, and sneaking up on them rarely requires much effort. I must have pickpocketed a dozen enemies while they were literally staring in my direction.
Still, traversing Liberation's lavishly recreated New Orleans can be a lot of fun. The controls for jumping, swinging, and climbing around the game's scenery are responsive and intuitive, and the city just looks flat-out great. Streets and corridors might be a bit narrower than what you're used to in this series, which sometimes can make fights against soldiers a bit of a pain (mostly due to camera placement), but I never felt anything but joy darting around the city like a bad ass assassin.
It's strange, then, that whole sections of Liberation either take the focus away from that, or flat-out don't let you do it. Mostly this comes into play when engaging one of Aveline's different "personas." Apart from her assassin gear, Aveline can also don a slave costume, which lets her blend in with workers and even incite riots among the people. That persona proves to be less of an issue than the "lady" persona, where Aveline loses all ability to jump and traverse in favor of being able to charm and bribe guards. While this is okay in small doses, the game has a tendency to force you into specific personas for longer periods of time than you'd like, especially early on. You're given more freedom later, but it's still a drag to have to gingerly jog around the world to get back to a costume-change area when you know you could just be jumping over a goddamn rooftop.
Liberation also falters when it comes to supplementing the core gameplay with more objectives. When you get outside of New Orleans, only some of the late game areas are particularly fun to explore. More often you'll find yourself in the swampy bayou just outside the city, and that area is a terrible slog to dig through, not to mention surprisingly bereft of any additional activity outside of story missions. The game also features a multiplayer component, albeit a barely amusing one. Here, you're asked to choose a side (Templars or Assassins) and a hometown. It's not a fleshed-out multiplayer mode like in the console games, mind you. It basically boils down to a card-battling game, and how it actually works is poorly explained within the game itself, meaning you'll have to spend more time than you'll likely want to figuring out how to play it effectively.
Liberation is a game you'll want to like. Its protagonist is an intriguing one, and her mission frequently teases greatness. But it never quite arrives, due to the developers' inability to marry the "full-fledged" Assassin's Creed gameplay to the Vita's form and function. There is undoubtedly a happy medium out there somewhere for this series on handhelds. There are things you can strip away to make a game like this more palatable to handheld players, and there are as many things you can keep to ensure that the grandiose spirit of the larger games is kept. Unfortunately, Liberation never quite nails those things down, resulting in a game that only delivers the goods in fits and starts.