There had to be some sort of heroes back then. Unnoticed in the ways that mattered and exploited in the ways that left permanent fractures, the African people that came over during the Atlantic Slave Trade had to have found ways to survive and thrive in a land where they were looked on as property.
Yet, accounts of such perseverance remain charged subject matter. Who can really get history right, when multiple factions want it told a certain way? You would think a video game would be the last place anyone would look for a treatise on what’s been called America’s birth defect. And yet here we are, playing first-hand through the tale of a family torn asunder by slavery in Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation.
Aveline de Grandpre belongs to two worlds. No, scratch that. The heroine of this new portable Assassin's Creed shifts her realities through multiple facets: she’s part white and part black, of the Old and New World, born into slavery yet free. And, of course, she’s a stealth warrior in a secret Brotherhood that fights against an evil conspiracy to exploit mankind.
Liberation makes great use of Aveline to diversify not only the world of video game heroines, but the design ideas that have been associated with Ubisoft’s hit franchise so far.
The Creole protagonist has three different personas she can adopt throughout Liberation. The upper-class Lady can’t do any of the free-running locomotion that’s become a hallmark of the Assassin's Creed games. But she can charm guards -- which makes them follow and protect her -- or bribe them to get into secured locations. The Slave persona can blend in with other servants and also incite riots but becomes notorious for her actions at a faster rate than the Lady. Aveline’s Assassin guise will be the most familiar to fans of the series. While wearing the Assassin’s tricorner hat and togs, she can wield multiple ranged and melee weapons.
You’ll be playing through a virtual version of New Orleans in Liberation, starting in 1768 when it was a French colony, moving through its period of Spanish rule and ending one year after the American Revolution. The game very much comes across an Assassin's Creed title in miniature, with a well-populated open-world playground for players to stalk and hide in. The combat is smooth and stylish and the new free-running animations that show up in Assassin's Creed III are here too. Liberation’s story has Aveline -- haunted by the uncertain fate of her long-lost mother -- trying to get to the bottom of disappearances of local slaves.
The way Aveline is able to weave through multiple levels of society makes clever use of race and gender as subversive elements, taking head on subject matter that most other games run away from. The personas interlock mechanically too. When the Assassin’s Notoriety meter is in the red, it takes the Lady using a bribe -- which only she can do -- to lower the heat. The Slave can infiltrate plantations as a laborer and access information that you’ll act on later in another guise. And while the Assassin is the most deadly, her base level of Notoriety is the highest of the three personas. It’s a lot like a superhero secret identity but, instead of a phone booth or supply closet, Aveline can buy dressing chambers where she can change into another one of her altar egos.
Weapons and abilities in Liberation feel like they’re specifically geared to Aveline too. She can use the blowgun’s poison darts to kill from far away and wield those same projectiles with the option of a parasol gun for the Lady persona. Poisons that make enemy NPCs attack each other let her maintain a low profile.
Race and gender feel like intentional parts of the design here, too. I’ve probably done hundreds of escort missions in video games over the years. But I’ve never been more tense than during the ones in where I was helping runaway slaves escape to freedom. Or more pained than when I was reading the diary entries left behind by Aveline’s mother. Moreover, most of the prime movers in this game’s plot are women: Aveline herself, her aide-de-camp in the bayou, the lost mother whose memory she chases and the step-mother who offers secret help with freeing slaves. Men are enemies, aloof mentors, kindly patriarchs or enamored sidekicks in Liberation. This isn’t a showcase for them.
You spend part of the game cut off from your Assassin and Lady guises, left only with the slave persona. Huge chunks of the map are hot zones where anything you do draws the guards’ hostile attention. And when your notoriety climbs up, the easy mechanical solution of ripping down wanted posters is denied you. You still have to sneak and kill to ferret out your mother’s fate though. But you’re doing it in your weakest, most vulnerable state with no fancy weapons and with each action branding you as a troublemaker. This sequence channels the tropes of servitude and revolt to build to a unique moment.
There is some moralising -- which feels especially facile given the hindsight of centuries -- with regard to how wrong the practice of chattel slavery in America was. And the way Liberation handles gender politics isn’t without fault. Aveline isn’t sexualised in the vein of a Lara Croft or a Bloodrayne. But she is the constant subject of male gaze, and even if that dynamic becomes a superpower of sorts, it still feels unhealthy.
But for as much as Liberation delivers on its ambitions, its execution is hampered by a distinct lack of polish. There are parts where the game seems to be missing slices of narrative. (Liberation gets presented as game published by Abstergo -- the bad guys in Assassin's Creed lore -- and there’s a meta-plot in the game that has a hacker cutting into the simulation to show you part of the game that have been cut out.) So, yes, there are moments when you’re supposed to be that way but other stuck out as just unintentionally poor sequencing. Missions start and you’re left to puzzle together their narrative purpose. Collision detection breaks down in spots and bugs where things aren’t where they appear to be annoyed me but didn’t ruin the experience for me. ACL did crash twice while I was playing it but failures like this weren’t a constant occurrence.
Despite its occasional roughness, Liberation pushes buttons that very few games do. It’s not always graceful or subtle, but the experience packs an intense emotional punch. Aveline may be a nearly superhuman assassin but she’s still cut off from her history in a very raw way. You feel that void in this title. By putting you in a game where you play through the sometimes painful push-and-pull of gender and racial identity in American history, Liberation takes a potentially polarising risk. It pays off though, and this Assassin's Creed is better off for casting a broader net.