Deja Review: Assassin's Creed: Liberation HD

This is a Deja Review: A quick, unscored look at the new features and relative agelessness of a remade, revived or re-released game.

When Assassin's Creed 3: Liberation first debuted on the Vita in 2012, it promised a wholly original viewpoint on the eternal war between Assassins and Templars. The game's protagonist, Aveline de Grandpré, remains the only woman to lead an Assassin's Creed game, and beyond that she's of French and African descent. Given the 18th century setting, the game's protagonist alone should have offered the developers at Ubisoft Sofia myriad plot threads to explore, but Liberation seemed more concerned with debuting gimmicky new gameplay options and was quickly overshadowed by Assassin's Creed 3.

Assassin's Creed: Liberation HD attempts to mate the experimental gameplay ideas of the formerly Vita-exclusive adventure with aesthetics more suitable for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC, while also streamlining the game's missions and improving its controls.

This attempt is mostly successful, but if you're paying attention it's pretty clear that Ubisoft's efforts were less "total overhaul" and more "clever spit shine."

What's new this time around?

The major selling point of Assassin's Creed: Liberation HD lies in its improved visuals. The denizens of New Orleans feature more detail than they ever have, owing to newly-crafted textures and slightly more detailed character models. This is particularly noticeable in cutscenes and when the camera cuts close to Aveline's face, though crowds and random passersby also look more lifelike. Even random animals, from rats to chickens to dogs, look more like their real-world counterparts.

It's apparent that the development team's focus was on the game's living creatures, as the shiny new aesthetic begins to crumble when viewing more static objects. Building textures have been improved, but their models maintain the same level of detail found in the Vita game. This is a double-edged sword however, as the wanted posters you tear down to reduce your level of infamy now tend to blend into the improved walls, making it difficult to find them without relying on minimap icons.

While Liberation's new graphics hold up at close range, once you get past a certain distance they take on a gauzy, blurry sheen, giving the impression of viewing the world through a light coating of Vaseline. Fortunately, the gameplay in Assassin's Creed: Liberation HD never requires you to engage anything at those sorts of distances, but it does serve as an omnipresent reminder of the game's handheld roots.

It seems that every new feature Ubisoft added to Assassin's Creed: Liberation HD also brings with it a notable downside. Longtime Assassin's Creed fans are no doubt familiar with the game's parkour mechanics that allow the protagonist to sprint up walls, swing from ledges and generally navigate the world like a spider monkey hopped up on ephedrine. Ubisoft's attempts to translate this feature to the Vita were arguably successful, but the handheld's miniscule size made it exhausting for me to both hold down a shoulder button and maneuver with a thumb stick. That's no longer an issue in Assassin's Creed: Liberation HD thanks to the more robust controllers found on the PS3, Xbox 360 and PC, but nothing has been done to rebalance the difficulty with this increased ease of motion in mind. As a result, movement feels more fluid, but the game loses much of its difficulty. Liberation wasn't a terribly difficult game to begin with, but now its missions are almost trivial.

Whether intentional or not, the attempts to streamline content found in those missions also reduce any challenge the original game might have had. It's now easier to complete assignments that require you to seek out clues, thanks to obvious, glowing auras surrounding each item. I remember spending at least five minutes searching the docks for one particular barrel when first playing Assassin's Creed 3: Liberation. In its new HD incarnation, that same barrel stands out immediately, making it impossible for anyone with functioning eyeballs to miss . These sections have become too easy, only providing a few seconds of distracting downtime between the thrilling moments of stabbing targets in the throat or sneaking through crowds in disguise.

Most disappointing are the new side missions created for Liberation HD. To be blunt, they're utterly inconsequential, contributing nothing to the plot nor adding any novel gameplay elements. The most bizarre example of these missions sees Aveline attacking random citizens who have taken ill. Not because they did anything to offend you or your Assassin overlords, but because chopping them in the throat is apparently the only way to ensure they take their medicine. Aveline's new whip fares slightly better, in that it introduces a wholly different weapon style, but the novelty of medium-range melee attacks quickly wears thin and using the whip to swing through trees is less free-form than I'd desire. Only certain ledges, branches and handholds allow use of the whip, and in most cases it's far easier and more efficient to simply clamber to your intended destination using Aveline's innate agility.

None of this is to say that all of the game's alterations are negative. Character models in Assassin's Creed: Liberation HD are almost on par with the graphical fidelity seen in Assassin's Creed 3 - a big step up from their appearance on the Vita. Likewise, the effort put into enhancing the game's audio is immediately noticeable and very welcome. Tailing targets is easier here than it is in any other Assassin's Creed, as you no longer immediately fail the mission when your mark turns around to glance in your direction. Instead, they need a few moments to focus, giving Aveline a short window in which to hide. Also welcome are new HDR lighting effects.

Best of all, the move from the Vita to consoles and PC has removed the extraneous touchscreen elements altogether. Chain kills are one of the most satisfying ways to dispatch a group of enemies, but the Vita version assigned these spectacular murder sprees to the handheld's touchscreen. It was often easier to just ignore the feature than attempt to quickly and precisely slide your fingers in the necessary directions. In Assassin's Creed: Liberation HD though, you need simply hold a shoulder button while selecting targets, before watching Aveline cut a bloody swath through her foes.

How does it hold up?

While Assassin's Creed 3: Liberation was overshadowed by the more popular Assassin's Creed 3, it earned a spot in my heart for trying something new. The costume system, which allows Aveline to switch her mode of dress from slave to assassin to society lady, remains a clever idea that lends a sense of tension to those moments when you're sneaking through groups of foes, protected only by a few petticoats and lead-based makeup. Likewise, the generally shorter missions previously lent themselves quite nicely to the handheld format, and now do a good job of serving players who only have a few minutes to spend.

Unfortunately, beyond those novel twists, Liberation was a relatively rote Assassin's Creed experience. Nothing about the costume system has been improved for the new HD release, and those shorter missions only serve to make this new game even easier than Ubisoft's attempts at streamlining its overall gameplay.

Assassin's Creed: Liberation HD is a more attractive, functional game than its predecessor, though it lacks enough compelling content to make it worthwhile for most. If you've played the original, the enhanced graphics and handful of new features aren't enough to warrant a second attempt at Aveline's adventure. If you haven't played the Vita game and are a devoted fan of the Assassin's Creed series, I would recommend Assassin's Creed: Liberation HD, if only so you can experience its more novel mechanics. Anyone on the fence, however, won't be missing anything crucial by skipping this re-release.

This review is based on an Xbox 360 download of Assassin's Creed: Liberation HD, provided by Ubisoft.