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Review

Join Me For Unabashed Gushing Over Assassin’s Creed: Liberation‘s Female Protagonist


As a whole, Assassin’s Creed Liberation HD is not a very good game. The PC port of this former PS Vita exclusive looks gorgeous, but that doesn’t hide the problems underneath. The maps are huge, without providing any real reason to explore (beyond a few bland side quests and collectible items). The pacing is choppy, indicative of its easy-to-set-aside handheld origins. Bugs are everywhere, ranging from unprompted costume changes to finicky usable objects to falling rocks hanging in mid-air. Stabbing, climbing, and being stealthy are normally my jam, but within a couple hours, the missions felt routine. There were a few bright points, but overall, I was underwhelmed.

And yet, I can forgive Liberation its flaws. This game fell short of the adventure I was hoping for, but it’s worth playing for one glorious, shining reason. Her name is Aveline de Grandpré.

The setting is New Orleans, 1765. Our protagonist is a child of plaçage, a form of temporary marriage common in French slave colonies. Her father is a successful French merchant; her mother, a freed African slave. Aveline has been granted the privileges of upper class life — education, wealth, the possibility of respectable marriage. Though she will be unable to inherit her father’s shipping business, he highly values her assistance with his work, and gives her plenty of free reign in managing his assets. She buys out rival businesses and gives their slaves paid employment, setting them, as she puts it, “on the path to freedom.”

All of this is done in her spare time, of course, because her main gig is murder and mayhem. Aveline is secretly a member of the Assassin Brotherhood, sworn to destroy the insidious Templar Order (this game will make little sense if you don’t go in with at least a basic grasp of the franchise’s lore and sci-fi overtones). She’s a walking weapon, capable of executing her targets without ever being seen. She wears retractable blades in her tailored sleeves. She can take out a group of guards with her bare hands. She can scale buildings, leap between trees, swim without breaking the water. She kills with efficiency and grace. She is a spectacularly dangerous woman.

Though I was unimpressed with the gameplay, there is one mechanic I have to mention: the Persona system. As you guide Aveline through her bloody business, you risk gaining notoriety, a tiered ranking which determines the likelihood that guards will aggro. Low notoriety means a guard might glance your way, but will shrug it off if you move on quickly. High notoriety means being attacked on sight. The Persona system allows the player to mitigate notoriety, and more importantly, to access different social abilities.

Aveline has three distinct ways she can present herself. Her Assassin garb carries notoriety no matter what, but gives her full access to her combat skills. The Lady Persona means no climbing or jumping (because, let’s be real, corsets are not conducive to parkour), but she can bribe guards to look the other way, coax them to follow her into the last secluded corner they’ll ever see, or silently dispose of them with her parasol gun. Her parasol gun. This Persona gains notoriety very slowly — she’s a lady, after all. She can get away with a lot. Quite different from the Slave Persona, which accrues notoriety for acts as minor as knocking into someone on the street. Guards need little excuse to rough up a slave. The trade-off is that in this guise, Aveline can blend into the background. Just pick up a crate, stand close to other workers, and disappear into the crowd. A fine way to escape from the scene of a crime.

Story-wise, the Persona system translates like this: Aveline is a master social engineer, able to manipulate class, race, and gender expectations to her advantage. She knows that the same townspeople who wave and call “Bonjour!” when she wears snappy green silk won’t look twice at her if she’s wearing rough cotton and carrying a broom. She knows when to flaunt her beauty and charm, and when to look down and play stupid. She wears a different face with everyone. With her family, she is spirited and affectionate. With her mentor, assertive and attentive. With her targets, menacing. Or coquettish. Or invisible.

Aveline’s malleability is further underlined by her cultural identity — or, rather, identities. She speaks with high-society polish and quips about the inferiority of Spanish wine, yet feels right at home among swamp-dwelling smugglers and runaways. She respects her African elders. She respects her French peers. She despises slave owners, but genuinely loves her father, who once owned her mother. The way she approaches her duality is complex, but this isn’t the story of an outcast. This is the story of a calculating woman who found herself with one foot on either side of a divide, and built a bridge to walk between.

The parental figures in Aveline’s life provide her with additional nuance. Her doting father, Philippe, encourages her independence, while her Assassin mentor, Agaté, disparages her impulsiveness. Her French stepmother, Madeleine, is abolitionist-minded, and treats Aveline as her own. Interesting as these characters were, none were more compelling than Aveline’s mother, Jeanne, who mysteriously vanishes in the opening moments of the game. Jeanne’s story is unraveled through her collectable diary pages, the one side quest I could not leave unfinished. Her diary begins with her struggle to become literate, and continues through her sale to Aveline’s father. I won’t give away the details, but suffice it to say, Jeanne’s feelings toward Philippe are poignantly layered. There’s fondness, yes, but I think it falls short of forgiveness.

I’ve played games that deal with themes of race and class, but I’ve never played a game that addresses them with such clarity. I’ve never seen a character like Aveline. I have no one to compare her to. She is totally unique.

Aveline’s strong characterization is bolstered by her excellent visual design. Five minutes into the game, I was struck by how badass she looked in her Assassin gear. For several hours, I was too busy muttering “wow, she looks cool” to fully realize why. There’s a key detail, one typically rare for female player characters in combat settings. Here, look at her outfit on the left:

Do you see it? It’s not the weapons, or the gauntlets, or even the flat-soled boots.

She’s not wearing boob armor.

The take-away here is not that boob armor is inherently bad. There’s a time and a place for boob armor. There’s even sensible, tough-looking boob armor (Exhibit A: Commander Shepard). But Aveline is wearing a neck-high leather doublet, without a plunging neckline or sculpted cups (in game, at least — the promo art is more busty). It’s the most obvious, practical choice for someone who needs both protection and mobility. As someone who has worn a snug leather doublet before, trust me, they don’t meld to your curves like shrink wrap. Everything gets compressed, much like you see here (an ideal thing if you’re doing a lot of running and jumping — this is why sports bras exist). Aveline’s clothing makes perfect sense in her line of work. It doesn’t make her look like less feminine, it makes her look competent. This is a woman out do to some serious damage. When I look at a female character portrayed in such a way, when I see no dissonance between her appearance and her skill set, when I think, “Yeah, that’s exactly what I would want to wear if I was in her shoes” — combine that with a well-developed personality, and you’ve got a power fantasy I can unequivocally engage with. It feels like Christmas.

Aveline never stopped feeling dominant, even when she changed into brocade and lace. When Aveline puts on a fabulous dress and a coy smile, she’s not doing it for the player. Oh, no. When Aveline flirts, it means someone is about to get played. And/or stabbed. Aveline is always in control, no matter what her appearance or her behavior. Assuming a traditionally masculine role does not compromise her femininity. Assuming a traditionally feminine role does not compromise her power.

God, I love this character.

I’ve seen little written about Aveline, which is unsurprising, given Liberation’s initially limited release and lackluster reviews. But she should be written about. This is a character bursting with fuel for critique, from as many angles as possible. My own impressions are limited to my racial perspective (that of being white) and my shamefully meager knowledge of American colonial history. I am itching to hear more varied thoughts on her, and for that, I’m glad that this game — buggy and blasé as it can be — is now available to a wider audience (Xbox 360 and PS3 owners, you’re good to go, too). Aveline deserves to be out there. And yeah, she deserves a better game. You should play this one anyway.

Becky Chambers writes essays, science fiction, and stuff about video games. Like most internet people, she has a website. She can also be found on Twitter.

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  • Anonymous

    I love Aveline so very much and the industry really needs more protagonists like her.

  • Laine Glaistig

    This makes me really want to watch someone else play the game (but your warning about glitches and bugs makes me not want to play it myself).

  • Anonymous

    I’m sooooo sad they didn’t fix ANY of the Vita bugs. The bugs absolutely ruined that game for me. Aveline 100% deserves better. HOWEVER, I have been wondering lately (mostly based on the AVIV DLC, Freedom Cry, which supposedly had hints as to what this year’s AC would be about), that she might be getting a full title.

  • Rachel Ripley

    AC 3 put me off ever wanting to play AC again…this makes me want to give it another go

  • Charlie

    It just makes me sad they shoved her into a side game instead of letting her be in the main series.

  • http://bayareageekguide.com/ Mike Chen

    Liberation is a very streamlined AC game, for better or worse. Play it because of Aveline and the setting and some neat story twists, but don’t expect the depth of the main games in terms of side quests. It’s about a 10 hour campaign and it feels more like an expansion than anything else. For $20 (on console), it’s worth your money.

  • John Keegan

    THIS

    I’m replaying Liberation HD just because I want more time with the character, and I hope the positive response to Aveline will convince Ubisoft to have another such protagonist in a future AC game!

  • Anonymous

    I keep wanting buy this game for all the reasons you mentioned, but I played the demo and already felt a lot of the bugs you mention too. I keep sitting on the fence with this one. Though in the end, I’ll probably end up buying it just to support the character.

  • John Keegan

    A lot of things tried in Liberation were refined to much better effect in AC4, similar to how elements of AC3 were updated. In terms of playability, FYI.

  • John Keegan

    Something tells me it will be discounted sooner or later, especially when the next major iteration comes out later in the year.

  • Anonymous

    I’m playing it right now. Aveline is certainly awesome. Why wouldn’t they make a complete game of her? Yeah, I know, the “female protagonist don’t sell” bullshit :-/

    I want an umbrella poison gun *_*

  • Anonymous

    I bought this blind, based solely on the awesomeness of a female protagonist, same reason I bought mirror’s edge.
    It’s one of those cases where if you buy the game that’s only pretty good, it’ll inspire them to do another game that REALLY good, as opposed to thinking “well, the pretty god one sold well, so we only have to do another pretty good one”.

  • http://runt.org/ Adrian

    FYI: This game is ALSO AVAILABLE FOR THE PC! I have it on my Steam wishlist!

  • http://www.aeryllou.tumblr.com/ Aeryl

    I can’t wait to play this. I’ll be getting it as soon as I finish IV.

    The way it’s been tied into IV’s current day plot is intriguing. There have been a few tantalizing hints about Aveline and her mission against the Templars mentioned that I can’t wait find out about.

  • http://www.aeryllou.tumblr.com/ Aeryl

    I miss the “high profile/low profile” modes. If Edward Kenway jumps onto one for F-ING table while I’m trying to get OFF the G_DAMNED docks, well I’d throw him into the ocean, but that won’t do much.

  • John Keegan

    Kenway’s table dancing career is legendary.

  • http://bayareageekguide.com/ Mike Chen

    Kind of like the first Assassin’s Creed, which seemed more like a tech demo than a full game.

  • Anonymous

    I have a feeling (hope?) that the rave reviews and publicity of the Aveline character, if not the game itself, may well result in a sequel. When it was on the Vita, it was generally ignored (because Vita), but now that it’s on consoles, it has a much wider audience. And given that we know there are a few AC games in development, I think the possibility of one being a proper Aveline adventure isn’t that remote. A “Liberation done right” sort of thing.

  • APlack1960

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  • Anonymous

    The (modern day) office in ACIV is plastered with posters of Edward Kenway (ACIV protagonist) but has quite a few Aveline posters as well. Of course, I understood that meant “we’re really trying to sell this product”, but it also meant “we’re taking this character, which we’ve previously benched by design, into the spotlight now”. I liked that.

    In ACIV, one element discovered in the modern day office is a recording of an interview with the first “player” (they call them subjects) to have relived Aveline’s memories in the in-game’s “relive someone’s memories through their DNA doodad” (Animus for the initiated). The subject is male, and one element which will strike a chord here is that he mentioned how he became aware of the way men looked at Aveline (relived through him). All the men. In that way that men look at women. Ubisoft put that in a game.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks so much for this review. I have not been an Assassin’s Creed player, but for the sake of a female protagonist presented in this way, I’m definitely willing to give it a try. Anything to reinforce the game industry’s understanding that strong, nuanced and talented women can helm a game that still makes money. :-)

  • Anonymous

    This one time when I played, Aveline’s face took up half the screen. And naturally turned with her head. Like the texture for her skin was stretched out to the edges of the screen. But restarting the chapter fixed that and it didn’t happen to me since. Freaky and funny.

    They’re not blocking glitches, I found. It’s definitely not as bad as ACIII on zero day. It’s pretty much as glitchy as full-patched ACIII.

  • http://www.aeryllou.tumblr.com/ Aeryl

    Ubisoft is so freaking awesome. Even if their association with Abstergo in game freaks me out.

  • Anonymous

    There’s so much I want to quote from this review, I don’t know where to start. This is by far the best review I have read that actually delves more into why Aveline is supposed to be so special or why she is a strong female protagonist. The Persona system also sounds intriguing. Thank you Becky, I think I’ll give the game demo another go.

  • Canisa

    I’m seriously worried that they deliberately put their first female protagonist into a second-rate Vita game so that when the game didn’t sell as well as the male-led core franchise they could blame it on the woman and thus have an excuse to keep using male player characters.

    I hope I’m wrong, but the coincidence seems a little hard to ignore.

  • http://jstationx.com/ Jasmine Henry

    Hi Canisa,

    I sort of thought that too but then I did some research and wrote some words on the game – http://jstationx.com/the-female-assassin-in-assassins-creed-3-liberation-isnt-just-good-for-women-but-gamers-too/ (sorry for the plug, but it’s relevant I swear!) and ended up thinking completely differently.

    The last time I checked (which was a while ago), the Vita version of Liberation had sold nearly a million copies, which is pretty good going for the console and I think that the HD version of the game shows Ubi’s support since there are like a million other AC mobile games with male leads that people would have lapped up on PS3 or Xbox 360. And Aveline got to be in ACIV too /and/ her missions were free so I’m actually really happy/surprised/(even a little bit proud?) that she’s getting her chance in the limelight, even if she is just a stone’s throw and a year long development cycle away from a full console release.

  • http://jstationx.com/ Jasmine Henry

    I know I commented above but I want to add that I really don’t think we need to be too worried about Ubisoft’s intentions w/r/t Aveline’s future.

    People mostly hated the original Assassin’s Creed and didn’t take to Altair much either but people loved Ezio so much that Ubisoft gave him three games and probably only ended his run as a protagonist because he got too old (because of the chronological order of the games) to be believable as an assassin.

    The same has sort of happened with Connor Kenway, but then Ubisoft jumped back in time for ACIV, so considering that for the most part, Aveline seems to have been received well, despite the criticisms of her Vita outing and its HD port, I think Ubisoft are not averse to time jumping if it means getting their new beloved female assassin to star in more games.

  • DatGlovehandTho

    I’m more concerned with what I’ve heard about the repetitive gameplay and limited game world than I am bugs. AC3 had bugs, it was still an enjoyable experience all told (albeit it an inconsistent one…. probably the highest highs and the lowest lows of the series).

    But from what I’ve heard from reviewers I trust, the game just isn’t particularly FUN.

  • Anthony John Woo

    I don’t play the Assassin’s Creed games, but this character almost makes me want to.

  • Anthony John Woo

    Her parasol gun reminds me of the weaponized parasol in the Parasol Protectorate series by Gail Carriger.

  • http://www.aeryllou.tumblr.com/ Aeryl

    I thought of Alexia’s parasol too!

  • Anonymous

    In my headcanon this games name is Assassins Creed: Feminist Facestab. I mean have you seen her machete kills? Wow. I agree the gameplay isn’t the best but Aveline is absolutely wonderful.

  • Anonymous

    It sold enough to justify a port to the PC and she gets a short mini-campaign in Assassins Creed IV which is pretty good too.

  • Anonymous

    I felt EXACTLY the same way, AC3 was horrible but ACIV and Liberation are great! I was really hesitant about buying ACIV but I loved it and I was always going to buy Liberation but I really enjoyed it also.:)

  • Alan Kistler

    I’m not generally into the Assassins’ Creed games, but the idea of how she can use three personas to manipulate people already makes me fascinated. Add her backstory to it, and this is a game I would play.

  • Alan Kistler

    I’m not generally into the Assassins’ Creed games, but the idea of how she can use three personas to manipulate people already makes me fascinated. Add her backstory to it, and this is a game I would play.

  • Gordon Borland

    As someone who has only played the first Assassins Creed and his no interest in the other games in the main series how easy would it be to pick up and play this one with limited knowledge ?

  • Chiara

    This wouldn’t make any sense at all from a business perspective.

  • Charlie

    Me too, I spent loads in the sale though so I can’t justify any more games atm…

  • Anonymous

    Argh, TY for stating this!! I thought I couldn’t play it, now I can! *dances*

  • Anthony John Woo

    I don’t have an outfit to go along with one, but I want a weaponized parasol anyway!

  • Ashe

    I’m seriously amazed by how many details they got right. And in a climate where people are buoyed by excuses not to do their research and step into another person’s shoes, I have to pinch myself now and again.

    Switching up her attire, speaking manner, even the way she moves in order to navigate a world that’s built on rigid lines: that’s something a LOT of multiracial people can relate to. People from mixed backgrounds have to constantly figure out when to speak their native tongue or not, what’s a more appropriate accent in a particular setting, how to wear their hair/how to dress in order to avoid dangerous stereotypes (especially around the police or upper-class environments), when to reveal their background and to who, lying about their background to incur favor/slip past the radar, being hyper-aware of how their usually ambiguous appearance might appear to certain groups of people, etc.

    It’s a fucking doozy and I’ll always be grateful for every bit of media I get that explores that and then some.

    It’s cool to have your socially enforced identity crises treated with dignity AND mixed in with some science-fiction elements. :D

  • Ashe

    …Ubisoft WHAT?

    :O

  • DatGlovehandTho

    Ezio’s popularity was backed up by sales, not to mention the need to stall for time as AC3 was in development. Continuing Ezio’s story in a similar timeframe allowed them to reuse assets and gameplay mechanics, while adding minor touches to give a sense of progression.

    Avenline’s game failed to sell particularly well… we can make the claim that it was due to platform, and we’ll get our first confirmation of that based on the sales of this DLC she’s in. Meanwhile, there’s not need to stall for the next entry, because it’s likely to be iterative on AC4 in the same way that AC:B and AC:R were iterative on AC2.

    Personally, I think we’ve seen the last of this character.

  • http://jstationx.com/ Jasmine Henry

    In ACIV, there’s a Asian female assassin who plays a minor role, but the fact that she exists clearly shows that Ubisoft are thinking about more diverse assassins and how they fit in the grander scheme of things.

    There are also female assassins who you talk with to get Templar keys so even though most of the protagonists in the series have been men, I don’t think for a second that Ubisoft aren’t considering letting Aveline (or another just as badass female lead) step up to the big leagues even more in the future.

  • http://jstationx.com/ Jasmine Henry

    While I accept that Ezio’s AC games sold very well, the series in general sells very well and AC3 (which sold better than Ezio’s games still, I believe) and ACIV are our only recent examples of that, so we don’t really have much to compare to.

    And I think I said this in my other comment, but Liberation on Vita has sold nearly a million copies, making it one of the console’s best selling games. If her game hadn’t sold well and there had been no interest in playing as her why would Ubisoft make a HD version of that very title?

    As for “based on sales of this DLC she’s in”, Aveline’s additional missions in ACIV are free. If you bought a copy of the game on PS3 or PS4, then you get to play as Aveline by redeeming a code. When the other AC games have just given you more chances to play as the male lead with their added missions DLC, why would Ubisoft go out of their way to make Aveline the star of this DLC?

    There’s no need to stall on the next entry in the AC franchise simply because it’s already on the works. Or, rather, /they are/ in the works, because in 2014 Ubisoft are going to be releasing not one, but two AC games. When they started production on these titles, they likely had no idea how Edward Kenway would be received and therefore they would have little to no reason to feature him in yet another game. But Aveline? Ubisoft already knows how the public feels about her – we love her – so it seems that another outing for her is very much on the cards.

  • DatGlovehandTho

    I meant the HD rerelease of Liberation on 360 and PS3, not the extra missions in AC4.

    It’s true there’s a rumor that two AC games are in production – one for current-gen (360, PS3) and one for next-gen (PS4, XBONE).

    There are also rumors that the next AC games will be a completely different time period, which cuts Aveline out of the equation.

    We’ll see what happens. I seriously doubt we see this character again, and certainly not as the main character of a major entry in the main-line series. If I’m wrong, great!

  • Anonymous

    Interesting. AC4: Navy Battles is what put me off entirely (and all the horribly UPlay bugs and multiplayer issues). Aveline’s Liberation is what made me warm and happy inside.

  • http://jstationx.com/ Jasmine Henry

    Ah, ok. I still think that Ubisoft’s profits from the this will exceed whatever it cost to make it (especially the PS3 version because Sony’s consoles are basically made for upscaling).

    Maybe Ubi will jump back in time again! I guess we’ll probably only know more once they announce the two games (which presumably will be soon if they have fall release dates).

  • http://jstationx.com/ Jasmine Henry

    Yes! Me too!

    I really want Ubisoft to expand on that because so far the Templar key quests have been one of my overall highlights (so far) of the game.

  • http://jstationx.com/ Jasmine Henry

    I haven’t played Liberation (though I’ve done quite a bit of research into its story) and I’ve played every other game in the series and I can say that they all make sense without having played the others.

    The foundations for all of the games is basically lead character vs Templars, with one or a few overall bad guys. Also Aveline’s story seems to be completely separate from the main games.

    Hope that helped!

  • Gordon Borland

    Cheers for the help !

  • http://jstationx.com/ Jasmine Henry

    You’re welcome! :)

  • Erica Jones

    It looks like I may need to get into AC.