Aveline de Grandpre is a fascinating character. Not only is the heroine of Assassin's Creed III: Liberation the series' first female protagonist, but her backstory deals with one of the darkest periods in American history. This is a woman born from the romance between a wealthy father and a slave mother, someone who has overcome her uncertain upbringing to find a new life in the Assassin Brotherhood. She's the sort of figure capable of anchoring a truly special game--making it all the more disappointing that Liberation, taken as a whole, is a bit dull.
It's not that Liberation lacks for new ideas. In fact, this Vita spin-off introduces a number of intriguing concepts. Rather than one of Desmond Miles' trips through the Animus, the narrative in Liberation is framed as a piece of historical entertainment delivered by Abstergo Industries, the illusive corporation that serves as the series' overarching antagonist. It is, in other words, a story about Assassins as told by Templars.
There's great potential here for the type of storytelling unique to an unreliable narrator, yet Liberation takes little advantage of its own narrative format. Though the story deals with such heavy themes as slavery and the cultural identity of a city transitioning from French to Spanish rule, it's a largely aimless and hastily delivered plot that sees Aveline bounce around like a pinball from one enemy to the next for the bulk of the game. There are occasional flashes of excitement when a mysterious hacker infiltrates Abstergo's narrative to offer you the "truth" about these events, but they amount to little more than a handful of extended cutscenes back-loaded toward the end of the game.
The greatest casualty of Liberation's muddled storytelling is Aveline herself. She's introduced as an intriguing and strong-willed character, but Aveline's personality is hardly explored beyond that initial introduction. Her recruitment into the Assassin Brotherhood is quickly glossed over, while her gender and mixed ethnicity only occasionally factor into the story. These are interesting traits that you wish the game would explore in more detail, but it's more concerned with a dizzying roster of villains and side characters than spending much time on the heroine at its center.
Where Liberation shines brightest is its re-creation of the city Aveline calls home. This is a brilliant version of 18th-century New Orleans, one that beautifully reflects the diverse cultural ambience formed over years of operating as a French trading port. You often venture outside the city too, spending time with smugglers in the bayou as well as journeying to a couple more locations well beyond Louisiana (though to name them would be spoiling things). These locales look terrific, easily rivaling the rich vistas of Liberation's console counterparts. It's enough to make you stop and soak up the atmosphere during those moments you're scaling a church tower to synchronize the world map.
Unfortunately, you really do have to stop to appreciate the world around you because when things get moving, the Vita hardware tends to struggle under the weight of Ubisoft's graphical ambitions. The frame rate drops precipitously when you hit a dead sprint, and large-scale fights against more than four or five enemies will make things chug as well. It's too bad, because these frame rate issues severely impact the fluid and freewheeling style of urban parkour that has long been the greatest strength of this franchise. Likewise, these visual hiccups don't do any favors to an otherwise refined combat system, which disposes of manual lock-on in favor of a more flexible and intuitive approach to swordfights.