Review: Assassin's Creed III (Wii U)

America, **** yeah!

Assassin's Creed III is a weird game to launch alongside Wii U: there is little context for those Nintendo-only players who sat out the other four games because they perhaps didn't own the proper hardware, and those who are invested in the series probably already picked this up elsewhere when it released weeks before the Wii U itself. In a way, though, the game is perfect for the occasion; much like its hardware home, Assassin's Creed III pivots its legacy in an exciting new direction to welcome both new and experienced players into the fold.

Newcomers jumping in this late to the struggle between the Assassin's Order and the Templars might find the overarching story to be somewhat confusing, despite the game's best efforts to bring everyone up to speed at the outset, and truth be told it's all pretty bananas to begin with. At the core of the story is Desmond Miles, a man of our time descending from a long line of Assassin's who's able to replay his ancestor's genetic memories through the wonders of the Animus. On the run from the Templars in the modern era, Desmond syncs up with his half-English and half-Mohawk ancestor Connor to find clues during the American Revolution and avert imminent world destruction.

Switching gears to the New World brings more than just a fresh coat of paint: out are the old, vertical and intricate stone cities of Florence and Jerusalem, and in their stead the squat sprawls of young Boston, New York and, most exciting, the vast frontier and ocean surrounding them. And we really mean vast — the world of AC3 is absolutely huge and brimming with life, inviting aimless exploration and leaping about the land. While the lower cities don't allow the same vertigo as in earlier games, the world makes up for it with volume on land, at sea and the activity within.

See, Assassin's Creed III is a stupidly massive game. Its storyline of 15-20 hours is easily dwarfed by the amount of side missions, exploration, period board games, hunting challenges and hidden treasures at Connor's disposal, in addition to just tooling around for the fun of it. Assassins are nimble and able to climb virtually any surface, and the ease with they zoom around and traverse the environment is effortless both in their ability and that which is required of the player. Holding ZR on the GamePad and pushing the left stick will get you virtually anywhere; it really couldn't be easier to climb the side of a building, run along a post and jump between rooftops. For the most part movement is fluid and precise, often with visible paths through the world, but there is still the occasional geometry that for whatever reason Connor can't conquer, and when he is grounded it's typically by something he should have no problem getting around. It feels rather silly to see a skilled Assassin fly between trees only to be stopped in his path by a rogue rock. On the other hand, Connor seems to take fewer unintended death leaps than predecessor Ezio, handy for stealth portions or timing an attack.

Connor's life is a far more interesting tale than anything taking place outside of the Animus; the stakes may be higher for Desmond but it's tough to care about another lame video game apocalypse when inside the Animus awaits a story more personal and weighty. The story begins in the 1750's before Connor is even born and frequently skips weeks, months or years at a time within the same memory sequence. There is a lot of ground to cover, you see, and Ubisoft is not shy about showing it. Admirably much of this comes in the form of gameplay instead of a Metal Gear-style 40-minute cutscene, although this has the nasty effect of what feels like a lot of padding. Covering this much and presenting it in this way makes sense from a narrative perspective, but the frequent leaps in time are sometimes jarring and skip portions that otherwise would create a stronger bond between the player and Connor. Nonetheless, his outsider position between clashing cultures allows him an intriguing status in the conflict between the Redcoats and the Patriots as an agent acting in his own interests, first and foremost.

Seeing the numerous ways that Ubisoft manages to stitch him into historical events a la Forrest Gump is fairly impressive, and comes off more successfully like an alternate history yarn than prior entries (perhaps because you may have actually heard of a great many of these figures), and fighting alongside these characters is a blast for anyone with a passing interest in US history. Ubisoft doesn't shy away from the more unsavoury actions of both sides in the conflict, and it's refreshing to see these figures in a less lionized form. The gameplay translations of these historic events can sometimes be on the mundane side, though; the early Battle of Bunker Hill, for instance, looks impressive with its huge firing lines and open terrain, but it essentially boils down to a frustrating trek between cover before Connor eventually buries his hatchet into some dudes' faces with ease.

As a result missions are fairly hit or miss, and many of them will be familiar in design to those who've already donned the robes. Some feel trivial, others overly binary or conflict with the game's fiction (especially instances where stealth vs. open combat is appropriate). Wrapping around the Revolutionary War can distract attention away from flaws when the mission is done well, but more often than not some kind of binary annoyance will break the illusion. When it comes into play, the dumbstruck AI doesn't help matters either — whenever a character veers off script they seem to lose their faculties, with occasional erratic movement or questionable recognition. Main objectives are seldom all that challenging, so in keeping with the conceit of the Animus, sequences can have optional objectives that, when accomplished, lead to a "full sync" of the memory. Since the core mission objectives are fairly straightforward, these objectives are a great way to seek extra challenge if you so choose.

Open combat largely centres around a fluid one-two-three mix of blocking, countering and striking, and while it can still be goofy to have a circle of enemies standing around waiting to trade blows one-by-one there is much greater opportunity to switch up encounters thanks to two new additions: guns and the brutal rope dart. One might expect the melee balance to be upset by pistols but by and large they provide a nice balance — true to the era, guns take a long time to reload, so while Connor can't exactly pull a Scarface on a squad of lobsterbacks he can, for instance, pounce on one enemy and then shoot another before they have time to react. And then there's the rope dart, a particularly nasty contraption that would make Mortal Kombat's Scorpion proud, which allows you to stab and string up enemies in trees. The rope dart is quite fun to use and opens up even more plans of attack.

In an odd but welcome twist for the series, Assassin's Creed III occasionally steers out to sea for naval combat. While only a handful of story missions put you behind the rudder, an optional bevy are there if you choose to set sail. Trying to broadside another vessel while dodging incoming fire is a challenge and a half and provides a fun and refreshing break from slashing people with hidden wrist blades. One might expect naval combat to feel out of place in a game largely centred on sneaking atop roofs and fighting in the street but surprisingly feels like an organic extension of the world; so much can be done on land that, sure, why not be able to sail out to sea?

Connor's world is beautifully realized year-round, from the majestic winter wilderness to the hot summer cities, and even if the paths through become somewhat obvious to the trained eye it's still remarkably fun to let the natural world wash over you. Views can go for miles, and while the environment doesn't quite capture the same serene beauty of Red Dead Redemption (really, what does?) it's easy to get lost in the woods, so to say. On PC the game runs like a champ, and it appears that on Wii U the game retains some of the graphical glitches and framerate struggles of its console cousins — the hardware sweats during particularly explosive scenes and pop-in is a tad more frequent than we'd like. To be charitable one could chalk glitches up to the Animus itself, but really there's just so much going on that the game is wailing on the hardware — launch titles seldom are technical paragons and AC3 is no exception.

Where AC3 does shine on Wii U is through convenient use of the GamePad — nothing unexpected, really, but the flexibility it offers is very welcome. By default, the GamePad displays a larger map and a few convenient touch buttons, like for summoning your horse, while the game plays out on the big screen. The map doesn't allow you to set custom waypoints by tapping, which seems like an oversight, but its larger size than the one in the default HUD allows greater visibility for navigating and exploration. A quick trip to the options menu can toggle a Wii U optimized HUD, where all on-screen elements are warped to the GamePad for a delightfully clean display, or fling the whole game to the GamePad screen for off-screen/toilet adventure. Or you could ditch the GamePad altogether in favour of a Pro controller and play exactly as on other platforms. Control options are plentiful, flexible and appreciated, and in this regard AC3 is exactly what we would like to see from the genre.

The franchise's unique multiplayer, where sly stealth and a cool head prevail over brute force, is here in full and as exciting as ever: Players are assigned a single target opponent to take out among the crowd while at the same time being hunted by another. Blending into the CPU crowd while moving towards the heartbeat sound of your opponent or away from the whispers that signify your own killer is approaching is nothing short of thrilling, and scrounging up a group of friends is a great way to spend some time online with your new hardware. Unfortunately, friend matches seem to be the only way to actually play as the Quick Match option is nigh-on a ghost town. You can hop on to Miiverse to put out the call for a game but, whoops, connecting to Miiverse unplugs you from the game's own online component. This is all a huge shame because Assassin's Creed multiplayer is a genuinely different breed of competitive game, but without a critical mass of players is fairly toothless.

Ubisoft's Uplay app, freely available from the eShop, sinks its hooks into the game and tracks all of four achievements and their accompanying Uplay points, which can be redeemed for things like in-game currency and multiplayer skins. It would have been nice to get the full suite of achievements as on other platforms, but at least it's something for fans of that extra incentive.

Conclusion

Assassin's Creed III pushes the foundations of the series forward in many new directions, and while a degree of these go sideways the title still manages to pull off one of the most impressive and immersive game worlds we've seen in some time. Smart GamePad support is a great enhancement over its siblings and sets the standard for this genre on Wii U, and while an anaemic online community silently kills the multiplayer component, the campaign is still engrossing for solo players. Newcomers shouldn't have too much trouble acclimatising to the overarching goings-on as Ubisoft takes great care to ease them in, and as it marks the beginning of a rich new world, AC3 is an organic entry point for the series and a great way to spend some quality time with your new console.

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