The Assassin’s Creed franchise has mystified me (and millions of other gamers) since I first saw it behind closed white doors at E3 2007. Since that time, when its time-bending plot first caused a massive stir, we’ve become accustomed to the series transporting players into new periods and new environments. In this case, that new era and world is early America. But more important, Assassin’s Creed 3 takes the series in another type of uncharted territory: onto an all-new console. The game has Xbox 360 and PS3 counterparts, but the Wii U version presents a few unique gameplay opportunities and reaffirms Nintendo’s more-mature approach with its new hardware. It’s not always a homerun, but it’s also a title that Wii U owners looking for ‘older’ games should check out.
As in previous outings, Ubisoft spent some resources hashing out the campaign, which is about 15 hours and includes great story elements whether you’re playing as modern-era assassin Desmond Miles or Connor, Desmond’s Native American ancestor. I won’t delve into any major plot points, because I hate spoilers and want to avoid any here, but let’s just say that the writing and issues explored in Assassin’s Creed 3 are some of the best in the series, even if they do take a while to get going. The plot and setting also provide a host of fresh gameplay scenarios and side mission variety, and Ubisoft has even tweaked the multiplayer options to extend the game’s longevity. In short, there’s plenty to do in the early-American AC3 world.
Much of the game takes place in Connor’s era, which means you’ll find yourself navigating a lot of natural environments. This provides a nice aesthetic change of pace, but it also forces players to break from the incessant wall-running and parkour-style clambering they’ve grown accustomed to. That’s not to say they’re not included; the open-world feel and those fluid gameplay elements are alive and well. It’s just that the game no longer seems to rely on them, which I happen to think is a good thing. Assassin’s Creed 3 also introduces a tree-climbing mechanic, which is both contextually perfect for the setting and something franchise fans have wanted for a while now. Kudos to Ubisoft for pulling it off.
The biggest gameplay change, however, is the addition of naval battles, which put you in charge of a ship, all the way down to the crew and cannon level. The gameplay options as ship captain aren’t as deep as the now-old PC game Sea Dogs (which I absolutely loved, for the record), but the naval battles are a nice change of pace and manage to keep your pulse pounding even when you’re just trying to maneuver to get the proper angle. That’s quite an accomplishment on a console, and it’s certainly notable for a franchise known for taking place on terra firma.
With all that said, the Wii U version suffers some setbacks, and it’s not clear whether they’re related to the console itself or the ugly nuances of the porting process. Things like system freezes and save-game loading issues could be tied to either, so let’s play nice and presume they’re Nintendo’s hardware issue and not Ubisoft’s software issue. Other problems, though, are clearly tied to the game itself, such as occasionally unresponsive controls, frozen characters, seeing a black screen upon starting a level and more clipping than you’d find in a barber shop. These latter two are pretty superficial and can be generally forgiven, but the first three have a direct impact on the actual game playing experience and can’t be overlooked.
Assassin’s Creed 3 looks on par with its other-console kin, although the framerate does stutter at times when too many NPCs are on screen. From a modeling and lighting sense, though, Assassin’s Creed 3 on Wii U looks great. If it weren’t for a few draw-distance issues, you’d be hard pressed to note any differences between this version and the other consoles’. I personally find that acceptable, although other gamers may wish for a graphical step above the current consoles rather than a step next to them. Alas, that’s not what you get here, but in my opinion what’s offered is excellent.
I also like how Ubisoft chose to implement the Wii U GamePad into the gameplay yet didn’t force gamers to use it. If you’re a PS3 or Xbox 360 fan, you may very well choose to play the game with the Pro controller, which works just fine. If you want the true Wii U experience, though, Ubisoft allows two different mechanisms: playing the game entirely on the GamePad touchscreen, like you would on a battery-chewing tablet, or playing the main game on the TV screen while using the GamePad’s screen to manage inventory and view the in-game map. The latter makes the most sense to me, and it really helps communicate how the Wii U basically turns your TV and console into a 56-inch Nintendo DS. I can only imagine the efficiencies this would bring to something like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim….
So where does Assassin’s Creed 3 stand in terms of Wii U launch games? I’d rank it pretty high, if it weren’t for the glitches. The story’s excellent, the new gameplay elements are a breath of fresh air, and the incorporation of the GamePad make total contextual sense while acting also as a proof of concept for the hardware itself. Without the snafus, I’d say Ubisoft has a Wii U winner on its hands. But some of those glitches are just too hard to overlook. Here’s hoping that with more time to work on the Wii U hardware for AC4, Ubisoft can really strut its stuff without that sort of asterisk hanging over it.
Score: 7.8 — The game shines in many areas, but glitches hold it back from reaching higher heights.
Platform reviewed: Wii U