As a lover of both stealth and action games, Assassin’s Creed is easily one of my favorite franchises out there, even if it did take me awhile to warm up to the whole sci-fi front end of the story with the Animus and diving into memories embedded in DNA. I suppose it’s a neat way to tie all the various games together into something much grander than they would have been had they been released as standalone titles. It also allows for nearly unlimited creative freedom, as we can travel just about anywhere at any point along the historic time line. Personally, I was hoping the next game was going to be set in London; perhaps working Jack the Ripper into Desmond’s ancestry, but Ubisoft is taking us quite literally to a New World in Assassin’s Creed III.
When I first learned that this new game was going to be set in 18th century American I had my doubts, but it only took a few hours of actually playing Assassin’s Creed III before I slipped into my old assassin ways. The story once again begins with Desmond and his crew seeking out a new base of operations in order to prevent the Templar from unleashing a devastating attack on the modern population using ancient technology. Once he starts DNA diving we get a brief opening level with an assassination in a giant theater before hopping a ship to America. Even the 30+ minutes on the ship offer up some great moments, both in sheer spectacle as well as a possible mutiny you’ll need to foil when are you below decks talking to the crew and playing challenging board games. Depending on your focus, it can be upwards of an hour or more before the clouds part and the title screen appears signaling your arrival at the New World.
At its core, the gameplay is much like all the previous games. You’ll start to stack up primary and secondary missions along with the random fetch-quests; the first from none other than Ben Franklin who has lost some pages from his Farmers’ Almanac. The game does a good job of propelling you through the main story-driven events while providing you with ample free time to check off these side objectives, and you are always free to exit the Animus and return to the present to catch up with Desmond.
Game mechanics are also still intact even if the world around you is much more vertically challenged this time around. There are no more instances of climbing for several minutes to the top of dizzying tower heights before swan diving into a haystack. Most buildings are only 2-3 stories when in town and your traipsing through the treetops is not much higher. The whole parkour element has been automated to the point where you merely need to keep the trigger held down and the stick pushed forward to have Conner navigate the levels with acrobatic ease.
Combat is also fluid, at least for melee and stealth kills. Ranged weapons are entirely another matter, and you will quickly learn that muzzle-loaders suck in battle, especially when you realize you can’t reload while running. Some of the earlier missions had me carrying a rifle and a pistol just so I could get off two quick shots before retreating to a safe reload distance. The good news is that it takes just as long for the enemy to reload, so if you can dodge their bullets you can easily kill them with a sword or knife during their reload animation, assuming they aren’t sniping from a rooftop.
Assassin’s Creed III supports the Wii U GamePad with a few unique features; mostly a mini-map that highlights the collectibles in the immediate area as well as the enemies, making certain stealth sections almost too easy. You can also tap the screen to summon your horse, which actually frees up a slot for an additional weapon. And yes, you can swap the game from the TV to the controller and play sans TV as long as you stay within range of the Wii U. I was hoping for small screen access to the extensive Animus database, so I could look up people and places without having to exit the game. If you prefer a more conventional controller or want to play beyond the GamePad’s relatively short battery life then you can also use the Pro Controller, making this game nearly identical to the PS3 and 360 in almost every way.
I did notice the stealth element a bit lacking. Perhaps I was just used to all the disguises from the new Hitman game, but even blending into crowds didn’t seem to function as well as it has in past games, which can make some missions like stealth pursuit and eavesdropping more challenging than they needed to be.
Conner will find himself exploring the great outdoors much more than cities in this game, which offers plenty of opportunities for hunting, trapping, and other frontier activities, but without the integrated crafting element of a game like Far Cry 3 these hunting expeditions feel a bit contrived, almost as much as some of the QTE moments when you are attacked by random predators. Also lurking beneath the surface is a fairly important economic system that ties into Conner’s homestead; something you are continually working to improve upon, so you can bring new workers to your base of operations. These workers fuel the trade system which in turn allows Conner to upgrade his various weapons and armor.
And if there wasn’t enough to do on land, just wait until you climb aboard your own majestic sailing vessel and take the adventure to the high seas in a part of the game that could easily have been marketed as a standalone title. Not only are these missions gorgeous to watch, the gameplay mechanics of commanding a ship, piloting, attacking, and boarding other vessels will have you singing, “It’s a pirate’s life for me…” And again, there is a whole economy and ship upgrade system in place to keep you coming back for more.
Assassin’s Creed III does an amazing job of not only recreating a visually stunning 18th century frontier; it sets up incredibly rich characters and stories you care about. Following Conner through his adolescence only gives you deeper insight into that character as an adult. I was also surprised with the insightful use of historical figures and the way they were portrayed in the various events without all of the editorial cleansing of our public school history books. After the initial encounter with Ben Franklin I was expecting a bunch of Forest Gump style brushes with notoriety, but every encounter was integrated perfectly to fuel the Templar backstory and preserve our own understanding of history.
I’ve always loved the multiplayer aspect of Assassin’s Creed, even if it hasn’t had the largest or most loyal of followings, but Ubisoft is taking steps to increase that fan base with some cool new cooperative multiplayer. Wolf Pack puts your team on a timer and has you killing a set number of targets to add time to the clock and advance the level. As you get deeper into the tiered session the targets are more spread out and on higher alert, making each sequence that much more challenging. But even if you prefer the more traditional multiplayer modes, you’ll be delighted that Ubisoft has created an entirely new front end with a fantastic story element that ties into the whole Abstergo/Templar storyline to create an immersive setting for some of the best and most suspenseful cat-and-mouse gameplay ever. Admittedly, the Wii U online community isn’t as vast or as active as the other systems but there are quality people playing and you can have some great fun, even if you have to search a bit harder for it.
As far as presentation, the Wii U looks great; perhaps not up to Xbox 360 and especially PC standards, but it still has some incredible details and textures, and lifelike animation from the sneakiest crouched walk to the fastest of parkour leaps across roof and treetops. All animations flow seamlessly together and respond quickly with controller input creating a very satisfying combat experience. Draw distance can be limited at times and there is a bit of pop-up. Obviously, the jaw-dropping DirectX 11 PC version of the game outclasses the console graphics, but if you don’t have a high-end PC rig then the Wii U looks and plays great.
Composer, Lorne Balfe has creating a soundtrack that is as sweepingly grand and majestic as the visuals, with moments of suspense, action, drama, and adventure that all cue perfectly to the onscreen events. This flawless score blends with realistic sound effects, both manmade and natural environmental noises, and the script and professionally voiced dialogue is a real treat and helps to keep you interested in the story.
While I had my fair share of minor glitches and issues with Assassin’s Creed III on the Wii U, none of them were game-breaking, and most were dwarfed by the sheer spectacle of presentation and the epic nature of this historic romp through colonial history. While I’m sure liberties were taking with a few people, places, and events, I certainly had more fun exploring this time in America’s past than any of my high school history classes, and future DLC will keep that entertainment flowing well into 2013 with a new single-player campaign and multiplayer content.
And best of all, thanks to a brilliantly designed and narrated opening recap of all the past games courtesy of John de Lancie, newcomers can dive into Assassin’s Creed III without having ever played another game…but I seriously recommend the entire franchise to anyone who enjoys stealth-action-adventure. It just doesn’t get any better than this.