When we consider the Assassin’s Creed franchise, the first thing that jumps into our minds is scale. The grandiose size and scope of each entry’s setting, each new game containing a more epic, fully-realised world than the last. More content, more history, more characters and adventure; in this way the series has continued to grow over the past eleven years, gradually morphing into the RPG-lite behemoth it is today in the form of Assassin’s Creed Origins and Odyssey.
Whilst gameplay has often been a mixed bag, with earlier entries in particular including basic, often clumsy combat alongside somewhat unreliable parkour and repetitive mission design, one constant has remained, the ever-growing spectacle. Ever since players first took control of Altaïr Ibn-La’Ahad and scaled a tower to gaze out on the faithfully realised Holy Land that surrounded them, this has been a franchise about the appeal of being set free in incredibly detailed worlds.
Diving into an Assassin’s Creed game you expect to be wowed by the time and place in which your adventure unfolds and, whether it be Renaissance-era Venice, Ancient Rome, New Orleans, the Caribbean or the huge slice of Colonial-era America recreated here in Assassin’s Creed III, Ubisoft has consistently delivered on this front. In terms of the size of the playgrounds offered to players, the impressive historical accuracy and attention to detail, it’s almost impossible to fault the series; these are hugely generous games with regards to content and their ambition – in terms of visuals, narrative and world-building – has never been in doubt.
And so it is a wildly exciting prospect for fans of the series to finally get a proper, full-on Assassin’s Creed entry on a handheld system, even if it takes the form of a remastered version of perhaps the weakest link in the main series’ history. Liberation, the Vita-exclusive which is also included in this remastered package, was designed specifically for handheld, and that shows in its scaled-back scope and gameplay, but Assassin’s Creed III is the real, full-fat deal; a huge world and story with all the bells, whistles and extra content you’d expect from a mainline entry in the franchise.
Originally released earlier this year on PS4, Xbox One and PC, this remaster sees players return to a newly revamped Colonial-era America, with an all-new lighting system, improved art assets, resolution and framerate improvements, tweaks to gameplay and screen space reflections that drag the look of the game all the way from 2012 up to something very nearly approximating the most recent entries in the series. However, there were some concerns amongst fans when the Switch version was slightly delayed and, unfortunately, they have proven to be well-founded in many respects.
Loading up Assassin’s Creed III on Switch for the first time the initial impressions are good; menus are responsive and clean and you immediately have access to that sweet bonus content, including the HD remaster of Liberation and all of the little extras and DLC released for Assassin’s Creed III over its lifetime. The opening sequence – which sees interminable bore Desmond Miles and his crew outside of the Animus – seems to run reasonably well, but it’s immediately apparent that character models and lighting aren’t up to the other remastered versions of the game; something that is perhaps somewhat to be expected on Nintendo’s portable system. However, once the game leaves its initial tutorial area and you’re dropped into the world proper, things start to fall apart quite badly, and excuses like this aren’t quite enough to cover it.
The first thing you’ll notice is that many of the graphical upgrades from the other versions of this remaster don’t actually seem to have made it across to the Switch. The revamped lighting system is certainly absent, screen space reflections (which add visual elements, such as water reflections) are missing, and many textures around the world – including common ones such as doors, trees and walls, things which you’ll spend a lot of your time looking at – appear to be of a much lower resolution, more in line with the original 2012 release of the game (which we also got on Wii U, lest we forget). In fact, comparing this version side by side with the original PC release of the game, it falls some way short of even that older version in terms of textures, draw distance and pop-in; indeed, it is a regular occurrence as you manoeuvre around the streets of Boston in the early parts of the game to have background NPCs materialise into existence right beside you.
It’s an immediately disappointing situation, and one that’s exacerbated to no end by the fact that the framerate struggles at all times to lift itself above the mid-20s, dipping well below that whilst charging around city streets, parkour-ing your way up buildings or engaging in combat which was already quite clumsy without taking place at fifteen frames per second. The game also stutters noticeably at every autosave point, which is, as you might expect, quite often.
All of these problems are made worse when the game is played in docked mode. On a large TV the graphical flaws, low-resolution textures and framerate are much more noticeable, and moving the camera around causes an annoying and constant juddering effect. It’s an unusual situation but this is one Switch game which seems to actually perform better in handheld mode; whether that’s just because the smaller screen hides a lot of the problems we’re not totally sure, but at least in portable mode that awful juddering is absent.
There are also constant audio problems, with the sound crackling almost every time your progress saves or the story transitions to a new scene. All told, it’s hard to see that this version of the game is in any way a remaster; it’s better described as a rather flawed port of the original.
And of course, it doesn’t help that the original game is considered by many fans to be one of the worst in the series. This is an entry that has no problem plodding along through its rather dull and wearingly long story; it’s roughly a full eight hours before you even get to control main protagonist Connor, and returning to earlier points in a franchise like this after experiencing the advances made – particularly to combat and world traversal – in the likes of Origins and Odyssey really does lay bare the clumsiness of the parkour and the basic nature of the combat on offer here.
Digging deeper, there are still positives to cling to regardless of the mess. Connor may not be a match for Ezio Auditore but his is an interesting enough tale in places, and the shifting of gameplay out of the usual urban areas into the wilds of colonial America is still a brave and well-realised move that adds variety to proceedings. Connor’s attacks can also be pleasingly brutal to perform and a handful of Switch exclusive additions, such as motion controls which help refine your aim and HD rumble support, are welcome. Liberation too, as much as it is one of the weaker Assassin’s Creed games, performs well here and its visual upgrades give it the kind of lift we were hoping to see in the remastered version of the main game.
There may well be a patch on the way for Assassin’s Creed III on Switch that will fix the framerate issues and add many of the graphical enhancements we were expecting to see with this version of the game; indeed, the multiplayer components are currently missing and advertised as coming soon, so Ubisoft obviously has some updates on the way. Still, we can’t review a game based on what it might become, and as things stand this is a very disappointing effort, even when taking into account the fact the Switch was never going to reproduce the same visual enhancements seen in other versions of the remaster. It seems as though calling this version a ‘Switch Edition’ would perhaps have been a better move on the part of the publisher.
If you’re a really big fan of the franchise you may well still get some joy from playing through Assassin’s Creed III on the toilet; it is, after all, still the same, full-fat entry you likely played back in 2012 squeezed on to a portable machine. However, for everyone else, this goes back to the expectation of being wowed by the world, by the scale and scope of an Assassin’s Creed game. When performance and graphical fidelity are compromised like this, when traversing the cities and forests of this vast world is held back by framerate problems, graphical issues and audio glitches, Assassin’s Creed – and especially one of the weaker entries in the franchise – loses a lot of the core appeal which has seen it become such a hit with gamers over the years.