Over the past three years I have been attending FanExpo Canada, the offerings of Ubisoft have always been a highlight of the gaming portion of the event. With elaborate displays and playable versions of top-shelf titles, they could always be counted on to leave us  wanting more. In my last article, I delved into my hands-on impressions of ZombiU and wrote extensively about my first experiences with the Wii U hardware. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that Assassin’s Creed III was an equally big draw for those attending the show. For the majority of us, this represented our first opportunity to actually play the game. The excitement among the gathering scores of gamers was palpable indeed.

Not surprisingly, the Assassin’s Creed III booth had the biggest crowd of all the Ubisoft games on display. After all, this is their flagship series, and its popularity has only been heightened by yearly releases. From my own perspective, I have been a dedicated fan of the series ever since Assassin’s Creed II won me over in 2009. Fittingly, the prospect of seeing first-hand what the third entry proper had to offer was too good pass up. Anticipating large crowds, Ubisoft had a long row of high-definition monitors set up with playable demos of both the single-player and the multiplayer modes. Helpful Ubisoft employees were on hand to keep the lines moving briskly, and to ensure that everyone had a chance to play. After a short wait, the controller was in my hands and I was good to go.

The single-player portion was, to my surprise, the naval warfare segment of the game. Having previously read about the possibility of battling it out on the high seas, this is one of the additions I was most interested in.  Although it functions in much the same manner as the flying and carriage combat segments in previous Assassin’s Creed games, it feels entirely different. I started out by pursuing a target through relatively calm waters, using half and full sails to determine speed. Things quickly got intense when two enemy ships appeared, and the focus turned to using the on-deck weapons to blast them out of the water. The weapons of choice involve a variety of cannonballs, some of which whittle down an enemy’s defences, while others can blow gaping holes in the ship’s galley.

While I had fun with the naval warfare gameplay, I anticipate that it will be a “love or hate” proposition for many gamers. There is a learning curve that comes with steering the ship and handling combat at the same time, so expect some rough goings on your first playthrough. The combat is intense and satisfying, but also cumbersome to manage during busy battle. Aiming involves using a dotted line reticule, similar to Ezio’s makeshift gun in previous Assassin’s Creed games, and aiming accurately while rocking back and forth on the rough seas is quite difficult. The time limit placed on killing a certain number of enemies also adds to the sense of urgency, and this the sense of frustration when you make a mistake. Having said all that, practice makes perfect, so this is not likely to be a lingering problem.

For a hands-on look at the development of the naval battle segment of Assassin’s Creed III, check out the official video released by Ubisoft below.

On the visual front, Ubisoft really brought out the high-end monitors to make the game look as good as possible. It definitely shows, and I was struck by how beautiful and richly detailed the graphics and animations were. The water effects are gorgeous, the character models move believably and the attention paid to even the smallest details, such as coats flapping in the wind, is truly striking. The new Colonial America setting also gives the visuals a fresh coat of paint, as we’re seeing entirely new locales and richly varied settings. The audio also holds up very well, with each canon blast and tidal wave sounding loud and booming. The Assassin’s Creed series has always been consistently good in terms of graphics and sound, and it appears to have been kicked up a notch for this installment.

The multiplayer segment of Assassin’s Creed III was, quite frankly, underwhelming. The same objective carries over from Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood and Assassin’s Creed: Revelations; kill your target whilst avoiding the person trying to kill you. In previous games, I found the multiplayer to be fun in very short bursts, but the enjoyment factor doesn’t sustain itself over the long haul. I have the feeling that Assassin’s Creed III will be no different. This is not to say that it’s bad or broken, just repetitive and uninspired. The new setting and NPC designs were great to look at, but to me, that is all that differentiated it from what has come before. The response from the seven other people I was playing with was quite the same. It had its moments, but not enough for me to see lasting appeal in it.

If it sounds like I’m being overly critical in this article, it’s due to a combination of high hopes and the desire to be objective. Assassin’s Creed III is one of my most anticipated games of 2012, one that I will be purchasing when it hits stores in October. Having spent some hands-on time with it, I walked away with a positive impression and confidence in what the game will ultimately deliver. True, I am critical of the multiplayer, but those were the same criticisms that I had about the two previous games and I absolutely loved those on the whole. While it’s too early to declare Assassin’s Creed III a winner, it’s definitely shaping up to be one of the “must have” titles this fall.

Assassin’s Creed III will be released on October 30, 2012 for the Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and PC. Playable demo versions of the game were on display at FanExpo Canada from August 23, 2012 to August 26, 2012.