Why Ubisoft's Two Big Holiday Games Are Better On PC (Hint: It's Not Uplay)

The last couple of weeks have given us two of the biggest games of the fall, both from Ubisoft. Assassin's Creed III continues the historically focused swashbuckling adventure series, and Far Cry 3 lets players loose on a violent South Pacific island paradise.

Both games feature the number "3" and both games have a second word that begins with "Cr." Both are very ambitious, open-world games that push the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 to their limits. And as a result, both games shine brightest on PC.

The PC version of ACIII came out last week, and I've been playing it since then. While it still has most of the problems that left me disappointed with the game, the PC version is certainly an improvement. My PC has an Intel i5 with a GeForce GTX 660Ti, and the game runs pretty smoothly at mostly high settings (I keep anti-aliasing and environmental detail set to "normal").

The biggest difference between the Xbox version and the PC versions of ACIII is smoothness. ACIII runs mostly at 60 frames-per-second for me, slowing to around 40-50 when I'm in open cities. As a result, everything in the game feels more responsive. In a game where the controls are as generally unresponsive as Assassin's Creed, every bit of tightness matters. Even on PC with the settings turned up, Assassins' Creed III isn't a beautiful game—the landscape has a plane-like, hard-edged quality, like everything has been cut out of cardboard and built on a theater set. But Connor himself looks crisp and animates beautifully, and combat on PC is fluid, fast, and enjoyably brutal.

Why Ubisoft's Two Big Holiday Games Are Better On PC (Hint: It's Not Uplay)

The PC version of Assassin's Creed III is the superior version, though not in some ridiculous way: mainly because it runs more smoothly. It's not a quantum leap, more of a solid port. I should say that I haven't played or seen the Wii U version of ACIII, though I can imagine that moving the map and HUD elements to the gamepad would make the game pretty cool. I'd be surprised, though, if it performed or looked much better than the other two consoles.

The differences between the PC and console versions of Far Cry 3 are much more stark. On console, Far Cry 3 runs with a low framerate, texture pop-in, screen-tearing, and some generally sluggish performance. The game is still fine looking, particularly if you've never seen it running on PC, but as the Xbox or PS3 attempt to render the Rook Islands' hills, valleys, and flora and fauna, you can almost feel the years-old consoles groaning.

On PC, meanwhile, this is one of the best looking games of the year. On my setup, the game runs at a solid 50-60 FPS no matter what I'm doing, with a lengthy draw-distance that has me watching battles on the ground play out as I hang-glide hundreds of feet over-head. It is possible to snipe guys from the top of a mountain several clicks out, and the world-state remains consistent even over very long distances. The only place where the framerate chugs is during the first-person cutscenes, when the hyper-detailed, performance-captured characters come front and center. But, if there's one place where I'm okay with a framerate dip, it's during cutscenes, the one place where my life doesn't depend on performance.

Why Ubisoft's Two Big Holiday Games Are Better On PC (Hint: It's Not Uplay)

The PC version of Far Cry 3 is also much more adjustable than the PC version of Assassin's Creed III. FC3 offers scads of adjustable options, including some good Directx 11 features like multithreading and several types of ambient occlusion, which remove the weird shadow-like outline that ghosts the characters and items on consoles. It should be possible for just about any modern PC to run Far Cry 3 without a hitch; the team making it clearly care about the PC, and have gone to great lengths to make the PC version the strongest of the three. (The only bummer: Amid all those tweakable options, you can't make Far Cry 3's invasive HUD go away. Why, Ubisoft? Why??)

Uplay is a nuisance, inferior to Steam in every way.

So: Two big Ubisoft games, two superior PC versions. Assassin's Creed III is a strong port, and while it doesn't take advantage of everything modern PCs can do, it still offers a crisper, smoother experience than consoles. Far Cry 3's PC version offers a markedly superior experience to consoles, and is easily the definitive version of the game.

The only downside to both of these games, then, is that they require the use of Ubisoft's "Uplay" game portal, which is basically Ubisoft's answer to Valve's Steam service. You can still buy the game through Steam, but then you'll have to launch it from Steam, which will open Uplay and you'll have to launch the game again from there. Two types of DRM for the price of one! Or, as is doubtless Ubisoft's plan, you can just buy the game direct from them and bypass Steam entirely.

Uplay is a nuisance, inferior to Steam in every way. It's a pain to examine a game's achievements, I can find no way to track my playtime, and since no one is using the service, it's very difficult to tell which of my friends is playing the game. I've already spent so much time accumulating Steam and Xbox LIVE friends; must I really do this all over again for Uplay? The user-interface is a bummer, and it takes far too many clicks to get to a game. Worst of all, there doesn't appear to be a way to put a shortcut to a game on my sidebar; the shortcut I have just brings up Uplay, where I have to click "play" one more time to launch the game. In the case of Assassin's Creed III, that brings up yet another menu where I choose between single- and multiplayer. Three clicks may not sound like a lot, but in this day and age, it feels like two too many.

I like the idea of Uplay rewards well enough—you earn points for in-game achievements and spend those points on little perks for any of your Ubisoft games, like a gun or an outfit. Unfortunately, most of the rewards aren't that hot, and the single-player mission you can unlock for Far Cry 3 is a random crawl through an underground bunker filled with komodo dragons that eventually gets filled with gas (?) and you have to escape. (??) Plus, Ubisoft left off the best reward of all. To plagarize my own joke from this weekend:

(I mean, seriously.)

But no, there's no way to do this. And if you buy a Uplay game in Steam (including both ACIII and Far Cry 3), starting the game in Steam kicks you over to Uplay, where you have to start it again. Jeez!

While I get why Ubisoft would want to build its own game portal and get out from under Valve's shadow, I'm surprised they've done such a crap job of it. Both of these games, Far Cry 3 in particular, are banner PC releases in a year where Ubisoft has already earned goodwill (or at least, undone bad-will) with PC gamers by relenting from their draconian always-on DRM scheme. Far Cry 3 will be, I suspect, many gamers' first encounter with Uplay, so it's that much more of a shame that it's such a drag to use. Considering that I'm playing both of these games in front of my TV with a controller, the fact that neither one can be accessed using Steam's big-picture mode is a hassle, and makes Ubisoft look one step behind Valve yet again.

That said, an annoying game portal is merely a portal, and both games are very strong on PC. And hey, at least there really isn't any sort of always-on DRM. If you're considering which version of Assassin's Creed III and Far Cry 3 to pick up, go with the PC. As is usually the case, you'll get more or less the same core game on consoles. But, particularly with Far Cry 3, the PC is the only platform that feels powerful enough to really manhandle these outsized, ambitious games, which makes for a noticeably more enjoyable overall experience.

Except for Uplay. Have I mentioned? I don't care for it.