Assassin's Creed III, Not what I expected one year late(r)

I used to be a huge fan of the AC franchise.

I slogged through the first game, painfully aware -- as everyone else was -- of how limited (and limiting) the gameplay options in that game really were, yet simultaneously excited by all the possibilities available to a franchise with the central conceit that the protagonist can re-live his ancestors' memories. Like many others, I was thrilled to see Ubi give the franchise a sequel, and even more happy still that the game itself had been so greatly improved and expanded: Better gameplay; better writing; better characters; and one of the most mind-blowing endings I've experienced in gaming. The meta-narrative of Desmond and the modern-day Assassin's vs Abstergo (nee Templars) became the draw for me, which takes nothing away from how engaging I found Ezio and his trials.

Brotherhood continued to add improvements -- most notably for me, the Assassin's Guild -- and while the modern-day story started going off the rails it was still fun and interesting science fiction. Revelations was largely forgettable for me, and while I appreciated some more time with Ezio, neither his nor Desmond's experiences in those games had me as engaged as in the previous entries.

I know this reads like many other people's impressions of the franchise; and more often than not, people will go on to say how hopeful they were about a AC3, and a whole new era of history, and the potential to reel them back in to the franchise and redeem the failings of Revelations for its treatment (read: lack of) of the modern narrative. They'll conclude by saying how disappointed they were when AC3 failed to live up to those expectations, a disjointed, shoddily paced, uneven narrative; a too-self-serious, unlikable ancestor character (especially when compared to Ezio); a hyper-ridiculous resolution to the modern story.

From reading through forums and user reviews, this is where I diverge from the masses somewhat. In fact, I was so turned-of by Revelations, that I didn't not even consider buying AC3 when it was released. I'm 36 years old, and at this stage of my life, I'm just not willing to spend dozens & more hours of my life playing a game if I'm not actively enjoying it.The torrent of mediocre reviews and player backlash simply confirmed my suspicions that the AC franchise was lost forever, and I simply took solace in the fact that at least I had great fun with a few of the games before it died a slow, tortured death.

Nearly a year later, on a whim, I end up snagging AC3 on Steam during a sale. And still I did not play. At this point it was no longer necessarily anti-AC sentiment, but par for the course for my Steam buying habits. I believe my games total on Steam crested 325 last month, and I've yet to play easily 65-70% of those. (As an aside, I'm toying with the idea of doing a backlog stream to force myself to at least TRY them.) Again, as I get older I find i have less and less time to spend on gaming, but I still am captivated by the medium, so I'll buy a lot of games cheap but ultimately make time to play very few. The Quick Look (and other preview coverage & trailers) for AC4 made it look like the franchise might be shifting back to being less-serious and more-fun, and although I find the modern-day game-tester-at-Abstergo thread to sound absurd, I was suddenly -- surprisingly! -- excited for an AC game again. Unfortunately as PC is my preferred platform, I had several weeks to kill (har!) before release. Well, I guess I might as well download AC3 finally.

I finally finished the game last night, and I can't really think of any other way to say this, so: I loved it. LOVED IT.

I played the game very differently from how I played the other entries. I have always been more of a completionist than not. I never would go to the extent of searching for all the collectibles, but with the first four AC games, if there was sub-system of any kind, a side mission, anything on the periphery at all, I did it. All of it. But not with AC3. I almost started to, but as soon as I realized I wasn't having fun, I stopped. Examples: The hunting and trading mechanics were there, but ultimately pointless to my progression. So I didn't do it. Expanding the homestead and recording the daily lives of the workers was an option, but it wasn't very interesting. So I didn't do it. The Naval missions were actually a ton of fun, but felt oddly tacked-on and out of tone with the rest of Connor's tale and character. So I didn't do it. I went from one "MAIN MISSION" marker to the next, and that's it. When the game automatically took me out of the Animus to play as Desmond, I'd complete those sections dutifully, go through the dialogues for some added flavor, then hop back in to Connor and check the map for the next exclamation point marking a story mission. What I find most interesting, is that I can see the disappointing game that lurks beneath the surface here

The game is far from perfect. The complaints I've read about the game for the last year are all completely valid. The tonal shifts, the inconsistency in character reactions and writing; the pointless and/or shallow mechanics and systems; the modern-day story going directly up its own ass. All perfectly valid, but when I relieved myself from the urge to see it all, do it all; when I resigned myself to not even paying attention to or trying for 100% sync goals; suddenly this game that has been lambasted became a lot of fun. I ended up feeling quite a lot for Connor and his (often misguided) attempts to secure peace for his tribe. The fact that we KNOW how that story ends before he does anything helped to relieve me of any frustration at his gaffes and follies in the meantime. He is not a perfect hero, but he is not an anti-hero either. He's just a person, making decisions he thinks are best. Sometimes he does well, others he doesn't, but I thought it was intriguing for the main character to NOT fall into a traditional mold. Real people rarely exist so far to one end of the spectrum or the other, and playing a character that hovered more in the middle (especially knowing how doomed his mission is, even when he does not) was refreshing. Many of the post-assassination dialogue moments revolve around perception, and how one man's justness is another's evil. This game exists in the shades of grey between the two. Some of the antagonists are cartoonishly bad, but more often than not I thought the game did a good job at giving a glimpse into their motives. Showing that, at least from their own perspectives, their actions were not motivated by doing evil for the sake of it, but doing what they thought was right for their cause.

I also thoroughly enjoyed the modern-day segments. I won't say much here, not for fear of spoiling a year-old game, but because there is not much to say. That narrative went batshit crazy three games ago, and it has not come back to Earth since. I don' know that this is the ending that was intended when the franchise was conceived many years ago, but I found it satisfying nonetheless. I will say that I was particularly moved by the relationships between fathers and sons -- both Connor and his father, and Desmond with his -- as both sons struggled to find resolution in their relationships, albeit in different ways. Again, the writing could be somewhat uneven, but the emotions conveyed were effective and unusually deft for this kind of game.

So that's that. I WAS a huge fan of the AC franchise. And I am again. I'm still looking forward to AC4, but I think I've permanently adjusted my mindset going into this game away from the sense that I need to see it all. If it's fun, I'll do it; if it's not fun, I won't. And if at some point the even the Main Missions lose their appeal, then I'll stop altogether. Time is short, and I've got 300+ other ways to waste it on Steam. That's no revelation (har!), I understand, but I think what is new for me is not the idea that not playing a poor game is better than suffering through it; but that by playing differently, that game can go from poor to beloved. I can say confidently that if I had played AC3 the way I played Brotherhood, I would have despised it; but by changing my own expectations and my own play style, it ended up being one of my favorites of the last couple years. It makes me wonder how many other times I sabotaged my own experience through habits of play-styles, and how many more games out there I might really like if I tried to play them differently.