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Why I remember Assassin’s Creed 3 fondly despite its faults

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Jun
07

In a year without a new mainline entry in Ubisoft's flagship franchise, I've found myself reflecting on my time as a fan of Assassin's Creed. If I were to rank the games in the series objectively, Assassin's Creed III would sit ahead of 2014's aggressively flawed Unity and behind all the rest. It's a rough game at times, particularly burdened with frustrating and incomplete-feeling mission design and a litany of technical and pacing problems. Despite all that, if I were to throw objectivity out the window and let my heart hold sway, Connor's journey through America's tumultuous birth stands as one of the most memorable experiences in gaming for me.

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This is a game that I can fully understand the hate for. Arriving after the staggering success of a string of fun Assassin's Creed titles lead by the charming Ezio Auditore, the third full installment in the ongoing saga had so much to live up to. When it released, fans decried new protagonist Connor's dour personality, the game's disjointed presentation, its often frustrating mission design, and an anticlimactic resolution to one of the series' biggest ongoing story arcs.

These criticisms aren't wrong, but the common opinion devalues the raw ambition and overwhelming atmosphere that Assassin's Creed III delivered. On a basic level, the team rethought the fundamentals of the series, streamlining the combat system and setting up players against much larger groups of enemies, as well as making the game's parkour traversal smoother, faster, and require fewer button presses. The game's greatest strength, however, is in its willingness to rethink the concept of a traditional Assassin's Creed city and shift the series to the great outdoors.

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I know some people hate AC3's Frontier, but it spoke to me in a way that no setting in the series has before or since. I'm sure a huge part of that is the fact that I've spent most of my life in Pennsylvania. I've been to some of the places in the game, or to locations that are very similar. The history of the American Revolution is deeply ingrained in my local region. More importantly, though, is that there are still hiking trails and parks (official or otherwise) within a few hours of where I live that still look like the woods Connor calls home. From impossibly tall trees to dense and diverse vegetation, to the occasional deer bolting past, I've been in places that feel like Connor's frontier, that feel a world removed from everyday life. Being given a safe interactive tour of a more untamed form of familiar regions was something I found intoxicating, and marks AC3 as a deeply personal experience for me despite my issues with it.

There's certainly more that I love about the game: the teams' ambition yielded inventive "mini-games" like the naval warfare that would become the centerpiece for both Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag and Assassin's Creed Rogue, the quirky characters and story arcs of Connor's quiet Davenport Homestead, and a hunting system where the quality of the pelt and meat actually mattered and encouraged players to make clean kills with bow, blades, and bait are real highlights of the experience for me. All of those aren't what made me fall in love with the game, however. They aren't the reason I stuck through all of its faults, through every frustratingly conceived mission and poorly placed checkpoint, or for every awkward technical problem and glitch.

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Through all its highs and lows, Assassin's Creed III left me with a rare feeling of beautiful isolation, of nostalgic solitude, of visiting a place that is at once deeply familiar to me and wholly alien. I wouldn't trade my time in those ancient, untamed forests for anything, and that's as high a compliment as I can give an entry in a series that plies its trade on immersing players in a specific time and place.

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