Muskets. If you want to grasp the uncanny genius of setting a videogame during the Revolutionary War era, look no further than the muskets. There’s a moment early in Assassin’s Creed III when you’re combating a squad of redcoats, both sides with period firearms in hand. You fire. They fire. And then you both have to stand there, reloading, for 15 interminable seconds — and it’s hilarious.
It’s a prime example of the fabulous sport this game makes of such a musty period in history. You play Connor Kenway, a half-Mohawk, half-English assassin whose quest to protect his people’s sacred valley has him rubbing shoulders with social-studies-class A-listers like George Washington, Samuel Adams, and Paul Revere. These historical titans, however, play a comparatively smaller role in ACIII than the famous names populating the three Renaissance-era Assassin’s Creed games did. (I confess I was hoping Thomas Jefferson would craft lethal gadgets for Connor like Leonardo da Vinci did for ACII‘s main assassin Ezio Auditore, but, alas, ’twas not to be.) Instead, the game becomes something of a father-son saga between Connor and his pops, a classically imperious leader of sorts with the terrific name of Haytham Kenway. The writing and acting in these sequences carried more emotional heft (and laugh-out-loud humor) than any of the previous AC games, though (SPOILER ALERT) the writers missed a golden opportunity for melodrama by letting Connor learn he’s Haytham’s son, and Haytham learn he’s Connor’s father, offscreen. (END SPOILER ALERT)
But both the history book figures and the main story ultimately prove to be just a modest element of one of the most enormously entertaining and expansive gaming experiences you’ll have this year — one that allows you to hit the high seas as a privateer, firing broadsides into British frigates on the roiling Atlantic Ocean. Or hunt game on your burgeoning frontier homestead. Or listen to Daniel Boone tell tall tales. Or cultivate resources for building furniture, or candles, or guns. Or wail on oppressive tax collectors. Or hunt for pirate treasure. Or rescue smallpox victims. Or play checkers. You’ll happily burn through countless hours flitting between these and many, many other side missions, some of which include just drinking in the vivid renderings of 18th-century Boston and New York City.
There’s so much to do, in fact, that ACIII doesn’t quite have the same unified pull as the 2010 open-world masterpiece Red Dead Redemption. (Think Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood meets Red Dead meets Master and Commander meets Johnny Tremain.) The story doubles down on the franchise’s kooky sci-fi, modern-day framing device (and weaves in more father-son intrigue), and though the controls have more fluid polish, a few missions still turn into an exasperating feedback loop of failed attempts. But those quibbles aside, after plunging headlong into waves of lethal gunfire during the battle of Bunker Hill, you’ll never look at a musket — or American history — quite the same way again. Grade: A–