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Certain vital events from the American Revolution have become so iconic that they still loom over our collective consciousness. The Boston Tea Party, Paul Revere's famous ride, and George Washington's crossing of the Delaware River aren't just important historical events--they are symbols of perseverance, self-sacrifice, and the quest for independence. Assassin's Creed III depicts some of these milestones, though it doesn't fully romanticize early American culture. These were somber times, sullied by bloodshed, slavery, and oppression, and this ambitious action adventure isn't afraid to confront the darker aspects of colonial expansion.
Assassin's Creed III also isn't afraid to draw parallels between historical events and modern ones, making statements about subjects like the fairness of the press that ring just as true today as they did then. You explore these themes from the perspective of two characters: Desmond Miles, a modern-day Assassin seeking to halt the ambitions of the opposing Templars; and Ratonhnhaké:ton, Desmond's Native American ancestor, more commonly referred to as Connor.
In some respects, Connor is a vessel for ideas more than a force of nature in his own right. Noah Watts' unsure voice acting keeps Connor at arm's length, emotionally--though in some respects, the distance is appropriate, given Connor's uncertain path through a complex political landscape. Connor finds himself a key figure within the Revolution; he fires cannons, commands troops, and jams his tomahawk into loyalist flesh. He conspires with Samuel Adams, and participates in renowned occasions such as the Battle for Bunker Hill. Assassin's Creed III renders particular details with great historical and visual authenticity. Major and minor figures are depicted; the cities of Boston and New York are exquisitely re-created; and even minutiae like the lines of The Beggar's Opera are presented with fine accuracy.
Assassin's Creed III is hardly a documentary of America past; it's historical fiction, semi-twisted by the conspiracy theories that inhabit the overarching narrative that drives this ongoing series. If you're a newcomer, you'll be glad for the opening montage that fills you in on the ongoing Templar-versus-Assassin conflict. You learn that Desmond is now creating his own legend, and holds the fate of the world in his hands. Assassin's Creed III draws important parallels between the two men, both of whom navigate a thorny relationship with an estranged father. Desmond's story tugs at the heart more than once, not because of his newfound relationship with his aloof father, but because he learns more of the civilization that preceded us here on earth--and its futile attempts to ward off the disaster that annihilated it.
In both time periods, themes that the series has previously explored are further deepened. The Templar point of view is frequently expressed, often via the soliloquies of dying men who plead the good intentions of a philosophy that would seem to pave an apparent road to hell. Yet the truth isn't so cut-and-dried, and Connor is forced to confront his own convictions. You hear the sincere and convincing words of the men you've assumed represent the wrong side of morality, and must wonder: are the ideas of good and bad so absolute after all? Are the men you cradle in your arms as they gasp their dying breaths necessary casualties, or do they whisper ideas worth hearing and understanding? As one character insists, "There is no one path through life that's right or fair."
When playing Desmond, you sneak, run, and leap your way through relatively linear levels, climbing up skyscrapers and sneaking through suspicious crowds when you aren't giving concussions to Templar agents. These fluid sequences hint at the possibility of full-fledged modern-day adventuring--though never quite arriving there. There does come an important revelation, however: the typically surprising finale that leaves you scratching your head, and in this case, forces you to consider an unpleasant truth about the nature of humanity. The finale lacks punch and closure, but leaves you guessing, trying to weave a tapestry of truth out of the conspiracies that have always buoyed the series' self-serious stories.
You spend most of your time as Connor, however, though this fact may not be abundantly clear when you first leap into the past. Within the first several hours of the game, you do get chances to experience the fanciful parkour mechanics for which the series is known, but Assassin's Creed III's early times are focused on establishing tone and backstory--not on free-form exploration. As you play that opening, it's hard not to wonder: when does the fun stuff come? In retrospect, however, the slow pace makes sense, giving you a chance to become invested in the world and its people, and allowing later story events to wield power they may not otherwise have held.
Once the stops are pulled out, Assassin's Creed III allows joyous roaming within its bustling cities. The New York and Boston of this open-world game are expansive and detailed, and you climb towers, jump from roof to roof, and scale walls in fluid motion. The very act of movement in this series is a delight, and Assassin's Creed III expands on the series' parkour mechanics by sending you into the wild frontier and allowing you to climb trees and leap among the branches. It takes some time to get accustomed to the rhythms of tree-jumping, which can be finicky and unpredictable. Though you can more or less speed across Boston and New York as if the buildings were your own personal jungle gyms, when seeking to fly through the frontier, you must keep your eyes peeled for the telltale signs of a climbing opportunity. You use a fallen tree much as a plane uses an airport runway, gaining momentum and then soaring.
There are moments that slow you down; you might not be positioned quite right and thus swing impotently rather than flow smoothly toward the next branch. You might even make an inadvertent leap of faith into a leaf pile below that you didn't notice until the game decided you were trying to fall into it. You spend more time galloping across the frontier on horseback than you do within the trees, however, and you can quick travel to key locations as well, including your homestead. The homestead isn't fully your own--it belongs to Achilles Davenport, a former assassin who one day finds a persistent Ratonhnhaké:ton knocking at his door. Achilles is one of Assassin's Creed III's best characters, and it's a pity he doesn't get more screen time; his tough love balances Connor's naivete, but the bulk of Connor's training time is left only to your imagination.
The homestead is more than just a place for Connor and Achilles to banter and argue--it's the central element of Assassin's Creed III's economy. Like much of Assassin's Creed III, the homestead-focused facets are purely optional, yet they are worth exploring. The homestead is about building: building a village, building a future, and building relationships. By performing related missions, you befriend craftspeople, gatherers, hunters, and more, all of whom might find a place on the homestead. In turn, they can craft items that you sell via caravan for profit. (You discover recipes in treasure boxes throughout the world, some of which must be opened by performing a lock-picking minigame.) The homestead missions are varied, having you protect a miner as he scavenges for ore, search Boston for a drunken doctor, or break up a fisticuffs. In turn, your income grows, you meet new and interesting characters, and the homestead becomes, well, a home.