Like the American Revolution it depicts, "Assassin's Creed III" is a net good — but not without some messiness. And not without a couple moments when you question whether the whole thing was even worth it.
As the new half-Mohawk, half-English Assassin Ratonhnhaké:ton — anglicized Connor Kenway — you play through America's war for independence in Forrest Gump-like fashion. You're on Paul Revere's horse, you're fending off redcoats at Concord, you're killing John Pitcairn at Bunker Hill. But Connor ain't in this for your revolution. He's out to stop the English-backing New World contingent of the Assassins' eternal foe, the Templars — and their leader just happens to be Connor's father, Haytham.
Like all "Assassin's Creed" games, though, the history is only half the story. Connor is the latest ancestor whose memories are relived by Desmond Miles, who's still hunting for answers to an ancient warning that on Dec. 21, 2012, a solar flare is going to fry all life on Earth. His next clue is a medallion Haytham snatched prior to coming to America, so Desmond hops in the Animus to retrace Haytham and Connor's steps in hopes of finding its present-day location.
Compared to those momentous years of 1753 to 1783, the modern-day part of "III" is kind of a drag to play through. Desmond's few missions are mindlessly linear, and the web of silliness that is "Assassin's Creed's" story-within-an-apocalypse doesn't quite help, either. Between the warring factions, glowy artifacts and doomsaying female spectres, it's not always clear what's at stake for Desmond. And when it is, you just want to get back to stabbing redcoats in the throat.
But you're going to have to wait on that. "Assassin's Creed III" takes the curious step of situating you as Haytham for about the first quarter of the main storyline. As both a narrative foundation and a tutorial, it's far too long and low on action. Meanwhile, you're itching to play what Ubisoft advertised as the meat of the game: Connor's open-world wartime adventures, stalking redcoats in the snow and dodging cannon fire in the field.
Ironically, though, Haytham proves the more likeable protagonist. Connor is the stereotypically stoic Indian, droning on about "my people," while Haytham actually shows personality, whether he's grumpily refusing to break a sweat or coldly putting a musket ball through the head of an interrogated prisoner.
What makes it fun to play as Connor is the exhilarating freedom to wander the enchanting New World of "III." You can do it for hours if you're not careful. Spanning three main regions — Boston, New York and the New England frontier — it's massive, detailed and dense with action both spontaneous and scripted. As the freshest setting for the heavily urban series, the frontier stands out most. The forest canopies glitter Connor with sunlight as he crosses winding gorges and swaying cornfields, until a clawing grizzly or cougar interrupts your idyllic little moment.
Navigating that world isn't so pretty, though. "Assassin's Creed III" suffers from recurring glitches: stuttering and sometimes halting animation, landmarks that pop in at a distance of 10 feet, AI characters that endlessly walk into walls, icons that don't show up on your map. It's rare to go 10 minutes without encountering such a hiccup. This series has always enjoyed a built-in excuse for bugs — "it's all part of the Animus" — but you can only take so many broken visuals this time.
Ubisoft's series has never sported the smoothest free-running mechanics either, and they're as rough as ever in "III." It's not much of a headache to move from point A to point B atop trees or roofs, but some kills will be delayed or outright foiled in exasperating fashion when Connor sticks to a surface — running up a wall when you're trying to turn him 90 degrees, tip-toeing farther along a fence when you're trying to leap off it. Lucky for you, the game's uneven stealth mechanics let you get away with some bumbling maneuvers without raising suspicion.
The combat fares better, punctuating its counter-centric style with slick double-kill animation sequences. Getting the most out of Connor's arsenal takes some work, and the fixed camera sure likes to drift behind nearby trees and buildings, but chopping down mobs of redcoats with a tomahawk or the trademark hidden blades has its thrills.
Provided you're cool with doing all this running and stabbing a lot, "Assassin's Creed III" has about as many hours of optional missions as it does main ones. There's a commune-like homestead for Connor to manage with his Assassin mentor, Achilles, forts to fly the American flag over, and states to rid of Templars with your Assassin recruits. There's also a big batch of optional missions featuring "III's" new rock-solid naval action, which is only a tiny part of Connor's main journey. And "Assassin's Creed's" often-overlooked multiplayer, a calming-but-still-bloody counterpoint to the reactive frenzy of online shooters, finds its most feature-rich incarnation in "III."
Aside from the New World it created, Ubisoft has also achieved in "Assassin's Creed III" a surprisingly nuanced portrait of the American Revolution that's positively interesting to watch. Any jingoism is quickly tempered with the reality that American independence didn't initially mean everyone's created equal — not women, not slaves, not Connor's people. That also happens to hold true for the component parts of the game itself.