George Washington. Benjamin Franklin. Ratonhnhaké:ton. The Boston Massacre. The Battle of Bunker Hill. Templars. And the Animus. With its fifth official game, the Assassin's Creed franchise sets out to forever tie the American Revolution to the most popular assassin in video game history.
And speaking of history … Assassin's Creed purports that there has been a bitter battle going on throughout much of human existence between the mysterious Templars and a secretive shadow order of professional assassins. Both groups have been desperately trying to get their hands on powerful otherworldly artifacts. The Templars want them for world-domination purposes. The assassins' brotherhood just wants to stop the Templars.
Each of the games begins in the near future, when a device called an Animus is used to link you to your genetic memories. Through that DNA-tapping thingamajig you can go back and relive parts of an ancestor's life. And so these shadow groups grab a hapless bartender named Desmond, whose family tree seems to have a stronger than normal connection to the potent objects they desire. He's forced to relive different ancestors' memories across the centuries—so far a Crusades-era hit man named Altair and an Italian killer from the 1400s named Ezio Auditore.
Along the way—while murdering countless foes and bad guys in the shoes of his great-great-great- and great-great-great-great-grandfathers—Desmond starts to piece together the reality that these special artifacts aren't simply magical trinkets but high-tech gadgets left behind by an ancient advanced civilization.
Desmond has to figure out their meaning and purpose to head off … the destruction of all mankind!
A New World Killer
Beyond that heady and increasingly incomprehensible story, the assigned duties in the various games have been fairly similar: Slip in and out of the shadows, kill repeatedly with sword or hidden wrist blade, and figure out where the Dan Brown-ish clues are leading.
With Assassin's Creed III, however, things seem to shift a bit. It turns out that Desmond has another Assassin Order ancestor who was part Mohawk Indian and lived in colonial America. So the game takes its first three or four hours, in a surprise twist, to show us how that bloodline came to be. After we meet young Ratonhnhaké:ton—who soon is given the English name Conner—we find out that this assassin/protagonist has a lot less shadow-crawling to do and a lot more parkour-style running and leaping from trees.
There's also quite a bit of real-time strategy at play here. Besides battling for colonial freedom against the English Redcoats, Conner can pursue dozens of side quests to, for instance, save a logger from falling to his death, burn diseased blankets, or orchestrate lower taxes on the local pelts trade to better the homestead he's now a part of.
Then there are all those historically recognizable figures and events of the American Revolution that I mentioned above. Through some fairly creative story weaving Conner runs into, among others, Paul Revere, Sam Adams and Thomas Jefferson. He eventually finds himself tossing tea off a British ship and, in a bit of a role-reversal for him, trying to curtail a massacre staged in the streets of Boston.
All those historical details at first feel like moments to relish. The act of scampering with parkour grace up to a church pinnacle and gazing out over the visually stunning detail of colonial Boston is pretty cool. But the game can't help but twist things up a bit, I must say. And let's face facts: That's not what Assassin's Creed III is really about. Conner may do some heroic deeds and see some nifty stuff, but in the end he's intended to be a killer.
And murderous violence is the slash that solves all problems in this game's bloody ethos.
The Gore of Battles Past and Present
Using tomahawks, pistols, musket rifles, bayonets and swords, this newly minted New World hit man splashes gore to-and-fro in hand-to-hand combat that involves everything from sneaky stabs in the back to throat slashes to axes finding their marks in foes' faces. He's ready to torture and forcibly "cajole" for what he needs. He leaps from branches and rooftops to drive his wrist blades through necks. And it's not just villains who are killed by his blades and exploding barrels of gunpowder; it's innocents too.
Copious amounts of blood spatters the walls or snow-covered ground. And slow-motion kills ask us to even more fully absorb the impact of well-timed impalements or bayonet cuts. This brutal assortment of killing moves is so ubiquitous, in fact, that merely another musket ball bash or cutscene slash starts feeling rather rote with time.
There's also some nasty profanity peppering the dialogue, even from some of those recognizable historical heroes. We hear f- and s-words, exclamations of "h‑‑‑" and "d‑‑mit," and misuses of God's and Jesus' names. British vulgarities include "b-llocks," "lobc‑‑k," "sh-te" and "arse."
A convoluted spiritual message blends those sought-after artifacts with Native American spirit dreams. The big finale between Desmond and a couple of advanced-civ characters (who were involved in the artifact tech) has something of a "sinfulness of man" and a self-sacrificial element tied into its conclusion. (But it all ends up being more of a head-scratching tapestry of humanistic folderol than anything truly resembling real-life religious ideas.)
In spite of its new splash of Revolutionary War coolness, then, this latest Assassin's Creed ends up having quite a lot in common with its protagonist Desmond. Just like him it revisits all those old problems of its predecessors. And it ends up falling on that same M-rated sword.