Connor Kenway makes for an unlikely assassin, with his broad, trusting face and deep, soulful eyes. A mix of humourless, credulous and naïve, you can feel the oceans and ages separating him from Ezio Auditore Da Firenze. Whereas Florence’s deadliest son swaggered into the series with the sort of fiery charm that lends itself naturally to an operatic revenge narrative, Assassin’s Creed III’s is a different hero. He has scores in need of settling, certainly, but his true concern is the fate of his people, the Kanien’kehá:ka. The interest in the plight of this clan is one of many historical strands running through Ubisoft Montreal’s epic, and one reason why this time the setting has wrested back the role of main attraction from the star on the box.
Stepping into Assassin’s Creed’s take on the New World, you’ll understand how Christopher Columbus felt, even if you arrive a bit later than the explorer. Indeed, by the time the game reaches the coast of North America it’s midway through the 18th century, and Boston is a bustling port town. Still, after four main games’ worth of Middle Eastern and Renaissance architecture, the change is a welcome clean break. The wide-open streets and Georgian buildings of Boston (and later on New York) offer a less clearly delineated kind of parkour to the piazzas and backstreets of Italy, while the towns bustle with colonial hubbub.
While in town, Connor is free to stop and pet the dogs prowling the streets, dive through open windows while tracked by a Bourne-style shaky cam, or simply soak up the atmosphere, as traders announce a fresh catch of cod by the docks, or the populace gathers to protest the Crown’s rule. The wider streets occasionally give the impression that the series has migrated to a setting that its platforming mechanics weren’t built for, but the compromise is worthwhile for the additional sense of place. And if you want a new, liberating take on freerunning, there’s always the Frontier.
He might be a less charismatic lead than Ezio, but Connor finds character in motion, and he’s clearly at home in the trees. You could stop to ponder the usefulness of freerunning through boughs and branches, since doing so rarely affords shortcuts unreachable from ground level, but you can’t deny its thrill. Ubisoft Montreal’s well-honed skill at arranging stacked boxes, hanging lanterns and flagpoles into inviting freerunning routes, meanwhile, has translated naturally to the Frontier. A rocky outcrop might lead to a convenient series of branches that drop you elegantly upon a collapsed pine trunk bridging a river, and this manages to look organic and natural even as your mind’s eye instantly perceives the route the game is proposing.
These places change, too. The huntable fauna inhabiting ACIII’s forests provides a sense of dynamic life to the setting, but the effect as the game flips back and forth at predetermined points between summer and winter is superficial and yet transformative. New York and Boston look like a pair of twinkling Christmas cards when coated in a layer of snow, the crisp white powder crunching under Connor’s feet as he leaps from rooftop to rooftop. The Frontier, meanwhile, becomes slightly more difficult to traverse. Dynamic weather effects lend occasional dashes of rainy, misty ambience to scenes, with rarer lightning storms creating a near-apocalyptic sense of foreboding, an atmosphere befitting a region facing such tumultuous upheaval.
While nominally providing only the backdrop to Connor’s tale, The Revolutionary War looms large in ACIII’s narrative. Indeed, there’s barely a key historical event at which the assassin isn’t present. He’s a guest of honour at the Boston Tea Party, a companion to Paul Revere on the midnight ride, and fights alongside the patriots at every key battle during the war. Short of a scene in which our hero blows the ink dry on a freshly signed Declaration Of Independence, there’s no crucial moment he’s not the catalyst for or a participant in. Meet the Forrest Gump of The Revolutionary War.
Cover your ears during all the stuff about Templars, Pieces Of Eden and First Civilisations, and there’s a meticulously researched drama to enjoy, the events depicted and the richly realised setting combining to create an absorbing historical milieu. Meeting the Founding Fathers is an obvious attraction, but it’s the incidental details that stick with you, with the Animus database providing the information and history that polygons and textures cannot. Sadly, Connor’s own tale is the first casualty of war. While the Assassins’ duty to uphold free will aligns him philosophically with the self-determination-seeking patriots, his frequently expressed desire to protect his tribe does not. The result is that Connor spends far too much time working as an errand boy for groups and individuals that he claims not to trust, and for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. He has the determination and skills to affect the course of events, yet – ironically for a game concerned with the struggle for independence – rarely does so unless on the orders of somebody else.