Every video-game company dreams of owning a Money-Printing Annual Franchise — one of those series whose fans will turn out in droves to pay $60 for a fresh game every single year. There aren’t many members of this elite club: Call of Duty, Need for Speed, Madden and similar sports games, and a few others.
In there with all the obvious hits — the games where you mow down hundreds of enemy soldiers, win races in souped-up cars, and play popular sports — is Assassin’s Creed, a franchise in which players travel hundreds of years back in time, organize struggles against oppression, explore landmarks, and interact with historic figures whose personalities have been exaggerated for humorous effect. Sure, they sneak up behind guards and stab them in the neck, too, but there’s something special about Assassin’s Creed — and its latest iteration, Assassin’s Creed III (actually the fifth major installment), puts players in the middle of the American Revolutionary War.
The Assassin’s Creed plotline is a convoluted blend of sci-fi and historical fiction, but the two key elements are these: One, the game envisions the Knights Templar as a sinister, powerful group that still exists and has always been in conflict with the Assassins, an elite brotherhood dedicated to keeping them from ruling the world. And two, the stories are presented through the Animus, a machine that allows the series’ modern-day protagonist, Desmond Miles, to experience the memories of his ancestors. Interestingly, the Animus explains how the games’ characters can keep coming back to life after they die: Each death is only a digital “desynchronization” from events as they actually happened.
As Assassins, these characters have a considerable skill set. They are masters of stealth, capable of sneaking up on enemies from any direction. And Assassins always get from Point A to Point B quickly, climbing up walls, sprinting across rooftops, and jumping from building to building rather than letting anything slow them down.
Unfortunately, ACIII gets off to a painfully slow start — while the series is known for letting its Assassins explore huge historical cities, playing through specific “memories” (missions) at their leisure, this entry forces players along a linear storyline for quite some time. Several hours pass before the main character is even born (the Animus first taps into the memories of the protagonist’s father), and several more go by before our new Assassin, the half-white/half–Native American Connor, is fully trained and the events of the Revolution start heating up.
It’s worth the wait, though. Eventually, Connor is allowed free rein in a gigantic, beautiful, almost photorealistic rendering of early America, with forests bursting with wildlife, cities buzzing with conversations about the current political tensions, and taverns full of forgotten betting games like Nine Men’s Morris. Colonial cities, most strikingly Boston, have been recreated through a combination of actual maps and creative license.
As the story unfolds, Connor takes part in countless pivotal events, from the Boston Massacre to the war’s most important battles. Even with the series’ Dan Brown–style conspiracy theories worked in at every turn, it is difficult for an American not to revel in a game that involves hurling tea into Boston Harbor, killing British tax enforcers, and accompanying Paul Revere on his famous ride.
Further, the franchise has always done a tremendous job of bringing historical personalities to life — most memorably, in Assassin’s Creed II, Leonardo da Vinci let players take a prototype of his flying machine for a test drive — and in Assassin’s Creed III the developers have seized the opportunities presented by the American Revolution. Israel Putnam appears as a gruff, cigar-chomping general, Ben Franklin as a refined academic, and Samuel Adams as a dedicated and thoughtful revolutionary who’s more than willing to help Connor keep a low profile.
Certainly, there are flaws here, whether you view Assassin’s Creed III as a game or as history. The voice acting is awkward at times, and the controls can be maddeningly clunky, a problem that has plagued Assassin’s Creed from the start. The game is not as comprehensive as a history book, and it does not aspire to the accuracy of a documentary, even aside from the Assassins/Templar plot.
But Assassin’s Creed III brings the Revolutionary War to life in stunning detail, allowing us to experience the conflict and understand what was at stake — an accomplishment that deserves the appreciation of gamers and history buffs alike.
— Robert VerBruggen is a deputy managing editor of National Review.