Who is Ratonhnhaké:ton? He's the son of a British father, raised by his Mohawk mother and caught in a struggle between his own people and the colonists spreading through the American Northeast. He's an assassin who, like those before him, believes in the people's right to be free and make their own choices. He's also known as Connor, and he stars in Assassin's Creed III, the most thematically rich game in this ambitious and freewheeling series.
In some respects, Connor is a vessel for ideas more than a force of nature in his own right, though few heroes could hope to outshine the charming and worldly star of Assassin's Creed II, Ezio Auditore. 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. It's the time of the American Revolution, and Connor finds himself a key figure on and off the battlefield. He fires cannons, commands troops, and jams his tomahawk into loyalist flesh. He rides with the delightful Paul Revere and conspires with Samuel Adams, thus allowing you to participate in some of the time period's most renowned events: the Boston Tea Party, the Battle of Bunker Hill, and so forth. Assassin's Creed games are well known for their incredible attention to historical detail, and Assassin's Creed III is no exception. 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.
Yet Assassin's Creed III is less about history and more about the broader themes of the franchise. The Assassin vs. Templar conflict deepens here. You've heard the Templar point of view before, often via the soliloquies of dying men who pleaded the good intentions of a philosophy that nonetheless paved an apparent road to hell. Now, the truth, such as it is, isn't so cut-and-dried. 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."
Of course, Connor's dilemma is one of the past; in the present day, series constant Desmond Miles plays his own role, making his legend by carving his way through the here and now. Connor fights for the rights of his people; Desmond 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. Surprisingly, given the series' past, Desmond's story tugs at the heart, not because of his newfound relationship with his aloof father, but because he learns more of the First Civilization, and their futile attempts to ward off the disaster that annihilated them.
The Desmond portions are even more fleshed out than before, allowing the former bartender to at last exercise his own stealth, parkour, and assassination skills, hinting 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 falls short of Assassin's Creed II's jaw-dropping conclusion. But the inconclusive ending is designed to have you guessing, and you will ponder the implications over and over, trying to weave a tapestry of truth out of the conspiracies that have always buoyed the series' self-serious stories.
It takes time to reach that conclusion, or indeed, to experience the parkour flights of fancy that represent Assassin's Creed III at its best. In fact, it takes time for you to even meet its hero, though it's better to discover just how the game handles that introduction on your own. Suffice it to say: the opening hours are unexpectedly protracted as you discover that this is, indeed, a different kind of Assassin's Creed. It's no less joyous, once the stops are ultimately pulled out, but the game takes its time, trusting you to be patient with a slow-paced prologue that is concerned more with establishing tone and backstory than with allowing you free rein of its bustling cities.
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. This is the biggest game in the series by a notable margin, and once the beginning is put in context, you'll be glad for the character development, and glad that you had time to discover some of what makes Assassin's Creed III different from its predecessors. You'll also be glad of the narrative twist that reshapes your expectation as you transition into the larger part of the game, reminding you that the series has rarely shied from playing with your mind.