If this is the first time you've played an Assassin's Creed game, prepare to be confused. The series is notorious for its dense, complex mythology and the third game throws you in at the deep end. An intro cinematic tries its best to sum up the previous four games, but it's vague and skips a lot of important details. If this is your first encounter with the series, read the plot synopsis for each preceding game on Wikipedia. You'll enjoy it a lot more.
In the world of Assassin's Creed, hero Desmond Miles relives the memories of his ancestors by plugging into a machine called the Animus. Why? To save the world. Humanity is about to be wiped out and these memories hold the key to stopping it. So far we've played as Altair (an assassin in the Middle East during the Crusades) Ezio (Italian, active during the Renaissance) and now Connor, a Native American killer from 18th-century America.
This is pre-Independence America, a time of bloody civil war in which Patriots are rebelling against their British rulers and the Native Americans are being driven from their homes. Ubisoft doesn't sugar-coat anything and it's an honest account of a troubled period. Of course, some artistic liberties are taken: a fictional, thousand-year war between the Assassins and the Templars is tied cleverly into real events.
The story spans a number of years, from Connor as young boy in his idyllic Mohawk village, to becoming a master assassin on a quest for revenge. The world is split into the cities of Boston and New York and the Frontier. The atmosphere and attention to detail is sublime and you really feel like you've been transported back in time. The new AnvilNext engine can conjure up spectacular weather effects and the environments change as the seasons shift.
The Frontier is a vast expanse of countryside between the cities. It's the biggest map in the series to date, and it's buzzing with life. There are animals that you can hunt, from rabbits to hulking great bears. Soldiers march through the forests to the sound of beating drums. As the Revolution intensifies, musket battles erupt around you. In winter you have to wade through thick, powdery snow; in summer the foliage is green and lush. It's a wonderful space to explore.
The cities are similarly beautiful, but they're missing something. One of Assassin's Creed's main selling points is free-running. Its heroes can clamber up any building and hop across rooftops with ease. Connor is just as skilled as his ancestors, but the cities are disappointingly small and lack variety and verticality. There aren't any big, imposing structures - like the Colosseum in Brotherhood's Rome, say - to scale and you spend most of your time running around on slanted rooftops.
It's a shame, because the climbing controls are superb, and have been improved since previous games. So-called 'safe free-running', activated by holding R, makes sure Connor never leaps to his doom. He traverses the environment using shop signs, branches, chimneys and other objects to navigate. The tree climbing on the Frontier is slickly animated, but you soon start recognising the handful of shapes that are climbable, which shatters the illusion somewhat.
Combat is similar to Batman: Arkham City. When an enemy strikes, holding X will slow time down briefly, enabling you to counter their attack, either with a blow of your own or a tool, such as your pistol, or a poison dart. Tougher enemies can't be countered, though and you have to use other tactics, like kicking their weapon out of their hands. It's when the game throws several different enemy types at you at once that the combat comes to life, forcing you to mix and match strategies on the fly.