Video games promise to take us to new worlds, but few have lived up to that idea as well as "Assassin's Creed III" (Ubisoft, for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, $59.99). Its new world is, well, The New World, and its recreation of colonial America feels entirely fresh.
The streets of Boston are crammed with scoundrels and freedom fighters chafing under British rule. The frontier is populated by hardworking immigrants struggling to make a new life and natives fighting to preserve theirs. The protagonist, a half-British, half-Mohawk warrior who calls himself Connor, falls somewhere in between.
More important, he's part of a long line of Assassins who have been fighting a centuries-old battle against the Templars. The Assassins want freedom, the Templars want control. It seems obvious which side Connor will take in the brewing Revolution - but his Mohawk blood may make things more complicated.
The result is a freewheeling romp through 18th-century America, from Boston to New York with stops in Lexington, Concord and points unknown. The sprawling cast includes Ben Franklin, Sam Adams, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. And Connor is present at seminal events like the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party and Paul Revere's ride. The historical scenarios dovetail with Connor's overall mission, which is to bring down seven Templars.
Branching off from the main plot are dozens of side missions. You can take on violent assassination contracts or more benign courier jobs. You can help liberate the cities and towns by eliminating some of the nastier Redcoats. You can build your reputation as a frontiersman by hunting rabbits, foxes and deer.
Two of the games-within-a-game are particularly rewarding. Homestead missions allow you to build your own community away from the bustling cities. As you help your neighbors, they become more adept at farming, woodworking, mining and other skills.
Then you can take their products to market and use the profits to improve a rickety ship called the Aquila. It's initially outfitted with a few cannons that help you fight off the scalawags roaming the Atlantic, but you can build it into a juggernaut capable of sinking England's mightiest warships.
The homestead and naval missions help build the illusion of a living world, but they aren't essential to completing the core game. Indeed, there are so many distractions in "ACIII" that it's easy to forget you're fighting a war. The level of excitement varies wildly - one mission may ask you to kill a man-eating bear while the next has you picking wildflowers.
That lack of focus slows down the momentum, which is further undermined by some poorly conceived story missions. In one major battle, for example, your job consists of issuing "fire" orders to cavalrymen - which would be fine is this was a war sim, but doesn't exactly make use of Connor's finely honed assassin skills.
Still, the lackluster parts are outweighed by thrilling sequences where you're stalking your quarry across the rooftops of Boston and then leaping in for the kill. There were moments when "Assassin's Creed III" tried my patience, but its irreverent take on the adventures of our Founding Fathers is utterly delightful. Three stars out of four.