Ezio Auditore da Firenze is long gone, and the shadow he has cast is so long that it might take another hero a great while to emerge from beneath.
Ubisoft Montreal, developers of Assassin's Creed III, have spent most of 2012 on a promotional blitz aimed at introducing players to Ezio's spiritual successor, a half-English, half-native American named Connor. It is not a wait that ends immediately once the software is in your console. Your first experiences of the tensions in pre-revolutionary America are delivered through another lead character, and you must play for several hours before you can meet the man who would stand up for the Assassin order in their endless struggle against the Templars.
Without giving too much away, the first few hours of Assassin's Creed III are the American Revolution's answer to How I Met Your Mother, but with no Barney Stinson to make it legendary.
Once you have control of Connor, delivery of the iconic Assassin uniform is not immediately guaranteed. Though this game plays like Assassin's Creed from the outset, it doesn't really feel like it is Assassin's Creed until those famous white robes are on your man, and that will take even more time to accomplish.
Not all of the first hours of play are mapped out in the name of fun. There are too few "go kill this guy" missions, which is a bit of an absurdity really, and too many "go here and press a button" jobs which are made unnecessarily difficult on account of the new and unhelpful fast travel system. Escort missions can descend into farce when your AI-controlled partner is supposed to be leading the way but would prefer to stride into a wall or trigger open conflict with the same band of redcoat soldiers you are supposed to be avoiding.
This game is deep and ambitious, and that's not something I wish to discourage here, but it strays from the point far too often. No player should have to have their hand held through the adventure, but a wandering mind is no good if you're meant to follow two story arcs, one of which spans three decades.
What's the other one? Be ready to spend more time with Desmond Miles. For each hour spent trying to ignite the flame of Connor's own revolution, add another 15-20 minutes for the present-day storyline which sees our other hero, and supposedly the point of all of this, working to save the world from imminent destruction using the clues picked up from experiencing Connor's memories.
If you've ever read the excellent novelisations of the Assassin's Creed series by Oliver Bowden, which altogether ignore this modern carry-on in favour of telling Ezio's story, you might find the story is better off being told entirely in the past.
Outdoor adventure enthusiasts and bird spotters might have a bone to pick with Ubisoft when it comes to the visuals, because the frontier scenery is simply stunning. The hills, the streams, the trees, and the rock faces are superb in their detail - and you can run, climb, or swim just about anywhere. Why bother going outside for real air when the great outdoors has been rendered so well?
Out in the wild you can hunt to your heart's content, and while sometimes it's easier to simply rush at a wild hare or deer and kill it with your bare hands, there are Wile E. Coyote-like thrills to be had in setting a trap and waiting for your prey to become ensnared. The cleaner the kill, the better the prices you'll fetch for the pelts and other animal products on the market.
In the woods outside Boston is a homestead owned by an old fellow named Achilles, and by helping various frontier types, they'll warm to your cause and help restore the homestead to its former glory. Their skills and products will help you on the traders' market, as will using your newly-acquired naval warfare prowess.
Oh yes, naval warfare. Connor learns to master the high seas and blow other ships out of the water, not only to advance the storyline but to make the watery channels pirate-free and fit for business. The highly-touted combat feature is good fun and refreshingly hectic, the way Assassin's Creed is supposed to be.
It is fortunate that so much of the game is spent in the untamed regions outside of the developing cities, and at sea. Boston is boring and New York is a yawn, neither coming close to the detail and wonder of Ezio's playgrounds in renaissance Italy.
Assassin's Creed III is a potential classic that struggles to advance under the weight of its own ambition. The combat is as good as it has ever been, and there's something quite neat about managing the old man's homestead. But any chance of taking Connor into the heart, as was so easy with Ezio before him, is almost irretrievably lost because of the sheer amount of thumb twiddling players are made to do.
Perhaps it is in keeping with the frontier spirit, but players will have to work hard and search far to find enjoyment. Yes, it is good to be relevant, poignant and thought provoking, but a game must be fun and engaging too. Assassin's Creed III succeeds most of the time, and there is so much of that to be spent.
Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3