By Adam B. Vary
November 02, 2012 at 04:00 AM EDT

If you want to grasp the uncanny genius of setting a videogame during the Revolutionary War era, look no further than the muskets. There’s a moment early in Assassin’s Creed III when you’re combating a squad of redcoats, both sides with period firearms in hand. You fire. They fire. And then you both have to stand there, reloading, for 15 interminable seconds — and it’s hilarious.

It’s a prime example of the fabulous sport this game makes of such a musty period in history. You play Connor Kenway, a half-Mohawk, half-English assassin whose quest to protect his people’s sacred valley has him rubbing shoulders with social-studies-class A-listers like George Washington, Samuel Adams, and Paul Revere. Those historical titans are ultimately only a small part of one of the most expansive gaming experiences you’ll have this year — one that allows you to hit the high seas as a privateer, firing broadsides into British frigates. Or hunt game on your frontier homestead. Or listen to Daniel Boone tell tall tales. Or rescue smallpox victims. Or play checkers. You’ll happily burn through countless hours flitting between these and many other side missions, some of which include just drinking in the vivid renderings of 18th-century Boston and New York City.

There’s so much to do, in fact, that ACIII doesn’t have the same unified pull as the 2010 open-world masterpiece Red Dead Redemption. The story doubles down on the franchise’s kooky modern-day framing device, and a few missions turn into an exasperating feedback loop of failed attempts. But those quibbles aside, after plunging headlong into waves of lethal gunfire during the battle of Bunker Hill, you’ll never look at a musket — or American history — quite the same way again. A-