There are four things in my life that are basically assured. I’m going to die at some point. I have to pay my taxes. My two smallest children will probably never sleep through the night on a consistent basis. I’m going to play the latest release in the Assassin’s Creed franchise. Of those I can tell you two of them that happened in the last week. One of them we’re actually here to talk about. Ubisoft has released the first of a trilogy of Assassin’s Creed games to come out this year, and that number doesn’t include the not so secret Assassin’s Creed: Victory. I’m talking about Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China.
The game was originally going to be released as part of the Season Pass for Assassin’s Creed: Unity. When that game was determined to have numerous problems that took months to fix Ubisoft canceled that Season Pass and released Chronicles as a separate thing. It will now headline the Chronicles trilogy that will also include games set in India during the 1800s and Russia around the end of World War I.
Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China is a 2.5D side scrolling stealth game. It takes place after the events of Assassin’s Creed: Revelations during the mid 1500’s and is set in, as the title would suggest, China. You play the role of Shao Jun, a young assassin who has seen most of her brotherhood devastated, nearly beyond repair. Previous to this game’s events she seeks out the help of an elderly Ezio Auditore who gives her a box, the contents of which could help rebuild the Assassin brotherhood in China. That box is stolen from her by the Templar leader in the area. She sets off the recover that box and rebuild the order and take down as many Templars as she can in the process.
You immediately see the difference between this game and its predecessors. The shift from 3D to 2D brings about a stark contrast. The game feels more like a puzzle to solve rather than an open world to explore. Guards have vision cones that show where in the level they can see. Hiding places come in the form of ditches, bushes along a wall, hidden alcoves or pillars. Most of these places are outlined in green giving you immediate knowledge of the places you can use to move around the environment without being seen.
Stealth is key to success in this game. To that end you’re given a number of different abilities to aid you along the way. You have four main “distractions” that you can use. Those range from firecrackers that can not only distract guards, but also stun them giving you a few seconds to close the gap between you and them allowing you to take them down quickly. Throwing darts can be used to not only get the attention of guards but can cut ropes in the environment to drop lights on passing guards or open up bridges that were previously closed. You also have noise darts that you can toss at different spots in the levels to refocus the attention of guards. Lastly you can whistle. This will attract the attention of any guard in a radius around Shao Jun, regardless of what floor in the building they’re on.
Abilities are incredibly useful. They make her feel like an assassin capable of sneaking around a heavily guarded area. She can quickly move from hiding place to hiding place with the press of a button, never leaving the shadows to do that. Rope darts allow her to scale up to the ceiling to cling and hide from guards on the ground, or reach an otherwise inaccessible guard post to stealthily take out snipers. When she gets close to guards who have their backs turned she can run up, slide and take them out with the press of a button. Everything in the game is designed to keep you from being seen and all of the abilities and hiding places in the environment give you plenty of opportunity to be the silent killer the assassin’s should be.
Combat is clunky. I found that even with the different abilities Jun had that direct combat would prove ultimately deadly. If she was surrounded by two or more characters it was incredibly difficulty, if not downright impossible, to fend them both off. Some of the abilities of the character help in this respect, but trying to brute force your way through an area probably won’t work.
Exploration isn’t essential or even rewarding. In the open world games there are dozens, or hundreds of hidden things to find, chests to unlock or people to rescue. In Chronicles I found they simply forced you to explore an environment you might not really want to. Many of the collectibles weren’t hidden. You could see them on the screen, but just didn’t want to take the time to go out of the way to grab them. They would help with your points at the end of the level that could help you upgrade faster, but they weren’t fun to try to find.
The enemy AI has many of the same problems of the game’s bigger, open world brethren. They’re not very smart. You can easily exploit them in ways that I don’t think the designers of the game really intended. If you get spotted a quick run back a few feet in the level will break their line of sight. After a ten second countdown they’ll resume their previous sentry duties. If you stay just at the edge of their vision they’ll never fully alert and will not search any hidden areas that you might be hiding in, even if they see you go into hiding.
Not only that, but there are some of the same environmental problems of the previous game. Shao Jun has a tendency to latch onto ladders when you don’t want her to or fail to respond to a ladder when you do. It’s not quite to the level of Edward Kenway’s ability to jump on a ladder 10 feet away even when pointing the stick in the opposite direction, but at times it felt close.
At other times the game gave you every bit of free running freedom fans of the overall series enjoy. They’re few and far between, but they’re probably the most fun areas of the game. They open up the whole environment, put an obstacle behind you, such as fire, and say go. Don’t stop. Just go. Those points require you to very quickly traverse the environment using all of Jun’s abilities. Combat comes down to sliding through enemies and taking them down in one hit. They’re fast. They’re fun and they show off the free running ability of the assassin’s as good as the open world games do.
The building blocks for the rest of the series are set. The story develops in a way that I think will tie in nicely to the next game. The box has been passed from the hands of the Templars in China to another group. The things I found wrong with this game weren’t insurmountable and with a little tweaking could be fixed to the betterment of the series. The voice acting was great. The level design was solid and when you were sneaking around it felt like you were playing as Assassin’s Creed game. Yes there were stumbles along the way, but they didn’t hinder the overall experience of a very solid game that could be the start of a trilogy that many fans will enjoy.