As­sas­sin’s Creed Chron­i­cles

De­vel­oper Cli­max Games Pub­lisher Ubisoft For­mat PC, PS4, Vita, Xbox One (ver­sion tested) Re­lease Out now (Vita Apr 5)

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PC, PS4, Vita, Xbox One

Given the way it forcibly dis­cour­ages killing, As­sas­sin’s Creed Chron­i­cles spends an alarm­ingly long time telling you how to do it. Poor Ar­baaz Mir, for ex­am­ple, reg­u­larly finds him­self torn away from his quest to re­cover a shiny MacGuf­fin by com­bat tu­to­ri­als, as his men­tor re­minds him how to stab, block and roll over op­po­nents. He’ll also learn the art of the jump kill, the slide kill and the counter, and should he opt to use any of th­ese moves he’ll be vig­or­ously pun­ished by his game’s own grad­ing sys­tem. The more you’re able to avoid con­fronta­tion, the more up­grades you’ll re­ceive – up­grades that are, of course, next to use­less for silent As­sas­sins, but which would cer­tainly ben­e­fit those least likely to un­lock them.

This kind of coun­ter­in­tu­itive de­sign runs through the en­tirety of this three-game spinoff se­ries, a tril­ogy that be­gins with some prom­ise in 16th-cen­tury China and ends in Rus­sia’s Oc­to­ber Rev­o­lu­tion, hav­ing squan­dered al­most all of it. De­vel­oper Cli­max Stu­dios’ ev­i­dent aim is to build upon a foun­da­tion of rigid me­chan­i­cal de­sign, of the kind found in clas­sics such as Prince Of Per­sia and Paul Cuis­set’s Flash­back, us­ing con­tem­po­rary re­fine­ments in­clud­ing ana­logue con­trols and more com­plex AI. Yet the un­sat­is­fac­tory re­sult falls awk­wardly in the middle, lack­ing the pre­dictable read­abil­ity of older sys­tems and the flex­i­bil­ity of the new. It’s a game that ap­pears to give you the tools to choose your own path and then pe­nalises you for not fol­low­ing the route the de­sign­ers want you to take.

It needn’t have been this way, and there are flashes of the po­ten­tial in its ap­proach. There’s the squirm­ing ten­sion of a non-lethal take­down, as you com­mit to a lengthy an­i­ma­tion cy­cle and watch in hor­ror as an­other guard’s vi­sion cone gets steadily closer. And while it hap­pens far too in­fre­quently, the mo­ments when you suc­cess­fully cre­ate a dis­trac­tion, or cause mass panic by dim­ming the lights, pro­vide the sense of em­pow­er­ment you’d ex­pect when tak­ing charge of a lethal hunter. Yet for the most part you’re left feel­ing ex­posed and vul­ner­a­ble. Even if you’ve earned enough points for that ex­tra bar of health, one shot can be enough to re­turn you to the pre­vi­ous check­point, and that’s when caus­ing an alert doesn’t au­to­mat­i­cally mean fail­ure. On one oc­ca­sion we’d suc­cess­fully com­pleted three ob­jec­tives with­out de­tec­tion and were mere sec­onds from a Gold Si­lencer award (no sight­ings, one take­down), when two guards in­ex­pli­ca­bly burst through a door be­hind us, en­coun­ter­ing the lone corpse we’d left in the open.

You’re hardly helped by a cam­era that strug­gles with the chal­lenge of ef­fec­tively fram­ing mul­ti­ple planes. You can blun­der into trou­ble by en­ter­ing a room be­fore the game is ready to show you a cross-sec­tion, while dur­ing one river-cross­ing se­quence in Rus­sia, it’s hard to glean the pre­cise po­si­tion of a spot­light un­til you’re gunned down in the middle of it. In the­ory, be­ing shown a vis­i­ble ra­dius of a guard’s alert­ness as well as the lim­its of their eye­sight should make it eas­ier to parse than 3D stealth. In prac­tice, when you’re look­ing at sev­eral cones across mul­ti­ple planes, it’s a bit of a mess.

It’s par­tic­u­larly galling since the first of the three games has clear po­ten­tial. Shao Jun may be more ci­pher than char­ac­ter, but games could cope with more smart, no-non­sense women he­roes with blades in their feet. China’s painterly en­vi­ron­ments are a lit­tle washed out, but it finds the sweet spot be­tween the two de­sign dis­ci­plines more of­ten than its suc­ces­sors, af­ford­ing you greater mar­gin for er­ror and com­bat me­chan­ics that al­low you to fight your way through if caught. Throw­ing knives, too, makes for a cathar­tic al­ter­na­tive to all that hid­ing and sneak­ing, while the sub- Uncharted es­capes and timed pur­suits only fleet­ingly halt the mo­men­tum.

In­dia com­pen­sates for China’s com­par­a­tively drab pal­ette in some style, its early stages in par­tic­u­lar a vi­brant fes­ti­val of hy­per-sat­u­rated colour. Per­haps chas­tened by crit­i­cisms of the first game’s rel­a­tively easy­go­ing chal­lenge, Cli­max ramps up the dif­fi­culty in the worst pos­si­ble way: check­points are spaced far­ther apart, while, by con­trast, the gaps be­tween pa­trols are now van­ish­ingly small, forc­ing a level of pre­ci­sion for which the some­times slug­gish con­trols are far from ideal. There may be more ways to re­spond to dan­ger, but you’ll need to move all the quicker, and it’s ag­o­nis­ing to slowly grap­ple up to the ceil­ing only for a guard to turn his gaze sky­ward when his prior move­ments sug­gested a man blighted by tun­nel vi­sion. En­emy be­hav­iour is com­i­cally mer­cu­rial. A white vi­sion cone means an op­po­nent has no knowl­edge of our ex­is­tence. How odd: half a minute ago, we gut­ted his friend in front of him.

Fi­nally, we find our­selves in Rus­sia, won­der­ing why so many of our friend’s cap­tors have come from Omsk, and why they’re so keen to re­mind their com­rades of this fact. Then again, repet­i­tive con­ver­sa­tional di­a­logue was al­ways likely to be more no­tice­able on an 11th at­tempt to kill eight guards with­out alert­ing any­one, even though we reached our pris­oner and had an es­cape route, hav­ing offed only three. A mis­guided no­tion that all Chron­i­cles needed was an ex­ces­sively grainy pre­sen­ta­tion and some ex­act­ing sniper se­quences makes Rus­sia the worst of the tril­ogy, de­spite the per­verse plea­sures of an amus­ingly ab­surd story that pitches Anas­ta­sia Niko­laevna as a knife-wield­ing maiden of vengeance, aided by a vet­eran As­sas­sin whose main tal­ent ap­pears to be breath­tak­ing naivety.

Had Cli­max been able to con­dense the best parts of all three games – China’s pared-down and ac­ces­si­ble de­sign, In­dia’s looks, Rus­sia’s two-char­ac­ter dy­namic – into one, we might’ve had a valu­able off­shoot, but ul­ti­mately this is an­other As­sas­sin’s Creed that suc­cumbs to in­con­sis­tency and bloat.

China finds the sweet spot be­tween the two de­sign dis­ci­plines more of­ten than its suc­ces­sors

CON­FLICT OF IN­TER­EST One thing Chron­i­cles does well is com­mu­ni­cat­ing char­ac­ter through com­bat. Shao Jun’s tech­niques are bru­tally ef­fi­cient; the sim­i­larly ath­letic Ar­baaz Mir adopts a more flam­boy­ant ap­proach; Rus­sia’s Niko­lai Orelov has the kind of keen eye that only comes with ex­pe­ri­ence; and Anas­ta­sia’s fran­tic stab­bings are a sym­bol of her fear and anger to­wards her op­pres­sors. All of which is at odds with the grad­ing sys­tem: though you’ll still earn points for silent kills, the mo­ment you en­gage an en­emy face to face you’re all but com­mit­ting to los­ing that stage’s most valu­able un­lock­able skill. As such, you’re of­ten best al­low­ing your­self to be shot or skew­ered, es­pe­cially as alerts of­ten prompt re­in­force­ments, with 1v2 soon be­com­ing 1v6.

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