Assassin’s Creed Chronicles
Developer Climax Games Publisher Ubisoft Format PC, PS4, Vita, Xbox One (version tested) Release Out now (Vita Apr 5)
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.