It seems to be quite an unpopular opinion lately but I actually like Assassin’s Creed. I will concede to the fact that a lot of the gameplay has grown quite stale and they seem to be putting in a lot less effort than they used to in terms of the story but it’s the history side of it that really appeals to me. There are very few games that actually offers the player the freedom to explore historical towns or cities and because the Assassin’s Creed games tend to be set in pivotal moments in time, Ubisoft have often done very well in capturing the atmosphere and general attitude of the populous. As a result, the cities really feel alive. The open-world formula has been cast aside in the 3 DLCs being released this year and the 2.5D side-scrollers are downloaded as stand-alone titles rather than actually being part of Assassin’s Creed: Unity. I managed to get my hands on the first entry, Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China, and for the most part, I was really quite impressed.
A very typical Assassin’s Creed Story
The story picks up after the events of the Assassin’s Creed movie, Embers. Shao Jun, a former concubine of the emperor of China, returns to China after receiving Assassin training from Ezio Auditore in order to put an end to the growing templar threat plaguing the country towards the end of the Ming Dynasty. For yet another entry in the series, the plot is really lacking in originality. Revenge, Templars taking over the world and dull protagonists have been on par for the course since Assassin’s Creed 3 and they seem to be sticking with it. When I saw Embers, I was really interested to see how Shao Jun’s character would develop once she got her own title but she seems to have lost any charisma that came across in the movie and what we are essentially left with is a female version of everyone’s least favourite Assassin, Connor. To top it off, the voice actor from the film has been replaced by what sounds like a British woman in her mid-forties that hosts a cooking show on BBC. One of the aspects I really used to like about the series is that you often felt like your Assassin contributed directly to historical events but with the latest few games, I have felt as if they were merely happening in the background and that I was just going through the motions. Unfortunately, ACC: China gets pulled into that trap and although the Ming Dynasty was an exciting part of history, a lot of it just feels like an afterthought here.
As I mentioned, Ubisoft Montreal and Climax Studios have moved away from the open-world format and opted instead for a 2.5D side-scrolling platformer as they did for 2009’s Assassin’s Creed II: Discovery. Considering the sandbox gameplay of the Assassin’s Creed series, I didn’t have very high hopes for a game that moved so far away from the norm but I was pleasantly surprised. ACC:China is beautiful in its simplicity. The graphics have a very graphic-novel feel to them and they often make you feel as if you are looking at a moving mural. The cut scenes are still shots rather than actual video which emphasises the truly stunning artwork but as beatiful as it is, the use of still shots also highlights how dull Shao Jun’s character is.
An indie made by Ubisoft
The game looks and plays like an indie title rather than the product of a AAA studio but it really adds to its charm. As much as I said that I love the Assassin’s Creed games, the gameplay and types of missions have been getting increasingly stale over the last few years. The 2.5D action of ACC: China has changed the look and feel of the series while keeping the values of the series intact. There is a very heavy emphasis on stealth, much more so than the standard entries. Ever since the first Assassin’s Creed, we were told that we needed to be quiet, stealthy and discreet but many of us found that it was easier to just kill everyone, leaving corpses to litter the streets as the surrounding crowds continued with their day-to-day lives. Because of the fairly clumsy fighting in ACC: China, it is definitely recommended that you take the stealthy approach, sticking to shadows and hiding behind curtains whilst paying close attention to enemy patrol paths. This is made easier by the fact that enemies have vision cones which allow you to see where an enemy is looking and plan your dash to cover accordingly.
A new ability has also been introduced called the Helix Dash which allows you to zip behind cover unseen. Although useful, in order to use it you must collect 3 blue helix shards which are over-abundant in some areas and scarcer than intelligent Youtube comments in others. I often found myself saving it for when I thought I might need it and ended up neglecting it for most of the game. If you are spotted, however, it is far easier to escape the guards than it is in the main series because although you can move around in a 2.5D environment, enemies are limited to just 2 dimensions meaning that you can escape their lines-of-sight by simply climbing around a wall. They also stop looking for you and return to their very important duty of walking back and forth after a mere 10 seconds.
Variety is the spice of life…unless you’re stealthy
There are a wide variety of enemies to test your skills throughout the game and they all have their own abilities, which need to be taken into consideration when approaching them. Fortunately, the ability to whistle and attract attention is back and if you follow a stealthy approach, most of the enemies’ abilities can be disregarded as they can easily be killed with one shot when attacking from a hiding place.
The ability to choose an approach without penalties also makes a return as your score is calculated at the end of each mission based on whether you chose to remain quiet or go in swinging. There are 3 categories which are taken into account: Shadow (ghosting the level and killing no one but your target), Assassin (quietly executing enemies without being seen) and Brawler (for when you just have to kill things) and your score is calculated based on each encounter and how you chose to tackle it. These scores then add to the upgrades available at the end of each mission.
It’s risky for a company like Ubisoft to move away from a formula that they know will bring in profits but I admire them for taking the risk (even if it is just for a DLC) as Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China made for a fun change of pace from the norm. Despite the dull character of Shao Jun, I would still like to see her in a full feature of her own as her cat-like movements and ridiculously cool shoe-blade exemplify what it means to be an Assassin. It would be great to see them use her in a fully-realised world of her own.