Played on: Xbox One.
Available on: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One.
Last year Ubisoft released two Assassin’s Creed games, Rogue and Unity, and even the most die hard of fans began to question if the franchise was getting a bit ahead of itself. Unperturbed, Ubisoft have announced not one, not two, not even three, but four new Assassin’s Creed games for 2015: China, India, Russia and Syndicate. The first three games make up the new Assassin’s Creed Chronicles franchise, a series of 2.5D games that explore the stories of Brotherhood members in countries so far unexplored in the main franchise. The first of these games, China, launched in the UK in April 2015, and retains some of the things you’d expect from an Assassin’s Creed game whilst also doing enough to bring a new hope for the future of the Assassin’s Creed brand.
After the mess that was Assassin’s Creed: Unity I wasn’t convinced I would be picking up any more games in the series. Yet, China had me intrigued enough to give it a go. The first, and most obvious change in this iteration of Assassin’s Creed, is the shift from free-roaming 3D to China’s 2.5D linear action. Whilst this fundamentally changes the Assassin’s Creed gameplay, after 9 games running around open environments, this is refreshingly welcome.
The change to 2.5D has left many of the other Assassin’s Creed trademarks intact though. Synchronisation points, hay bale dives, hidden blade assassinations (this time with a boot blade, not a wrist blade), and simple, yet fluid counter-attacking combat, all carry over from the main series to China. However, there’s a new found emphasis on stealth in this adventure that has been sorely lacking from the other mainstream Assassin’s Creed games.
Playing as female Assassin Shao Jun in the latter days of the Ming Dynasty, you are encouraged to move between shadows avoiding direct combat with guards. Each section of a chapter is graded, with each chapter getting an overall grading, and it’s the stealth approach that earns you the most points. It’s a far cry from Assassin’s Creed’s usual, noisy, and combat heavy approach, and it really works. Not all of the chapters are about stealth, with one seeing Shao Jun scrambling for safety from a burning dock. Overall though, China encourages a sneaky approach, though fighting your way through chapters is always still a viable, albeit less interesting, option.
Stealth is aided by Shao Jun’s gadgets and abilities. Noise darts, whistles and firecrackers draw guards attention away from you or distract them, whilst rope darts and throwing knives help you navigate or kill. Guards now have a cone of vision so you know what they can and can’t see too. This new addition to the Assassin’s Creed franchise is at first visually a little annoying, but very quickly becomes one of those mechanics you can’t believe the franchise didn’t have before (much like Unity’s climb down mechanic). Gone are the ambiguous spotting skills of guards, replaced instead with a mechanic that let’s stealth work and encourages gamers to play like an actual Assassin. Bravo to the developer who said “Hey, you know what would make Assassin’s Creed way less annoying? Knowing what guards can and can’t see”.
The story in Assassin’s Creed: China is a typically Assassin’s Creed affair, although thankfully the animus and meta-story take a very welcome backseat in this outing. Shao Jun, who according to an animated Assassin’s Creed story (Embers) and the in-Animus training simulator, was trained by an ageing Ezio Auditore, is trying to free China from Templar control, restore the Brotherhood to its full status, and recover the mysterious Precursor Box (an Eden artefact) that the Templars have taken from her. The narrative serves a purpose to contextualise various assassinations and keep you moving forward, though in truth you’ve heard it all before in other Assassin’s Creed games.
Each game in the Chronicles series will have it’s own unique visual style based around the game’s setting. Whilst India will feature strong chalk colours and swirling flowers, and Russia is a dark and propaganda-styled affair, China has pale, oriental and artistic water colours, blood red markings to help show you the way, and bold paint strokes to highlight movements such as attacks. It’s visually very appealing and China runs without any issues, which is a welcome change after 2014’s Unity. In fact there’s not much to disappoint in China, other than the tired old Assassin’s Creed narrative and the strange new voice actor for Ezio. A female Assassin will also be welcomed after Unity’s ‘no girls allowed’ debacle. Still, it’s a shame that female Assassins still seem to be consigned to spin-off games.
Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China takes the franchise down a new route that really works for the series. It doesn’t do anything that other 2.5D games haven’t already done, but that doesn’t stop it bring a very good entry in a franchise currently balancing on a knife-edge. Whether this formula will simply be copied and pasted for India and Russia is yet to be seen, but if these games can expand on this formula Assassin’s Creed might well be riding a high into the release of the next main game, Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate.
Fans of Assassin’s Creed looking for a way to forgive Ubisoft for Unity would do well to pick up China. It looks great, has interesting stealth gameplay, and continues to expand the Assassin’s Creed narrative, albeit in a predictable and typical fashion, hampered by a lack of the in-depth historical context normally found in an Assassin’s Creed game. Nonetheless I’ll definitely be checking out India and Russia when they release later in this year and I thoroughly enjoyed forgiving Ubisoft and Assassin’s Creed whilst playing through China.
Images from http://www.assassinscreed.ubi.com