There's not many franchises more set in their ways than Assassin's Creed. Since that first outing with Altair, and through iteration and adventure with Ezio and later the Kenways, there's been a steady evolution for the series, but no change of direction more significant than perhaps the introduction of naval combat in Assassin's Creed III. Of course there's been innovations and adaptations, tweaks and adjustments, but the core principles of the series have always endured.
Those core principles remain intact in Assassin's Creed Chronicles, more than you'd expect considering the shift from open-world third-person action-adventure to 2.5D stealth-platformer. From the levels we sampled, the shift of style and perspective is a clever one, as it retains the essence of the series, but makes enough changes so that what's being offered here feels fresh.
We were expecting to get our hands on a new assassin, and explore a new Chinese setting. What we got instead was three new assassins, three new settings, and a planned trio of titles set to roll out before the end of the year. We're told that this trio of games are standalone, but of course there's going to be a link between them.
The settings are nicely diverse. We spent most of our time playing in China, but we also got a taste of India, and post-revolution Russia is the third chapter that we've only seen a glimpse of. Each of the three settings has a distinct art style (that art director Glenn Brace explains much better than we could, check back on the site on 1.4.15 to find out what he had to say about the different styles), and they all look great thanks to distinctive visuals and parallax backgrounds filled with nice detail.
There's a clarity to the visual language of the levels that makes it easy to decipher the immediate challenge. Red painted objects are climbable, or have some kind of interactive nature. It's a simple visual cue, but it works. Each Assassin is able to jump, climb, swing, and run through the levels. There's more visual signposting; spotting a green-rimmed doorway points to a place where you can hide in safety. Using these eye-catching clues it's possible to interpret the levels, and for skilled players it'll be simple enough to sweep through a stage quickly. We're expecting speed runs.
Guards are there to hinder your progress, but the assassins have tricks to distract them. Eagle vision returns, so it's possible to see a patrol's path through an area, and there's also helpful vision cones, so you know where to hide and where to avoid as the guards move around an area. The AI isn't great, but at least it's predictable, which makes planning your actions a simpler affair.
At the end of each mission there's a reckoning, and you'll get more points for dodging the gaze of patrols. If worst comes to worst there's always combat as a last resort. Blocking an attack allows an opportunity to return with either a quick flurry of light attacks, or slower, more powerful heavy blows. It's a simple enough system, but it felt a little clunky against multiple opponents, and often enemies will be considerate enough to take it in turns when launching their melee attacks (although hard-to-dodge ranged attacks aren't queued in the same way and will regularly hit home mid-fight)
There's a few tricks that'll allow players to distract and misdirect their opponents. The ease of traversal makes it possible to get into interesting positions, confuse your enemies, and then sneak past with their backs turned. During the accompanying presentation we were told that one of the main inspirations for Chronicles was the Metroidvania genre, the implication being that this is that type of game. We haven't seen all that much in the grand scheme of things, but it felt too linear for this to be considered an accurate description. There's no going back over areas as far as we can tell, and missions are self-contained. Perhaps we'll be able to go back to previous missions and attempt them once we've unlocked different abilities, opening up new options - we're not entirely sure.
We played three missions in China, and during that time we discovered the basic moves and mechanics. There was some movement between different paths, but for the most part the parallax level structure wasn't integral to the action. However, this wasn't the case in India. We got to try one level there, and in this game we were regularly darting between paths, the camera happily spinning around and following us into the background.
Another interesting new addition that appeared in India that we hadn't seen in China was crumbling environments; wall and ceiling panels that fell away upon contact. It certainly speeds things up when the world around you is tumbling down all around, and some of the platforming was quite challenging. It was also interesting that these platforming hazards could also be used to your advantage, either to distract guards, or with good timing, even dropping rubble on the heads of enemies standing below.
Environmental hazards also came into play when we were exploring Precursor ruins. There's platforms that burst into life when activated, killing whoever is standing atop. Luring guards onto these tiles via a whistle or a sound dart is a surefire way of getting rid of them. Chronicles has a nice way of explaining these hazards for the player without interrupting the action too much. In China we're shown that running past a caged bird will cause it to tweet and thus alert nearby guards when an NPC does just that. Later in India we're shown what happens when you stand on one of the Precursor tiles, when a guard makes a schoolboy error and wanders onto one of these deathly squares only to perish while we watched on from safety.
Perhaps the only thing that didn't feel as good as we were hoping for was the combat. We went into the event expecting something akin to Prince of Persia, but that's not quite what this offers. One-on-one fights seemed fine, but when more enemies pile up there's less fluidity. We're reserving judgement on this until we've played it properly, and have fought a few more battles, because effortless combat may just be a case of practise makes perfect.
We're not sure how long each of these games will be, and it's hard to tell just how much the difficulty ramps between Chronicles. We did notice an increase in challenge between China and India, but we weren't told where in its respective game the India mission was set. What we played we enjoyed, and that's the main thing. Ubisoft and Climax have done a good job in empowering the player with the tools needed to make them feel like they've got the skills to be effective in any situation, and often there's different ways to approach any given scenario.
During our interview we pressed the team to talk to us about their inspirations, specifically from within gaming, but as you might expect they were reluctant to drop names. If they had done they would have surely mentioned Mark of the Ninja, as Chronicles borrows plenty of ideas from that game. This is in no way a bad thing, because Klei Entertainment's offering is one of the best 2D stealth games ever made. We're also reminded of the excellent Shadow Complex, in our opinion another good game to draw inspiration from.
The differing art styles of the three games, the visual language in the environments, the layered systemic gameplay, the pacing and potential for alternative play styles; it's all solid stuff. We came away impressed with what we'd seen and are looking forward to playing more when the first chapter launches on April 22. It looks like Climax have done a good job with China, and while India was still far from polished, and Russia wasn't even present, it's obvious that there's potential here. If you're a big Assassin's fan and you'd like to see the series played out in a different way, this retains the core but injects plenty of new ideas and a new perspective. If you couldn't care less about the lore of the AC series, but like stealth-focused platforms and systemic gameplay, then Chronicles may well have what it takes to pull you into the franchise.
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