The McGuffin. At once a potentially infuriating and amazing plot device. Usually, the purpose of the McGuffin is to drive a larger story. Cinema has given us some great McGuffins like the Pulp Fiction briefcase and the Maltese Falcon.
The plot of the latest Assassin’s Creed is also kick started by a McGuffin. Shao Jun, our heroine for this adventure, is looking for a box which holds an artifact of tremendous value. We never find out what’s in the box, but it doesn’t matter. The game looks beautiful and has a lot of fun gameplay elements, but is unfortunately bogged down by narrative clichés and some bugs.
When we say the game looks beautiful, we really mean it. This game is eye-wateringly beautiful. The tapestry of the Chinese architecture blending in with some fantastic background visuals make this game look like each frame is straight out of an old Chinese painting. The backgrounds are diverse – full moons, waterfalls, shrubbery and industry, all beautifully animated. Shadows and rusty structures give the proceedings a sense of age and tension. It’s a dreamy, surreal visual palate and it works well, for the most part. The game leaves all of the story-telling to hand-drawn prompts on screen, allowing the visuals to suck you into the experience completely. The soundtrack is a silent companion, blending into the visuals seamlessly.
As a student of the great Ezio Auditore himself, Shao is an assassin who must rely on stealth and trickery to avoid the prying gazes of guards, who have vision cones to indicate their line of sight. Luckily for you, they can’t really see very far and will mostly keep to themselves if you don’t do something blatantly obvious. You can slip behind a pillar, hang from a ledge or tumble into your trusty pile of hay. Don’t worry, the leaps of faith are still here, and they still look amazing.
The Game Play:
Chronicles uses the two-and-a-half dimensions it has to work with very well. At any given time, you could be working through a corridor or platform full of guards, until you fling your dart towards a hook in the ceiling and either swing closer to or farther away from the camera. At this point, you’ll be in a completely different layer of the environment. This increases your sense of immersion because the game makes you feel like every level of your environment is a place you could probably get to. To make your way past the aforementioned guards, you will either have to avoid them entirely, take them out silently or face them head on.
Silent assassinations are extremely satisfying to pull off, and they are accompanied by suitably gory sounds of metal piercing flesh and mortal groans. You might be reminded of Mark of The Ninja, another fantastic assassin game, during certain sections. Overhead assassinations are even more fun because you see the technique involved in becoming a master assassin. When you’re overhead, Shao Jun will just hold the blade in place and let gravity do the trick as you descend upon your target. As the game progresses, you will gain the ability to perform a short dash into enemies, adding another fun set of ways for dispatching enemies into your arsenal.
Chronicles wants you to be the invisible assassin for the majority of the game. Unfortunately, for a game that relies so much on stealth, the stealth mechanics are where the game stumbles most often. In other games of its kind, you are rewarded for hiding in the shadows or behind objects to avoid being detected. But, as the game progresses, other stealth games ramp up the level of challenge to a point where the tactics which worked for you in the beginning simply don’t. Chronicles: China, on the other hand, will rarely challenge you to think outside the box during its four hour runtime. You gain extra stealth abilities as you go through the game, such as moving from cover to cover unnoticed, but these don’t really change the gameplay too much. The puzzles remain at the same level and don’t push the boundaries of your new abilities.
Once you’ve been lurking around the halls for a while, you’ll know how to beat the AI system. If you’re spotted by the guards, you only need to stay out of sight for a few seconds before they give up the pursuit altogether. While this mechanic isn’t uncommon, Chronicles handicaps its AI by giving each guard a very limited area of movement. You can taunt a guard and dash away to a hiding spot just for fun. Additionally, sometimes the guards will remain on high alert inexplicably, even after you’ve cleared the area. You might also run into the odd guard who’s frozen in place while they’re looking for you.
Has never been a strength of the Assassin’s Creed series, and this game is no different. The combat is very awkward, and you’ll die most times if you’re facing multiple enemies, regardless of how skilled you are. This might be a deliberate choice to make you avoid combat, but the game does such a haphazard job of it that it sticks out like a square thumb. The controls aren’t too great either, which makes any fight, and especially boss fights, tougher than they should be.
Some of the game’s best moments come when you are bounding through a level, frantically trying to escape either a crumbling environment or a pack of enemies. It is here that Shao Jun gets to cut loose, pirouetting over hurdles, sprinting into guards and continuing on her way, all in one smooth motion.
When the credits roll (abruptly), you’ll be left with a mixed bag of feelings. For one, Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China is a gorgeous-looking game and if you ignore the clunky combat and some stealth bugs, it is a worthwhile adventure. Hopefully, the developers will learn from the missteps of this game and deliver handsomely in the two sequels that have been announced – Chronicles: Russia and Chronicles: India.