It’s becoming increasingly tricky to keep track of the Assassin’s Creed series at this point. There are the main series games, which I’m generally aware of, even though some of them have numbers at the end and others have subtitles, and they’re occasionally released at the same time (as with the recent-ish Unity and its previous-gen cousin, Rogue). There’re expansion packs, like Dead Kings, standalone expansion packs, like Freedom Cry (which can be bought separately or downloaded as proper DLC for the game they’re most closely tied to); and there are weird platform-exclusive expansions, like Liberation, which began life as a Vita-only title before eventually being released everywhere else in increasingly shinier variations. I’ve even got two of the things on my phone, and according to Wikipedia they’re both canon as well.
What this tends to mean is that very few people actually give a shit when a new one is announced or released, which is probably why Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China, the first in a three-part series (Parts 2 and 3 of which are set in India and Russia, respectively) arrived with very little anticipation, fanfare or attention. More surprising to me than the fact this thing exists at all is that each of these games are built around characters introduced in various corners of the surprisingly vast Assassin’s Creed multimedia continuity, which I didn’t know existed. I can’t imagine that target demographic (people who aren’t sick of the franchise, and are familiar with the spin-off animations and graphic novels) being particularly big. So I’m not entirely sure who China is for.
I’m aware of how starting with the impression that a video game is redundant isn’t exactly the most useful way to approach the experience, though look what I’ve got to work with: Shao Jun is a Chinese Assassin who apparently showed up alongside series-favourite Ezio Auditore in a spin-off animation, Assassin’s Creed: Embers. I’ve never heard of it, or her. She’s after a box. There’s a chance that the box might hold some kind of First Civilisation artefact, but nobody really seems to know what it is or what it does. She’s stuck in two-and-a-half dimensions of 16th Century China, during the fall of the Ming Dynasty, in a game which looks and plays exactly like Klei’s Mark of the Ninja.
It’s a knockoff, then, and unashamedly so, which doesn’t do much to dispel initial impressions. If this weren’t an Assassin’s Creed title I might be quietly impressed at how brazenly it pilfers mechanics from other, better games (it also cribs a lot of the parkour from the 2D version of Mirror’s Edge and the combat from Prince of Persia’s HD remastering); as it stands though, it feels more like Ubisoft milking the teats of an already catatonic cash-cow and teasing out nothing but dust.
Perhaps I wouldn’t mind quite so much if China actually improved on the elements it borrows, but rarely does this game feel even as good as Mark of the Ninja, and never once is it superior. There are differences, of course. It’s impressive how many of the series’ core elements have been compressed and crammed onto such a vastly smaller canvass. Most of those things are purely aesthetic, mind; weapons and toys which will be familiar to anyone who has played the previous games, but behave in functionally the same way as their Mark of the Ninja equivalents, for example. Climax Studios (the developers responsible for the Chronicles trilogy) have repainted the walls, but they’re still renting the house. Other aspects are more tangible: clambering rickety towers to “synchronise”, of course, which in this case just makes secrets appear on the already rather small maps; and even blending in crowds during certain contrived sequences. A lot of effort has been made to make this feel just like an Assassin’s Creed game, and while as I said that’s impressive, it’s rarely truly successful.
It doesn’t help that the series-specific flourishes feel as though they’ve been crowbarred into a format which can’t properly accommodate them. Shaved of an additional dimension, there’s no welcome sense of vertigo in leaping multiple stories down into a hay cart. Yet China is evidently thrilled with these moments, even as it’s masquerading as something else entirely. It’s like a drag queen hiking up his skirt to show the audience his balls.
What’s ironic is that Assassin’s Creed actually works much better when it stops trying to be Assassin’s Creed. The moment-to-moment gameplay might be lifted wholesale from somewhere else, but mechanically and structurally it’s a near-perfect condensing of the stabbing and sneaking which this franchise is supposed to be synonymous with. Shao Jun travels from left to right, as all good 2D characters must, and each small environment she finds herself in is a contained slice of stealthy spatial puzzling. Some areas have verticality, others have depth, and a few even have both. The goal is almost always to get to the next area, and the best way of doing so is almost always quietly and with minimal bloodshed. That’s startlingly discordant for an Assassin’s Creed title, but it works. You can conceivably beat China without killing anyone besides your main targets. You’re encouraged to, in fact. Upon completion of each area you’re given a ranking based on how you did (the best is awarded for silent pacifism), and each ranking is attached to a score. At the end of a mission, all those rankings are tallied up into your total, which allows you to unlock upgrades for Shao Jun along the lines of increased health or the ability to carry more throwing knives.
For the first time in the series, playing like this is actually the preferable option. You can engage in open combat if you like; there’s a functional system of blocks, counters and swipes, each with a pleasing amount of heft, but Shao Jun is delicate enough that one or two hits reduce her to a watery smudge even late in the game. Her athleticism (which she emphasises by putting her hidden blade in her shoe, rather than up her sleeve) doesn’t really translate to swordplay, either. Duelling feels like a stodgy, dangerous last resort. The power is in the shadows, zipping between hiding spots and dangling a few feet above unsuspecting guards. You get the sense this is how things should have always been. Perhaps they would have if any of the 3D Assassin’s Creed games worked well enough to allow for it.
China certainly works well. The controls (astonishingly, for this series) are tight and responsive. Shao Jun moves where you want her to, jumps when she should, slides when she needs to. She doesn’t get stuck on bits of geometry or try and pre-empt your inputs. Her story is largely free of frustration. In some ways, that’s an issue. There’s no challenge, or at least no sense of escalation. Environments become only as complex as they need to in order to accommodate new tools and techniques. They keep pace, but never sprint ahead. Most of the game feels like a tutorial, in that sense, as though China is taking the first few tentative steps so that the forthcoming India and Russia can leap and bound unhindered. That’s a welcome thought, but it doesn’t do anything to make this particular game more engaging. Neither does the easily-exploitable AI, which leashes guards to an incredibly limited area and doesn’t give them much to do besides roaming back and forth. There’s still satisfaction to be had in mooching lion-like among your prey, but at least gazelles have the good sense to leg it when they see themselves on the menu. China’s guards want you to know they’re props. If you run out of their vision cones and wait around for a while, they’ll wander aimlessly back to their assigned patrol routes as though nothing ever happened.
Too often China falls back on being pretty. And it is, certainly; this is China as envisioned by a real artist, applied to a canvas in brushstrokes and smudges. Beneath it all there’s a soft, paper-like quality, and when blood begins to flow the background hungrily soaks it up. But the visuals can’t do all the heavy lifting, even though the game would like them to. Story is communicated through static interstitials. There’s nothing in the way of character- or world-building. It’s a gorgeous aesthetic, but it doesn’t have anything to say about the setting or the narrative. All those people who were clamouring for an Eastern Assassin’s Creed probably still are, and that’s a shame considering how little else China offers outside of the groundwork for two more dimensionally-deficient adventures.
All that being said, I do actually prefer Assassin’s Creed in this scaled-back form. I’ve been saying for years now that this franchise needs to take a year (or several) off, and that if there’s any long-running series which would truly benefit from a back-to-basics retooling then it’s this one. Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China is not that. It refines the core ideas while still retaining too much of the series’ previous identity, and what it does do well it doesn’t seem to be interested in doing outside of the well-worn confines of a template already popularised by an entirely different game. I’m holding out hope for the next two instalments, if for no reason other than to see if Climax are as receptive to user feedback as their publisher isn’t, but either way China is still a highly disposable and derivative entry in a series which was already outstaying its welcome several games ago.