This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Assassin's Creed: Chronicles.
You may have heard, as I did from The Gratuitous Stabbing Murder Quarterly Digest, that Assassin's Creed is being put to bed for a year so it can stare at its bedroom ceiling through a film of tears and wonder if she's ever coming back. And I was all like, "A triple-A game publisher acting with a modicum of self-awareness? I'm pretty sure that was in the Book of Revelations somewhere! I'm totally on board with this plan! Fuck, I'll come and tuck Assassin's Creed in if it wants, lay down the rubber sheet in case Assassin's Creed 3 shits the bed again." Of course, within days of saying there won't be an Assassin's Creed game in 2016, Ubisoft purged itself by releasing an Assassin's Creed Chronicles game, but I guess as an episodic 2D Assassin's Creed, it hardly counts as an Assassin's Creed-Assassin's Creed, but more like one more bedtime story before we put the lights out.
And now I've said "Assassin" so many times the word's gone weird on me. It's got two asses in it, fucking crazy. Ass ass, sounds like would you'd call somebody's bottom after it got bitten by a radioactive donkey.
Anyway, two episodes of Chronicles are out with a third penciled in for February I think, and the reason I've chosen to cover them is I've realized after the one-two-snore-fest of Unity and Syndicate that one of the main things dragging down - I'm bored of saying it now - Stabbing Enthusiast's Dogma is all of the stuff that isn't stabbing-related. If I were interviewing murderers to find a suitable candidate to shiv my ex-wife, it would be of little interest to me whether or not they had any experience at real estate development or collecting the twenty hidden snotty handkerchiefs. What Murderer's Ideology needs to do is get things back to basics and focus on the ideological murdering. What better way to do that than with a linear 2D platformer, to get so enthusiastic tearing out features that you also lose a dimension somewhere along the way.
The first one was set in 16th century China, the second in 19th century India, but it hardly matters. They're both the same plot as usual: Assassins and Templars both chasing after another magic MacGuffin, shit gets stabbed. So if you are fielding suggestions Ubisoft, how about a plot that's actually based around how the two groups differ ideologically rather than yet another gritty, violent remake of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World? I mean the whole Sasso-Templar is just he-said she-said at this point. All ideological movements with no specific end goal inevitably descend into just another group with no purpose except to sustain its own existence and shun the opposition. That's why debating on the internet is like trying to headbutt a brontosaurus to death. Unity sort of gave the game away with its star-crossed lovers plot, showing that Sassos and Tempos could find a lot of common ground if they got around a table, and maybe organize some kind of good-natured sports day. But I digress.
Chronicles is a stealth platformer somewhat reminiscent of Mark of the Ninja by way of Prince of Persia, so has boiling things down to this level helped get Executioner's Catechism back on track? Has it brontosaurus bollocks! I think the problem was the same one I have making bolognaise in that they didn't boil it down enough. Trying to keep a three-way gameplay thing going balancing pure combat, stealth assassinating or pure stealth, which is hard enough to balance with three dimensions to play with, in two it's like a chimney swoop trying to juggle.
The combat really is spectacularly bad. Enemies run up and don't so much stab you as wipe their swords on your midriff and for most of the game can kill you in two or three wipes. Meanwhile, you can block or you can do a roll thingy to get on their other side, in case your midriff has been wiped enough and you feel it's time your back gets some attention as well. What, you think you could use it to run away? There's only one direction to run in, and everyone's got projectile weapons. The button prompt for dodging projectiles is about as reasonable as a hungry shark. The question is, Mr. and Mrs. Chronicles, what reason is there when an enemy spots me to not just lower my weapon Obi Wan Kenobi-style and let them curb-stomp me back to the last checkpoint? The game hits the autosave button every three steps like Michael J. Fox with a TV remote. So I'm not gonna lose more time than I'd lose trying to combat my way out. Plus, the game looms over me constantly with a clipboard, making it abundantly clear with every checkpoint how many points are getting deducted for every time I don't perform up to the standards of Batman in the last ten minutes of a Batman film.
And let's not forget, as I've implied up to this point, the act of playing the combat on a moment-to-moment level is about as fun as trying to free your genitalia from the workings of a grandfather clock, which may imply that the stealth is more fun than prising the shreds of the tattered shamula that was once your nutsack from between a pair of merciless steel gears. But I assure you, no such implication was intended. The enemies have visibility cones the length of your average high street, which have a tendency to suddenly appear or swing around without warning as a character slightly offscreen turns around or unexpectedly comes through a door.
So all in all, besides a few somewhat open-ended levels, there's not a whole lot to recommend the core gameplay. Of the two episodes thus far I think I prefer China over India, but then I am a communist. The combat is marginally worse because the block move requires two controls for no particular reason unless Ubisoft have shares in a thumb injury clinic. But as we've established, getting into combat at all is fucking up, so it doesn't matter so much.
China's a bit more focused, with more straight-forward get-to-X-and-stab-Y missions while India has the Assassin's Creed 3 problem of being 99% tutorial, because every other level introduces a new gameplay gimmick that will immediately afterwards get dropped like a sex offender from a parent teacher association. It also got a great, big, curry-scented stiffy for timed levels, most of which also obnoxiously demand perfection, but at least they mainly have the decency to just kill you when you fuck up. They don't try to convince you you could escape from your fuck-up because it wants an excuse to beat you up in front of its girlfriend.
And finally, you know how Assassin's Creed games always have the in-game encyclopedia to fill in details on characters, places and history? Well, I think they must have fobbed that job off onto the intern this time around, 'cause the writing's atrocious! It can't seem to get through a paragraph without at least one run-on sentence, and the mix of tenses makes me unmixedly tense. One entry I noticed at one point included the phrase "way too dangerous". Who the fuck wrote that, the girl from Clueless? "Yes, so like there were Templars and they totally did bad things and stuff." A highly subjective gripe, I know, but I don't think this industry can afford to let writing standards slip any lower. They're already wheelchair-accessible.
So in summary, Ubisoft is correct in thinking that Sasso Credo needs to go away and think about what it's done. But my question is: now we've had a Revelations and a Chronicles, could this series go on long enough to eventually use all the subtitle cliches? Fingers crossed for Assassin's Creed Armageddon!
- These are the voyages of: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- Maybe the series should end with India, actually, since it's now come full circle back to Prince of Persia
- Assassins sadly disqualified from egg and spoon race for using knives