I’ve been uninterested in the Assassin’s Creed franchise for a long time. I liked Asscreed 2 and Brotherhood quite a bit, but once it came time for Revelations I think I realized that I’d had just about enough climbing, jumping and stabbing my way around a big pseudo-historical playground full of shallow minigames and collectibles. AC2 became the codifier not just of Assassin’s Creed, but of all of Ubisoft’s major releases — big playgrounds full of shallow minigames and collectibles.
So imagine my surprise when I discover that the newest AC release, AC Chronicles: China, didn’t look like that at all, but instead looked like Mark of the Ninja with an Assassin’s Creed skin.
The HUD shows vision cones from guards and concentric circles appearing around all sounds. You climb on walls and ceilings, and can assassinate unaware enemies from above, below and behind, all using the context-sensitive X button. Environments are filled with Hiding Spots that you can sneak into and become invisible and wait until the right moment to hop back out. It has so many similarities to Mark of the Ninja that at a glance it looks like a clone.
So considering Mark of the Ninja is still my favorite game ever made, it probably makes sense that I was ready to play it and then eviscerate it afterward for being a hollow rip-off. But I was also ready to declare it a triumph if it proved itself — a game that takes inspiration from MotN, but differentiates itself and elevates the formula.
Now that I’ve played it all the way to the end credits, well, it isn’t really either of those. It’s a decent stealth game that’s cohesive and polished by Ubisoft standards, and messy and inconsistent by MotN standards.
Background and Foreground
This game does differentiate itself in at least one major way! The 3D rendering isn’t just a cosmetic feature — while the game mostly controls in 2D, there are actually multiple 3D planes of depth that switch between foreground and background, layers away from the camera. It starts out as simple transitions where you switch from one plane to another by running on a beam or swinging with a grappling hook, but once you start switching planes within a stealth encounter via climbing on the wall or ceiling, things get interesting.
That sounds weird, because it’s kind of hard to explain in words, so observe:
In the above screenshot I’m hiding in a plane closer to the camera while the guard is patrolling one plane further back. He can only see in his own plane, so I’m safe from him until I switch by climbing onto a platform there, which might be advantageous if another guard is coming close to spotting me on my own plane.
It’s still kind of hard to explain, but it works silky-smooth in motion, and it works pretty well to make the game feel at least a bit different from MotN. But on the flip-side, it’s missing the core feature that MotN based so much of its stealth around: the light/dark dichotomy. Avoiding lights was crucial in MotN and so many different features and level gimmicks could be based around that — light bulbs were dangerous unless you shattered them, but shattering them made noise, which could be very threatening, or very helpful, depending on your timing and preparation. Some levels let you de-power lights with switches. One level had a building gradually regain power overtime, giving you an intense race against the clock. One level took place during a thunderstorm, so periodic flashes of light could reveal you when outside.
Compared to all that, the quasi-3D feature of AC:China just doesn’t have the same versatility or the same solid core. Without it, everything is based on line-of-sight and guard direction, which means you’ll be using a lot of hiding places and a lot of noise darts. This makes the game feel more linear and repetitive. That’s not necessarily a huge problem in and of itself, but it’s definitely exacerbated by the game’s awful habit of telling you what to do.
Yeah, I Get It
You might remember in my old Mark of the Ninja commentary video (part 2 is coming, I swear) that I praised the game for keeping the tutorial prompts to a minimum and gradually teaching the player without feeling overbearing. It’ll introduce one feature, like how you can shatter light bulbs with darts, and then it’ll let you use that in a room or two before introducing another simple enemy type or trick. Once numerous variables are involved, the game lets you go on for awhile to overcome the rising challenges presented. It all feels organic, smart and carefully paced to facilitate player skill development without ever being too hands-off or hands-on.
AC:China is, well…
You see these prompts many times throughout the early and mid game. I don’t normally complain much about “handholding,” since many gamers seem to use that to mean “giving any sort of indication of what you can do or what general direction you should be going toward,” and I can’t stand some of the games lauded for “not handholding” (see Dark Souls) but in this case it really does feel like the game assumes I’m not smart enough to make clear, basic, obvious observations based on what I’ve already proven I could do, multiple times. It keeps pointing out hiding spots that are in plain sight to you, even though hiding spots are basically the crux of the entire stealth system.
I’m guessing a few of their focus testers didn’t understand when to do certain things, so they felt the need to add reminders everywhere. I get why the game might feel it needs to remind me that I can use tools and gadgets for certain situations — in many games I tend to forget I have those abilities at all — but this is a very poor solution to a minor problem. Even if it took me awhile to think of using noise darts, the frustration is still worth it compared to having all the satisfaction sucked out when the game says, “Hey, you should do this!” It’s like built-in backseat gaming. If stealth games are puzzle games at their core like I’ve said in the past, then it’s important to note how the satisfaction of a puzzle comes from the “Aha!” moment when you realize what you can do.
And it’s worth noting that if the game is putting you in situations where you basically need to use certain gadgets at certain times, that’s a good sign that it’s too linear.