As the old adage goes, those who cannot learn from history are destined to repeat it. And, as "Assassin’s Creed" taught us, repeating history is never as fun as when you’re reliving it through the eyes of a sword-wielding ancestor leaping through ancient territories and rewriting the textbooks with blood. The latest edition of “Assassin’s Creed," however, is an entirely new direction for the franchise. “Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China” takes the parkouring, free-roam stealth deadliness of the series and jams it all into a side-scrolling, 2.5 dimension, downloadable adventure. And it might be more fun than its full-blown 3D predecessors.
Devotees to the series will recognize “ACC: China’s” main character, Shao Jun, as the same assassin who pops up in the 2011 animated episode, “Assassin’s Creed Embers.” She is the last of the brotherhood in China and her loose tie-in to the story explains why an elderly Ezio cameos in Chronicles as her (and our) tutor. It’s the first time in recent memory that we actually needed a tutorial for an AC game since the mechanics and controls, while familiar, are put into a surprisingly different context. But any fan will be happy to know it’s Ezio who’s there to show us the ropes.
Shao Jun masterfully traverses levels through a combination of jumping, climbing, and sliding but the fixed camera side-scroll is a major departure from the all-encompassing worlds of previous “AC” games past. Exploration is still encouraged, bonus items and collectibles are hidden throughout, but the side-scrolling levels feel much more finite in the “Chronicles” formula and provide an all-new kind of challenge. We didn’t mind since the smaller size also meant a better density and less time spent wandering aimlessly, something we’re prone to do in open-world games.
The pointed objectives you’re dealt in Chronicles — from assassinating warlords to infiltrating fortresses — are best accomplished with a stealth strategy, and you’re given plenty of tools to help distract and evade the legion of guards standing between you and your goal. Whistling, firecrackers, throwing knives, and environmental traps all give you a fighting chance of succeeding without setting off an alarm but, sometimes, the only way out is actually fighting. “Chronicles” simplifies the series’ parry and counter mechanics and has a scaled back arsenal of weapons, but loses none of the satisfaction in the process. In fact, picking a fight in “Chronicles” might be the best part of the game. Why hide in the shadows (and hay bales) stealthily executing henchmen when a sword-swinging three-on-one brawl is around nearly every corner? “ACC: China” might reward you with gold-ratings for completing sections without setting off an alarm but only purists and achievement-whores will forgo the joy of a battle for a perpetually-stealthy run through the game.
“Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China” provides a much needed change of pace for the “AC” series, giving fans the story and good looks they’ve come to expect but finding a new way to deliver the goods and end the repetition of “AC”’s annual-but-never-changing gameplay. With two more games rumored to be following in the “Chronicles” off-shoot series -- Russia and India are supposed to provide the other two backdrops -- we’re more excited to see what’s next for the brotherhood of assassins and how they alter history yet again.