The newest Assassin's Creed sits somewhere between the last two. It's good, not great. This time it's in China. This time it's 2D.
Assassin's Creed Chronicles: China, which came out last week on PC, PS4 and Xbox One, arrives in the months between last fall's Unity and Rogue and this coming fall's codenamed Victory. Our assassin this time is Shao Jun, a woman introduced in Assassin's Creed Embers, the 2011 animated movie that ended the story of AC's multiple-game protagonist, the Italian Ezio Auditore (fun fact: he starred in a little-noticed 2D Assassin's Creed game of his own). Shao Jun has returned from Italy to 16th century China hoping to rebuild her country's devastated Assassin order. She will have to assassinate some people — guards, mostly — along the way.
The obvious change in series formula is Assassin's Creed Chronicles: China's presentation of a predominantly 3D franchise in 2D. This game is a stealthy sidescroller.
The more impactful change, however, is China's displacement of the series' open world design for a linear adventure. There is no big world to wander through. There are just 12 levels, and you'll move through most of them from left to right. There are some secondary objectives but no true sidequests, none of the sprawl that has enabled the Assassin's Creed games to work as flexible-itinerary virtual historical tourism. Shao Jun has a specific mission. That is what you will play, and that is what makes this feel like such an unusual Assassin's Creed.
Over the course of China, I didn't get to know Shao Jun very well, and came away with even less of a sense of the cities in which she fights. She's the closest the series has had to an avatar instead of a character, and the game's setting is more like a sequence of levels than a living world. Of course, that's true of many video games.
China's strength is that, due to its focused design,it is the rare Assassin's Creed that controls better than a shopping cart with a wobbly wheel. Funneled through 2D levels, Shao Jun jumps where you want her to, slides and stabs on target, and hides behind the cover you want her to take. Well, that sure is a nice change of pace.
The game's developers at Climax (this is not primarily an internal Ubi project) translate many Assassin's Creed trappings into 2D. Here's an eagle jump:
Here's some hiding in a crowd:
We've got an assassin who can be properly and quietly ruthless:
We've got one who can use various techniques to distract guards. Like this noise dart right here:
And here she is whistling like any assassin should be able to (looking at you, Arno... what the hell?):
The game impresses more than it excites, though, because it mostly feels like building blocks, first drafts, or whatever other metaphor you want to use that people also used for the first Assassin's Creed and again for last fall's AC: Unity. It's a pretty game that mostly just gets the job done. Its best twist is that it is a 2D game with depth. This has been seen before, of course, but it literally adds layers to what otherwise might feel pedestrian:
Like many 2D games, China is at its best when the player finds their flow. The game is designed for skilled, quick movement. Yes, you can use your noise-making tools to distract, but a special meter allows you to rapidly move from one cover spot to another, various upgrades speed your animations or add dash-kills. At first you poke at the game, but it's made for you to slice through it. It's a pity, then, that the game's checkpointing system is so wonky and prone to skipping a little too far ahead or back when you restart.
Shao Jun's arsenal also feels a bit limited. Her inability to, say, quickly assassinate two nearby enemies at once or in rapid succession feels discordant with the series' presentation of the Assassins and makes some heavily-guarded areas needlessly difficult to get through. It's possible that some of her possible moveset was held back for the assassins starring in Assassin's Creed Chronicles: India and Assassin's Creed Chronicles: Russia, sequels presumably coming out in the coming months.
I had fun as I played Assassin's Creed Chronicles: China, but I also wondered what more this game could be. What if our 2D Assassin's Creed was more like a Metroid or Apotheon, with a more open world to explore? What if our 2D Assassin's Creed had, like all major Assassin's Creed games before it, a dense civilian population instead of levels primarily populated by killable bad guys? What if our 2D Assassin's Creed had a modern-day component? If it had those things, Assassin's Creed Chronicles: China might feel more like Assassin's Creed. Without them, it feels less like an official entry and more like an homage; enjoyable to play, but tangential.