Assassin's Creed: Altair's Chronicles Review
If you're anything like us, you're still tackling this past holiday season's massive offering of top-tier titles. And, if you're obsessive completion freaks as we are--God help you if that's the case--then much of that tackling involves collecting every last star in Mario's new galaxy, and completing each flag-finding achievement in Assassin's Creed. Those in the latter category, may be surprised that while they're still squeezing every last drop of entertainment out of AC, the stealthy Altair has already snuck back onto retail shelves in the recently released Assassin's Creed: Altair's Chronicles. This Nintendo DS prequel once again has us donning the robes of the blade-baring assassin for a much smaller, less ambitious, hand-held experience. This isn't to say it's not a decent effort on the DS, just don't expect it to be anything like the high profile console version; obviously, an experience on Nintendo's modestly powered portable can't pack the horse-powered punch of a next-gen title. However, once you get your expectations in the right place, you may discover a fun, albeit flawed, experience in Altair's portable debut.
While many of the key mechanics including picking pockets, interrogating and, of course, assassinating make the leap to the DS, the core gameplay is more reminiscent of a Prince of Persia-like romp. Linear level design restricts AC from capturing the console version's most striking aspect: its massive, explorable open world. Instead, players navigate streets and rooftops in contained areas through a handful of 3D rendered levels. And even the limited freedom allowed in getting from point A to point B is directed by hint arrows, keeping you on a set path. Again, this doesn't necessarily kill the fun, it's just not the freedom-filled adventure fans of the console game might expect. But whether you're racing atop roofs or sneaking on the streets, AC does offer a pretty solid experience, brimming with lots of Prince of Persia-like acrobatics and death-dealing swordplay.
The former makes up about fifty percent of the experience as your agile assassin balances on beams, climbs walls, and swings on ropes to navigate through the Medieval-inspired areas. The controls for this are fairly intuitive, and occasionally you'll even "get in the zone", pulling off satisfying strings of leaps, dives and climbs. This brisk pace is occasionally interrupted in some areas where a combination of blurry visuals and imprecise controls leave you lying face up as the "You're Dead" text cues on the lower screen. Thankfully, these frustrating moments are rare, and a generous checkpoint system ensures you won't spend too much time on the trial-and-error treadmill.
The rest of your time in AC will be spent solving simple crate-pulling, block-pushing puzzles, sword-swinging and playing mini games via the touch screen. While the puzzles are pretty mindless--push a box over a pressure sensitive tile--the swordfights, incorporating light and heavy attacks, are fast and fun. There are even a number of cool combos you'll unlock, supported by some slick blade-through-baddie animations. You can usually forgo the combo attacks, as X and Y button-mashing will also get the job done, but regardless of your approach, the swordplay makes for satisfying hacking and slashing. Altair also has access to a number of projectile weapons like daggers and bombs. These are a cool addition that would've been better served had there been more uses for them, and they were attained earlier in the adventure. As is, you receive them pretty late, and rarely find yourself relying on them.
These alternate weapons, as well as a mini map, appear on the touch screen; just tap the dagger icon, and you're upper-screen avatar is good to go. You'll also break out the stylus for a couple of mini-games; a pick-pocketing challenge displays the interior of a pocket as you maneuver a key, Operation-style--hit the sides and you're penalized--through the opening. And an interrogation game has you twisting arms and tapping pressure points until your victim gives up the goods. Both games are fun in a diverting sort of way, but mainly serve to remind how underused the touch screen is. They pop up so infrequently you actually may find yourself scrambling to find your stylus because 30 minutes have passed since you last used it. Since the game is so focused on traditional controls, the touch challenges can also pull you from the experience a bit. It's a shame the developers didn't take advantage of the stylus-as-sword potential this game holds; after the excellent stylus slashing in Phantom Hourglass and the upcoming Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword, AC feels like it missed the boat, here. Even without a stylus-controlled sword, it would've been fun to see more innovation in this respect. One of the game's mechanics, where players can perform stealth kills by sneaking behind an enemy and pressing "A", certainly would've benefited from a stylus-driven approach.
The attention diverted from stylus controls must've gone to the creation of AC's excellent audio and visuals. The graphics, with the exception of some truly ugly in-engine cut-scenes, are very good; from the white robes to the red sash, Altair looks awesome. And the sound work is even better--the score appropriately rises with each ass-whuppin' occasion, and fantastic ambient tweaks like street chatter, chirping birds and clanging church bells up the immersion factor. You'll definitely wanna plug in the ear buds for this one!
While we wished Altair had packed a stylus instead of a sword, we're delighted he's returned to us so soon. Still, don't play Assassin's Creed: Altair's Chronicles if you're looking to build on the console experience. You'll be disappointed if you do. This game, aside from its starring assassin, has little in common with its console counterpart, and the paper-thin prequel story doesn't shed any significant light on Altair's early exploits. However, if you're looking for a fast and fun pick-up-and-play title for the DS, then this one should satisfy with its six or so hours of swordplay and acrobatic action. Just remember where you put down your stylus when it comes time to pick a pocket or torture an informant.