In Soviet Russia, the game plays you! Or that what I was expecting out of Assassin's Creed Chronicles: Russia. The third title in the Chronicles mini-series and a slow, bloody sneak into early 20th century, pre-Revolution Russia, it represents the final chapter in an occasionally fun but largely middling set of 2D platforming adventures. Yet, this installment turns out to be a happy surprise: while obvious faults keep it from being great, a decent story, diverse combat, and stealth that offers a satisfying challenge (without dipping too often into hair-tearing territory) all make Chronicles Russia the series' clear high note.
You slide into the valenki boots of Nikolai Orelov, a disillusioned Assassin who plans to abandon his Order after one last mission and leave his homeland of Russia - rife with violence and civil unrest - behind forever. His main means of accomplishing that goal is 2.5D platforming, leaping over rooftops and through more than a few living rooms in a linear approximation of Assassin's Creed trademark parkouring style. Unfortunately for him, like all one last missions, his is extremely tricky: he must steal an item of immense value from the Russian imperial family, who are currently in hiding from proletariat mobs calling for their heads.
This chapter follows through with easily the best story in the mini-series. Nikolai's determination to escape the Order creates a unique perspective, and a surprising twist in the game's opening chapters makes the whole story worth seeing through. That isn't to say Chronicles Russia is channeling Shakespeare - its story is still typically goofy in many ways - but regardless, it's suited to the game in which it lives, giving it a worthwhile narrative center that the previous two games distinctly lacked.
While a decent sense of drama is certainly a plus, the game's biggest strength is easily its stealth, and the way it builds its many lovely environments to accommodate thoughtful sleuthing. Unlike previous entries in the series which really only give you the option to hide in closets or behind a pillars for the majority of their eight-hour runs, Russia offers up a wider variety of stealth-based tools, turning every room into a fascinating, well-paced puzzle of which each of your movements is a piece.
Though it may look a little monochrome at first glance, Chronicles Russia's version of the mini-series' watercolor art style fits gorgeously with the setting it's trying to create. Giving the entire world a stark, dreary look with vibrant splashes of red for drama (and built-in path guidance), Chronicles Russia fashions itself an aesthetic that fits its time period and subject matter perfectly, and looks good while doing it.
Using a telephone in one room can distract a guard in another. Shooting out breaker boxes shortens (but doesn't eliminate) enemies' field of vision. An extensive series of vents in just about every building is bound to save your skin when you mistime a sentinel’s movements and have to dive out of sight. All of this is infinitely more satisfying than hanging out in a bush until the guards' animations cycle and you can tiptoe to the next one.
A much wider swath of environments (from nondescript buildings to blood-strewn laboratories and actual moving train cars) makes the adventure even more involved, giving you the opportunity to really use your ever-changing surroundings to your advantage - for instance, pulling someone out of the window of a moving train pretty much ensures you won't have to worry about the body. An improved control system - which has a few hiccups but is largely as responsive as it needs to be - rounds out the whole picture, creating a polished and truly enjoyable type of stealth gameplay. One which, thankfully, makes up the majority of Chronicles Russia.
Combat, meanwhile, is the one of the few areas where the game doesn't represent a stark improvement for the series. As in Chronicles India, remaining especially stealthy during missions will get you a high score in one of three categories (Silencer if you went for knock-outs, Assassin if you preferred kills, and Shadow if no one even knew you were there), which nets you points you'll need to buy important upgrades with, like extra health or a bigger pouch for bullets. Meanwhile, getting into a fight gives you the lowest possible score whether you win or not. Given the high cost of those add-ons and bonuses, being punished for combat in even one section can mean missing out on any boosts you were hoping to get. Russia is thankfully not as difficult to navigate without upgrades as India (you won't run into any puzzles that virtually require you scooped up the previous level's prize), but still, fans who prefer a direct approach won't find a lot to love here.
However, in place of hand-to-hand (or blade-to-face) combat, here there's an alternative in the form of first-person sniping missions, where you have to take out a base of guards from a nearby rooftop before they notice you or your allies. It's not exactly what you think of when you picture Assassin's Creed, and there isn't much challenge to it, as enemies go down in one shot whether you shoot them in the head or the big toe. Still, this mode actually works surprisingly well, making up for its simplicity by acting as a puzzle the same way the stealth sections do - you can easily drop a guard at a hundred yards, but his buddies may find the body and come after you, which changes the focus of the mission and makes it far more stimulating, not to mention satisfyingly tougher. In addition, Russia’s sniping controls much better than the shooting sections in Chronicles India, making it a fine, if slightly fluffy, addition of variety to the proceedings.
Unfortunately, the whole production loses steam when it comes to timed missions, which feel less like a brilliant free run and more like a painful slog. The game simply goes far out its way to throw too many obstacles into your path. While there's nothing inherently wrong with a challenging course, these sections tend to demand a degree of perfection that quickly gets frustrating - the tenth time you land a jump, but die because you didn't land it in the just the right way, it will grate. Even worse are the timed stealth sections, which tend to fall back on the unfortunate 'wait patiently for the guard to move' style gameplay that Chronicles Russia nearly escaped. When time is also ticking down needlessly, the whole situation feels like a cheap and unpleasant attempt to create tension. Thankfully such moments and their issues are fairly sparsely implemented, so you generally have time to recover before you're forced to deal with that unforgiving set-up again.
This game isn't breaking down any walls. Another iteration on the Chronicles formula, it doesn't do anything shockingly new, and its noticeable drawbacks keep it firmly outside the gates of greatness. But this third attempt succeeds in its own way, taking what the two previous games started and perfecting the formula. If you play just one of the Chronicles games, make it Russia.
This game was reviewed on Xbox One.