When I started refreshing my knowledge of the Russian Civil War back in June, one of my first thoughts was “aaay, I wonder if there are any video games about the war floating around out there.” (What can I say; I’m a lazy degenerate Westerner, and I often find visual references kindle the imagination better than just text.) Given that the war is rather little interest in the English-speaking world, a scan through Steam’s database turned up very little. The biggest thing I found was the grand strategy game Revolution Under Siege, a game built around reenacting and wargaming every aspect of the conflict, which is interesting but is exactly the sort of game I am abysmally terrible at playing. There was also my old favorite Iron Storm, which is really an alternate-history shooter that appropriates a lot of the imagery of the war for its setting (and, truth be told, is the game that actually got me interested in learning about the actual war).
There was also the subject of today’s post: Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: Russia, a small spinoff title released earlier this year. Since I was looking for something set in the war to play and was thinking about taking the plunge into the Assassin’s Creed franchise, I ponied up the ten bucks and took the plunge.
Suffice to say, the experience was not what I expected.
To give a little background, the Assassin’s Creed franchise is built around a series of open-world action-adventure games that have become the bread and butter for French publisher Ubisoft. The first game came out back in 2007 and was built on a charming premise. Beneath the world of the everyday, a secret war has been fought for millennia over a number of powerful artifacts, technological scraps left behind by a long-forgotten progenitor race. The two factions who vie for these artifacts are the Templars, who seek to control mankind, and the Assassins, who strive to free it. By the modern day, the Templars have the Assassins on the ropes, but hope has been provided by a device called the “Animus,” a machine that allows the user to relive the “genetic memories” of his or her ancestors in a simulated environment in order to learn new skills, discover lost knowledge, and so on. The simulations are the real meat of the games; you spend most of your time running around in a particular time period, in the case of the first game, the Levantine coast of the Third Crusade, stabbin’ dudes and makin’ friends. At the same time, there’s a metafictional conceit of the simulation being a video game inside a video game, an idea that people making video games seem inordinately enamored.
Unfortunately, Assassin’s Creed as a series got a little carried away with itself. After the runaway success of the second game in 2009, set in Renaissance Italy and climaxing in a fistfight with the Pope, Ubisoft decided to expand the series from a trilogy into a yearly release. This had the effect of screwing up the modern-day framing device, which has only grown more and more convoluted and ridiculous over time (did you know that LBJ had Kennedy assassinated in order to install Templar agent extraordinaire Buzz Aldrin on the Apollo 11 mission so he could steal forgotten Moon technology?). To make matters worse, the modern day framing elements, despite consistently being the least popular element of the games, are too integral to the concept of Assassin’s Creed to drop entirely. Additionally, the yearly release schedule and lack of compelling overarching plots have tarnished the shine of the franchise. These games have become the source of the complaint among gamers of the “Ubisoft Checklist:” of games where you’re dropped in an open world, but instead of striking out and exploring it on your own, you get a list of collectibles to pick up, a list of side-missions to do, and you do task after task until every bar is full and every entry on the checklist reads 10 out of 10.
With these and other issues in mind, Ubisoft has put the franchise on hiatus for a year. To tide the customer base over, they released Chronicles, a trilogy of small “2.5D” stealth platformers over the course of 2015 and 2016, set respectively in Ming Dynasty China, India in the final years of the Sikh Empire, and Russia in 1918. The protagonist for the Russian chapter is Assassin Nikolai Orelov, a character who’s appeared in some of the other ancillary media for the franchise. When the game opens, he’s readying to get his family out of Russia and retire from the whole assassining business. Before he can depart, however, he gets One Last Mission: head to Yekaterinburg, where the Tsar’s family is being interned and retrieve an artifact in their possession. In the course of the game, you end up milling about during the early phases of the conflict in Siberia, bouncing along the rails, participating in the battle of Kazan, before finally escaping to Moscow and getting out of the country.
Now, I must confess something. Not only did I not finish this game, I don’t plan on ever finishing this game. Perhaps the fault is my own; I came into Russia expecting a stealth game with freedom of movement where I can use my tools to improvise solutions, while the game I got was more of a puzzle platformer. Checkpointing is used instead of quicksaving, so screwing up a section means having to redo sizable chunks of a level. You can’t just experience the game in peace; there are upgrades attached to scores that nag you, push you to restart over and over. On top of that, the game is optimized for a controller, meaning that people using the old keyboard and mouse are going to be fumbling around all through the game.
And yet, all that pales to what Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: Russia does with its depiction of the Russian Civil War. In many ways it’s the same problem Assassin’s Creed has always had. So much time and effort is spent on researching the settings for the games, of getting the buildings and clothing just perfect, and yet the actual stories of the game make a hash of history. There is a still a thrill of running through provincial Russian cities in a time of revolution, even as abstracted, condensed and heavily gamified as these cities are in Russia. And yet, when the game starts and you learn that the Bolsheviks are thoroughly infiltrated by the Templars, and they spend most of their time talking about trivialities (“Have you ever been to Omsk?”) or game lore, rather than anything actual Bolsheviks would have been talking about in 1918, you have to wonder why this period was chosen at all. With the depiction of the Reds as a force of undifferentiated malevolence far more interested in artifacts than in socialism, and with the complete absence of any White movement from the game, the Russian Civil War feels more like a gloss applied to a standard Assassin’s Creed plot instead of a depiction of a conflict forgotten by the West.
That’s not the worst of it, though. The worst is what this game does to Anastasia Romanova. Not only does the game indulge in the old “Anastasia/Anna Anderson” fraud, but it also makes her a player character along with Nikolai. In order to make her an Assassin’s Creed protagonist, Anastasia is possessed by the spirit of the Chinese Assassin lady from the first Chronicles game, causing her to become a kill-crazy lunatic, and soon after receives magic stealth powers from the in-universe equivalent of a holodeck malfunction. Now, I will admit that I am not a fan of the whole cult that has grown up around Anastasia and the last Romanovs. Everything about it suffuses the Romanovs in a fairy-tale glamour that their behavior (particularly that of Nicholas) in life did not warrant, while the elevation of their deaths raises the questions of “why mourn these deaths, but not these other ones” that I can never seem to answer. I mourn their execution, but I do not believe in their sainthood. And yet Anastasia in this game, warped by the conceits of its universe into a completely different cartoon person, I could help feeling honest-to-God disgust for what was done to her.
Perhaps in the end Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: Russia highlights the limits of the franchise. The franchise has always tried to differentiate itself by minimizing the role of guns, but such a position has grown increasing hard to maintain as the games have approached the modern era. The only firearm Nikolai carries is a rife that operates more like a specialized tool than a weapon in the game, yet even in spite of the supply problems of Russia during the wars it’s hard to imagine that he wouldn’t have a pistol on hand. Russia is also the most recent game in the historical timeline, and in the problems the game has with Anastasia suggest that Assassin’s Creed’s brand of magic-conspiracy nonsense is not really suitable for times still living in historical memory. It doesn’t take much to start wondering if the 9/11 hijackers were Assassins fighting the good fight against the Templar finance workers in the World Trade Center, and once you’re doing that the discussion only gets worse from there. Personally, I always preferred the MMO The Secret World, which operates more akin to Men in Black: there’s magic conspiracies everywhere, but they operate in a separate world onto themselves, and only interfere in the real world to maintain the masquerade or siphon some cash. (The Secret World is also far less self-serious than Assassin’s Creed, which helps a lot.) Ultimately, I think Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: Russia has been useful. I didn’t enjoy it or finish it, but it did show me that I cannot enjoy the franchise’s particular brand of pseudohistorical bullshit. It’s not a lesson worth ten dollars, but better that than eighty dollars, I suppose.