Altair, the enigmatic hero of "Assassin's Creed" — last year's monster hit for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 – turned out to be only a puppet in a virtual reality simulator. In "Altair's Chronicles" for the Nintendo DS, the puppet's strings are cut. But while this prequel fills in the missing days prior to the events of the console game, the lack of exciting revelations or thrilling narrative make it so the game's shortcomings — not Altair — end up playing the starring role.
Due to the obvious horsepower differences between the DS and the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3, "Assassin's Creed: Altair's Chronicles" is forced to jettison the open-world exploration of the original game in favor of a decidedly more linear adventure. Instead of scrambling up minarets to take in magnificent views or spy on enemy movements, Altair spends the majority of the game running from right to left through a series of well-constructed Middle Eastern cities. This isn't brought up as a knock against the DS title, but fans need to have their expectations adjusted before sinking $30 into the game.
Altair has a menagerie of cool acrobatic moves, such as wall-climbing and death-defying tightrope balance. While crossing the cities in search of assassination targets that round out the ho-hum story, he can either stick to the rooftops to avoid detection, or get his hands dirty in the streets below.
That said, it’s always beneficial to remain high, because that's where Altair finds the majority of blue orbs he can use to buy improved strength and vitality. Plus, it's simply more fun to successfully navigate the network of rooftops by linking together breezy jumps and grappling hook moves. However, there are some odd moments where the controls and in-game detection fail you. You might want to jump up on an awning to reach the roof above it, but Altair never finds his grip. This is frustrating — and little moments like this add up over the game's five-hour lifespan.
Meanwhile, swordplay with the guards in the streets is clunky. You can usually take out an entire patrol of guards by pounding on the X or Y buttons to attack. Only in a few choice encounters, such as one inside a circus tent, do you really have to strategize and compliment your attacks with evasion.
The stealth assassinations that made a big splash in the console games have also been minimized here. To be sure, Altair does get to sneak up behind a handful of targets and drive his blade into their necks for a stylish kill, but it is such a non-focus that you almost wonder if "Altair's Chronicles" was actually another game at one time before Ubisoft saw the potential to ride the "Assassin's Creed' momentum with a quickie DS game. It says "Assassin" right in the title, so why is combat so direct and messy?
"Altair's Chronicles" does make use of the DS touch screen during its minigames. But these events are only mildly entertaining. The pick-pocketing game tasks you with dragging a key out of a purse without touching the walls. (It's like the assassin's version of Operation.) There is a torture minigame where you must tap pressure points in rhythm to force a target into spilling his guts. These minigames are certainly better than those inane "eavesdropping" events from the console version of "Assassin's Creed," but they feel more like an excuse to use the touch screen than a legitimate gameplay enhancement.
Where Ubisoft and developer Gameloft really do pull through is in "Altair's" production values. Gameloft really knows how to squeeze some great graphics out of the DS. These cities are vibrant, colorful, and impressively detailed. The soundtrack is also top notch, featuring some of the best DS music you've ever heard.
Absolute diehards for the console version of "Assassin's Creed" will derive some enjoyment out of spending a little extra time with Altair, but the game just feels either too rushed or simply incomplete to really recommend outside that fervent fan base. If you're in the mood for something more hardcore and less casual for your DS (what, are you tired of brain training already?), there are better choices. Not many, mind you. But they're out there.