Assassin’s Creed’s time hopping tales have taken them to all manner of major historical turning points, but for those in the South East of England, Syndicate is by far the closest to home. It’s not just in the central London setting, with many memorable and famous landmarks in sight, but also in the mid-nineteenth century setting. It’s the most modern Assassin’s Creed yet, and the same is just as true of the gameplay.
For the first time in the series’ history, we have quite literally twin protagonists for you to play as and switch between. Jacob and Evie Frye offer two sides of the same coin, in a lot of ways, but have notable differences. Jacob, for one thing seems much more reckless, more childish in his approach to reclaiming London from the Templars, while Evie seems more serious and considered, but can be swayed by the obvious rapport between the two siblings.
Along the way, they’ll bump into somewhat exaggerated versions of historical characters such as Charles Darwin and Charles Dickens, to name but a few. It’s a quite literal bump in the latter case, causing Dickens to drop and lose some of his writing. Surely, you think, this is going to lead to the need to find his scattered papers throughout the city, but that doesn’t seem to be the case, and Syndicate instead plays on his interest in ghosts and the occult.
The same can be said of Syndicate’s rendition of London. It focuses on the very heart of the capital and just a single bend of the Thames, ranging from Westminster to Southbank and White Chapel. It’s naturally been compressed to a certain degree, but feels true to the source, with recognisable landmarks the obvious touchstones. However, the way streets look and details like the Thames teeming with activity will have surely been aided by the sheer volume of information Quebec could draw upon. There would be more records intact, for certain, but this is also the first time for the franchise where photography has become a relevant source to draw upon. I am, however, quite dubious about the use of modern pounds sterling as a currency and the £5000 cost of a simple tour guide to the city…
The last few years have seen mainstream games trending towards faster and faster gameplay, whether it’s the addition of a sprint to Halo or the jet packs and human augmentation in Call of Duty. Assassin’s Creed simply couldn’t ignore this trend, and so as the reigns have been turned over to Ubisoft Quebec for the first time, they’ve endeavoured to make it faster and more fluid in all regards.
Though they still take a lot of effort to get used to initially, Syndicate has brought forward Unity’s revamped controls. There’s the easier ability to climb up and down the side of a building, and the free running continues to be a marvel, if still a touch prone to the odd quirk and mishap. However, this is added to by a grappling hook that easily doubles as a zip line and allows you to bound up a wall or pull yourself to a new vantage point, with some wonderfully fluid animations as you do so.
Ubisoft Quebec’s touch can be best felt in the combat though, when a stealthy approach fails you. Swordplay is out of the question in the heart of Victorian London, so combat is much more to do with pummelling and wearing down your opponents with your fists and hidden weapons, before finishing them off as they stand in a stupor before you. It’s a big shift from the classic games in the series, as you take the offensive and lay into a particular opponent before reacting to incoming attacks on the fly with a Batman: Arkham-like counter.
Perhaps the best move on their part has been the way that the game switches between Jacob and Evie. Though some missions require one or the other to take the lead, others let you switch with a simple click of the right analogue stick in the pause menu. Experience and levelling earnt is shared as well, so that for every skill point Jacob gets to spent, Evie gets one as well, and vice versa. It ensures that the two are level pegging, even if you prefer one over the other.
Jacob is definitely the more combat oriented, while Evie eventually gets abilities such as being able to essentially turn invisible simply by standing still in stealth mode, which can pay dividends in certain situations. You might, for example want to capture a Templar gang stronghold, and decide that stealth is the better option, in order to get the leader in a lock and escort him or her out of the area and into a police wagon without raising an alarm. Evie’s abilities would be better suited to just such a circumstance.
Jacob, meanwhile, thrives in his self-created role as the leader of The Rooks, to wrestle control of London’s nights from Templar hands. The large scale gang fights, with the two factions facing off against each other makes for a good set piece, as too do the fisticuffs on the roof of a carriage, as you hurtle down the street.
Syndicate is, at heart, another entry in the well-worn Assassin’s Creed mould, taking the series and its familiar gameplay to the rooftops in another new setting and time period. It might not quite be the revolution that some people will feel the series needs, but with new hands at the helm, there’s plenty of fresh and interesting ideas coming into play.