Another year, another Assassin’s Creed game. Ubisoft’s darling franchise is gearing up for another installment, and this time players will be taking their hidden-blade stabbing, and free-running to Victorian London.
Much has been said about Ubisoft’s stand regarding annual releases which is actually too complex to explain in one article. So instead, we’ll deal with the one in front of us: Assassin’s Creed Syndicate.
Set in Victorian London in a time of great industrial and social changes, you play as Jacob and Evie Frye: twins and Assassins, trying take control of London from the gangs and the Templars that back them. In addition to the twins’ free-running abilities, they also have a new arsenal of weapons to use. The hidden blade is now the Assassin Gauntlet – a Swiss knife-like version of the trademark Assassin weapon which features the conventional hidden-blade, a launcher for poison darts, a rope launcher that functions like the grappling hook in the Arkham series, and brass knuckles for hand to hand combat. You will also be armed with a kukri – a kind of Nepalese knife; and a six-shooter revolver. Because the Victorian era is no longer as sword-dominated as previous settings, your Assassins use the sword and scythe concealed in a cane instead.
Free-running is lifted off from Unity, hopefully without the bugs. Victorian London looks conspicuously similar to Unity’s Paris in the pre-alpha footage, but most European cities all look alike to the uninformed, and the video didn’t show a lot of landmarks just yet. But traversing has been improved by rope-launcher which not only allows you to get up buildings ala Spider Man (or Batman, if you so prefer), it also allows you to zipline reminiscent of Assassin’s Creed Revelations. For the older folks, think of Tenchu, which actually has a grappling hook that functions almost similar to this one. The pre-alpha footage shows gameplay that is much like Unity’s but with subtle differences. Unity made it really easy to free-run, and with the help of the rope launcher, it’s bound to become even more fluid.
Fighting is somewhere between “more of the same” and “somewhat new”. Obviously the lack of swords will change the battle dynamics. But even the “revamped” hand-to-hand combat does not feel fresh at all. While it certainly isn’t clunky, it looks repetitive. The most troubling thing about it is when your ally was firing a pistol at one of the enemies, but it had little effect on him. AC isn’t a stranger to characters withstanding pistol and rifle shots, but at point-blank?
Battle engine notwithstanding, we can rest assured that the assassinations look really good. It remains to be seen if certain skills are locked in a skill tree or armor the same as in Unity. But the air assassination regained the impact it somewhat lost in Unity. There is something about Ezio or even Connor’s air assassinations that was somewhat lost in succeeding installments. Glad to know that it has returned, at least in the early screens.
New to the series is the ability to use vehicles, specifically carriages. Each series (except for Revelations) has its own means of transportation, namely horses. In Brotherhood, you have the ability to take your horse to wherever you want it too, and having one in AC3 is crucial to traversing the Frontier, which will take some time on foot. Black Flag and Rogue gave you your own ships to play with, but Syndicate will be the first game to employ vehicles not only as a means for transport, but also for “stealth”, whatever that means. Of course the Victorian London experience isn’t complete without carriages, but it remains to be seen how much of an impact it will have on the gameplay.
Perhaps the biggest change in the game – as well as one that hasn’t been shown yet – is the ability to play both Jacob and Evie Frye in the game. AC Syndicate will allow gamers to switch between the two in likely the same manner as Grand Theft Auto V did with three. Although the opportunity to play more than one character in an AC game is in itself good news, there is also a lot of unknowns. Jacob and Evie are confirmed to have different skill trees which will make the gamer invest many hours to develop both.
I am all for a little skill-building in Assassin’s Creed, but maybe Ubisoft can take another page in the book of GTA V and use their player development instead of the skill-tree based one that they have used since Watchdogs. The skill tree might be much simpler, but GTA V made users work towards gaining their stats. Jogging will improve the stamina stat. Shooting improves it through repetition as well. Ditto for other stats like driving, running among others. Assassins were not born athletic individuals with unmatched martial prowess… they trained. A significant factor in making Ezio so well-loved by fans is that besides his charming personality, we were also able to witness his growth from a spoiled aristocrat to master assassin across three games. In games where history plays a large part, the character should also have a history as well, especially in a setting as complex as the Victorian era.
One thing I’m looking forward to in AC Syndicate is the return of tangible territory grabbing. Brotherhood made good use of both the Assassins and their taking over Templar territory from the Borgias. Revelations’ much maligned Tower Defense (which I actually loved), tried to make things a lot more fluid by allowing the enemies the chance to reclaim their areas. While you still liberate areas in both Black Flag and Rogue, they don’t give you the feeling of actually being in control. AC3’s forts do not give you any incentive at all for their capture, which makes you wonder why you even bother.
In Syndicate, not only will you have to take an area away from the Templars, you also have your own gang, the Rooks. It is not yet clear whether the Rooks are Assassins themselves or an Assassin-backed gang. My knowledge of the era is small, but I believe gangs did exist in the Industrial revolution. It remains to be seen how much of an impact the gangs will be in the game itself. Brotherhood and Revelations gave you access to your recruits in the towers you have taken. In Black Flag, an enemy ship passing near your fort will find itself at the receiving end of continuous salvos of cannon fire. Will the gangs and the taken territories give you safe haven from pursuing guards and police? Or maybe it won’t affect the gameplay in any significant way as with Revelations? Jury is still out, although I am really hoping for the former.
Ubisoft has recently said that Syndicate will not have a companion app. It seems like they have learned an important lesson the hard way with Unity: people will not care much about being “innovative” if the system keeps them from enjoying the game. Let’s face it, having companion apps is a cool concept, but if the game forces you to have the app to unlock in-game content that is tiring and buggy enough that it can sometimes wipe save files, then you’ll have to choose between innovative and enjoyable, the choice of which will determine a developer’s priorities.
There’s no stopping the yearly release of Assassin’s Creed games. That’s not really a problem so long as they are good games. Ubisoft seems to have learned its lesson, came back to the drawing board, and looks poised to deliver the best Assassin’s Creed experience yet. As gamers, that’s all we really need: an engaging, fun, and great game that deserves the hard-earned (or hard-begged) money we used to buy it. Innovation is always good, but sometimes, all we need is a better execution of more of the same.