Assassin’s Creed Unity was a total mess. A plethora of bugs, performance woes and lacklustre features had me wondering whether this once thrilling franchise had devolved to become a cynical cash in. Ubisoft could and should have done much better.
With Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, the ninth game in the series, the French-Canadian developer has sworn to mend its ways. The unnecessary fat of multiplayer mode has been cut, with every effort placed on creating a campaign of impeccable quality. Thankfully, the result of all this penance is a triumphant return to form.
A clearer view
One of the first things to note, and one of Syndicate’s greatest improvements, is its map. Mission management has always been a sore spot for Assassin’s Creed, and is one of the main reasons why I eventually gave up on Unity. That game’s map was both woefully cluttered and functionally useless.
The aerial view of London is both easy on the eyes and totally readable. 3D models have been been applied to prevent your guide from looking flat and homogenous, and the new key is infinitely more helpful than the series of bemusing hieroglyphics in the last game.
Missions are divided logically between the main campaign, tasks for famous pals like Charles Darwin, and more run of the mill jobs for your allies in London. It all makes perfect sense. You’ll feel free to enjoy Syndicate’s many escapades without constantly gaping at a mess of streets like a gormless tourist.
Gangs of New Cross
During the demo we see Jacob, one of the game's main protagonists with his twin Evie, sneaking about on the top deck of a bus, ducking for cover in order to shake off the law. He leaps from the bus on to a passing carriage, throwing its driver to the floor and darting away unbeknownst to his pursuers.
In Assassin's Creed Syndicate, vehicles are physical, mountable parts of the environment, and Ubisoft hopes that they will provide the same ample opportunities for problem solving as the rest of their toolset.
This also, of course, sets up Assassin's Creed to become even more ostentatious (and mildly ridiculous) than ever before. As the video continues, we also see Jacob stand atop a moving carriage and fire his pistol calmly at attackers with pinpoint accuracy as his horses stride through solid metal lamp-posts.
It's all a bit Indiana Jones, but the bursts of frivolity and physics-propelled excitement add a playful zest to the chases which we haven't seen in some time.
Crooks, Rooks & left-hooks
The Rooks, and gang warfare in general, are a great addition. Members of your gang can be found littering London’s streets and recruited to aid you with a spot of fisticuffs. This opens up some interesting combat options, such as using your underlings as a distraction whilst you pick off members of the opposing gang, The Blighters, with throwing knives from the roof.
Once a borough is nearly under total Rook dominion, the gang leader of that territory will try and slaughter you with an army of minions before running away. If you can catch and kill the gang leader, the borough is yours. If they manage to escape, then you’ll have to face them later in a street war.
In essence, these are extended team fights where you get to brawl against the big boss rather than slay them via assassination. These skirmishes can be immensely chaotic, and I got the impression that my presence in them wasn’t really required to secure victory other than to shank the enemy leader.
When not fighting up close and personal, the twins are engaging in AssCreed’s trademark stalking.
Unity suffered from cramped indoor environments that were often terribly frustrating. Syndicate has clearly been designed with greater concern for the tools available; most of the action takes place outdoors in places where the twins can easily pick off their prey from above. In this game there’s no need to constantly hide yourself away in the bizarrely omnipresent curtained boxes that filled the palaces of the Parisian nobility.
When indoors, Ubisoft has wisely opened up most of the spaces in a way that respects the game’s core mechanics. London is filled with sprawling warehouses and train stations where it’s possible to stalk from the rafters and more easily attain the height advantage.
Eagle vision has also, finally, been redesigned so that targets marked in this mode are still visible once it’s switched off. No longer will you be constantly hiding the game’s sublime vistas behind a glaring white filter. Switching your assassin’s eye on and off has always been a royal pain in the backside and now, at last, it’s functional without being intrusive.
A much-improved urban sprawl
Getting around Paris often felt like a trudge. The environments of the series had grown exponentially but the tools on offer to navigate had lagged behind.
Syndicate, on the other hand, amplifies players’ mobility to match its urban sprawl. The introduction of vehicles allows quick transit between locations, and adds a regular change of pace. Carriages are useful, and horse-driven chases exhilarating. Trains, on the other hand, are fairly useless for getting around because the right one never arrives when you want it to. Just like in real life, then.
Luckily, the most useful new tool for getting around London’s streets is kept in your pocket at all times: the rope launcher. The twins can now propel themselves to the top of roofs with ease or fire connective lines horizontally for easy access between two high places.
Of this new toy I only have two criticisms: firstly, the surfaces at which it can be fired at seem remarkably inconsistent - sometimes the game will simply refuse to let you attach yourself to a ledge that you know with absolute certainty, you should be able to hook on to. Secondly, the rope launcher provides often makes a mockery of the outdoor assassination missions. Killing a single target surrounded by allies is now a simple case of dropping down and zipping back up, and I found myself clearing objectives well above my recommended skill level using this technique.
THERE’S A WOMAN!!!
As you might have guessed from the above paragraph, Syndicate will let you play as Evie as well as Jacob. In fact, for some missions, the swap will be entirely mandatory.
After last year's fiasco involving some rather murky comments from Ubisoft about the expense of animating female character models and how this explained the lack of lady assassins in Unity, the company has struck back with its first female lead in the Assassin's Creed series. Overdue? Possibly. Welcome? Entirely.
While under Ubisoft's roof we got a peek into exactly how different these two siblings are. It would appear that the game developer has gone rather a lot further than simply providing a new set of animations on a female model; Evie has her own skillset, moves and finishers which play out differently to those of her brother.
Birds of a feather shank together
I’ve never been a fan of AssCreed’s combat system, which to me has always resembled a sluggish version of Arkham Asylum. Unity’s swordplay was a torpid mess where I actively avoided fights because they were so unbearably tiresome.
Syndicate goes a long way to bringing the series combat back to fighting form. It’s still far from perfect, but I actually found myself looking forward to engagements.
The twins can choose from a selection short blades, knuckledusters, and sharpened canes as their weapon of choice, the former more ideal for killing, the latter better at stunning. Skirmishes with these new instruments of death are close quarters and far quicker than the drawn-out sword battles in Paris.
Each blow lands faster, and it's now possible to pull of interesting combinations of attacks with melee weapons and the gun. Pressing triangle at the appropriate moment also allows ranged attacks to be blocked and countered, meaning that ranged enemies no longer shut down melee fights and some much needed complexity is added to proceedings.
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate Verdict
Ubisoft has focused its efforts on clarity and mechanics and the result is rather splendid. London has been recreated in loving detail and, unlike Unity, Syndicate doesn’t rest on its visual splendour and historical fetishism. Instead, it remembers that Assassin’s Creed is still a game rather than a walk-into-the-past-simulator.
In my entire playthrough I encountered almost no performance issues to speak of. Other than small oscillations in frame rate and a single bug that saw me locked permanently in a train carriage, the build I received was entirely stable. All of this means you get to fully enjoy a crime-fighting Charles Darwin, unexpectedly accurate cockney accents, and more ‘stabbing people in the name of world peace’.
Syndicate may be predictably Creed-y, but it ensures the series is stonking good fun again.