I really liked last year’s Assassin’s Creed Unity. In fact I liked it so much I gave it 8/10 despite – as I pointed out at the time – some of its glaring technical issues on current-gen consoles. Those technical issues, and worse ones that came to light following the PC release that were so face-missingly comical that they become an overnight meme, would prove to be Unity’s enduring legacy.
The follow up, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, must put these issues to rest if it is going to avoid the same fate. Unfortunately, from the preview build I played last week, there’s little evidence to suggest it has eradicated all of its major problems. In fact, if I were Ubisoft, I’d be seriously considering a delay.
Syndicate, right from the main menu, feels instantly like Unity. On PS4 (the build I played at the event) it has the same issues hitting 30fps, with constant stuttering and a wildly fluctuating frame rate, as well as the same 900p resolution (Ubisoft is yet to confirm the resolution, but it certainly didn't look 1080p). There's demonstrable input lag. It looks great, as long as you're not moving too much. Now, this is a preview build, and the game is still a month away from launch. But there is a sense of history repeating here, as these same issues were present in Unity’s preview builds, just as they were in its eventual release.
On a technical front, then, it does not bode well. For a series that is literally about learning from the mistakes of the past, Assassin’s Creed doesn’t seem to be heeding any of its own advice.
Turning an eye to its content, Syndicate looks in much better shape. Moving the action from revolutionary Paris to the filthy central boroughs of Victorian London, and shifting the question from 'who owns the palaces?' to 'who controls the streets?' makes Syndicate feel, narratively at least, a different beast to its immediate predecessor. Every Assassin’s Creed game crudely characterises two opposing factions from history and depicts them as Assassin or Templar, slowly turning the entirety of human history into a Punch and Judy fight between the establishment and the downtrodden. This time, Templars are fatcat businessmen, Assassins are the workforce, in perhaps the most blatant application of this formula since Daniel Bryan vs. The Authority.
It works. When the game starts, London is Templar territory. Your central characters, Jacob and Evie, assassin siblings and up-and-coming crime lords, vow to take it back for their side, and thus begins your next epic quest to clear an historically questionable city map of objective markers.
Ubisoft’s London is suitably big, but not so enormous as to be unmanageable. It’s packed with period detail, things to do and landmarks to see, but you can easily get from one end of it to the other in minutes. This process is made all the quicker by vehicles and the new and improved grappling hook wrist blade attachment. The former is pure Grand Theft Auto – horse & carts can be hijacked, and essentially control like cars with crap steering. The latter allows you to swing, rappel and zipline your way across the rooftops of central London with relative ease. These are welcome additions to the toolkit; that long sigh you used to do when your next mission marker appeared on the other side of Paris is now a thing of the past.
Befitting of the period, however, Syndicate’s London isn’t much of a looker. It certainly isn’t as beautiful as revolutionary Paris. As soon as we were out of a cutscene and allowed to run around the open world, I made a bee-line for The Houses of Parliament, eager to scale what is now known as Elizabeth Tower.
Getting to the top of “Big Ben”, as you idiots insist on calling it, I don’t know what I expected to see apart from a dirty river and lots of fog, but I saw a dirty river and lots of fog, and that was that.
The architecture of London is as faithfully and intricately modeled as you’d expect, given the excellent work that’s featured in the series previously. All the little spines and nobbly bits of the clock tower seemed present and correct. Now, I haven’t spent that much time studying the little spines and nobbly bits on the tower in reality, but at a layman’s glance, it looks very spot-on.
The mission structure of this Assassin’s Creed makes rather more of an effort to blend side missions and main missions together than previous entries did. Before, taking over gang hideouts was an optional pursuit. Now, erecting Assassin flagpoles over every district you can find is central to the story, and entire chapters appear to remain locked until you take over certain boroughs. You may question the wisdom of a clandestine organisation having a flag to wave in the first place, but don’t, you’ll go mad. Amusingly, the faction you’ll be up against most often is a rival, Templar-funded street gang called The Blighters, which would be rather like calling your Scottish criminal enterprise ‘The Hoots Mons’.
To do all this, of course, requires getting into a lot of fights and doing a lot of running around. Syndicate’s combat and parkour are essentially the same as Unity’s, the latter preserving that game’s parkour up/parkour down control scheme, where your vertical direction of travel can be altered with a button press, making it possible to return to street level without having to spend twenty minutes dropping from outcrop to outcrop. Combat is once again centered around the countering system that has always been AssCreed’s signature (or biggest point of contention, depending on who you talk to), but now there are user-triggered executions and finishing moves, and it’s easier than ever to use the environment to your advantage, even if you just have a penchant for battering people up against walls. As with Unity, skills can be upgraded and unlocked as you level up using an extensive RPG-lite skill tree system, and though there weren’t many opportunities to try different character builds during our time with the game, additional combat skills did make a noticeable difference to the flow of battle.
So far, so Unity. Much of Syndicate is last year’s game, reskinned and reconfigured. The feature that really sets it apart is the ability to switch between two different protagonists.
Jacob and Evie are likable characters, at least as fun to play as Arno Dorian, just as cheeky as AC4’s Edward Kenway, and leagues ahead of AC3’s Connor in the fun stakes. The differences between them, though, aren’t all that noticeable. We were told that Evie is more agile and suited to stealth, while Jacob is built for fighting. In practice, both characters have broadly the same abilities and seemed equally-matched in stealth (as in, not very), as well as at battering people, to the point where which character to play as is much less about your style and rather more about who has the nicer haircut. For my money, Evie’s the one I’ll be spending most of my time with, but it’s mostly arbitrary. Unfortunately, switching between them isn’t as intuitive as, say, GTA5. It requires stopping the game and selecting from the main menu. Oh dear.
A lot of story missions will hard-switch to one or the other, meaning both characters get their time to shine whatever your preference. The characters are also pursuing different goals. Jacob believes their priority should be taking over the city, while Evie is on a hunt for one of the elusive (but not that rare, it seems) ‘Pieces of Eden’. Their disagreements on the path ahead, contrasted against their fundamental unity in their fight against the Templars, are central to their dynamic. This characterises Syndicate’s interplay between its linear plot and its open world – it makes every effort to keep them interlinked.
So, Syndicate sticks rigidly to the established template. Nothing illustrates this more than the fact that they have 19th century inventor Alexander Graham Bell slotted neatly into the Leonardo Da Vinci role established in Assassin’s Creed II. However, it does feel as though the differences in the window dressing are enough to set it apart this time round. A huge part of Creed’s draw is the real history it chooses to fold into its lore, and while there seem to be (even) more liberties taken this time round, the prospect of experiencing the thrills and politics of the industrial revolution through the eyes of a made-up knife murderer is something to look forward to.
If you read our Unity preview last year, you may experience a moment of deja vu here, but once again the most worrying problem with this Assassin’s Creed is its performance issues. If the preview build we played is any indication of how the retail version will run (and going by past experience, it is) then Ubisoft’s flagship series is in danger of suffering another devastating blow to its reputation. If it’s not going to be technically solid out of the box, it needs to be delayed, for as long as it takes, until it’s noticeably smooth, and an obvious, vast improvement on Unity.
As things stand, I fear they have a way to go before that’s the case. Gameplay footage provided to us by Ubisoft – which you can see below – is apparently from the same build we played last week, but does appear to run at a smoother frame rate. Regardless, unless the television I was playing it on was something you'd win on Bullseye, or my eyesight has degenerated to that of a mole, it just didn't look anywhere near that good. With under a month to go, we'll find out soon if Ubi can pull it out of the bag.