Assassin's Creed: Syndicate has everything you could expect from the next installment in the franchise: a mysterious hero taking lives assassin-style every five minutes – check; jumping from building to building in a way that could easily cause a heart failure for anyone who’s afraid of heights – check; rich, historical background – check. We can even see carts of hay on every corner (nostalgia effectively dispels any doubts as to why there would be so many of them in the streets of industrial-era London). And yet, during Ubisoft’s presentation that announced the new installment in the cycle, I couldn't shake a peculiar thought. Namely, why is the new GTA going to take us into the past? And is Rockstar okay with that?
Fans of Assassin's Creed are probably already worried sick after reading this introduction. However, a significant innovation in an old, well-known formula was bound to happen eventually. Along with the industrial revolution came changes in the appearance of cities, melee fighting, and even the ongoing battle with the Knights Templar. Syndicate starts in 1868, and London is presented as a city of contradictions. On the one hand, it is the center of the largest empire in history and the place where inventions that will shape the modern times are met with warm reception.
On the other hand, it's a vast metropolis where workers live in poor conditions, and organized crime is being born in the streets. It is this world that the two (!) protagonists brought up by the assassins, Jacob and Evie Frye, are thrown into. The latter remains a mystery for now, as the presented material focused on her brother. The boy is said to be "reckless and impetuous" – he will be eager to dismantle the city controlled by the Knights Templar from the inside. He won't hesitate to reach for the help of those who were raised in the streets of the capital of the British Empire. The opening seconds of the game show the protagonist using the intel acquired from a "child spy" – a little girl reveals to him where the leader of a competitive group is hiding. According to the authors, gangs will become our armies, and the most notorious districts will serve as our fortresses.
Syndicate is the first among the "big" games in the series that is not created by Ubisoft Montreal. The studio was replaced by Ubisoft Quebec, which used the help of nine other teams. In business for ten years, the company contributed to the works on Unity and the expansion Dead Kings, and now, according to Creative Director Marc-Alexis Côté, is able to introduce a fresh perspective in the famous series. And since the Canadian studio employs nearly 400 people, there’s more than enough workforce.
As with Unity, the player will be bound to the city. We shouldn’t therefore count on any horseback riding through nearby fields or taking a vessel out to the open sea. London, however, should provide enough entertainment to keep the fans of the franchise glued to the screens for the next several dozen hours. The developers divided the city into seven regions, each of them different from the other. This doesn't mean, however, that Whitechapel will be gray and gloomy, while Westminster will overwhelm us with its splendor. The differences will also show in the presence of the police (escaping to a crime-infested territory might help us save our lives more often than not) or gang activity. If we're not overly enthusiastic about a criminal group that is currently in charge in a given region, we can try to take it over. This is one of the biggest novelties introduced in Syndicate; Jacob has no qualms about using the support of a rogues' gallery by becoming a leader of a gang called The Rooks, entangled in a war against the Templars-funded Blighters. At the end of the presented material, both groups gave a show of mutual dislike, using one of the city’s wide streets as a stage for a sequence taken straight from Gangs of New York. In other words, it was a brutal fight between a dozen people, featuring fists, knives and brass knuckles in the leading roles.
Gangs of Industrial-era London
The sword is no longer an assassin's best friend – Ubisoft Quebec’s representatives are eager to point out that Syndicate marks the transition of the series into modern times, and thus the combat will be subject to major changes as well. "Although barely one hundred years passed since the French Revolution, you'll feel as if it were ten times as many", say the studio’s representatives, "This is the first truly modern Assassin's Creed". The fundamentals of control system and the difficulty level will remain the same as in Unity, which should please many players, but here's where the similarities end. Jacob (who has a true potential to be a charismatic, swashbuckling hero that was lacking in the previous installment) will have at his disposal weapons such as a curved, long knife from Nepal called kukri, heavy brass knuckles, a six-chambered revolver, and, of course, a hidden blade. Oddly enough, the lack of sword will make the fighting much more brutal: the distance to the enemy will decrease, so you will need to use a variety of none-too-chivalrous moves in order to stay alive. The environment will also play a large part; I saw Jacob smashing opponents’ heads against brick walls and using short walls to knock an enemy off balance. If you prefer to attack from a distance, you can use darts dipped in hallucinogens (which we already know under the name of Berserker Blades from Unity). If shot into fire, they will spray the nearby area, thus paralyzing a whole hostile group.
According to the developers, the combat will be very difficult, and becoming the focus of a large group of enemies will be practically a death sentence. "Of course, fighting must provide a challenge", says Marc-Alexis Côté, Creative Director of Ubisoft Quebec. "If it didn’t, what would be the point of introducing the stealth sequences?" Especially since these are the elements that are due to play a significant role in Syndicate. Controlling the character’s moves while sneaking up to an enemy will become more intuitive than it was in Unity. What's more, the players will be given several strategies to choose from to remain undetected. For example, they will be able to throw knives not only at enemies, but also into walls, thus causing a noise that will lure the opponent in the direction on its source. Other useful features include the whistle and the manipulation of the environment. In the presented material, Jacob dumps beer barrels on one of the opponents, which of course draws the attention of his companions and gives our hero enough time to free his comrade locked in the heart of the enemy territory.
Assassin's Creed wouldn't be the same franchise without historical figures – and Ubisoft Quebec is well aware of that. The streets of the nineteenth-century London will be therefore filled with politicians and innovators who have shaped the industrial era. For now, the presence of Charles Darwin and Charles Dickens is confirmed, but rumor has it that we are going to hunt Jack the Ripper himself, and the detective tasks will be commissioned by no other than Arthur Conan Doyle.
Moving around the city will also be subject to some changes. Unlike Paris, industrial-era London is constructed on the basis of streets so wide that even an assassin finds it impossible to jump over them. Therefore, the developers decided to equip the players with a grappling hook that can be attached to most surfaces. This simplifies getting on the roofs of buildings – instead of climbing, Jacob can launch a rope and a few seconds later he’s at the top. Of course, it makes it easy to escape from almost anywhere, and therefore raises the question of whether the game will become a little bit too easy as a result. At the same time, to encourage the players to use the more traditional way of traversing the city, Ubisoft Quebec has somewhat improved the intuitiveness of the control system. For example, during a sprint through the streets of London, Jacob may find that climbing a store that is obstructing his path is not worthwhile, and decide to avoid it, without losing the fluidity of the run. This long-awaited solution may finally eliminate situations in which the character suddenly begins to climb a several-story building during a chase against the player’s will.
If we’re in too much of a hurry to run across rooftops, we can always take a carriage. This is yet another aspect, after brutal fights, gang conflicts and taking over territories, that makes the new Assassin's Creed resemble the Grand Theft Auto series. In the presented gameplay, while in pursuit of a competitive gang leader, Jacob grabbed the reins of a chariot (of course, after disposing of the charioteer first) and began to tear through the streets of London. And tearing it is, as moving in vehicles looked absolutely chaotic. Sure, it’s only the pre-alpha version, but Ubisoft will have to make one hell of an effort to convince the players to this element. With only two carriages, everything seems to somehow hold together, but when we draw the attention of the police, it is no longer so great. Several huddled vehicles lead to a drop in FPS and collisions of horses (oddly enough, the animals are able to bang their head against the carriage, and then run at an unchanged pace as if nothing had happened) – the vehicles in Syndicate mean complete and utter chaos. Fighting on the roofs of carriages is neither too tempting. Although only one such duel was presented, it looked extremely sluggish compared with how dynamic and violent the clashes on the ground are.
Single Players Only
The thing that should please the fans of the series is the return to the old formula focused on the single player experience. There will be no co-op missions or connected applications. Tasks centered on a pointless search for an item, unjustified by the plot, will also be done with. As the developers claim, each side quest will be connected with the main objective: taking back London from the clutches of the Knights Templar. And this makes sense – after all, what kind of assassin decides to waste time before a major kill looking for cockades? Here, each factory taken over by the player will provide us with the assistance of underage workers who may distract the police, and acquiring further areas will not only facilitate moving around them, but will also be rewarded with improved weapons.
When will Syndicate launch? It is yet unknown. We managed to find out that the PC version will appear later than the console editions. Ubisoft Quebec apparently doesn’t want to repeat the mistake of Unity, which worked downright terribly on PC computers. Unfortunately, the exact delay has not been determined. "We want to make sure that we provide the best experience for our PC gamers", says Marc-Alexis Côté.
In terms of visuals, Syndicate represents a level similar to Unity, which should not be surprising, as both titles share the same engine. However, there’s one, very important exception: the ubiquitous crowds are gone, which – although quite impressive in the beginning – often interfered with the unobstructed exploration of Paris. Of course, there will surely be places where we will encounter hosts of people, but it was nice to see Jacob cross the street without an escort of several Londoners. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a chance to feel the climate of the industrial revolution – the mission that I watched took place in the City, which is the district where factories are unheard of. So far, the atmosphere has been reminiscent of the recent movies about Sherlock Holmes, particularly in terms of music. The pre-alpha phase also means numerous errors, and not only as common as frequent FPS drops. At one point, a gunman killed by Jacob fell down for a moment, then got up, moved a few meters and fell again – in exactly the same position. And while usually I would put the blame on the early version of the game, it is worth remembering that in the final release of Unity shortcomings were so frequent that today there is a special category of videos on YouTube dedicated to them.
But the biggest concern in relation to Syndicate is not related to whether the game will work properly. Throughout the presentation I waited impatiently for the moment that will remind me that our hero is a member of a secret brotherhood waging a centuries-old war against the Knights Templar. That moment didn’t come. Ubisoft Quebec might be developing a really excellent game; the direction the studio has taken in its largest project so far is very interesting and has great potential. But for now, what I saw instead of a hooded assassin was an assassin parading in a hat; instead of knights of a hostile order – thugs with impressive mustaches; finally, instead of silent elimination of subsequent targets – streetfights with enemy gangs. It is difficult to develop an opinion on the work of the Canadian studio after a dozen-minute presentation, so let’s wait until summer. At the moment, however, it appears that Syndicate might be a great production... just not necessarily for the fans of Assassin's Creed.
Jakub Mirowski | Gamepressure.com