Assassin’s Creed Syndicate
PC, PS4, Xbox One
Pack up, lads, we’re done. Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is barely half an hour old. We have sauntered through a Sussex workhouse and killed its foreman. Our reward is £1,000 – a tremendous amount of money in 1868, equivalent to £1.8 million today. We needn’t spend 40 hours chasing down Crawford Starrick, who runs Victorian London from behind the scenes with his iron fist and extravagant moustache. We can simply pay off his goons, and bring him down from within.
We can’t, however, because despite the average labourer earning 30 shillings a week in the 1860s, here a throwing knife costs £50. It’s understandable – predecimal UK currency is unfathomable to all but those who used it – but it’s an instant fracture to the fiction. The vast majority of the French publisher’s customer base won’t notice, of course, but to we rosbifs it’s a jarring example of what happens when Assassin’s Creed’s brand of historical tourism drops anchor close to home.
Price inflation aside, however, this is a surprisingly sensitive redrawing of 1860s London. Some streets have been widened to accommodate horse-and-carriage traffic; others have been removed entirely. It’s a little too sunny, too, the desire to re-use Unity’s delightful lighting engine prized over faithfulness to an era where every rooftop belched black smoke, and a country which spends ten months of the year shrouded in grey. And as the series’ house style demands, this is a London where Alexander Graham Bell breaks off from inventing the telephone to fashion you a poison dart, and Charles Darwin helps you shut down a drug operation. But on the whole it’s a delightful trip back to a time when Leicester Square was full of trees and violinists, rather than trollied Essex lads and disappointed tourists.
And you’ll journey through it while looking over the shoulders of someone you like. The two protagonists, Evie and Jacob Frye, are the best leads this series has produced since Ezio Auditore. With Evie favouring stealth and her brother preferring a brass-knuckled approach, there’s tension between the two in more ways than the expected sibling rivalry, and there are times in the main questline where they’re actively working against each other. Throughout they’re witty, charming and somehow believable, even as they’re jumping off a four-storey building to stab a goon in the neck.
And, crucially after last year’s mess with Unity, their game works – at least mostly. Sometimes the heavy motion blur that kicks in when you’re moving at speed can’t quite mask abrupt LOD transitions, and there’s the odd dropped frame when things get busy. And while the Fryes are far more capable than Unity’s dunderheaded Arno Dorian, they’re still prone to being confused by the scenery at awkward moments.
This is a series built on a foundation of elegant movement, however, and there’s little of that here. Climbing has lost its sweaty-palmed thrill now that you can spring up ten feet of sheer wall by simply pressing forward. In any case, parkour has been as good as eradicated by the widened streets and new rope launcher, which will take you from terra firma to the top of St Paul’s in a couple of seconds.
But perhaps that’s no bad thing. Assassin’s Creed world designers have long had their ambition reined in by the length of a jump. They have spent their days plastering roadsides with banana boxes, wagons and hay bales to lead the player to the rooftops, then tethering buildings with cables and clotheslines to ensure a nearunbroken route to any destination. They’ve been crafting adventure playgrounds first and worlds second. The rope launcher sets the designer free from those constraints, gives the player a new way of looking at space and stealth puzzles, and offers a speedy means of escape when things go south. And to Londoners, so often hemmed in by the throng? It’s a cathartic delight. Syndicate works, then, in its setting, its concept and its characters – the very things that change every year and so mark out each new Assassin’s Creed from its predecessor. That alone suggests a success. Beneath the glossy surface, however, things fall apart.
Enemies are idiots. They patrol their fixed routes and are gormlessly lured round blind corners or towards rustling compost heaps by a whistle. Out on the street, you’ll aggro them on sight from the second the Fryes set foot in London to the moment you buy the costly upgrade that puts a stop to it. Combat, meanwhile, is as rote and repetitive as ever, but now takes twice as long. The Fryes prefer small, concealable weapons, and while skill-tree upgrades help to hurry things along, even powerful brass knuckles, kukri knives and cane swords might need to be swung a couple of dozen times to put an enemy on the floor.
Mission design is similarly stuck in the past. You travel to a map marker, find a suitable entry point to a stronghold, then sneak or punch your way to a target who must either be killed or kidnapped. Sidequests hew even closer to the template, the same handful of mission types recycled endlessly. Had Syndicate come out before Metal Gear Solid V had rewritten the book on open-world stealth and mission design, it would still have felt dated. Now it is simply archaic.
Jacob and Evie, and the colossal London they are steadily reclaiming, just about save the day. Together, they present Ubisoft with an opportunity. The Ezio era is regarded as the series’ heyday because it was a time of stability: a beautifully realised setting in an iconic period, starring a likeable protagonist. Were Ubisoft to devote to these ageing systems the resources it spends each year on a new world and cast, it might be on to something. The alternative is a series that, for all its wanderlust, is never truly going anywhere.
It’s a delightful trip back to a time when Leicester Square was full of trees and violinists, not trollied Essex lads