As­sas­sin’s Creed Syn­di­cate

PC, PS4, Xbox One

EDGE - - GAMES -

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

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