Assassin's Creed: Syndicate—gang warfare in Victorian London

Assassin's Creed Syndicate 1

I thought it was going to be called Victory, too. Honestly. Right up until they said it wasn’t. After six or so years without a single break in the Assassin’s Creed annual release schedule, the list of ‘Things I Want to Change About Assassin’s Creed’ already looks quite a bit longer than the list of ‘Things I Am Excited For In Assassin’s Creed’. But what if 300 fresh pairs of eyes gives us the biggest leap since Assassin’s Creed 2?

After a decade creating games like Prince of Persia for the Wii, and collaborating on the Assassin’s Creed franchise in a supportive role since the days of Brotherhood, Ubisoft Quebec is now the new captain of this very large ship. Steering a franchise of this scale is a big deal, but during my time at the studio I got a sense that years sitting on the sidelines could give them the perspective to take Assassin's Creed in a fresh direction.

For the first time ever, Syndicate introduces two playable assassins, switchable at any time.

The year is 1868 and London has undergone vast changes. It’s an infernal and smoggy metal machine that puts the poor to work in unspeakable conditions for 17-hour days—even kids as young as four. Most of the previous Assassin’s Creed games thrived during periods of war and conflict, but Syndicate’s London is the opposite. Much like renaissance Italy, Syndicate flourishes in a time of relative peace that gives Ubisoft Quebec room to focus on the everyday people of London. The workers, the families, all of whom are subjected to oppression from those at the top, who happen to be Templars, surprisingly enough.

For the first time ever, Syndicate introduces two playable assassins, switchable at any time during the open world adventure. Jacob and Evie Frye are passionate youngsters who’ve recognised the gross inequality that runs rife throughout London. They’re both very different characters with strikingly contrasting personalities—Jacob is a hot-headed volatile young man, raised on the outskirts of London, in Crawley: a complete shithole. Trust me, I grew up there.

Evie, on the other hand, is a real mystery at this stage. All I was told is that she’s a master of stealth and that her story and background will become clear as we move closer to release. But it’s an odd decision, to announce both but to keep one in the shadows. Evie doesn’t even appear in the game’s launch trailer.

Syndicate takes place just 75-years after last year’s Assassin’s Creed: Unity but the changes are vast. London is much more vertical, with taller buildings and much wider streets, so Ubisoft Quebec had to introduce new ways of getting around. The assassin’s gauntlet allows you Batman-like abilities—zipping to the rooftops at the tap of a button, or creating your own horizontal tightropes for aerial assassination platforms. On street-level, the ability to hijack and commandeer horse and carriages gives you less reason to use fast travel and more reason to run down your enemies in exciting chase sequences. I saw one during an extended demo, and although the mechanics clearly aren’t quite there yet, I’m excited to see what other vehicles are announced in the next couple of months.

Jacob was armed with a small kukri blade, a powerful snubby revolver and a brutally satisfying knuckle duster.

Combat has also clearly been influenced by recent Arkham games. 19th Century London is much more sophisticated than previous Assassin’s Creed settings, so clunking around with an entire armory strapped to your back isn’t an option. In the demo I saw, Jacob was armed with a small kukri blade, a powerful snubby revolver and a brutally satisfying knuckle duster, perfect for busting jaws. He also had some hallucinogenic darts, which explode when fired into a fire source, sending nearby foes berserk for some great environmental kills.

Rather than a set piece assassination, the demo I saw highlighted Syndicate’s focus on gang warfare, which lifts ideas from other open world Ubisoft games—namely, Far Cry’s outposts. The mission saw Jacob sneaking unseen through an enemy gang stronghold. After dispatching low-level thugs, utilising the rope launcher for makeshift aerial assassinations and chasing down gang leader Bloody Nora on horseback, shooting other carriage drivers and barging them into street lamps, an all out gang war finally ensued. Think Gangs of New York but in London and with nicer top hats. I was told that this is how you begin to "take over" London. Each gang victory expands Jacob and Evie's influence across the city.

All this talk of modernisation and ways in which Ubisoft Quebec can tell different stories and tell stories differently, had me believing they want to achieve real change, despite the series’ troubled past on PC. The architecture for a great game is clearly there: the setting is strong, the new features and mechanics genuinely transform how you get around the city, and there’s a lot that can be done with multiple playable characters—Grand Theft Auto 5 was a clear display of that. The guys at Ubisoft Quebec were adamant as well that polishing this game within an inch of its life is one of their top priorities. Creative Director Marc Alexis Cote kept referring to former technical failures as one of Ubisoft’s “biggest learnings”. I’ll be interested to see how the lessons result in tangible changes in the coming months.