After about ten minutes in London I’ve socked a guy in the face and met Charles Dickens. It’s 1868, and I’m a spritely twin named Evie Frye. Evie’s brother Jacob is playable too, but he’s a prat. It’s nice to play an Assassin’s Creed game as not-a-prat for once. As far as I can tell that’s this entry’s biggest innovation.
For reasons urgently explained in a cutscene, Evie and Jacob have come to Whitechapel in order to conquer and replace London’s notorious criminal gangs. It’s not long before we’re chasing little artful dodgers through destitute lanes, and climbing awkwardly up the side of Victorian-era buildings.
I play through the entirety of Sequence Three on a PS4 during my two hour hands-on session, so I can’t really comment on how the game will perform on PC. Aside from missions, most of my time is spent riding on the back of the train, or bashing around in a horse and cart. The latter operates well enough but is hardly as heady a fantasy as Black Flag’s pirate ships, though the ‘ram’ move is hilariously effective. It’s very easy to bulldoze your way through heavy traffic in Syndicate, but that’s not to say you should. Oh, and it has a boost button. That’s good.
Judging by how Sequence Three was structured, a fair chunk of Syndicate will involve winning regions of London from established criminal organisations. The guys in Whitechapel were pushovers (I pushed the boss off a train carriage) but the sequence served to demonstrate all the things you’ll be doing in Syndicate. Befitting your role as a gang leader, you’ll be able to recruit people into your gang and level them up. A glance at the progression path reveals that you’ll be able to unlock police bribes, and have your crew hang perilous barrels around London in order to fell them tactically upon your foes’ heads. You can also summon them into battle, and progression determines how strong they are and in what number they’ll arrive.
It’s typical Ubisoft metagame, but the moment-to-moment gameplay hasn’t changed much. Evie is arguably the stealthier of the twins. She’s tasked at one point with saving a bunch of child labourers from a Whitechapel factory, and as far as Assassin’s Creed stealth sequences go it’s decent: there are several ways to enter, and you can theoretically ghost it, but I went for the classic get-in-quietly-and-exit-spectacularly strategy.
I wish Assassin’s Creed was like this all the time. Carefully marking out enemies, monitoring their patterns and planning an attack is an enduring and simple video game pleasure. Dealing with the combat isn’t so much: it’s functionally sound and there’s nothing exactly wrong with it, it just lacks grace and impact—and no amount of slow pans while you cleave a cop’s throat can change that. Attacking, stunning and countering is easy to get the hang of but you often have half-a-dozen enemies grilling you at once and, well, Evie is no Batman. On the bright side, I suppose this reinforces that Assassin’s Creed is a stealth game.
Meanwhile, the parkour still doesn’t feel perfect, but here’s the thing—I don’t know how any Ubisoft studio could go about fixing that at the series’ current rate of output. Evie and Jacob are far too lithe for their own good, and while switching from climbing up to vaulting down is theoretically simple, in the heat of a long pursuit it’s easy to stuff it up—and this is coming from someone who has played at least half-a-dozen Assassin’s Creed games. There are improvements over Unity—you won’t climb into a window unless you hit a specific button to do so—but this system needs a total rework. At the moment it’s merely satisfactory.
The big problem with Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate is that it’s just not very exciting. London is bleak and beautiful, but it’s not very interactive. I wanted to give a coin to some begging children, but I couldn’t. I wanted to talk to a clerk in a store, but I couldn’t. Victorian London is not the same as 15th century Constantinople or 16th century Rome, but the sheer amount of Assassin’s Creed content out there—and the size of each separate game—is slowly eroding this series’ sense of identity. The rush I felt when entering 18th century Boston or Paris’ French Revolution is absent. It’s London, but so what? It doesn’t feel functionally different to the other hundreds of hours I’ve spent in this universe. A new city, a grappling hook, two protagonists and some horse and carts just aren’t enough—and maybe it’s not new features that Assassin’s Creed needs. Maybe it just needs time.
Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate has the potential to be fun: series tragics will like it. It has the potential to tell a great story—the dynamic between Jacob and Evie is a lot of fun, and the general tone of the game seems to aim for Guy Ritchie in the 1800s, rather than the po-faced severity seen in last year’s Unity. I genuinely believe Syndicate will be a decent game, but I think it and the team working on it deserve more. I think this series needs a rest. I think Ubisoft needs to iron out the enduring problems with its parkour and combat, and just… you know, slow down a bit. Don’t waste another city.