1868. Victorian era England. London is at its height, a city of unparalleled industry and innovation. The Industrial Revolution has ended and with it came new standards in operation: the further use of steam power, an increase in machine-based manufacturing, coal and iron working, a boom in the textile industry, gas lighting, and more. From the seat of the British Empire, humanity experienced a huge leap in lifestyle and quality of life, a leap that rippled outward into the rest of the world.
Let's get in there and stab some people, yeah?
Assassin's Creed Syndicate stars the Frye Twins as our trained assassins. With the death of their father, these two low-level assassins from rural England decide that it's time to take the fight to London, which has operated as the Templar seat of power since the days of Haytham Kenway over a 100 years prior. They each want to hit London for different reasons: the impulsive and thuggish Jacob wants to unite the gangs to take down the Templars, while the cunning and by-the-book assassin Evie wants to recover another Piece of Eden, the Shroud. They both decide to ignore orders and head to the city, meeting up with Henry Green, the Indian assassin who handles London's Brotherhood alone. Together, Green and the Frye Twins are up against Crawford Starrick and his Seven Deadly Generals, each of whom control a different aspect of London's economy.
This isn't the first time that we get to control two major characters in an Assassin's Creed game; Assassin's Creed III actually holds that distinction with its lengthy Haytham Kenway opening sequence before switching to his son Connor. This is the first time that we have the option to play either character throughout the game; if you're not on a specific mission, you can choose between Jacob and Evie at anytime by simply going into the pause menu. You will be forced in different directions for story-based missions, as either assassin has a different aim, but otherwise, you're free to choose your favorite.
This split between Evie and Jacob is also apparent in their skill trees. Both characters play exactly the same - it's not like Jacob is stronger or Evie is faster - and they share the same skill trees, but the ends of those skill trees have special skills tailored for each of them. As an example, Jacob has the Gunslinger skill, which improves his handling of pistols, while Evie has a Chameleon ability which lets her stealthily fade away. This doesn't preclude you from making Jacob more stealthy or Evie more combat-heavy, but Ubisoft felt giving each character a little bit of flavor was important.
The first thing I noticed when I was playing Syndicate was the lack of map icon potpourri. (Actually, that's the second thing. The first thing I noticed was the visual performance was similar to Unity, with perhaps slight improvements.) In last year's Assassin's Creed Unity, synchronizing at any of the high points around the city automatically showed you everything you could do and collect within the local district. If you're like me and you tackle every synchronization point in an available area before doing anything else, your map was eventually full of icons. Even with filters, it was damn near impossible to read. Worse, showing the location of every mission and treasure chest took some of the mystery and exploration out of the game.
In Syndicate, hitting up a sync point now shows you the available Gang Strongholds, Templar Hunts, Child Liberations, shops, and a few collectible items to get you primed. Most of the other collectibles, including most treasure chests, illustrations, helix pieces, and vintage beer bottles, are found by exploring. As you wander the the map, these items will be revealed to you. Remember the days of listening for that sparkling sound in order to find treasure chests? Those days are back again.
"We wanted to make the high points important and we wanted them to reveal some things, but we also want the player to explore," game director Scott Phillips told me in a short interview after my play session. "To discover chests and collectibles. In addition, we have the treasure maps to allow the player to make a choice to fill their map with icons rather than making that the default behaviour. We have a mix of what's been done in past Assassin's Creeds."
I Get Around
Once you've synced yourself to a certain areas, it's time to head out and leave your mark on London. Assassin's Creed has always been about movement and flow, based primarily on the parkour system. Syndicate keeps the improved Parkour Up and Down system from Assassin's Creed Unity, but it also adds other movement options, including the Rope Launcher and Carriages.
The rope launcher was my biggest question mark for Syndicate: Would it fit in with the parkour and would it be as solid as the grapple gun in the Batman: Arkham series? Playing an early sequence of Assassin's Creed Syndicate, it became clear that the rope launcher is necessary component for navigating around the city of London. With the improvements in industry, not only were London's buildings much taller on average than other eras in the Assassin's Creed franchise, the city streets were also wider to accommodate shipping and commuting via carriage. Unity vaguely got around the wider streets by placing ropes and cables between major buildings as movement chokepoints, but Syndicate decided to fix the issue altogether.
"Momentum is key to the parkour and if we were going to integrate anything into the parkour, it had to fit with the control scheme, animations, movement, and the feeling of motion," said Phillips. "The Rope Launcher came about because we started parkouring around buildings that were of accurate size for London of 1868. We could tell that the more you do the jump, jump, jump to get to the top, it can get tiring. We needed something to allow the player more flexibility and the rope launcher made a lot of sense for the city and that steampunk era. It fit with the city design and the time period to create a tool that fits great with the parkour."
The rope launcher is always accessible by hitting the L1 button (my demo was on PlayStation 4). It operates in two modes: if your attach point is directly above your character, it allows them to grapple up the side of a building. Alternatively, if your attach point is around the same height or below your character, it works in zipline mode, anchoring itself between your start and endpoint.
I found it wasn't quite as robust as the grapple gun in Batman: Arkham. For one, while the rope launcher seems to be able to attach to any surface, the game seems to choose a few points on available buildings at random, instead of just tracking anywhere along an entire ledge or surface. Once you jive with it, you'll start to use the zipline to move in the general direction you want to instead of lamenting the lack of pinpoint precision. In fact, if you hold down the parkour and zipline buttons, your assassin will automatically attach to the next available zipline point in an effort to keep your flow consistent. That's a good design choice.
"We wanted you to not have to really think about it," explained Phillips. "Everywhere you can see a ledge, that's someplace you can both elevate or zipline to. We didn't want you to have to look for a specific level design element. Initially it was code-driven: everywhere there were corners of a certain angle worked. As we moved on and developed the city, we realized that we needed to have more regions."
Syndicate seems to pay lip-service to realism, as the rope launcher doesn't pull you instantly from point A to point B. If you're grappling upwards, there's still the time it takes Jacob or Evie to rapple up the side of a building. If you're ziplining on an upward incline, they have to actually grab the zipline with their free hand to pull themselves along. This steady movement in the zipline allows you to stop at specific points to set up air assassinations, which I assume is why Ubisoft went in this direction instead of instant point-to-point movement.
It was my biggest worry in Syndicate, but the rope launcher works once you get use to its specific quirks.