Being formulaic, despite the word's negative connotations, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s failing to iterate on a formula in a meaningful way that’s the real problem. Many of gaming's most beloved series--The Legend of Zelda and Grand Theft Auto to name two--adhere to entrenched design frameworks. What distinguishes them is that they’re usually taken apart and reconstructed to accommodate distinct, and sometimes ingenious, ideas.
With Assassin’s Creed, however, Ubisoft’s objective to keep the series fresh and interesting tends to clash with its priority to meet a brutally tight annual release schedule. Such an endeavour wouldn’t be possible had Ubisoft not split its Assassin's Creed projects across a whole fleet of games studios, and you have to admire the publisher and its dev teams for never missing a holiday release window. That requires an unbelievable amount of planning and hard work. But ultimately, for fans of the series, the outcome each year is a game which tends to take only small steps forward.
It’s become easy to forget that the Assassin’s Creed franchise has delivered some truly exceptional moments, but in the public consciousness a yearly series is only as good as its last title, and Unity wasn't Ubisoft’s finest hour in that regard. Will Syndicate put the series back on the right path? It’s hard to tell.
Based on a recent hands-on, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is, at the very least, bolder in its delivery of creating a new hero. Ubisoft has been chasing the shadow of Ezio Auditore since he was laid to rest in Revelations, colouring all its protagonists with that unmistakable shade of the free-spirited Italian. Ubisoft huffed and puffed, but the likes of Edward and Arno just didn’t capture the imagination of the series’ fanbase in the same way. Syndicate, however, stands out because it has split its heroes into a brother and sister, and their relationship lies at the heart of the story.
That’s not to say that the singular acts of heroism and roguish behaviour are absent; you will still have plenty of those. But the moments in which Evie and Jacob's personalities jostle against each other has become a far more interesting approach than triumphantly sticking blades into throats, or pegging bad guys with zingers.
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During one scene, Evie is formulating a plan with fellow assassin Henry Green to disrupt Templar control. Jacob, as if on skates, slides into the space between them to hijack the conversation, turning talk towards The Rooks, a group he’s intent on establishing just so he can be a gang leader. The scornful look Evie shoots at him creates a moment of genuine comedy I didn’t expect.
On their own, Jacob and Evie represent two familiar archetypes, but when together they spark something more. While Jacob’s personal ambitions distract him from the task at hand, Evie remains focused on freeing London. Although I didn’t get to see if and how this develops, there’s opportunity for the playful sibling dynamic to become something more tumultuous. When asked, Ubisoft wouldn’t say whether Evie and Jacob could end up on different sides of the fight, but their relationship always feels close to capitulation.
The differences between Jacob and Evie can also manifest in the way they play. The game ties character progression together, so ability points are unlocked for both characters at the same time, keeping their development in lockstep. This means players can craft each character to serve a specific purpose.
During infiltration missions, the contrast between the two characters was at its most pronounced. Jacob’s suitability for aggressive approaches to combat allowed me to indulge in the game’s more deadly weapons. I used a mixture of guns, poison, and throwing knives to take out enemies or cause commotion. Occasionally, I’d get into isolated skirmishes whilst trying to push my way through blockades.
As Evie, her robust stealth skillset enabled me to sneak around without arousing suspicion. And in the situations where I did set off an alert, I could slip away with ease. During one mission I was tasked with finding and rescuing Henry Green, which I accomplished by sneaking into enemy territory and gathering information--all without alerting anyone to my presence--before heading into the sewer system to confront his kidnapper.
The distinction between the two protagonists didn’t feel as noticeable during combat. Perhaps this element requires players to unlock more skills before the divergence becomes clearer, but when it came to trading blows, the disparities felt minimal. Evie is slightly quicker on the draw and Jacob hits a little harder, but the the moment-to-moment interactions and the general rhythm was the same. Autopilot kicks in. This isn’t Rocksteady’s Batman and Catwoman.
Assassin’s Creed is a series that, for a long time, used parkour as a central gameplay pillar. Syndicate provides more opportunities than ever to avoid it. The new rope dart seamlessly moves Jacob and Evie from street level to the roof of smaller building at the tap of the button, removing the need to clamber up ledges and shimmy up walls.
On the one hand, this feels like it compromises a part of the series’ identity, but on the other, it also remedies many problems with Unity’s upwards and downwards mechanics and animations. Manually climbing around in our Syndicate demo felt, at times, awkward. On more than a few occasions I circled all the way around a window, before eventually going through it.
Once atop a building, Jacob and Evie are able to fire the rope dart at distant structures and zipline around the map. But unlike with the Batman: Arkham series, there wasn’t a sense that you could transfer momentum from ground to air. You can’t, it seems, chain together swings and grapples to fall-in-style across greater distances.
Such an addition would make getting around more empowering, and allow me to appreciate London’s 19th Century skyline on my terms. It would also be more convenient, as the limitations of the rope dart meant that I was unable to ascend particularly high buildings. Nor could I zip up half-way and climb the remainder. Instead I resigned to the fact that I had to make the long climb, from floor to ceiling, up many of London’s towering buildings. In the final game, traversal may develop to become more involved as the game progresses. For now, it’s a question that hangs in the air.
Horse and carriage, meanwhile, appears to be the quickest way to get from point-to-point, but carries the risk of accidentally knocking into trouble, which can often escalate into ridiculous ramming battles or fisticuffs atop moving carriages.
A great deal of my preview play time was spent speeding around London’s streets, weaving in between oncoming traffic. Inevitably, there would be a moment where I’d slam into unsuspecting officers of the law or trample a random enemy, after which everything kicks off.
Vehicles might just be the most significant shakeup in the Assassin’s Creed formula since the series briefly flirted with high-sea piracy. That obvious comparison to Black Flag’s ships aside, the ancillary gameplay mechanics feel like they intersect more naturally with vehicles. You can hop them like moving platforms and leap off onto a building. You can run along a rooftops and dive back into traffic, catching the edge of a passing vehicle and scurrying up onto its roof. You can engage in hand-to-hand combat while precariously balanced on speeding motors, or fire a gun at your pursuers and watch as the horses break out into pure havoc. You can even pile into passing carriages to go incognito and escape tails, or stuff in bodies in them for transport. It’s one of the new ideas that feels both fresh and fleshed out.
How all these new changes come together will be the acid test. Based on our limited slice of the game, it’s unclear how these mechanics will coalesce with the series’ more traditional combat and platforming, or indeed if they hold up on their own. But whether these experiments fail or not, they are nevertheless a meaningful and distinct spin on the Assassin’s Creed formula. That must be worth something.