Most (but not all) installments of Assassin's Creed represent another chronological leap forward for the series. The upcoming Assassin's Creed Syndicate takes place in 1868 London as the industrial revolution nears its end. Horse-drawn carriages may still fill the streets, but the world is charging towards a future represented by the city's speeding locomotives, and with new technology comes new struggles, as factions and their leaders battle to remain relevant in a changing political landscape. There's an irony, then, in an annualized series like Assassin's Creed, which simply cannot keep pace with the historical periods it depicts. Within the ongoing story, society is advancing at a rapid pace. Assassin's Creed itself has become staid, and it's hard to tell whether Syndicate can be the game that disrupts that expectation.
Of course, a 15-minute demo makes a difficult litmus test for a game's ultimate quality. I played two connected missions at E3 2015, the first of which led me to a local area that had fallen under enemy control, and needed to be liberated. As Jacob Frye, one of the game's two protagonists, I was tasked with eliminating the necessary targets and converting the local brawlers to the cause. "Nothing is true. Everything is permitted." So says the creed, though it was nice to find that I was permitted a new tool of locomotion--namely, the rope launcher, which allowed me to rappel up the sides of buildings as if I were a Victorian-era Batman. From the rooftops, I was able to get a handle on the challenge in front of me; all I needed to do was activate eagle vision and get a feel for my enemies' locations.
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In spite of the game's weirdly yellowed visuals--a huge amount of bloom made me wonder whether someone at Ubisoft had accidentally turned up the ambient light slider--I was still taken by Assassin's Creed Syndicate's overall look. Small touches, such as the way Jacob removed his hat as he entered stealth stance, made a big impact, and I scaled walls and leapt across outcroppings with the amount of alacrity I expect from an Assassin's Creed game. But when it came to offing my targets, I was struck by how little has actually changed. Assassinations from behind are silently satisfying but largely the same. I made a leap of faith into a bale of hay and pulled an unsuspecting criminal into it as I slit his throat. I stepped directly into combat and performed a familiar blend of rhythmic punches and counters, but though swords have been replaced by fists and blunt melee weapons, nothing felt new. To be fair, I didn't expect a revolution in these regards, but for a longtime Assassin's Creed player like me, this was rote. The game was holding up Assassin's Creed flash cards, and I was reading off the answers without having to give them a second thought.
To be fair, I enjoyed the flexibility I was offered. I flung a throwing knife at the ropes holding up a crate, and gleefully watched as the falling object crushed by quarry underneath it. I enjoyed flinging a poisoned knife into a fire and watching nearby foes choke on the fumes, all while I sidled up to them and plunged by hidden blade into their flesh. And I enjoyed the sequence that followed, which had my racing after the region's criminal mastermind in a horse-drawn carriage. The carriage handled much as I expected it would; after all, even horse-drawn carriages have appeared before in the series, and while you can engage in fisticuffs atop these vehicles (the horses will miraculously head towards your intended destination), I raced directly to my adversary's location, bashing the carriages that dared to cross my path during my journey.
But the enjoyment was once again sullied by a gang fight in which the residents I had previously liberated joined me in battle, and we punched all the bad guys and gals until the game told me I had won. What made me happiest wasn't what Syndicate includes, but what it doesn't: once an area has been freed, you won't need to defend it from takeover in an Assassin's Creed: Revelations-style tower-defense minigame.
I still adore Assassin's Creed's core locomotion; that rush you develop as you climb towers and race across the rooftops remains undeniably fresh. I love the historical fiction that weaves the protagonists' fanciful actions into real-life events. But with Assassin's Creed Syndicate, I wonder more than ever before if it's time for the series to take a breath. It needs to find its footing, and I don't know that this fall's installment will be giving this franchise the momentum it needs.