There’s no place like London
It’s not often we get to see a series recognize that things may have gotten off track. As many no doubt remember, Assassin’s Creed Unity got hit hard with criticisms about its technical performance and odd design decisions upon release last year. What was supposed to be AC‘s strongest leap into next-gen turned out to be a stumble — which was quite unfortunate, really, as Unity featured many neat ideas and innovations that were welcome for the series. Ubisoft has taken those criticisms to heart and looked at what this series is truly about for its next adventure into the past.
With the upcoming Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, players will step into the shoes of sibling assassins as they trek through the dirty and corrupt streets of London as it’s hit by the thundering wave of the Industrial Revolution. Though many of the citizens are suffering from gang violence, political corruption, and poverty, the shadowy hand of the Templar order has taken hold of the city, and once again it has proven to be the biggest threat against mankind.
During our hands-on session, Destructoid got the chance to check out the streets of London and engage in some covert assassination missions with Syndicate‘s second lead, Evie Frye. We also got to speak directly with producer Andrée-Anne Boisvert about the development of Syndicate, and just how Ubisoft plans to reinvigorate the AC formula with a return to its roots.
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate (PS4 [Previewed], Xbox One, PC)
Developer: Ubisoft Quebec
Release Date: October 23, 2015 (PC Q4 2015)
Unlike its recent predecessors, Syndicate aims to do something a bit more streamlined during its trek through the streets and over the rooftops of Victorian-era London. While Assassin’s Creed has had online gameplay components since 2010, Syndicate will follow AC: Rogue‘s example and focus purely on single-player gameplay. While online has been pretty neat for the AC titles, the developers wanted to make a single-player experience while putting all their resources into making it the sharpest game of the series.
“We really wanted to get back to the basics. Our objective was to ship the biggest and liveliest city yet with London, and it was a big challenge, and we wanted to concentrate on building a massive single-player experience,” said associate producer Andrée-Anne Boisvert. “Because of that, we were able to refine the core gameplay, adding in the rope launcher for easier traversal, refining the parkour, revamping the fighting gameplay — so with all these things, we wanted the single-player to be really amazing.”
Of course, the most unique aspect of Syndicate is its focus on two protagonists with the brother and sister duo Jacob and Evie Frye. While we’ve already seen much of Jacob and his exploits in London, this marked the first time we were able to go hands-on with Evie, and it’s evident who has the brains in this operation. Much like her brother, Evie is an assassin who must find the location of the Piece of Eden, all the while debilitating the Templar’s control of the city.
Though unlike her brother, she is a far more calculating and cunning assassin, and tends to shy away from the all-out brawls Jacob revels in. With many of her skills focusing on long-range assassinations and stealth, Evie is essentially the scalpel within London’s Assassin order. At any time during open-world exploration, you’ll be able to switch between the two and engage in missions at your leisure to reassert control of England’s capital city.
“We found it interesting to have the dynamic between these two; they have different personalities and different narrative storylines,” said the producer. “That’s something we wanted to focus on. We wanted to make sure that their personalities are reflected in the gameplay with their unique skills that they have.”
We finally got to put Evie’s skills to the test during a key mission to strike at the Templar order. During a Blackbox mission within the Tower of London, Evie infiltrates the site to assassinate the Templar operative Lucy Thorne, who also has knowledge of where the ancient artifact is. Using skills and weapons such as the Voltaic Bomb, which shocks nearby foes, and the chameleon skill, which grants limited invisibility, Evie’s approach is far more subtle. Much like its predecessor, Blackbox missions are open-ended challenges that feature multiple approaches to accomplish a single goal. Unity was the first to implement this mission structure, and Syndicate definitely plans to create more unique moments during these specific events.
As Evie found her way to a vantage point within the Tower of London, she was able to discover three different opportunities to infiltrate the site and assassinate Thorne. Option one was to stalk the key-bearer and procure the master-key to enter the main tower solo; option two was to work with an undercover tower-guard to sneak into the tower; and option three was to rescue the local Constable and round up a group of loyal guards to battle their way into the tower. The third option was the riskiest and loudest approach, but it also allowed for Evie to utilize her stealth skills in unique ways, so I immediately went for it. The developers felt that with the two protagonists, there was room for much more variety and experimentation with the missions.
“For Assassin’s Creed: Synidicate, we wanted to make it a lot more about the freedom to choose your own path and ways through missions,” said Boisvert. “We want players to be able to tackle the missions in the way they want to do it. Blackboxes are the way we have them do it, which is what we base the game on, giving players choices and offering many different ways to approach an objective for their playstyle.”
Using many of the traditional Assassin skills, such as Eagle Vision, parkour, and aerial assassinations and takedowns, I was able to sneak into the guard house to free the Constable, and we led a group of loyal guards to assault the main tower. While Evie isn’t much for brawling and tends to focus more on the calculated strokes to achieve victory, she can easily hold herself in a scrape when it comes to it. The combat in Syndicate has seen a bit of an overhaul, which the developers felt was necessary after seeing how easily players were able to win encounters by waiting for enemy attacks and using parries. It seems over time the Templar order has finally wised up to the Assassins’ tricks and plays a far more defensive game. They’ll only attack when they see an opening and will guard many of your attacks. Evie and Jacob will have to utilize guard breaks and dodges to counter them, and parry only when the time is right. I felt far more active during combat, and it was the right move to switch things up.
As the guards battled their way through the tower, I was able to gracefully move through the carnage while using Evie’s knife throwing skills to make quick work of any oncoming threats. We finally came upon Thorne with her personal bodyguards. With the carnage filling up the central room, I was able to get the jump on Thorne for a quick assassination. At this point, the mission ended in traditional AC fashion with the central character and victim sharing a final moment before their death. But I didn’t stop there. Afterwards, I booted up the mission again and went for the other options. The key-bearer was the stealthiest approach, as I was able to sneak through the tower area and assassinate the target with minimal casualties.
As you can probably guess from reading this, I’m into the new setting. As one of the most requested settings from fans, Victorian-era London is a stark departure from the previous titles. Not only from the stylistic standpoint, with the dark and grimy streets filled with people who represent the best and worst of what society has to offer, but it’s also the first AC game (outside of the present-day narrative) with its toes dipped into the modern era. As swords and axes become antiques, revolvers and rifles are much more common, making combat feel riskier than ever.
“It’s the first modern-day setting for an Assassin’s Creed title [in regards to the core game setting], so it’s the first time where we have a city that is so huge like London,” said Boisvert. “Traffic is dense, we have carriages and other people walking on the sidewalks, and you also have the police which will chase after you when you cause trouble for others. It’s a whole new dynamic for us. With the also the trains and boats, it make the city much more vibrant than any other title.”
I was pretty impressed with Assassin’s Creed Syndicate. The game ran fairly well and I didn’t notice any performance hiccups like the ones that plagued the previous AC title. I got the sense that Unity represented a major shift in how Ubisoft develops the series, and with Syndicate re-evaluating its priorities to focus more on the core game as opposed to the meta-aspects and supplementary content, I feel this entry could be a great turning point. I look forward to seeing more from the Frye siblings in the coming months, though I certainly hope the devs will figure out a way to work in Jack the Ripper, Sherlock Holmes, and Charles Dickens during the Assassins’ trek through the city. To ignore them would be a missed opportunity.