We've played through the Third Crusade, lived the Italian Renaissance, taken part in the American Revolutionary War, sailed the high Caribbean seas during the Golden Age of Piracy and witnessed the French Revolution, now [Assassin's Creed Syndicate](tag:3605993) takes us forward almost a hundred years to 1868, Victorian London and the story of Jacob and Evie Frye...
What Went Wrong With The Series?
Like the majority of Assassin's Creed fans I really was not at all taken with the last offering in the series, Assassin's Creed: Unity. Not a bad game by any means, but far from the standard fans had come to expect from the series; It wasn't just the laughable release date bugs (though that does underscore the main problem with Ubisoft's quick-fire release model), or the console frame rate/resolution controversy, or even the hated micro-transactions, overcrowded map or repetitive gameplay. It was all that and more, including how they changed up the narrative.
One of the great things about the Assassin's Creed franchise is the time and effort that goes into crafting the story both in-game and outwit, something which the incredibly dense Assassin's Creed Wiki stands as testament to. Unity didn't really bother with the series mythology though. Mainly concerned with the attempts to broker peace between the two warring factions during the events of the French Revolution, our Unity assassin budget-Ezio Arno Dorian purses the killer of his adopted father François De La Serre (the Templar Grand Master) and his love for De La Serre's Templar daughter Élise which, predictably, ends badly.
The primary antagonist here wasn't the Templar Order as such but the Sage François-Thomas Germain, who manipulates the Revolution for his own gain and kills both Templars and Assassins alike.
Diverging from the main story doesn't always have to end in tears, Assassin's Creed: Black Flag did so and it was one of the best received games of the series (and a lot of fun); but going from a mythology so rich and diverse to something as flat and predictable as Unity, which is very focused on one place and time, feels like a deflating balloon for the series. Add to that the loss felt by the lack of any modern-day narrative action and it all boils down to a bit of a disappointment.
There was a lot that Unity got right, but those were primarily core elements which bled over from previous iterations in the series. The bottom line is that for one reason or another Unity just wasn't as engaging as previous instalments in the franchise, but Syndicate looks like it has the potential to change all that...
Syndicate Marks A Return To The Assassin's Creed Core
Ok, I admit the trailer and what we've seen of the gameplay so far looks pretty promising. Assassin's Creed: Syndicate drops us into 19th century London, on the tail end of the Industrial Revolution and the economic class divide it caused. In this scenario the Templars are taking over the rich upper class through Government and church and fuelling organised crime amongst the lower classes.
In Assassin's Creed: Syndicate you'll take on the role of two protagonists, the Assassin twins Jacob and Evie Frye as they set out to conquer the criminal underground of London and in turn the Templars.
Marc-Alexis Côté: "I think the biggest challenge [in making a game] is defining a clear fantasy for our players to engage in, identifying that fantasy and then relating everything to it. The fantasy that we have in Victorian London is to become the masters of the criminal underground... On the other end, we can use the main storyline to explore the different ways the Templars are controlling the city and use your gang to fight that."
New Setting, New Characters
It's worth pointing out that this is the first time in the Assassin's Creed main series that you'll be able to play as a female assassin, which is something fans have been wanting for a while now if the criticism of lack of females in Unity is anything to go by. It's also the first time you'll be able to freely switch between characters as you play, which is pretty neat.
As you can see in the video below each character has their own set of abilities and strengths; whilst Jacob is the stronger brawler with brass knuckles and a revolver, Evie is stealth-focused and packs a cane sword and throwing knives.
The siblings set out to wrest control of the gangs of London from the Templars, with a view to ultimately freeing the city itself. It's good to get back to basics with some good old Templar hunting, isn't it? And our antagonists this time around come in the form of the British Rite of the Templar Order.
Led by Grand Master Crawford Starrick, the Templars essentially conquered London from the shadows during the Industrial Revolution. The gang we see mentioned in the gameplay and trailers, the Blighters, are comprised of criminals bought off by the Templars to carry out their agenda on the streets, whilst the upper class members of the Rite put their hands in the pockets of politics, science, medicine, transportation and ownership of factories and banks. Jacob and Evie have their own gang though, the Rooks, who set out to take back the six in-game boroughs, Westminster, the Strand, the City of London, Whitechapel, Southwark and Lambeth from the Templars.
As with previous games we'll come across some huge historical figures along the way, "London's greatest men and women", the likes of Alexander Graham Bell, Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, Florence Nightingale, Queen Victoria and even Jack the Ripper (via DLC). And only a year on from the devs making excuses for not including a playable female character we're going to see the first transgender NPC in Syndicate in the form of Ned Wynert, who will be the player's quest-giver.
Smoother Stealth Mechanics
An exciting promise that Ubisoft has made is that they're overhauling the gameplay, specifically the stealth aspects, in a big way. Rather than hiding in hay bales and blending with crowds, in the larger, busier city of London stealth will instead switch focus to the way the player interacts with their surroundings whilst sneaking about. You won't need to hit buttons to enter and exit cover as transitioning from navigation to stealth will become smoother and easier.
Côté has made a pretty big deal of the revamped mechanics, claiming that Syndicate will usher in a more fluid means of sneaking from place to place with an active stealth mode replacing the old cover-based stealth. In the gameplay trailers you can see stealth mode activating when Jacob removes his trusty top hat in favour of an assassin's hood, which is an amusing touch.
The introduction of the Rope Launcher in your hidden blade will help with moving from place to place, allowing you to climb buildings effortlessly and zip-line from rooftop to rooftop. It'll also apparently be easier to move through windows and Jacob/Evie will now be able to climb objects like chimneys that the player-character couldn't before.
A Brutal Combat Focus
But it's not just the stealth mechanics that have gotten a work-over, the combat systems have been switched up too. Since we're going to be dealing with street gangs you'd expect a lot of fist-fights and brawling, and that's just what we've been promised. Combat will be faster paced with multiple enemies attacking simultaneously, with a bigger focus on setting your opponents against each other through stunning and misdirection.
But of course, Assassin's Creed wouldn't be Assassin's Creed without the signature Hidden Blade and stealth weaponry, and we see from the trailers that Jacob's gauntlet has gotten an upgrade this time round; complete with Hallucinogenic Darts and the aforementioned Rope Launcher.
Though we do see Jacob wielding a revolver in the trailer it looks like there won't be so much of a focus on guns here, which is probably a good thing as the mechanical projectile weapons have always been a bit clunky in a series based on stealth. Far better has been the silent projectile weapons such as the darts, which we'll have access to as part of the gauntlet weaponry.
Streamlined Side-Missions, But No Multiplayer
As part of stripping back to what made the original games great Ubisoft have seriously reworked the side missions, not adding any that don't in some way feed back into the overarching narrative; Jacob's goal to control the city. Whilst this cuts out a lot of the nonsense it also means that every action you undertake has an impact and a reason for doing so, adding to a much smoother and more connected experience overall.
They've also reintroduced Assassin Recruitment (first seen in Brotherhood) as part of your quest to build Jacob's army, which I'm pretty happy about. As you fill out your ranks you'll be able to rise up against the oppressors through Gang Wars and street fights, overthrowing the Templar strongholds of the six boroughs and strengthening the Rooks as a result.
What was a little surprising was the lack of a separate multiplayer, like Unity before it. So follows the words of Syndicate Creative Director Marc-Alexis Côté, who back in May commented on the lack of multiplayer in the upcoming game:
"The reason we are [getting rid of multiplayer] is to really focus on the roots of the franchise. That’s why all nine studios are focused on delivering this single-player experience."
So, Ubisoft are chucking multiplayer in favour of crafting an interesting, immersive experience that may reignite interest in the franchise. I did really enjoy the Animus training simulation based multiplayer of previous games, but I am on board with this tactic (although, you know, if they slowed down their releases they would have time to do both...) And after all, the highest rated game of the series, Assassin's Creed II, didn't have a multiplayer option because it was so good it didn't need one. Let's hope that's going to be the same reason here.
On that note there's not going to be a fiddly companion-app for unlocking in-game chests in Syndicate either, and I think we can all be thankful for that. There's still going to be micro-transactions though...
Revisiting The Modern-Day Narrative
Whilst it seems like the gameplay mechanics have been sorted out there's still one big thing fans are hoping for a return to in Syndicate, and that's the modern-day narrative, of which there was next to nothing of in Unity.
I understand what Unity was trying to do by switching up the player character. Rather than being given a specified character in the modern-day narrative as with previous games it was left more open-ended; you are the player character, operating the Helix from your own home. Not Desmond, not some unnamed Abstergo employee. It was an interesting idea, but ultimately wasn't as engaging and didn't work as well.
Assassin's Creed has worked as a series thus far because it took a very successful concept and ran with it. And ran... and ran... and ran... If you're going to keep repeating what is essentially the same gameplay formula you have to at least keep the story interesting (I call this the Call of Duty effect) and Unity failed to do that.
Syndicate needs to do more to tie the genetic memory narrative back into what's going on in the present day. Some of the best parts of the earlier run of games was playing as Desmond, exploring modern-day locations and interacting with the other assassins, Lucy, Shaun, Rebecca and William.
Unfolding Desmond's story always felt more immediate as his was something still to be written rather than something which had already taken place, years in the past. What we need now is another solid protagonist to drive the narrative, both in memory and in the modern-day.
Thankfully it looks like Ubisoft has taken notice of this. In a GameSpot interview with Côté the Creative Director promised that Syndicate will see the birth of a new narrative arc for the series, and will reestablish links between the genetic memories we play through and the ongoing modern-day story:
"The Assassin's Creed series story is still going somewhere, absolutely. The overarching story is divided up into cycles. So we had what we called the Desmond cycle, which ended with AC3. Black Flag was the transition point between the Desmond cycle and the new cycle.
I can’t go into details about the present-day story, other than to say it is coming back, it is going to make sense for our players, and they’re going to understand the conflict between the Assassins and the Templars. One of the things that’s been super important for me and for the team is to make sure the player feels in the present-day story that he or she has importance."
According to Côté the new narrative will pull everything back to the central struggle between the Templars and Assassins, particularly to the modern day struggle involving Abstergo, which will hopefully tie together a more cohesive narrative than before.
Will It Be Enough To Revive The Series?
As sceptical as I have been since the underwhelming last instalment, Syndicate does actually sound like it has the potential to be a wonderful return to form for the franchise. Like the majority of fans I'd rather that Ubisoft slowed their crazy train a bit and focused on making a really fantastic and contained game rather than having multiple different studios around the world all working on bits and pieces to be pulled together for a yearly release, but given that the company earned more than $156.6 million in 2014 I'd say that looks unlikely.
But perhaps the poor reception of Unity will have been a wake up call the developers needed, after all a large portion of the success of Black Flag was due to Ubisoft's response to criticisms of Assassin's Creed III, another of the poorer games in the series.
Syndicate already has two day-one patches ready to go so there's no excuse for the new game being anything approaching as buggy as it's predecessor was. Add to that the notice that Ubisoft have taken to the narrative, and it's all looking very positive when Assassin's Creed: Syndicate releases worldwide today.
The eighth Assassin's Creed main series game, Assassin's Creed: Syndicate releases October 23th 2015 for the PS4 and XBOX One, and on November 19th 2015 for PC.
Have you got your copy yet? Tell us what you think of it in the comments below, or write your own post!