For some, Assassin’s Creed Unity was an epic mess. Its clunky controls and face-removing glitches plagued the PCs and consoles of its owners at release, and after returning to it recently, I could see that some frame rate issues and subpar parkour moments still persisted. After playing Syndicate extensively at Gamescom last week, it is now safe to say that this year’s Assassin’s Creed is a fresher offering that betters Unity’s faults through improvements both great and small.
This time around, the yearly series is taking us on a trip to Victorian London, and as well as providing an interesting period of figures, invention and art, this mechanised era allows for some convenient visual alterations. While the demo area still looked fantastic, with shining cobbled streets, detailed brick buildings and rough trees galore, the surrounding areas were shrouded in a thick fog of graphics-concealing pollution. Although this could be explained away through recitations of historical accuracy and the increasing industrialisation of England during the mid-1800s, it seems as though these visual degradations had been made for technical reasons as well as Victorian authenticity. This may be wholly pessimistic in terms of Ubisoft’s game design and PR department, but it is in no way a knock against Syndicate’s presentational qualities.
As I was playing the demo, its protagonist, Evie Frye, moved spryly and without stutter over the struts and battlements of the Tower of London; her scaling abilities were in no way impeded by simple structures, and she did all of this wonderful traversal without inhabiting a hyperrealistic world. Last year, Unity’s Arno Dorian may have had a wonderfully textured set of garments, but his heavy footfalls felt like swinging a Play-Doh marionette through quick sand. The graphical sacrifices of Syndicate, no matter what their explanation, are therefore welcome additions to the series, especially if they have led to a more focused smoothness of movement.
After speaking with a member of the development team on the show floor, I discovered yet another aspect of contextual minutia that seems to be shuttering off an integral part of Assassin’s Creed in favour of a more streamlined experience. He told me that the introduction of a grappling hook was to provide Evie with an alternative way to cross sections of the environment in the interests of ease and quickness. While the wider streets and open courtyards of Victorian London may have hindered the flow of movement, I did not see how scaling the bricked facades and window sills of the labyrinthine city would cause any difference in the climbing gameplay. The necessity to ascend and descend buildings had therefore been all but removed because of this grappling hook, and although the developer’s explanation as to why was commendable, I felt that the sometimes unrefined clambering of Assassin’s Creed’s protagonists was the true reason for this inclusion. Instead of randomly leaping and clinging to structures like a wayward piece of Velcro, Evie was able to head towards her goal using a hook and rope at any time. The speed as she slid downwards was a tad slow for my taste, but at least this new tool added a fresher, and more Batman-like, way to travel across the city for those that dislike the series’ occasionally cumbersome leaps, bounds and runs.
As well as this exciting new gadget, further additions had been made in terms of the game’s combat. For starters, a fantastically useful mechanic, in which bullets could be sidestepped from near or afar after a large button prompt appeared on screen, had been added in an attempt to improve on Unity’s less-than-refined gun dodging debacles. The combat in general felt fresher, and more stylish, in almost every way. Of course, modernity may have made changes to the city streets of London, but it had also allowed for the development in the public flaunting of weapons. Swords and spears and axes were obviously not acceptable appliances to be carrying around during the mid-nineteenth century, and so Evie was required to use a small dagger and cane as her primary armaments. She used these items with speed, sending quick jabs towards members of the Queen’s Guard. The entirety of battle was much faster overall, and felt almost arcadey, like God of War or Devil May Cry, in contrast to the slow and plodding parries of the previous games. Evie could counter if she wished, but it seemed as though her preferred method of killing was to bash rapidly on the brains of her foes, enabling her to retreat back to the shadows rapidly and without complication.
In addition to the swifter combat, Syndicate’s tone was refreshingly light in comparison to the sombre tale of Unity. While I did enjoy the appropriately serious story set against the backdrop of a horrendously violent period, the French Revolution, it was less fun than the sauntering pirate adventure of Black Flag. Syndicate capitalised on the Victorian period of ambivalent optimism through a number of whimsical flairs in its orchestral score. Playful violins were flamboyantly plucked as Evie evaded the pursuit of enemies, and when she hit a member of the Queen’s Guard in the face with a surprise punch, his bearskin launched comically into the air. These traits of eccentricity captured the unsurprising essence of Dickens, indicating that his oddly outlandish works were an influential factor in the composition of Syndicate’s lively and invigorating spirit.
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate’s newly improved gameplay may have been explicated through some uncertain contextual reasoning, but despite this, its changes in visuals, traversal and combat have led to a wonderfully realised Victorian experience. It was smoother, faster, less visibly pleasing perhaps, but it was so far superior to Unity is almost every facet of play. Syndicate’s whimsy, speed and historical detail provoked this humble previewer to become very much amused.