Sunday 25 September 2016

Assassin’s Creed Syndicate preview: Killing time in London

We get an exclusive hands-on look at the next AC instalment hoping to restore the good name of the franchise

Published 19/06/2015 | 12:13

Assassin’s Creed Syndicate: Victorian London provides the backdrop for the gang warfare
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate: Victorian London provides the backdrop for the gang warfare

PITY the poor horses. Syndicate introduces the first driveable vehicles to appear in the Assassin’s Creed series as it shifts narrative focus to 1868 London and a turf war among criminal gangs.

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Of course, this being 1868 and the tail end of the Industrial Revolution, the only vehicles on the streets are horse-drawn carriages, waiting to be hijacked GTA-style. The unfortunate nags bear the brunt of collisions as you careen around the crowded roads. Helpfully, they seem immune to damage. They even possess an innate satnav ability that enables them to race along unguided if you choose to leap on to the carriage’s roof to fight an enemy.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. With more than four months until Syndicate’s October release, Ubisoft was confident enough this week to allow a hands-on preview of a small slice of the new game. That’s in marked contrast to last year’s disastrous AC Unity, which was kept under wraps right until release – for obvious reasons.

Based on the same engine – presumably heavily modified to weed out the worst of Unity’s bugs – Syndicate has been helmed by Ubisoft’s Quebec studio, which took over lead development duties from Montreal. But it’s still a collaborative effort with seven other Ubi studios worldwide, including Montreal.

Assassin’s Creed Syndicate: The mob-handed fight scene from the end of the demo
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate: The mob-handed fight scene from the end of the demo

We follow the tale of twin sibling assassins Jacob and Evie Frye, described as “British and reckless”, fighting the good fight against the ever-evil Templars, who now control London via a motley crew of thuggish gangs.

The full game enables you to switch at will between Evie and Jacob, each with their own skill tree and specific missions, but the preview demo handed us the reins as Jacob set out to tackle a gang stronghold a few hundred yards away.

Stepping out into a bright London morning, we’re greeted by a colourful streetscape, the cobblestones bleached white in the sunshine, Union Jacks fluttering in a gentle breeze and the pavements bustling with pedestrians. Carriages amble past in a clatter of hooves.

So far so Unity but with a Victorian twist. The background chatter isn’t quite so prominent and the visuals lack a bit of punch. Certainly, compared to The Order 1886, which modelled a similar London with stunning fidelity, Syndicate has work to do. An open-world game will always suffer besides a carefully staged (and ultimately lifeless) piece of theatre such as The Order but the drab background detail viewed from some of London’s lofty perches does Syndicate no favours.

Assassin’s Creed Syndicate: new blades and new moves
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate: new blades and new moves

Look up and the first of the game’s pleasant surprises appears. Aim at a roof and a prompt lets you trigger the new rope launcher. Suddenly, Jacob could be mistaken for Batman with his grapple hook, able to rappel quickly up buildings.

Actually, it works a lot like AC’s own spring-loaded lifts but with more flexibility – now you can fire the launcher at almost any handhold, though in practice the game seems parsimonious about what you can and cannot hook on to. You can also use it as a zipline, descending quickly from on high.

It doesn’t turn Jacob into a webslinger like Spider-Man nor even render him as mobile as Batman but it neatly expands his move set and gives a new locomotion to roof-top chases.

We head for the inevitable marker on the map denoting the nearby stronghold, stopping briefly to take down a pair of gang members enraged by Jacob’s visible membership of a rival crew. This provides a first taste of Syndicate’s close-quarters combat, a more brutal, visceral version of AC’s hand-to-hand brawling that echoes earlier instalments in the series.

Assassin’s Creed Syndicate: Your gang will assist in fights
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate: Your gang will assist in fights

Jacob headbutts his opponents, smashes faces into his knee or hurls them into obstacles before finishing with a blade to the guts. Very little seems under your direct control but it makes for visually impressive fights.

When we arrive at gang HQ, the palette of options broadens. Assassinations become easier with darts tipped in hallucinogens and braziers around which thugs conveniently congregate. Jacob even has a powerful revolver but limited ammo curbs its usefulness in the mob-handed battles.

A chase sequence follows as Jacob pursues a gang leader (amusingly named Bloody Nora) in a horse-drawn carriage. Buffeted by thugs driving other carriages, we learn to use the ram and boost buttons effectively (yes, the horses have a “turbo” button!) but the thronged streets don’t make for a satisfying race to catch up with Nora.

The denouement of the demo pits Jacob and some allies against a mob in a tightly confined brawl, which teaches you that instead of politely waiting their turn, opponents will often attack en masse, such that crowd control becomes part of the tactics.

This small peek at an unfinished game doesn’t tell us everything about Syndicate. The trailer showcases fistfights aboard the roofs of speeding trains, for instance, but driving them would be cool. We don’t know whether Ubi has abandoned the grossly cluttered maps, overloading the player with side-quests.

At least in making Evie a playable character, Syndicate goes some way to rectifying the ridiculous claim during Unity’s development that “women are too hard to animate”. But she doesn’t make a playable appearance in the demo, so perhaps Quebec still struggles to cope with womanly hips or whatever.

AC likes to weave in famous names from history and in Syndicate we’re promised interventions from the likes of Charles Dickens and Charles Darwin, neither of whom was involved in assassinations to my knowledge.

What we do know is that Quebec has streamlined the half-broken parkour that glued the player to all the wrong objects in Unity. Jacob feels more fluid to control and can even manage to climb through a window without a fuss.

Multiplayer has been completely stripped from Syndicate to allow the studios to focus all their energies on nailing the single-player campaign.

After all, nobody at Ubisoft wants another PR disaster like Unity, which would derail its highly profitable series completely. Four months out from its release, Syndicate looks in better shape than its predecessor. But it will take more than a decent frame rate to convince us that an annual update to the AC franchise is a killer idea.

 

* Assassin's Creed Syndicate will be released for Xbox One and PS4 on October 23, with a PC release due before Christmas.

 

 

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