I spent some time back in London over the past week or so. It’s been 20 years since I’d been in the Great Wen, but I visited its 1860s facsimile to carry out a bit of neck-stabbing along with the sightseeing.
It’s been a reasonable break since I last visited the Assassin’s Creed universe. Last time I played an AC game, I was kind of underwhelmed with the experience. This time, though? A different story.
(Spoilers probably follow.)
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate sees you play as twins, Jacob and Evie Frye. You’re Assassin kids, keen to make your mark on the big smoke, and soon find yourself caught up in Templar fuckery, which has wormed its way into the highest offices of the land. Can our Assassins stop those dastardly Templars from fucking shit up in the pursuit of their version of Liberation? Let’s see.
There’s appropriately mustachioed bad guys, some louche theatre-types, and a fuckload of urchins in caps. There’s coppers who don’t approve of your scenery-humping moves, and plenty of random people to knock arse-over-tit while you careen around the cobblestones of a wonderfully realised London, all chimney-smoke and damp. There’s a heavily populated Thames, even. It’s glorious, frankly.
There’s familiar AC mechanics – and bugs – here. The map is large and full of lots and lots of things to do. There’s a great rush, as ever, from synchronising viewpoints and seeing sections of the city stretch out below you. There’s territory to snatch back from opposing forces, and plenty of equipment to gather. There’s flowers to find, beer tasting notes to dig up, illustrations to discover, and (as ever) chests to loot. It’s grinding, sure, but it’s enjoyable because of the greater sense of life in the city – listening to Cockney thugs threaten to rip someone’s cock off in a moment of pique never loses its appeal, frankly.
Of course, there’s brushes with history. Alexander Bell? Charles Dickens? Benjamin Disraeli? Karl Marx? Frederick Abberline? They’re all there, and will all pal around with you to some extent. Hell, so does Queen Victoria, should you stick it out long enough. These interactions are always a little cringeworthy, but you do get to hear the Queen give a cake-based version of “the tea is rather fine today” so there’s that.
(The encyclopaedia included in the game is, as ever, wonderful, with a lot of smart-arsey comments from Shaun, and a lot of neat facts about London, even for someone fairly familiar with the city and its history.)
The current-era part of the game is used as a framing device here, mostly. We’re once more a nameless player who’s helping the Assassins against the Templar menace, but the interaction in modern time periods is minimal – it’s literally a bunch of cut-scenes. It gives some good context, and is certainly a better idea than some of the walk-around-a-software-developer’s-office stuff in previous parts of the series.
There’s a real sense that Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes movies were reference materials – especially in the fight clubs! – in the creation of Syndicate, though I don’t view that as a negative. We all know by now that the worlds created in these games are idealised, and it’s a convenient construction, this London. It’s smaller than the real thing, but its landmarks have a real sense of fidelity to their real-life counterparts. All that’s missing is the smell of hot garbage.
The main story races towards its end and I was caught up enough to stay up late and see it through. It’s popcorn, sure, but it seems more tightly planned than previous games in the series – I liked that a great deal. There was a real sense of plotting a future for Evie, in particular, which I enjoyed.
(Not for Jacob, though. That guy’s a penis.)
What’s most cool about Syndicate is that there’s a time-slip quietly inserted into the late game. I found the icon during some cleaning up post-credits and discovered that it led to a WWI-era Tower Bridge, and a younger Frye, Lydia. Lydia has her own story – involving Winston Churchill, no less – and proves more capable than a lot of the Tommies tooling around the harbour. It’s not a hugely long part of the game, but it’s a nice shake-up, and perhaps a good apology for all that herp female character models too hard to code derp stuff that surrounded Unity.
The DLC available for the game was a bit of a mixed bag. The costumes were mostly wank, though I was tickled by the addition of Frankenstein and Dracula-influenced costumes for the main characters (especially Evie’s Bloofer Lady garb). The bonus weapons didn’t change a hell of a lot of the experience for me, but I did enjoy finding out more of Duleep Singh’s story in The Last Maharaja, which added a bit of pissed-off colony action to the EGADS! EMPIRE! vibes of the game. Similarly, The Dreadful Crimes took the investigation mechanic of the previous game and improved upon it, offering some neat little interludes with a youthful Arthur Conan Doyle.
(Seriously, the deductive process in this game is much improved, both in presentation and flow. Who says Ubisoft don’t listen?)
With ten(ish) missions, the Jack the Ripper DLC was the beefiest (ahem) additional content for the game. I was keen to play it – I am fascinated by the period and the crimes themselves, no doubt egged on by some Moore/Ackroyd woo – and I did enjoy it, though it was not without its problems. While it didn’t reach the lows of the Ripper Museum’s bullshit, having “fallen woman” missions seemed a bit tone deaf, particularly when the idea was that the sex workers would become your allies and protectors. Given that this part of the game was one you had to play as Evie, it seemed particularly on the nose.
That said, the story – though patently hand-wavy – was serviceable enough, and it was a neat move to set it further forward than the original storyline; we get to see an older, confident Evie as someone who has lived her own life rather than be lumped in with her brother. Baby steps, I suppose.
The Ripper DLC was much more broken than the main game. While the other storylines fit in the regular game, changes to mechanics – the ability to frighten fuck out passers-by with screams and such – meant this story was loaded on its own, isolating it into a strange little world of reskinned stalk-or-protect missions. The in-London levels weren’t much different from those we’d seen before, but the Deptford hulk sequence was great, and just the sort of thing to add some much-needed variation. I completed the story, but found it pretty stitched together, a case of style over substance, which was a shame.
I guess that’s what happens with these games, though. They’re pushed out on such a tight schedule – and they’re so big – that means there’s corners that’re cut, or issues that can’t be predicted. It’s a bit rough that there’s hard crash issues still occurring three years after launch, but it’s also a fool’s errand to expect an organisation like Ubisoft to bug-hunt on something that works 90 per cent of the time.
While it’s probably better optimised than its immediate predecessor – it seems to run more smoothly for the most part – I did find that Syndicate crashed a lot more than other AC games I’d played. There were a lot of lock-up crashes in my 44 hours of playing – about a dozen? – and it was a drag when these happened at the end of lengthy side missions. I battled through them as I wanted to see the thing through to the end, but man, what a drag.
Still, I was happy to see the stories through to their end, no matter what setting. It didn’t feel like grinding to check off all the collectables – something I definitely didn’t do with Unity – because tooling around London was such fun. Perhaps that’s what it comes down to: I was more familiar with the environment, and there was a much more personal link to the surrounds. I recognised places I’d been to, places I liked, and that affinity made me like the game more. It did feel like a game which had had more effort expended on it – there were a lot of little details in the world I appreciated much more than I did with Unity – and so I’m pleased to have finally caught up.
Now, Egypt. Maybe not right now, but soon…