Assassin’s Creed is a popular franchise, but it’s not a consistent one. The first title showed promise, but suffered from poor execution. Assassin’s Creed 2 was good; its follow-up, Brotherhood, was even better. Players complained about Assassin’s Creed 3’s dull protagonist and large, empty spaces, but they loved the pirate-themed Assassin’s Creed 4.
All this to say that, while Assassin’s Creed Unity had a slew of problems, it’s not a franchise killer. Assassin’s Creed has survived before. Still, the wounds from last fall’s disappointment are still pretty fresh, and Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is under a lot of pressure to fix its predecessor’s mistakes.
So far, so good. Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is still in an early state – the demo that Ubisoft brought the E3 is an alpha – and it’s hard to judge the game’s technical performance, especially in a tightly controlled and fairly linear demonstration. The gameplay itself, however, is on the right track. This still feels like Assassin’s Creed, it’s just an (intentionally) rougher and more brutal version.
In the demo, players control Jacob Frye, one of the game’s two main characters. Jacob leads the Rooks, one of Victorian London’s street gangs. As the demo opens, some of Jacob’s men have been captured by a rival organization; it’s up to Jacob and his assassin training to hunt down his captors and kill them.
Assassin Creed Syndicate’s new movement options come into play almost immediately. Simply put, the rope gun changes everything. Sure, Jacob can still parkour up walls and across buildings, but he doesn’t have to. Simply aim at a vantage point and hit the bumper, a rope flies Spider-Man-like from his hands. Jacob can use this rope to climb or zipline across gaps, crossing the space between buildings in a fraction of the time it used to take.
This is huge. Even though it’s one of the franchise’s signature elements, Assassin’s Creed’s parkour never felt particularly graceful, and there’s something robotic about the way its characters climb. The rope gun doesn’t fix the problem – climbing is still as clunky as ever – as much as it avoids it entirely. The rope gun also helps combat the predictability of Assassin’s Creed’s pre-set climbing paths. Players can choose where to attach the rope, and that makes all the difference.
Combat, meanwhile, feels more like an evolution than a revolution. Once Jacob sneaks into the enemy base, he’s tasked with taking down ten opponents, using a mixture of stealth and old-fashioned fisticuffs. Assassin’s Creed Syndicate’s London is a more modern setting, and there aren’t any swords or spears: when Jacob fights, it’s with his hands. Stealth takedowns now involve bashing enemies’ heads into nearby walls, and combat delivers a visceral, physical thrill that was missing from past games.
It’s not perfect, of course. Enemies still do that strange thing where they’ll surround the main character, and then take turns attacking. It’s not as bad in Syndicate, but it’s still there. Jacob’s gadgets don’t always seem useful, either. The Ubisoft rep kept encouraging people to use Jacob’s hallucinogenic, but nobody did. It was more fun to beat bad guys into a bloody pulp.
Once Jacob clears out the enemy base, a Gang War begins. As Jacob (or Evie, presumably) conquers enemy territory, the Rooks’ influence over London grows. Once they’ve taken over a location entirely, the controlling boss comes out and challenges the siblings to a fight. This starts with NPCs from both sides facing off, and escalates into a showdown between Jacob and his rival. Successfully beat the boss, and the territory falls to the Rooks.
In this case, the woman controlling the other gang escapes in a carriage. Jacob hijacks a carriage of his own, and a chase follows. Assassin Creed Syndicate’s carriage driving is about as fun as it sounds; those who think a clumsy, chaotic, carriage chase sounds both thrilling and hilarious won’t be disappointed. Others will find it more frustrating than fun. Carriages aren’t made to move that fast. Collisions are inevitable.
Ultimately, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate makes for a great demo, but there are still some spots for concern. After so many installments, there’s a good chance that Assassin’s Creed is getting stale. As mentioned earlier, the rope launcher is great, but it doesn’t fix the parkour – it just provides another option.
Repetition is a potential stumbling block, too. Both the base infiltration and the Gang War asked players to defeat ten enemies before progressing; the context was different, but the basic task was the same. At the demo event, Ubisoft showed a video of a different Gang War, and it played out almost exactly the same way: a brawl, followed by a chase. If that’s all the game has to offer, it’s not going to hold players’ interest for very long.
Still, this was just a demo, and an early one at that; hopefully, Ubisoft has a few surprises in store. Assassin’s Creed Syndicate could be one of the “good” Assassin’s Creeds, but it’s impossible to say without giving the game a little more time.
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate arrives for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One on October 23, 2015.