Standing atop Elizabeth Tower, London is caught between the sooty smoke discharging from brick chimneys and the golden light of - presumably autumnal - sun. Of course, Elizabeth Tower wasn’t known as such at this point - it was probably Big Ben. This is the capital in all its Victorian splendour, revelling in historical detail. Assassin’s Creed’s twisty, indecipherable (and, some would say, inconsequential) storyline has caught up with the Industrial Revolution. Amidst the long dormant relics of an old Wapping power station, The Digital Fix sit in a darkened hall, the exposed brickwork and rusting machines befitting of Ubisoft’s latest historical venture. Two hours’ hands-on gives us a taste of what’s to be found, as well as time with Marc-Alexis Côté, Creative Director for Syndicate.
If you’re familiar with Assassin’s Creed Unity, the London of Syndicate will immediately feel familiar. Despite a gap of a few hundred years, the streets of Whitechapel - the starting area of the game - feel decidedly similar to London’s Gallic counterpart. The lighting engine that bathed Paris in warm sunlight is evidently in action again and the crowd system is back, recreating every Londoner’s struggle to get through hordes of shuffling arseholes populating the pavements. Nothing changes it seems, but Syndicate does have a few intriguing tweaks up its sleeve.
Of course, the first thing we did was track down well-known landmarks. There’s always a thrill in using Assassin’s Creed as time machine, scouting out real-life places to see how accurate they are and how they’ve changed. Assassin’s Creed II had a wooden Rialto Bridge, true to Renaissance Venice and Paris had its meticulously detailed Notre Dame. There’s an additional layer of excitement given this is London, home of many a Digital Fix team member, so there’s an innate knowledge when it come to casting a critical eye on the in-game city. Everything’s there though - the intricacy of the Houses of Parliament, St Paul’s dominating the City skyline and even smaller hotspots like Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus recognisable albeit in a non one-to-one representation.
Côté tells us that the choice to do London came about for various reasons. Technology hadn’t been able to cope with the extensive draw distance required to render the London skyline. It’s not just about landmarks - the Thames, bisecting the city map, also acts as a focal point that would have proven tricky on earlier console generations. It was also a prime candidate as it’s the first Assassin’s Creed game where photographs exist of the period. The era is so well documented, said Côté that, had they wished, every NPC could have been assigned a real name and job. That was a step too far but Victorian expert Judith Flanders helped ensure accuracy throughout the project.
Our hands-on preview saw us play a few of the mission types on offer. Gang warfare is now a focus as twins Evie and Jacob Frye attempt to recruit members to the Rooks. Opposing them are the Blighters, a Templar-led group under (yes) Bloody Nora. Meanwhile, the advent of the police force gives Ubisoft the perfect opportunity to drop bobbies into the formula as a third force that can be bribed through a city upgrade tree. Missions we played revolved around assassinating prominent gang members, wiping out gangs from a location and freeing children from workhouses. Aside from the workhouse part, it all felt much the same as previous Assassin’s Creed titles. Not bad by any means, but also nothing particularly standout. It was only when the rope-launcher was introduced (we won’t say by whom) that it began to feel different in terms of traversing the environment. It all felt a little Batman to be honest and, while convenient in quickly rappelling up the side of buildings it feels a little like losing part of the Assassin’s Creed DNA when you remove climbing from the equation.
Modernising movement seems to be the order of the day as carriages are introduced - roads are wide and hijackable vehicles are in abundance. Driving them is intuitive enough but the sturdiness of a horse and cart is more than a little ridiculous as you batter enemy carriages and careen headfirst into iron lampposts that crumple like pea-green plastic. This is the same team that introduced da Vinci’s tank and aircraft, so a carriage is unsurprising but it breaks up the cycle of climbing that has become so intrinsic to the franchise.
The world also reacts to your escapades. Côté spoke of the involvement of composer Austin Wintory; how the score fits the period precisely and is less about reflecting familiar themes and more invoking the city and time itself. Kill a target and the populace will sing murder ballads about the unlucky sod put to your blade. It’s a wonderful reciprocal loop that brings depth to the city beyond the visual. Likewise, the city itself can be upgraded - we saw plenty of upgrade perks affecting the police force, your gang and more in addition to your character. The ability to switch between Jacob and Evie at any point is also a welcome one, although it involves a cumbersome delve into a menu. Other than their animation there isn’t much to differentiate the two, so we stuck to playing as Evie as Jacob comes across as a bit of a dick, frankly.
Being a Londoner has its drawbacks - the London of Syndicate does feel a bit like a Victorian theme park, all Cockneys here and Tiny Tims there. While the voice acting can grate at times, there are some other accents that are pitch perfect. A wonderful Scottish brogue can be found in your base of operations - no villas or subterranean lairs here. Befitting of the time, you set up shop on a train - an inspired choice for a country at the grip of train mania.
Unity took a step back from the modern day story and we couldn’t coax anything out of the developers beyond the fact that Syndicate will still contain some reference to the overarching Animus/Abstergo plotline. We did also see something in the menus that didn’t fit with the Victorian period but we’ll say no more, despite the fact leaked achievements have revealed the secret. Rest assured, Syndicate does not appear to shy away from playing around with history.
What we saw looked very much within the Assassin’s Creed mould. Whether a year is enough time between franchise instalments is a debate to be had once final code is available for review, but we did notice a few familiar bugs in our time with the game. Hopefully these are minor - for what it’s worth, if you are a fan of Ubisoft’s brand of climbing, stealth and assassination it looks like a solid entry with the added frisson of real-life familiarity. There’s a lot to like but we’re still left with questions - we only saw the briefest glimpse of your train and only a small section of the city and the plot. Will it end up following the Ubisoft template? Most likely - hopefully the story will be compelling enough to carry it.