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Victorian London Comes Alive in Assassin's Creed Syndicate

NEW YORK — If World War II is the most overused setting for video games, Victorian London is a close second. A developer has to do something new and exciting with the well-worn location to hold gamers' attention, yet it looks like Ubisoft has done just that with Assassin's Creed Syndicate. The latest installment in the historical-action series treads new ground and fixes some of the series' old flaws without radically reinventing any of the gameplay that has made the franchise so successful.

I got a chance to sit down and play Syndicate at an Ubisoft event in New York City along with Jeff Skalski, a senior producer on the game, and Hugo Girard, a mission director. After an introductory Q&A session and a look at the game's new story trailer, I was on my own in 1868 London for a few hours, during which time I learned a lot more about the game's dual protagonists and how they can navigate the city.

The hands-on began in Sequence 3, wherein the protagonists, Jacob and Evie, arrive in London for the first time. Skalski explained that Syndicate is the first game in the series where two protagonists share an equal spotlight. Jacob and Evie Frye are twins who both grew up to be Assassins, members of a secret society who stand against the authoritarian Templar Order.

As I learned firsthand, the two take different approaches to liberating London from the Templars, and the gameplay reflects their personalities. Jacob tends to be a bit more brash and physical, while Evie is more bookish and stealthy. In a pinch, though, the former is capable of sneaking and stealing, just as the latter is never above busting a few heads with a stylish cane sword.

You can play as either twin at any time while exploring the open world. An Ubisoft representative told me that the number of plot missions that force you to play as one sibling or the other are roughly evenly divided, and that previous reports of a 75/25 Jacob/Evie split were inaccurate. This is a big step forward for female representation in the franchise, especially after the kerfuffle last year surrounding Assassin's Creed Unity.

My first mission was to liberate impoverished Whitechapel from a local brute, Rexford Kaylock. Here, I first encountered one of my favorite improvements to the Assassin's Creed formula: Side missions, which, in previous games, were generally just for collecting extra money and gear, now tie into controlling neighborhoods.

Before I could confront Kaylock, I had to deliver one of his officers to the police, take out another quietly, and free child laborers from a factory. As Skalski recommended, I used Evie for the stealthier missions and her brother for the more combat-oriented ones.

Longtime Assassin's Creed fans will be pleased to learn that both the stealth and the combat appear to be in top form in Syndicate. Sneaking up on enemies and dispatching them from the shadows (or launching yourself at them from rooftops) is still a fun, tense experience. Even better, you can now upgrade your stealth options via a skill tree. At first, sneaking around is difficult and noisy, but you can move more quickly and quietly if you choose to invest points in it.

As far as combat goes, you'll soften up the gangs of London with your fists, cane swords, kukri blades, brass knuckles, pistols and, of course, the Assassins' iconic hidden blades. Combat is fast and fluid, although, as in previous Assassin's Creed installments, enemies still tend to surround you and then attack one at a time.

Things can still get difficult, as counterattack windows are brief, and it'll very often be one of you against half-a-dozen of them. Combat is also lots of fun, partially because the attack animations are so varied and vibrant. Each character, and each weapon, is wildly different from the others in practice. Seeing Evie sidestep a blow to whack an attacker over the head with a sword cane, or watching Jacob take a hit and then counterattack with a few knuckle strikes to the rib cage, never got old.

From what I saw, the combat is a little simpler and less stylish than in competing titles such as Shadow of Mordor or Batman: Arkham Knight. At the same time, it seems more refined than in previous titles like Assassin's Creed Unity or Assassin's Creed Rogue, and has a much greater variety of weapons to offer.

Another gameplay innovation that has come a long way since we first saw Syndicate in June at E3 is the inclusion of vehicles. London in 1868 was full of horse-drawn carriages and steam trains, and I got a chance to try both methods of transportation. Each is not only a handy way to get around the city, but also provides new opportunities for combat.

First off, let's give credit where it's due. Carriage controls were a mess at E3. The slightest tap of the analog stick would send the vehicle sprawling madly across the Victorian streets. Now, however, the controls feel much tighter. When Evie took the reins of a carriage, I had no trouble racing down the crowded streets and smashing into enemy carriages.

Trains were also a fun addition, although aside from the cool visuals and attack animations, fighting aboard a train is not terribly different from fighting on the streets or the rooftops.

At the end of Sequence 3, I met up with Scottish inventor Alexander Graham Bell (who seems to fill the same role in Syndicate as Leonardo da Vinci in Assassin's Creed II or the Marquis de Sade in Unity), who perfected a rope launcher for the twins. This was a great benefit, as I jumped ahead to Sequence 7 for a little while. The rope launcher helped me scale tall buildings in only a few moments and zip line between rooftops.

The rope launcher may sound like cheating in a series that has always prided itself on parkour, but I found it quite necessary. Advances in technology allowed Victorian buildings to be much taller than they were in the medieval, Renaissance and Early Modern eras. The rope launcher helps the gameplay keep pace without sacrificing a salient historical detail.

Story-wise, I didn't learn much that the story trailer hadn't already covered. Jacob and Evie travel to London and, with the help of a British-Indian Assassin named Henry Green, endeavor to end the ambitions of Crawford Starrick, a Templar who has a Rockefeller-like grip on the industries of London and controls the underclass with an iron fist.

Girard told me that the game would have some important story ties to both Assassin's Creed III and Assassin's Creed IV, as both titles made oblique references to the imminent Industrial Revolution in the Old World. (The former game took place in 1776, the latter in 1715.) For the most part, though, Syndicate will tell a stand-alone tale, complete with a present-day section to advance the franchise's ongoing near-future sci-fi storyline.

In terms of production values, the graphics look good, although the 30-frames-per-second frame rate feels a bit dated by modern standards. (Most current-gen games run at 60 fps.) Skalski said the developers wanted to keep the console version of Syndicate locked at 30 fps to give the game the best look possible, but he was not sure whether the PC version (slated for release about a month after its console brethren) would face the same restriction.

On the other hand, the music is phenomenal. Each part of London has its own distinct sound, both during exploration and battle. Folksy fiddles dominate plebeian neighborhoods such as Whitechapel, while Westminster features sweeping orchestral numbers to underscore the grandeur of structures like Big Ben. The voice acting and writing, too, give each character a distinct personality and outlook.

After last year's Assassin's Creed Unity, which disappointed many of the franchise's fans, Syndicate has a difficult task ahead of it: convincing gamers that the Assassin's Creed series, while frequently added to and occasionally unwieldy, still deserves its spot as one of the mainstays of big-budget gaming.

As a longtime fan of the series, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Syndicate, and I'm already looking forward to getting my hands on a complete version to review. In all fairness, the game does not reinvent the wheel: It's still a big, open-world game that divides its time equally among stealth, combat and exploration. Platforming can still get sticky, the battle system is not as deep as it could be and getting around the city can be complicated at times.

Still, as a cohesive experience, Syndicate offers a gorgeous world to explore and lots of ways to dispatch your foes. Customizing your dual protagonists is a novel experience, and the story seems to embrace the anti-authoritarian populist thread that's run through the series for the past eight years. Tom's Guide will have a full review of Assassin's Creed Syndicate closer to when it comes out on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on Oct. 23. A PC port will follow later in November.