As I stepped off the train at Whitechapel, I stopped to take a deep breath. Drawing in all the sights and sounds of London as if it was my first time visiting, shortly before a sneaky little git pilfered my wallet and scarpered at two sheets to the wind.
Obviously I was beyond angry and decided police be damned, this annoying little brat needed some street justice, so off I went after the blighter. A fool hardy move in hindsight as despite being able to catch up to the pre-pubescent villain, I didn't realise he’d lead me into the rough part of Soho where a couple of double hard thugs were looking to turn my face into a rendition of Van Gogh's cubist portraits.
I warned them that I was prepared to defend myself should they make things any more serious but they didn't listen so naturally I threw a few fists around. I gave as good as I got and while I took a few right hooks, I managed to knock one out cold while the other I decided to teach a lesson and end his reign of small scale tyranny for good.
As my knife sank into his jugular, blood pumping out into the air he’d no longer be breathing, it struck me how strange it felt to be play Assassins Creed in the setting of streets I know so well.
Taking the beauty and detail from Assassins Creed Unity and building upon it even further thanks to an atmospheric day/night cycle as well as the main ingredient for any game set in London. Yep, you guessed it. Rain. Whatever you’re up to, there’s more than a good chance that the heavens can open up at any moment to make your day that bit more authentic (i.e. miserable)
It’s not a bad thing though, I couldn't help but see the hipster-esque poetry in slashing thugs throats in the pouring rain, or simply taking a stroll around St.Pauls as the heavens gave way to every drop of H2O available.
Antagonists have been somewhat of an Issue for the AC series ever since Ezio graced our small screens and stole our hearts way back in 2009. Connor ruined the franchise for many (I wont keep bringing up my absolute hatred for AC3) with his flat dialogue and unlikable temperament and while his Grandfather Edward Kenway did improve upon thing for Black Flag, I just couldn't fully click with him. (I admit I enjoyed Arnos character in Unity but seeing as he left many feeling cold, I cant fully strike that down as a win in the narrative department.)
The solution this time around, is a two for one deal, as Syndicate focuses on the Frye twins, Evie and Jacob.
After the events ofAC3, London is a Templar stronghold as the bustling heart of all business in the country he who controls London, controls the world during this time. Apparently. So defying the council, Evie and Jacob set out to join the last remaining Assassin in the city and take back control from the evil clutches of bankers everywhere. Or Templars rather. Well, we all hate Bankers anyway so lets just call them Bankers.
The good news is both are great characters who during my hands on showed off some great back and forth moments as the bickering twins vie for dominance and lust to take control with their own methods of problem solving. Jacob is very much the more irritating Alpha Male, full of the big B (Bravado, lets not lower the tone eh?) and action hero quips. Evie is the sharper mind with an even sharper wit while handling all dramas with a lot more stealth (later on in the game, she can essentially turn invisible with her hood up)
While each has their pros and cons, its refreshing to see a true choice of hero for once, allowing you to switch at will, GTAV style. Character switching and banter isn't the only clear inspiration for Rockstar Games last crime focused epic, as car jacking makes an entrance in Ubisofts 9th AC title. (21st if you’re counting spin offs and handheld titles)
Well, coach jacking anyways. It really is as simple as running up to a coach, shouting “Oi! On your Clever Mike unless you fancy a Meryy-go-round on your Lump of Lead!” and waiting for the driver to flee from his perch, leaving you with a brand whip you and the homies have always wanted.
Surprisingly, controls feel smooth when handling these large wooden beasts and they're a joy to drive, especially once you discover you’ve got the option to climb on the carriage roof for a quick punch up while the horses go on auto pilot.
It’s a bit jarring that you essentially cant kill pedestrians even when trampling them to death but I’m still working out if thats a good or bad thing. I mean, in a game focused on murder and the finality of death, shouldn't pedestrians die making my accidents actually mean something?
At the same time, do I want all gamers to accidentally stumble into the role of child murderer as orphans run carelessly into the road far too often?
Invincible pedestrians aside, Syndicate sees the Assassins Creed series tackle its largest map ever. Spanning seven London boroughs which amount to a total size thats 30% larger than that of Unity, which, if you played Unity, you’ll know how bananas that sounds! Whitechapel, Westminster and Southwark are some examples of cobbled streets you can tread. All recreated with serious care and enough accuracy that you can almost smell the atmosphere change when moving from the richer side of London closer to the docks and more poverty stricken areas of the capital. Just watch out for pick pockets and Blighters.
No, that isn't a typo or ancient insult from ‘back in the day’. Gangs play a huge part in the story of Syndicate and it just so happens that while you’ll be heading up a fairly cool sound group of rag tag rebels known as ‘The Rooks’ those Templars aren't quite as imaginative when it comes to naming things and have gone with ‘The Blighters’.
Despite the god awful naming thats gone on here, gang warfare is a welcome addition and adds some focus to your free time, with most side missions tying in with, in some way or another, lowering The Blighters control.
After enough fun and games you’ll have the chance to go head on with those red jacketed fiends, Warriors style. As soon as you’re in the mix you’ll notice just how much cleaner the combat has become. It’s still not perfect, 3rd person combat has for a while now belonged to games such as the Arkham series and more recently Mad Max, but Ubisoft should be commended for tightening it all up. You’re forced to balance a mix of blocks, jabs, counters and hard attacks to keep the battle flowing and end things in your favour.
Evie and Jacob fight pretty much the same but have their own distinctive flavours to choose from, with Jacob offering slightly slower movement for more straightforward and concise attacks, while Evie is far more slick, unleashing a barrage of lighter stabs and punches to finish things with some brutal K.O’s. The animation is pretty spot on too, as you knock bowler hats and trembles off guards and thugs heads alike you cant help but feel a small sense of satisfaction. The same obviously goes for those moments when you kick someone off a rooftop and are treated to a classic ‘wobble and woah!’ moment before they become human pancakes. The more you fight and upgrade your heroes, the more quirks and eye catching brutality you’ll discover so theres still a lot to learn.
It’s not all about going into battle head first, blades and all. Stealth is as much a key component of Syndicate as it’s ever been. Enemies are much harder to sneak past as everyone seems equipped with eyes in the back of their heads and hearing like your dear old mum (yes, she definitely heard you swearing and you're in s**t for it!) meaning you’ll need to make good use of your tools and plan routes through crowds as the slightest mistake and you're in for trouble. Thanks to level indicators, you’ll know who to be most scared of as if you’re not ready to tackle that level 7 copper after you, then you're in for an utter pasting!
It’s safe to say I really enjoyed my time with Assassins Creed Syndicate but while it was a right old knees up to wander the streets of my home town in all its digital glory, I’m still worried for its final realise and quite possibly the series itself.
The bugs that plagued Unity and left many players more than a little unsatisfied are still present and accounted for in Syndicate and while I was assured that this was still an early build, with only just over a month to go, I’m not sure it will be up to scratch for launch. I didn't find anything game breaking so much as evidence of annoying niggles.
NPCs teleporting to rooftops before plummeting to their deaths, cutscenes being interrupted by horses walking through Jacob or Evie respectively or the twins swapping voices for a ‘bit of a laugh’. Thats all without mentioning the consistent drops in resolution and frame rate.
It’s all a little bit unnerving and while I’m sure Ubisoft could fix these issues, if the overall experience isn't 100% this time around, fans will be crying out for a full on, back to the drawing board, reboot.
So far it seems that Assassins Creed Syndicate has a lot to offer. With a great pair of new characters in Jacob and Evie, a much faster paced narrative, better combat and the dirt filed beauty of London, the ingredients are there for a fantastic return to form, but with plenty of bugs I cant help but feel the series annual release schedule is starting to derail the whole affair as cracks are showing in ever more prevalent fashion.