It’s been a rocky couple of years for Ubisoft. Assassin’s Creed Unity had a rough launch (full of terrifying/hilarious face melting bugs), issues over the exclusion of female playable characters rightfully put them in the crosshairs, and there’s just been an overwhelming sense of exhaustion with their open-world model: climb to the top of something tall, hit a button, and unlock the locations of dudes to stab. Rinse, repeat.
After playing a short demo of Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate on the show floor, they seem to be making a number of changes to the basics of the game – tackling the niggly, fidgety movement that has hounded the series since its inception (and only gotten worse as they’ve has appended more traversal options to its free running core).
The demo had me play as one of the new protagonists, Jacob Frye. It focused on some of the game’s gang warfare elements and combat, but it also had a vehicular chase sequence. Jacob is a little more rough-and-tumble than any of the previous characters – his weapon choice, fighting style, and how he carries himself all help underscore that fact.
Combat really hasn’t undergone any radical changes. One button for strikes, one for counters, and another to break guards. The animations have been brought up another notch though. Jacob uses particularly nasty brass knuckles as his core weapons, and he combines them with firearms for some brutal executions. Contextual animations are similarly gory, like ramming a thug’s head repeatedly into a nearby wall.
The biggest thing that needs to be explained here is the traversal. Climbing buildings has always felt like a small puzzle. Not at all strenuous, to be sure, but it’s always been rewarding reading the correct environmental cues to find a path to your destination.
In a strange deviation, Syndicate now has a Batman styled grappling hook. Looking up at a building and hitting L1 will slingshot you to the top. The system doesn’t entirely throw away the climbing concept, as not all ledges can be grappled up to – a caveat that lead to some strange moments where I’d aim up, expecting to escape my pursuers, only to ineffectually remain on the ground, being pummelled.
Jacob is a little more rough-and-tumble than any of the previous characters – his weapon choice, fighting style, and how he carries himself all help underscore that fact.
The grappling hook has more uses outside of vertical movement though. The streets are quite wide, to allow ample space for multiple lanes of horse-drawn carriages to flow through the grimy London scenery. As a result, the distance between buildings is greater than they’ve ever been before (except maybe for Assassin’s Creed 3).
To ease rooftop-to-rooftop navigation, you can now make impromptu zip lines with the grappling hook. It’s a simple system, requiring you to point and hit a button, and you can really pick up some nice speed from it. It also removes the awkward moments that plagued previous entries – you know the ones: you’d narrowly miss a jump between adjacent buildings, and you’d have to dejectedly climb back up another one just to continue your journey.
The demo ended with a chase sequence, racing a rival gang leader with a horse-drawn carriage to her destination. It was fluid, and similar to GTA, as I pressed a button to hijack a nearby carriage. It was a relatively painless experience, as far as open world driving sequences go, but there was the occasional moment of jankiness: carriages would rub against each other like shopping trolleys, or collide head-on with minimal impact. Apart from that, I never felt like I was working against a system I couldn’t control.
Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate looks to be tackling core issues to the movement – issues that have hounded the series for a long time. The grappling hook is a lot of fun to use, and solves the problem of inter-rooftop navigation. Only by October will we truly know if those changes are sweeping enough to reinvigorate the franchise.