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Darwinism Versus Revolution – Hands-on with Assassin’s Creed Syndicate
Post by nachosjustice @ 03:25pm 01/10/15 | Comments
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate takes a closer look at some of the recurring sins of the series and has a shot at presenting the best version of the familiar gameplay loop yet.

The trick with yearly iterating titles is keeping things fresh. Assassin’s Creed is no stranger to this challenge, and after the rocky launch of Assassin’s Creed Unity, Ubisoft Quebec is keen to get things back on track with Assassin’s Creed Syndicate. While Syndicate is certainly familiar in its presentation and core gameplay loop, it also represents a return to the drawing board for certain core features in the hopes of delivering the best Assassin’s Creed yet.

For me, that crown belongs to Black Flag but, in truth, that’s because I fell in love with the high-seas hijinks, which distracted from familiar sins present in the rest of the game. The future stuff, for instance, has always felt jarring (in every game) and has yet to be presented in such a way that it can be considered essential beyond being a convenient game mechanic that allows titles to shift eras within the logic of the universe.

Unsurprisingly, Ubisoft wasn’t showing off any future elements, which is par for the course with Assassin’s Creed previews, but it’s safe to assume it’ll be there at launch for Syndicate. Of the two sections of the game I played, there were more than a couple of references to “another piece of Eden”, so it sounds as though the meta-narrative is being honoured in Syndicate. As long as Syndicate avoids going too hard and heavy on future sections, it doesn’t have to necessarily tarnish the core game which, in this title, is set in 19th century London.

The plot is carried forward by twins Jacob and Evie Frye, whose dynamic is quite endearing. They riff off each other really well, with a lighter tone overall and plenty of playful banter, despite the high stakes. The backstory is that all of London is owned and has been controlled by Templars for the last century, so the assassins tend to steer clear and stick to the outskirts. But the ambitious twins aren’t about to stand for that.

From what I played, switching between Jacob and Evie didn’t drastically change the gameplay; in fact, it didn’t change much at all. In terms of the progression system, I spied character-specific upgrades alongside the bulk of skills that were shared between the two, so those different play styles may come later in the game.

In terms of the foundational gameplay, it’s certainly the best presentation of free-running I’ve experienced in the series. Bear in mind that I didn’t play much of Unity (outside of a preview event), but Syndicate brings back the separation of sprinting and parkour, meaning you can dash around the streets without fear of mounting a wall because running and free-running have traditionally been mapped to the same button (except for the first game). Shifting through the world is handled by a separation of upwards or downwards movement, which requires a bit of mental rewiring for series regulars, but ultimately pays off in terms of how the game mirrors your movement intentions with correct in-game actions the vast majority of the time.

Evie and Jacob climb faster, too, and a little bit of the way into the game you’ll unlock the rope launcher, which makes traversal even speedier. Using this new gadget isn’t as straightforward or as intuitive as, say, the grappling hook in Dying Light, which leads to moments where the launcher zips you up to an unintended rooftop. There’s also the option to hijack horse-drawn carriages to get around the faithfully recreated London landscape, which is necessary given the giant bloody river that cuts the city in two, and the general emphasis on space in terms of the level design, meaning conveniently close buildings don’t mark an obvious route from point A to B.

Combat has received some refinements, even if enemies still stood around waiting to attack a bit more than I would have liked. They take quite a bit of time to kill and fights can’t be won by simply mashing on the counter button and then stringing together one-hit deaths on every other nearby combatant. It’s a step in the right direction for the series, and I hope that it gets taken further in the final product to make combat even more satisfying.

In many respects, Syndicate’s gameplay feels more Darwinian than the rebellious overtones of Unity, in that it embraces evolution over revolution. But that doesn’t have to be a negative. If the improved mechanics set a new standard for what can be expected from the series, it frees up future entries to focus on making bigger changes to the formula. For now, those who relish in returning to the historical sci-fi of the Assassin’s Creed series can look forward to a game that actively seeks to right the recurring wrongs of previous entries and offers a couple of charming protagonists, to boot.