Assassin’s Creed is a franchise is coming off of a problematic year. Assassin’s Creed Unity faced plenty of derision for debuting with a host of troubling technical issues, a glut of meaningless collectibles and in-game pay transactions, and a stale mission structure that felt like a regression after Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag’s ship-based systems.
So Assassin’s Creed Syndicate comes out with some extra baggage. Is it a return to form for the franchise, another regression like its predecessor — Unity was also the game, pre-release, that faced a slate of bad press for comments about the player’s inability to play as a female assassin — or even a step forward?
Well, while we’re still in the early goings of the latest historical assassination simulator, we have spent a few hours exploring the 1800s-era London that Syndicate calls home. And, at least initially, there are several ways Syndicate feels like a definite improvement over it’s issue-plagued predecessor. Here’s what we’ve noticed so far that’s improved:
Be the Victorian Batman: Movement has always been at the core of Assassin’s Creed, but London is a big locale to explore, and Ubisoft has learned, after many years, that traversing every meter of it and scaling every nook and cranny of a building can become monotonous. The two big improvements to that are Grand Theft Auto-style carriage driving and a grapple that essentially transforms your character into the Dark Knight.
The horse-drawn vehicles are a fine improvement, but the advancements feel like a natural progression from riding horses around from the days of the original Assassin’s Creed. The grapple, on the other hand, so far feels like a major leap forward, even if it may seem antithetical to the series’ parkour roots. Providing you with some of the movement advantages Batman has had for years in the Arkham franchise is a smart move also helps you to avoid the problems the game series still has when it comes to traversal. My assassin feels just as inclined to run and climb in the wrong direction as ever, but thankfully the grapple circumnavigates that issue on some of the bigger climbs.
That comparison also puts into relief just how middling the series’ combat continues to feel. It continues to be a simple case of button mashing with no real connection to the action happening on screen.
Dual Protagonists: Twins Jacob and Evie Frye take center stage in Syndicate, and while story missions rope you into playing as one or the other, roaming around London and taking on side missions allows you to play as whichever twin you prefer. So as soon as the game alerted me of the choice, I switched to Evie. You still get all the characterization of both well-written and well-acted characters, but the more reserved yet clear confidence of Evie seemed like a much more logical choice for fulfilling my assassination duties.
Jacob and Evie also imbue the proceedings with a sense of fun sorely missing from the previous adventure. Black Flag delivered on its swashbuckling aesthetic on the high seas, but Unity lost some of the lighter magic of previous outings. Jacob, Evie, and their supporting cast, which includes everyone from Charles Dickens to Alexander Graham Bell, create, at least in these early goings, a strong foundation for a story and missions I actively seek out.
The music: Assassin’s Creed has had some powerful soundtracks over the years, but it’s little surprise that the composer behind amazing gaming soundtracks like Journey has turned in what may be one of the franchise’s best. Austin Wintory has crafted a beautiful and stirring score that serves as a wonderful backdrop whether you’re scaling the rooftops of Whitechapel or sneaking around the streets of Lambeth.[soundcloud url="https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/227198246" params="visual=true&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false" width="100%" height="450" iframe="true" /]
It runs! Yes, while we’re still early on, Syndicate has so far played with far less technical issues than in Unity. Now, that is damning with some faint praise — there should be an expectation that a game, well, works. But whereas Unity sent me spinning through walls and floors, passing by floating Parisians, and simply crashing on me within the first few hours, Syndicate has run like a dream in comparison.
That’s not to say the game will run identically for everyone, but for now it’s a promising sign that my experience won’t be hampered by the mere inability to run.
The map: It’s a small miracle that you can actually see the in-game map of London. One of my first memories of Unity, which sadly set the tone for the hours to follow, was coming across a chest that required me to go to the game’s mobile companion app. And with a seemingly endless number of other icons populating the world, the game’s glut of content wasn’t so much enticing as it was daunting. Syndicate tamps down on this excess by a fair amount. There are still chests to open, collectibles to track down, and high points to scale, but there’s a far more manageable number of them spread throughout the sizable map. Combined with the choice to play as Jacob or Evie while navigating it and the new traversal updates and Syndicate‘s world not only feels more enjoyable to explore, but I actively found myself wanting to venture off the beaten path to complete missions or find items.
We still have plenty of ground to cover when it comes to Syndicate, and even the first few hours still show some of the lingering problems of the series (those nagging movement and combat issues). Yet the Victorian-era adventure so far feels like a return to form in the early hours. If the series never quite landed with you, don’t expect any of the improvements and fixes to alter your enjoyment of the franchise. But for those who understandably felt burnt by last year’s major release, Syndicate‘s early hours offer plenty of reminders about what made previous entries so engaging.
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate releases on Oct. 23 for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, and Nov. 19 on PC. Impressions based on a PS4 copy. Syndicate is one of the games in EW’s Fall Games Preview. Stay tuned to more on the game. To see what else we can’t wait to play this fall, check out our full fall guide.