We did not have to wait long after the release of Assassin's Creed: Unity until news concerning the next Assassin's Creed leaked via the internet. Kotaku reported that the next entry in the series would be titled "Victory", and that we would visit London during the famed reign of Queen Victoria. After having paid Ubisoft Quebec a visit, we can now confirm that only one of these assumptions ringed true: this year's entry will be known as Assassin's Creed Syndicate, and yes, we will in fact make our way from Notre Dame to the Big Ben in 1868 and the beginning of our modern age.
Assassin's Creed is one of the world's largest video game franchises, and like Call of Duty, a new game drops annually (even more frequently if you count spin-offs), putting the quality of recent entries into question. Unity especially has garnered massive criticism after its release late last year, begging the question whether quality is being sacrificed in order to maintain the annual cycle. Many fans voice the opition that diversity and variation in the franchise is almost non-existent, and that we're basically playing the same game as we did 8 years ago despite last year's reboot. These are issues the French-Canadian studio seek to address.
It was a warm early summer's day in Quebec City when, together with the other journalists, I was led into the offices of Ubisoft Quebec. Great images of the Quebec based company's past titles adorned the walls and doors, mainly art from Assassin's Creed Freedom Cry and Brotherhood. After having opened its doors in 2005 with 30 employees, the studio has grown significantly, employing around 400 people. Today, the once relatively small studio has risen to the role of lead studio for the new project, naturally something that makes senior producer Francois Pelland and creative director Marc-Alexis Coté very proud.
"We are very proud to announce Assassin's Creed Syndicate, thereby taking on the role as the lead studio for our biggest project to date," declares Pelland. "This is the first Assassin's Creed set in the modern era," he continues, and tells us that the demonstration we are about to see is the real deal, gameplay straight from the alpha version of the game on the PlayStation 4. "No trickery," as he puts it.
As it turned out, we had to wait a little longer for the actually demo to be shown. To begin with, we got to see a video behind him set on "repeat," where an assassin held his arms crossed. His equipment gave us an idea about what we were about to see, weapons such as brass knuckles and a cane. A tiny canon-like contraption rested on his arm, which turned out quite different from what I first expected. But more on that later.
Creative Director Marc-Alexis Coté is quick to replace Pelland on the stage. Wearing stylish glasses and an excited smile, he finally opens up on what Syndicate has to offer.
"We are now entering the period that sees the end of the Industrial Revolution," he explains. "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,' wrote Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities in 1859. It is this atmosphere we want to recreate in Syndicate, and what we want you to experience in the different Boroughs of London."
There are enormous social differences throughout the massive city, and both rich and poor will be showcased for better or worse. Organized crime, for example, will be a major part of the game. Coté made us aware that it is merely around 75 years since the events that unfolded in Assassin's Creed Unity and the French Revolution took place. Despite this, we are told the differences will be immense.
"It will seem as though a thousand years have passed. The technological development has changed everything. We have left the medieval era and entered the modern period." Among other things, Coté believes this change opens the door for innovation in the franchise.
Concept art is shown on the screen behind him. Darkness and steam is often involved. Coté then starts talking about the backstory of Syndicate.
"The British Empire is the largest in the world. Be it militarily, commercially or diplomatically, no other power comes close. Controlling a massive quarter of the Earth, it is a superpower without equal. The Templars find themselves at the heart of this empire, and London is their citadel. However, it is also their weak point. At this point in time, they have won the war against the Assassins. Despite this, they will realise that the fight is far from over."
One of the biggest changes we will come to experience is that this time around, is that the game will feature two protagonists: a man and a woman. Twins, actually.
"Jacob and Eve Frye grew up in the outskirts of London. They have been trained in the arts of the Assassins since childhood, and when the player enters London in the beginning of the game, it will also be the first time our heroes see the city." We are told Jacob in particular is a "charismatic brawler," with leadership skills. Both siblings will be playable through the entire game.
The city of London is the next topic on the list. Ubisoft Quebec wishes to create a living, breathing and dynamic city for its players. The seven districts of London will vary in character, from the poverty stricken Whitechapel in the northeast, to wealthy Westminster in the southwest. A police force has emerged, although their presence will vary. This is due to the of the borough, and the police often saw poorer districts as too dangerous to traverse. In addition, we are told that the missions outside of the main storyline will "make sense," and that the aim will be to further the cause of the Assassins. Children will also play a role in the game, as they were workers in factories from an early age. Moreover, each borough will be approximately the size of Rome in Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood. Fancy that.
Coté then reminds us of the core values of the series: Stealth, navigation, fight. We are told they have been made better than ever in Syndicate.
The stealth part of the game is said to play a bigger role. AC Unity updated the stealth mechanics with a button to crouch and a button to hide behind walls and objects, but Quebec wishes to modernise how these mechanics work. For one, there will no longer be a need to push a button to hide behind things anymore - you should only need to approach the object, and voilà, the character will assume the stealth stance. Furthermore, the whistling ability from Black Flag has returned after its absence from Unity, allowing players to attract enemies to their position. We will also be able to throw knifes onto walls to create sounds and misdirect enemies.
The fighting has also seen its share of changes. "Due to our change in time period, it is no longer ordinary to walk around with a blade at the hip or a battle axe strapped around your chest," says Coté. I chose to believe him despite the sword I have sheathed in the scabbard tied to my belt. In other words, the traditional sword-based combat we have grown used to has come to an end. "This does not mean that Syndicate is any less brutal, however. On the contrary," he assured us. The weapons seen in the game will be more discrete, the type of weapons you can hide when they are not needed, such as brass knuckles, canes, knives, and revolvers. And yes, headshots will matter. The controls have been made faster, with an advertised "50% less latency", and aiming has been made "more fun," according to the creative director. "Of course, the hidden blade is still in the game," he adds.
An important part of the game will be to conquer Strongholds in an exercise referred to as "Gang Warfare" missions. These are located in different parts of the city, and it immediately reminded me of the towers we had to take back from the Borgias in Brotherhood.
It is, however, the navigation part of the game that has seen the most changes. Apart from being promised that "the controls have been refined since Unity," the free-running has been made more fluent. It should now be easier for the player to get around objects instead of grabbing onto everything within reach, for example. A new addition is a designated button to enter windows, which at times lead to awkward moments in Unity. Basic things like running and jumping is visually not strikingly different from Unity, however.
One of the greatest changes to the game is the new rope launcher. It is located on the assassin's arm, and with it we can get from one point to another faster than ever. "We feel it is important that, despite the height and distance between the buildings, our assassins continue to be able to travel fast and fluidly from one side of the street to the other." In other words, we will be able to quickly rise to the top of a building directly from street level, or use the rope launcher as a zip-line between buildings.
For the first time in an AC game (unless you count the horse or the ships from the previous installments), vehicles will make an appearance. "All the vehicles in the game are usable by the player, be it for transport, combat, or stealth," Coté explains. Horse and carriages and boats will be among these vehicles.
It has taken a while, but we are finally being shown a demo of the alpha version of the game. Jacob and Eve Frye are sitting down in a pub in London, deep in discussion with what seems like an important man of Indian descent. The mood is cheerful around them. Their chat soon comes to an end, and Jacob stands up from his chair and leaves the pub. Horse and carriages pass us while pedestrians make their way around the city using Syndicate's new sidewalks (I wonder if jaywalking was a thing back then?).
Out of the nowhere, our assassin launches himself in the air and grabs on to the roof of the desired building. The view is admired. Billboards and chain-smoking chimneys paints the horizon, and we are told that the modern era has greatly influenced the ways of the city. From the rooftop, I cannot help but notice a railway track under construction a few feet below. It is obvious that Coté enjoys talking, as even during the demo he continued to talk to us about what we were seeing. "Billboards and clocks hanging on walls are some of the changes you will come to experience in London," Coté tells us.
The player now continues on to an enemy controlled area (a stronghold), and by using throwing knives, stealth, and a little bit of boxing, Jacob quickly turns the enemies into cat food. After the conquest, a representative of the Templar order shows up, but flees once she realises that she is outnumbered. The situation quickly turns into a chase starting on foot, that evolves into a horse race once we have acquired a carriage. "We want the game to be as dynamic as possible, and so we've tried to do as little scripting as we responsibly could," he tells us. However, this only worked partially at this point. I noticed that things quickly turned chaotic as more and more officers came to the aid of the Templar, and when we crashed into a wall or another horse, there were no evidence of a collision apart from the full stop we experienced. The groundwork and idea are there, but I believe the system needs more work and refinement in order to reach its full potential. Especially the way the objects react to each other needs a revamp. The sequence ends in a brawl in the middle of a town square. Rather disappointing.
Graphically, the game is comparable to its predecessor. It is very beautiful at times, especially when faces and character models are involved, but the AA (anti-aliasing) does not convince me, something Unity also struggled with in my opinion. Although it managed to keep a mostly stable 30 frames per second, the game struggled when the bigger brawls took place, making me worry that the final version of the game will see some of Unity's issues returning. If Ubisoft is to convince the masses that the errors of last year are behind them, optimisation is essential. In my interview with the game's creative director, preparing for release was the first question on my list.
How will you ensure that Assassin's Creed Syndicate is as playable and as good as it can be at launch?
"For one, we have begun playtesting much earlier in development, hopefully ridding the game of more bugs than before. It used to be that our testers would only use the fast travel system to get around, but now they are taking advantage of the different new ways of transportation. This allows us to get a much better view of our world before it releases," Coté explains. "Secondly, and this is an important point, we are only focusing on the single player experience this time around."
So there will be no multiplayer?
"That is correct. There will be no multiplayer, nor a companion app that will shift the focus away from the single player experience. In other words, we are doing our best to make the game itself the best it can possibly be."
How will Syndicate relate to Unity?
"They will relate to each other the same way as the previous games have, through the Helix system."
We will be able to assume the role of both brother and sister, but how will this work in the game?
"You will have the option to choose which character you want to play while free roaming in the open world. In addition, we have story-based missions where you can only play as one of them."
I noticed railway-tracks in the demo we were shown earlier. Will trains be in the game?
Coté smiles and answers carefully: "What do you mean by that, exactly?"
Will we have the option to board trains, enter them normally or hitch a ride on its roof in real-time?
Coté turns to his right and asks the PR representative if he is allowed to answer. She nods. We all have a laugh. "That will be possible, yes. A thing we love doing is hitching a ride on the train and just enjoy the trip. This is one part of the game where we have toyed a little bit with the historical accuracy, as there were no trains that ran in this exact way around London. We have therefore chosen to put gameplay first in this aspect."
So far, Assassin's Creed Syndicate seems like an exciting entry to the series. The question remains whether the studio manages to steer clear of the issues that plagued Unity, and if they are able to innovate as much as they want to. Assassin's Creed Syndicate will be released later this year.