In true series tradition, clambering to a viewpoint and synchronising with your surroundings unfogs the map, revealing a slew of tasks and objectives. After climbing nimbly skyward at the start of sequence three, we’re faced with the Whitechapel district, under the strict rule of the Templars. Rather than separate side missions and story, everything seems more connected – there’re still chests and Animus fragments scattered about, but there’re also children to be saved from workhouses, Templars to be offed, and gangs to be recruited. In short, London needs some Victorian criminal heroes.
From Jacob’s sync point we can see miles across the seven districts that make up Syndicate’s 1868 London. Factories spew out billowing black plumes of smoke while, in the distance, the Thames is packed with fast moving nautical traffic. Ubisoft Quebec has taken a leaf out of Unity’s book in terms of atmosphere: the city positively breathes with life, and Journey composer Austin Wintory’s score soars. But this isn’t a tourist trip – there’s a syndicate to form, and a city to save.
For the first time in the series, we’re armed with double Assassins as well as blades, and you can play as both Jacob and Evie in the open world. They’ve each got their own unique story missions, but a quick press of the PS4’s Options button and a snap of R3 and we can switch between the hood-wearing pair at will. Each has their own level progression and skill tree too, so you’ll want to alternate between them as the story progresses.As our first leading lady Assassin in a core game (sorry, Aveline) we’re happy to see that Evie’s a force to be reckoned with – quick-witted and sharp, and a nice contrast to her cocky and arrogant brother. Ms Frye’s skill set is more suited to stealth, with stylish throwing knife abilities and an interesting Chameleon skill. This high level purchase sees her staying still and holding her breath to blend seamlessly into her environment, even if she isn’t behind cover. Harry Potter eat your invisibility cloak’s heart out. And she’s not any less of a brawler, either, as is apparent when we get jumped by three thugs, who find themselves swiftly skewered by her sword cane.“One thing that was really important for us, character wise, was that Evie prefers to be more stealthy and that’s her approach, but at the end of the day the players are the ones with the controller in their hand,” explains senior producer Jeff Skalski. “We didn’t want to say ‘well Evie’s not going to be as good of a fighter’ or ‘Jacob can’t be stealthy.’ Players can invest in the skills as they like.” The core gameplay is the same for both – it’s those skills that make the difference, acting as bonus powers supporting each character’s default style.
And both sneaking and combat have been upgraded significantly. While in stealth mode – switched to with a quick button press – you’ll snap smoothly to cover, with none of Unity’s thumb gymnastics. We try this out while infiltrating a workhouse, and find ourselves impressed with the improvement. AI still doesn’t quite have the brains it should, but it’s clearer now if enemies can see you, and Arno’s shadow mechanic makes a welcome return, allowing you to see where you were spotted last. Add in the fact that normal people on the street will react to you when you change stance, and social stealth suddenly becomes important again. “Is she going to pounce?” asks one passerby casually as we prepare to take down an enemy on a busy street, rudely ruining our element of surprise.
Jacob and Evie each have their own fighting styles in all-out combat, and while both are brutal, Jacob’s is a tad more bone-crunching. The Victorian era was a time of concealed weaponry, and that means knuckle dusters and hidden nasty blades such as the Kukri are very much in fashion, but even when he’s just using his fists, Jacob twists arms, sends teeth flying, and even – gasp! – knocks off hats. Unfortunately, while the combat is more fluid than previous entries, there’s still a fuzziness. This isn’t Arkham Knight – more Mad Max – and while there’s an impressive physicality to it, it doesn’t feel as slick as it could. Counters and guard breaks are still your friend, with the odd dodge to whisk out of the way of a bullet. Enemies do seem more unforgiving – though everyone now has a level number above their heads, letting you know where you stand against a foe.
In fact, districts have level ratings too. Jacob and Evie can travel across the map as they wish, but you’ll need to remember that enemies are going to be significantly trickier in Westminster than Whitechapel. Looking at the sprawling map, you can easily see the recommended levels before you take them on, and it adds an enjoyable challenge layer we haven’t seen before.
Speaking of that enormous city, travelling in Assassin’s Creed has never been this much fun. In addition to the rope launcher that lets you reverse-abseil up buildings and zipline across the wide streets, the vehicles on offer here are truly game-changing. We won’t spoil how you get it, but your hideout this time around is a steam train. Yep, that’s right. Your very own Thomas the Tank Engine hurtling around London, and it’s joyous. From this portable hub you can craft your weapons, organise your gang, the Rooks, catch up with your other twin, and do side missions for the various people on board – not to mention that it also creates a portable fast travel point. Monteriggioni seems a hell of a long time ago now.And once you’re off the train, why not hijack a carriage? Though we must warn that the chances of the police or your enemies trying to chase you down is not insignificant. We casually take a horse for a ride around the block with a crack of the reins, but end up in chaos as two carriages of Templar gangs take against Evie. The steering is pretty heavy and horses don’t reverse, but that just adds a sprinkling of madness to proceedings. We ram foes off the road and shoot drivers with the quickshot ability and the hallucinogenic dart – it’s all as pleasingly ridiculous as it sounds.
The focus is clearly on choice here as Ubi pares back to a pure, single-player experience. So called ‘Black Box’ missions mean you can complete assassinations in various ways. Sneaking Evie into the Tower of London to take on villainous Templar Lucy Thorn, we can enlist the help of a member of the Royal Guard to pretend to kidnap her and take her to her target, or perhaps steal a key to find a new way in. Alternatively, we could just slaughter our way to our victim. Hurtling around the Tower with the rope launcher is especially fun, but the prompt to fly skyward isn’t always as fast as we’d like – we spend a second too long looking at a turret before L1 finally pops up to let us send a zipline across for an aerial assassination.
There’s so much here. We craft weapons, play assassin Frogger across the packed Thames, hunt endless macguffins scattered across the map – oh is that a Precursor token? – and we even spy a reference to Helix Rifts that reveals we’ll be getting to delve into other time periods. Fight clubs, cart races, and bounty hunts are only some of the missions on offer – add in the genuinely amusing banter between the twins and this is probably the most fun we’ve seen Assassin’s Creed have in a long time. And is it bug free? Our PS4 build gives us no issues hopping in and out of buildings, and we’re pleased to report we didn’t get stuck on anything as we explored. There’s no denying this is still very much an AC game – hello, tailing mission – but Victorian London just might be the time and place this franchise needed to get itself back on its freerunning feet.