I can’t say whether the next Assassin’s Creed game will be perfect, or even good at all. Given the generally less-than-enthusiastic reception to last year’s Assassin’s Creed Unity, even “good” isn’t as certain as it used to be with this franchise (and this coming from someone who thoroughly enjoyed the much-maligned Assassin’s Creed 3 and its hilariously earnest American Revolution setting).
But I have a good feeling about Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, Ubisoft’s latest game of Assassins-versus-Templars and blades-versus-throats, set to launch in October. And based on a recent gameplay preview, I think it might actually start to deliver on promises the game developer and publisher made all the way back in 2007.
Back then, before the first Assassin’s Creed game launched, previews for it were hyperbolic (and very, very premature) in their praise. Countless journalists and critics slavered over how the game would be a “completely new kind of gaming experience where you get to…execute your kills from start to finish with total freedom,” as one previewer put it. That, of course, was total bullshit, as the assassination missions in the original Assassin’s Creed—and every game in the series since—have been rigidly structured series of objectives that all lead to the same place, with the only freedom being the freedom to jump from rooftop to rooftop until you fall to your death and start the mission over.
Don’t take that the wrong way—I have loved many AC games, including Assassin’s Creed 2, which was set in 16th century Italy, and Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag, which was really a swashbuckling pirate game disguised as an assassin game. But when IGN said in 2007 after getting their hands on the game some months before its release that “Altair has methodically investigated his target before reaching this point, a gameplay element we’ve not yet been shown,” that was because that gameplay element, where you’d investigate a target to determine how to take them out, barely existed at all, and certainly not in the way Ubisoft had led gamers to believe.
It did have a really good trailer, at least.
I bring all this up because I think that, despite all the advancements and cool settings and conspiracy-laced stories the Assassin’s Creed games have featured since then, they’re still missing that crucial element—the freedom for players to stalk a target for days, watching their every move and memorizing their routines, noting where they eat lunch and when they fall asleep, and choosing from dozens of options exactly how to take them out. Assassin’s Creed Syndicate doesn’t have all that, as far as I know, but it might be taking a step in the right direction.
During the preview mission I played in July, I took control of Evie. She’s one of the game’s two protagonists, the first playable female Assassin in a mainline AC game, and a character who I will continue to picture in my mind as Evie, the female lead from the 1999 Brendan Fraser film The Mummy, until I see concrete evidence that they’re not actually the same. I controlled Evie as she leapt from a boat to the waiting docks of Victorian-era London, a new setting for the series, then scaled some walls and ramparts to reach an objective marker that would trigger the waiting mission. Standard Assassin’s Creed stuff, in other words, besides the overdue novelty of finally playing as a badass lady, even if she’s still relegated to the background of promotional shots as in the lead image above (also, the 2012 portable PS Vita game Assassin’s Creed: Liberation and its female protagonist, Aveline, only half-counted because it was a smaller game on a handheld system, even though it was actually pretty good).
Where things got interesting in this Syndicate demo, though, was when the game showed me three possibilities for my next move: I could rendezvous with an undercover guard, bust a captured ally out of a nearby holding cell, or steal a key from a high-ranking enemy soldier. All three choices would lead to me killing my target, a female Templar (in the games’ lore, mortal enemies of the Assassins). But as I learned, the different routes to that objective would lead to very different confrontations with her.
For my first time through, I opted to meet up with the undercover guy. He cooked up a half-baked plan to pretend to have captured me, escorting me straight into the enemies’ stronghold and leading me right to my target. With the tap of a button, I murdered the Templar in a cutscene—in other words, I watched it happen without really having any influence over the fight. OK, kind of lame. But let’s try again.
On my second go, I decided to ambush the keyholder. I hid in a bush waiting for him to walk by, but when he refused to get close enough I changed my tactic by using one of the game’s new features—the ability to essentially turn invisible anywhere, as long as you’re standing still. This is a far cry from the relatively realistic stealth techniques seen in earlier games, where the goal was to “blend in” by strolling casually with crowds of people or sitting nonchalantly on public benches in plain view. Granted, that never made much sense, especially considering the increasingly conspicuous outfits the series’ protagonists have donned over the years.
But this is something else entirely, and I’m hoping there’s a very good story-based explanation for this newfound Predator-style cloaking power existing in 19th-century London.
Anyway. I took out the key guy and hid his body in a dark corner—probably not necessary, but I’m a detail-oriented person—then used the key to infiltrate the stronghold on my own. There were far too many guards inside for me to keep sneaking around, and I quickly found myself fighting off multiple foes in the least stealthy swordfight ever. I wondered how I was going to find my target in the chaos, but it turned out I didn’t have to: drawn by the noise, she rounded a corner in front of me, practically impaling herself on my blades. I tapped buttons furiously, and to my surprise Evie’s hands matched my enthusiasm, shredding our target in one of the most brutal animations I’ve ever seen in this series. And that’s saying something:
Fun stuff, but that’s not really my point.
What I’m excited about is the possibility that even a small part of the series’ original vision—the freedom that was promised in the very first AC game, and which has yet to be delivered—has found its way, eight years later, into Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate.
Exactly how well Ubisoft executes (if you’ll pardon the term) that freedom throughout the game might make it one of the ���good ones” in the Assassin’s Creed series, which has had as many ups and downs as an Assassin has ways to suddenly, mercilessly kill you. But either way, it will probably be better than Unity.
Mike Rougeau is Playboy.com’s Gaming Editor, in charge of all things video games and with a knack for remembering things video game publishers said many years ago. He lives in Los Angeles with his girlfriend and two dogs. Follow him on Twitter @RogueCheddar.
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