There’s one thing Marc-Alexis Côté, the creative director of Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, told me that really gave me hope for the upcoming game: that he’s doing everything he can to make the game feel like Assassin’s Creed 2.
“AC 2 is my favorite as well,” he said. “When we started creating Assassin’s Creed Syndicate for me the biggest inspiration was Assassin’s Creed 2, because it’s a game that succeeded in putting you into an era and making you live it. There were not so many important historical events, when you think about it, in Assassin’s Creed 2, but it was more about a period of time, which is exactly what I want players to feel in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate. I want them to feel the modernity, the transition from a more medieval age to a more modern age.”
The similarities between the new game and the old one had occurred to me as well. AC 2 was set in 15th- and 16th-century Italy, where developer Ubisoft Montreal recreated Florence, Venice and Tuscany as they were in that time, with a shocking amount of accuracy (and a few creative liberties, of course). A spin-off game, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, did the same for 16th-century Rome. Traipsing around from rooftop to rooftop in these distant but still recognizable locations—even scaling the walls of the Coliseum, like many visitors to Rome have doubtless fantasized about—felt like nothing else in video games before these, and it cemented AC’s place as one of the top series in gaming.
But other AC games since then haven’t really captured that feeling nearly as well, for a variety of reasons. Assassin’s Creed 3—which, for the record, I really liked—was set in New England during the American Revolution, and its narrative was a slave (pardon the expression) to the greater story of the war between England and its colonies. It spanned decades, and the developers managed to shoehorn the series’ Assassins-versus-Templars conflict into basically every important historical event of the day, from the Boston Tea Party to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. It felt a little forced.
AC IV: Black Flag, while great, was set in the Caribbean during the golden age of piracy, a time period with plenty of iconic set pieces and characters, but fewer recognizable locales. And AC Unity, last year’s poorly received entry, was set during the French Revolution, similarly to AC 3.
So when Côté tells me Syndicate, set during the industrial revolution in Victorian London, will be more like Assassin’s Creed 2, I start imagining a return to form, where the narrative is led by original characters, the setting is dense and recognizable, and the plot is more intimate and tight than one that spans the entire American Revolution. And I get excited.
WELCOME TO THE REAL WORLD
Ubisoft flew members of the press to London earlier this month to chat with Syndicate’s developers, play the game and tour the city in which it’s set. In real life, we saw the inside of Buckingham Palace and the Tower of London, ate a decadent dinner in St. Paul’s Cathedral and puttered up and down the Thames; in the game, I scaled Big Ben and zip-lined around Westminster Abbey. We took a Jack the Ripper tour around London’s East Side about a day after Ubisoft announced that there’s a Ripper-themed expansion in development for Syndicate.
The game’s Assassin protagonists, Jacob and Evie Frye, arrive in London by train after the first mission. It’s their first time in the city, just as it was the first time there for many of the press in attendance, as Ubisoft’s publicists were quick to point out. We were discovering it together, they said.
The event was over the top, although I’ll say the same thing I did when Ubisoft had press out for a multi-day tour of Boston before the launch of Assassin’s Creed 3: it seems extravagant, but these iconic locations are so important to the Assassin’s Creed experience that it makes sense for the publisher to take the press on a tour. They wanted to instill in us just how faithfully they’ve recreated London, and there’s no better way to do that than to show us the real and the virtual side by side.
Syndicate doesn’t feature a 1:1 recreation of 19th-century London. The developers wanted trains to be a big part of the game, for example, so they added rails that circle London’s perimeter, fudging the reality pretty significantly. They brought on a historian named Judith Flanders to help keep changes like that in check. “There was a pirate expert [for Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag]; there’s always an historical consultant that we bring on,” Côté said. “It’s super important to find someone who understands the line that we have to walk.”
Flanders told press about some of the battles she had with the developers. They wanted London’s “Bobby” police officers to have weapons, for example, while Flanders insists that they did not; gameplay won out in that case, and the game’s Bobbies will accost you with a varied arsenal. Even more interesting is the way they named the virtual city’s many pubs: the developers, worried about the legal risk of using the names of actual businesses without consent, sent Flanders a long list of potential made-up names, most of which she deemed “terrible.” She suggested they scour historical records and name the pubs after actual old drinking holes that are no longer around, and if the in-game pubs share a name with a modern one in the real world, well, it’s just a coincidence.
Another big area of research for Flanders was the dialects, language and idioms people used back then, which she helped the writers keep as accurate as possible—hence an acquaintance of the game’s twin Assassins calling him “Jacob” and her “Miss Frye.” It was more polite, see?
A GLITCH IN THE MATRIX
It all combines to make a really compelling picture of a Victorian London encircled by chugging steam engines and populated by realistic caricatures. The streets are wide to accommodate horse-drawn buggies and carriages, though you can zip around with a fun grappling hook now. The city’s booming industries are controlled by evil Templars, while historical figures like Alexander Graham Bell, Charles Dickens and Charles Darwins—who were all actually in London around this time period—walk the streets and fraternize with the Assassins. It’s the Assassins’ story of trying to wrest control of London from the Templars that takes the forefront, though. Unlike past games, Syndicate takes place in a single year, which will hopefully give the game the focus that some past entries lacked.
The year after I played Assassin’s Creed 2 to death, I spent seven days in Italy, including stays in Venice and Florence, both locations in the game. Florence’s Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, also known simply as the Duomo, was an important landmark in the game. It was so iconic that, standing at the top of the real thing and gazing out over the city, I recognized some other AC fans mimicking characters in the game. We took a photo together.
At the top of the Duomo, I experienced a real sense of déjà vu from having been there in the game (and I remember, after ascending the endless stairs to get there, wishing I could climb as easily AC 2’s Ezio). Having spent a few months in London several years ago, playing Syndicate gave me the opposite experience: I felt déjà vu related to my real world experiences.
Either way, that’s testament to just how incredibly the series portrays its iconic locations. After the critical disaster of last year’s Assassin’s Creed Unity, Ubisoft has a lot hinging on Syndicate, but as a fan who can admit this series has had its ups and downs over the years, I have high hopes.
“I’m glad you’re feeling those familiarities, because it means that we succeeded,” Côté said. “It’s all a fantasy that we have within us, which is to time travel. And yes, I know it’s not time travel that we do; but to visit another period of time is such a powerful fantasy. And everybody’s got an idea about where we could set it, where we could do it, which tells me that the franchise is very much alive.”
So what’s his ideal setting for an Assassin’s Creed game? Keeping in mind all the time they spend traveling these cities and researching them, I suggested, how about Hawaii?
“Victorian London!” he answered, laughing, without a moment’s hesitation.
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is due out on Oct. 23 on Xbox One and PS4 and Nov. 19 for Windows.
Mike Rougeau is Playboy.com’s Gaming Editor, in charge of all things video games but really dreaming about London. He lives in Los Angeles with his girlfriend and two dogs. Follow him on Twitter @RogueCheddar.
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