Yes, it's better than Assassin's Creed Unity. Ubisoft's romp through revolutionary Paris was a steaming mass of merde, so the publisher had little margin for error with Assassin's Creed Syndicate – the latest instalment in the French firm's flagship open world franchise. But while transposing the property's iconic undercover killing to the cobbled streets of London has shored up its technical performance, there are still serious design issues with this somewhat formulaic foray.
The year is 1868 and England is gripped by the advancements of the Industrial Revolution. At the top of the ladder is Crawford Starrick, a telegraph tycoon – and Templar, of course – with a natty haircut and a twitching eye. He rules the capital with an iron fist, oppressing the working class in order to further his own financial gain. The villain's essentially David Cameron with a hipster's handlebar moustache, then – and it's your mission to take him down.
You'll do that as both Jacob and Evie Frye, bickering British siblings who just so happen to be master assassins as well. This is the first time that an Assassin's Creed game has allowed you to change protagonist on the fly, and while the mutton chopped male half of the double-act is about as vanilla as video game characters come, we quite enjoyed the bossy and boisterous nature of his freckled female co-star.
Neither newcomer is as interesting as Ezio Auditore, though, and the story really struggles to establish itself as a consequence. Famous faces crop up across the course of the fiction, of course, but the fleeting cameos from Queen Victoria, Charles Darwin, and Florence Nightingale will be unlikely to engage even the most ardent of Victorianphiles. In the end, you'll merely find yourself murdering your way through the various sectors of the English establishment – be it politics, transport, or finance.
Hindering your progress will be the Blighters, a group of brutes employed by Starrick to protect his many business ventures. These thugs form your main source of opposition throughout the game, but both the police and royal guards will also cause headaches. Fortunately, as you progress, you'll begin to recruit members to your own renegade group named the Rooks, and the presence of these rebels will increase on the streets as you gradually acquire territory from your enemies.
This is a Ubisoft game after all, so expect to be climbing plenty of towers in order to unlock side missions on your mini-map. London is divided up into various boroughs – Whitechapel, Westminster, and so on – and each of these districts include workhouses, criminals, and Templar strongholds. Liberate all of these, and you'll unlock a Gang War, which will enable the Rooks to assume control of the entire sector.
It's not a bad structure – the publisher wouldn't keep recycling it if it was – but it's so predictable at this point. The other problem is that the side missions aren't all that fun: freeing children from dangerous factories may seem like an honourable pursuit, but it grows weary after the tenth or so attempt. Couple that with the vast number of collectibles – over 700 in total – and you may end up feeling like the anti-Oliver Twist by the time that the credits roll. Please sir, can we have a little less?
That's not to say that the core gameplay loop is poor – it's just lost its identity a bit. In many ways, this feels like a mega mix of all of the Assassin's Creed games that have come before: the stealth stance from Unity is back, the commander mechanic from the Dead Kings DLC is present, and the support system from Brotherhood is here. Even the vehicular combat from Black Flag – albeit in stage coaches rather than boats this time out – is included. There are systems upon systems upon systems.
And sometimes that makes for some really dynamic missions: a Batman: Arkham Knight-esque hookshot allows you to scale buildings in record time, while Eagle Vision enables you to scout out your adversaries similarly to in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. But while it all works intuitively, it's hard to shake the feeling that Assassin's Creed no longer knows what it is; the core tenets of concealing yourself among crowds and scrambling up colossal man-made edifices seem lost.
The upgrade system epitomises the needless complexity of the game like no other. As in recent entries you'll have a base – this time a train, which moves dynamically through the city – where you'll accrue a regular income. But money isn't enough in this game, as you'll also need resources – like leather and gold – in order to purchase new abilities for the Rooks. This can be looted by opening crates or hijacking carriages – but, of course, there are microtransactions in there as well.
Worse still, the unlocks seem built around reducing irritation rather than actually changing the way that the game plays. You can shell out £6,000 or so in order to prevent the Blighters from fighting you in the street, or you can invest your XP – which is yet another meter to keep track of – into the ability to auto-loot assassinated bodies. It's almost like the game rewards you for progressing by trimming away some of the chaff – but it's debatable whether that fat should be there in the first place.
At least the fighting's better. There are three different weapon types for you to use in addition to your hidden blade, and you'll gradually unlock more powerful options as you level up and obtain more money. The combat's still the same counter-based system that many of you will be familiar with, but it's faster and more responsive – even if spongy enemy types will force you into repeated animation loops more than you'd probably like.
The stealth, though, in the wake of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, is really simplistic. There's an appeal to the brain dead nature of the artificial intelligence, of course – but it can break the immersion at times. In one mission we picked off seven or so guards protecting our assassination target with throwing knives, and not once did the crook even consider to question why his army were slumped lifelessly on the ground with steel daggers sticking out of their skulls.
Many of the objectives follow this trajectory, but we do really like the Hitman-esque black box tasks. These give you several different opportunities to infiltrate your target, and while there are far too few of these, it's really exciting feeling like your architecting your own type of assassination. Without stepping too far away from the subject at hand, we reckon that Ubisoft should base the entire brand around this system should it ever take a step back and decide to reboot the series.
And sadly that's what it needs to do, because this franchise is getting tired. London is a dense setting – the Thames borough, which can only be traversed by hopping between moving boats, is a particular highlight – but even though the bugs are kept to a minimum and the framerate very rarely chugs, there's an air of familiarity pervading the entire experience that will make you feel like you've seen it all before.
Much like the Victorian city that it's based upon, you have to dig into Assassin's Creed Syndicate in order to identify its problems. The core gameplay loop is solid and it's built upon a sound structure, but familiarity and filler lessen the appeal of this open world outing. Vastly improved performance and all around impressive presentation mean that London's most definitely not burning – but there may be a little panic in the offices at Ubisoft.