For the past two years the 300-strong team at Ubisoft’s Quebec office has been pondering a vital question.
It’s something that gets to the heart of the Assassin’s Creed series, a multimillion dollar action adventure franchise that follows a shadowy cabal of killers throughout history. The question is: how do you modernise a franchise that is, by its very nature, stuck in the past?
After a decade of making games like Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands on Nintendo Wii, as well as collaborating on Assassin’s games in a supportive role since the days of Brotherhood back in 2010, the Quebec studio now has now been handed the reins on Ubisoft’s largest franchise. Its job is to continue refining the series in new and interesting directions as it evolves on current gen consoles. Perhaps most interestingly, Ubisoft Quebec has been told it can add new perspectives to a series desperate to modernise.
Which was always going to be important. Assassin’s Creed is a self sustaining behemoth of a franchise, but it has had a troubled few years. Assassin’s Creed 3 was a critical disappointment, and while last year’s Assassin’s Creed: Unity made great improvements to the mechanics that had remained so stagnant for so long, it had real technical problems when it was released, leading to huge boycotts and fan outrage. There’s no room for error this time around, and the team at Ubi Quebec are fully aware of the pressure that sits firmly on its shoulders.
“I actually remember the day I started working on Brotherhood.” says Marc-Alexis Côté, creative director on Syndicate. “From that day, I was aspiring to lead on an Assassin’s Creed game, and over the years I’ve been building my list of notes – the stuff I would do if I was in a leadership position.”
“It’s a completely different team.” continues executive producer, Francois Pelland. “A different core team and a different culture. Even though it’s just 250km away from Montreal, it has a different way of approaching the creation and the production of a game. And it shows! That’s a good thing. It’s a different process and a different mentality.”
Some of what you’ve heard about this game already is accurate - it’s set in London, for example. The year is 1868, the midst of the Industrial Revolution. Britain is changing, the world is changing, and these monumental transformations set a perfect revolutionary stage for Assassin’s Creed. And change is at the forefront of Syndicate.
It begins with the game’s two brand new assassins, the twins Jacob and Evie Frye, who are both playable and both at the centre of the game’s narrative. Right now we’ve only heard much about Jacob, as Evie is barely mentioned during our presentation at the Quebec office. It’s an odd decision, especially considering how much criticism that Ubisoft has received in the past for not fully featuring female characters, but Evie is described as a real driving force in Syndicate. We’ll just have to wait to find out more.
“I like to say that creating a new Assassin’s Creed game is like creating a new IP.” says Pelland. “We made the decision on London, 1868, the Industrial Revolution, and Jacob and Evie all very early on. And all of that shaped the way we made decisions in terms of innovation. We have the chance to make something interesting and something that’s new.”
“Top of my wish list was ‘how can we tell a different story, and how can we tell a story differently?’” continues Côté. “I think two protagonists is something that can bring a lot of freshness to the way that we do storytelling. We tried that on Assassin’s Creed 3 with Haytham and Connor, but they were coming one after the other. So, one of the things I was wondering was, what if we had those two bouncing off each other. “They’re twins, with the playfulness of twins, but still have their own very different personalities. This was the intention we had from the beginning – to bring a different tone to the story.”
The tone of Syndicate is clearly much darker than, say, Black Flag, but the cheekiness of Jacob and Evie came through in the gameplay demo. Subtle glances, winks and eyebrow-raises gave a real sense of companionship between them. From a gameplay point of view, it’s not entirely clear how much the two characters will differ from one another. Evie is a presentation that we are going to save,” says Pelland, perhaps eyeing up a bigger audience at the huge E3 games event in June. “When we focus on her, we’ll really focus on her,” he assures.
He elaborates enough to explain that Jacob is the hot-headed and more volatile character of the two, while Evie is a master of stealth, but it’s not clear whether this will determine the kinds of weapons and gear that you’ll have access to. Players will be able to switch between the two in the open world, but whether or not Ubisoft Quebec has gone as far as to adopt a Grand Theft Auto V style ‘multiple perspective’ approach to different missions and assassinations is yet to be seen.
What we do know is that there will be no co-op play, or indeed any multiplayer at all. It’s a surprising omission, especially as this series has worked hard to innovate on standard competitive game modes. So was it cast out late in the day when deadlines loomed? Not according to Pelland. “We decided very early on to focus Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate solely on single player,” is all he’ll say on the matter.
The London of Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate is huge – 30% larger than Unity’s Paris. This vast Victorian sprawl is divided into several very different boroughs - City of London, Westminster, Southwark, Whitechapel, Thames and the Strand – and each plays differently along with the obvious cosmetic changes. You’ll find rich, opulent buildings in the large streets of Westminster while the slums of Whitechapel rot into a fetid bog of filth so filled with crime that even the game’s police daren’t venture in. The studio is looking to “contextualise” the missions and activities in its world rather than creating endless stuff to do, much like Ubisoft did so well with Far Cry 4.
With a focus on the people of London, Jacob and Evie are part of the street gang called The Rooks, and the mission is to unite the populace under its banner. In the announcement demo, we watched an armed Jacob infiltrate the stronghold of enemy gang, The Blighters, in order to kill one of its leaders and gain influence across a section of London. Much of what’s new in Syndicate is designed to modernise the experience; to overhaul the perception of what it means to play an Assassin’s Creed game.
“We’ve chosen the Victorian era this time because, the team felt it would really allow us to modernise the gameplay pillars” says Côté. “We’re modernising stealth, we’re modernising weapons, we’re modernising movement, and we’re modernising a lot else. The key thing is making a great game and a game that will feel great for our players.”
The most distinct modernisations shown so far are combat additions like the assassin’s gauntlet, fitted with a rope launcher that allows you to zip to the top of buildings without needing to climb. It also allows you to create horizontal platforms for your own aerial assassination opportunities – think Dickensian Batman. Up close and personal, combat is much more about brawling: there are knuckle dusters and brutal kukri blades, and there’s a revolver for taking out the drivers of other carriages. You can now commandeer a horse and carriage to get around London quicker. After we sneek through a stronghold using a refined stealth system, stabbing gang thugs in the neck with the ever-satisfying hidden blade, a hectic carriage chase ensues to catch Bloody Nora, one of the Blighters’ top dogs.
The chase itself isn’t perfect, with some clunky looking navigation – we’re told that the build being demonstrated is only pre-alpha - but it is something new, something exciting. That’s what was clearest about Syndicate – there are a few sweeping new ideas but there are also subtle changes, like how AI crowds now form on pavements rather than anywhere and everywhere. It’s impressive how significant the comparatively small 75-year leap in history is, even just on a cosmetic level.
It’s a shame though, that we were shown a comparatively short Outpost-style assault rather than an assassination mission: i.e. the core of the game. We were told, however, that assassinations will be much more open than they were in Unity – a welcome promise. “The open spaces for assassinations was something really loved by fans,” says Côté, “So, we are improving upon that by making them even more open and even more spectacular. We want to make sure that the player understands the amount of opportunity that each one of those sandboxes offers them, and each assassination in the game will take place in one.”
For Côté and Pelland, the aim is to keep moving forward – to help the series recover from the slight stumble that Unity represented. “We don’t want to get back into the past,” says Pelland, when questioned about the lessons learned from Unity. “There’s so much that we’ve learned from a tech point of view, a design point of view. If there’s one thing we focused on a lot it’s what you’ve seen today: a pre-alpha build, played on consoles, running on target at a very high frame rate. We want to be in the position where we can polish the game, and that’s probably the biggest learning we’ve had over the years.”
- Sam White attended the Quebec press trip with other journalists from Europe. Travel and accommodation costs were covered by Ubisoft
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