It's 1868, I am in the shadow of St Paul's Cathedral and a woman named Bloody Nora has just challenged me to a full-blown gang war. That meaty challenge, from my improbably named opponent, is the culmination of my actions as twin assassins Evie and Jacob Frye in one of the side-missions in the just-released Assassin's Creed Syndicate. (Colon, or no colon? You decide.) A little earlier I freed some children from forced labour, and in the process bumped off the foreman of the dingy factory in question with a swift slash to the throat. (And, at the risk of sounding like I'm on day release from Broadmoor, I will say that it was particularly satisfying.) I have done a bit of bounty hunting, chucking an informant into the back of a carriage and delivering him to be taken god knows where. I have flown across London on a zip-line, like a Victorian Spider-Man. And now, I need to dispatch a woman named Nora.
So here I am, and Nora has blocked the streets with her gang. Around me, members of my own gang, the Rooks, jeer and wave their guns. I lob a Voltaic bomb and stun the ten rival Blighters – yes, they like picturesque names in this game – that have surrounded me, their red coats soon to be soaked by their own crimson. I hammer square and quickly cut down the two nearest to me with a concealed blade. As they come, thick and fast, I counter their blows with perfectly timed presses of circle. Sometimes they put up their arms and block my attacks, but I break their defence with a head butt worthy of a pissed-up football hooligan stereotype. After, when Nora has fallen, my twin sister and I clamber on top of a carriage and call on the Blighters to join the Rooks. With applause and cheers ringing out, I have taken the City of London.
The latest entry in Ubisoft's historical murder simulator series is a definite contender for the best instalment so far, for me. And yet it's polarised critical opinion like a Christmas game of Monopoly. It might not have the charm that the pirate-themed Black Flag of 2013 possessed, but its mechanics have changed, which might hint that this heavyweight IP is slowly course-correcting after last year's dismal, French Revolution-set Unity (which, to not put too fine a point on it, was really shit). Now, you can zip-line across rooftops rather than laboriously leaping from one set of slippery tiles to the next. You can drive a horse-drawn carriage, really fast, right through a gaggle of pedestrians, if you like. Character faces no longer fall off randomly as they did in Unity, which is nice (albeit not quite so amusing).
For most of the game you play as one of two protagonists: Jacob or Evie Frye, assassin twins who come to London on a stolen train, which they proceed to use as a mobile hideout for their growing gang. The Templars, the Assassin brotherhood's nemesis, have London in a headlock. Crawford Starrick, a typical Ubisoft villain, controls the city. Over the course of eight sequences lasting approximately 15 hours, the player assassinates various lieutenants in order to get closer to the kingpin himself. At the same time, through refreshing side-missions, the Fryes take over London's organised crime world, crushing areas controlled by the Blighters in an attempt to gather an army to free the capital.
The story is heavily centred on the politics and personalities of Victorian London. Players escort Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli's wife, and the corgi in her handbag, to visit the Devil's Acre slum, and you get to go ghost hunting with Charles Dickens. Florence Nightingale requires your help and Alexander Graham Bell supplies you with upgrades. Oddly these don't seem overwhelmingly out of place in this fictionalised vision of Victorian London – perhaps because Doctor Who's time-hopping adventures have often spent time there, familiarising sci-fi fans with such sights. Either way, it's pretty cool.
While the main missions involve particularly ingenious assassinations – mostly fulfilled as Jacob, unfortunately, as playing as Evie is probably more fun – optional activities bulk out the game's content. Which isn't to say the plot-following core objectives are in any way dull – they've often got more potential paths to take than a jellyfish does tentacles. For example, an early mission sees you infiltrating Lambeth Asylum in order to assassinate John Elliotson, the man behind a drug that Starrick has Londoners hooked on (and, in real life, a medical practitioner who did indeed die in 1868). One option is to find a nurse to unlock all the Asylum doors; another sees you lying on the cadaver's slab to be hoisted up to the surgical theatre, where you then can assassinate Elliotson in a particularly gory cut scene.
Syndicate's theatre is London, and the city has never been so beautifully realised.
It's in moments like this that I feel like I'm actually hell-bent on unpicking Starrick's regime, piece by piece. And, like Black Flag's pirate-based fun, the flexibility of the game's central structure is the best part of Syndicate.
The twins are arrogant and bicker as much as I used to with my brother – that is, pretty much all the time – and playfully fight and tease one another throughout the game's story. Jacob is focused on knocking Starrick off his perch, but Evie is intent on investigating the location of another Piece of Eden – a McGuffin core to Assassin's Creed lore. (Every now and then there are modern-day cut-scenes, but the contemporary component of Creeds past has definitely been moved to the backburner.) The two characters play differently, with Jacob more of a muscular brawler and Evie being cobra-like, launching swift attacks that suddenly leave three men sliced and diced at her feet. Players gain experience points by completing missions and can use these, along with crafting resources, to upgrade their gear, unlock improved weapons and provide new skills to their ever-growing gang.
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Syndicate's theatre is London, and the city has never been so beautifully realised. The level of detail is astounding. The city is alive here – living, breathing and wheezing in the Victorian gloom. It took a whole studio, Ubisoft Singapore, to design only the Thames, which is bustling with ships that you can scale, parkour between and, pleasingly, sabotage the cargo of. The train stations are populated with guards and passengers as steam-belching behemoths come and go. Homeless people gather around cans in alleyways, burning rubbish. Gangs meet beneath the railways arches to plot.
There was one moment when I accidentally left the game playing with my character standing by a street-hawker wearing a sandwich board, flogging polish. He waved his giant bell: "Come see the latest sales and deals," he crooned. "Come 'ave a look, I'm 'ere for your benefit." After a while he paused, putting his hand on his back – strained by the weight of the board. "You've got a job to do," he said to himself. "Come on." It's a small thing, but it's an amazing piece of detail.
But no, the game's not perfect.
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Combat's improved compared to the previous games, but it's still clunky and there's some noticeable slow-down when too many enemies fill the screen. Evie and Jacob get snagged on bits of scenery, seemingly at random, while scaling buildings. Enemy and ally AI isn't always entirely realistic. But these are issues that I can mentally gloss over. To me, there's joy enough to be had here that the quirks and glitches can be mostly forgotten. The side missions are great fun, the main campaign is fulfilling and the atmosphere is never less than completely impressive.
Assassin's Creed games have always felt overstuffed for my liking. But Syndicate strips away a lot of the driftwood that choked previous titles. Unlike Unity, which used an app on your phone to lock off some content in the form of chests, the whole of London is here for you to unlock without any second-screen gadgets. And the recycled missions here are surprisingly fun: I've booted up my game exclusively to free some kids from a wicked foreman, like it's a new hobby. What amounts essentially to copy-and-paste liberation missions within the context of Victorian London are a lot more interesting than they've any right to be.
With that, and so much more, Syndicate is a success. Ubisoft, you've converted me.
Assassin's Creed: Syndicate is out now for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, with a PC version expected in November. The game was tested on PS4, with a copy provided by the game's PR. This review made possible by NVIDIA SHIELD - check out the NVIDIA SHIELD library here.
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