Assassin’s Creed Syndicate will be released on October 23. Does the new edition have what it takes to rise from the ashes of last year’s poorly-reviewed Unity? The writer travels to the United Kingdom, the setting of the new game, to find out.
By Harold Goldberg
London, England – I am sitting here in a dingy London basement at an 1880s-era, power plant that’s been converted to an event space called Wapping Station, and I am thinking about Charles Dickens. The weather outside is, well, raw and miserable due to a tropical storm that’s hit the isle, and the rain is dripping through the rafters and onto the building’s wifi routers. So the wifi doesn’t work. Actually, I’m glad it doesn’t work. Because I am thinking about Dickens’ description of Devil’s Acre, which “no lighting board can brighten,” I want to visit a time when technology as we know it today was not readily available. In fact in the Victorian world, today’s technology would probably be thought of as something dire, something black, something like conjuring and magic, both of which were considered to be mysterious but real in Dickens’ time.
There’s no escaping it; the technology is indeed here. On a 42″ screen are portions of the PlayStation 4 version Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, the latest edition in the now-yearly series. Unity, last year’s ill-fated offering, was not well-received by critics and that lambasting gave rise to varied speculation, comments like, this open world franchise should not be released on a yearly basis because it can’t be done well. With Rockstar Games and Bethesda Softworks taking more than three years to unveil one of their open world offerings, the argument against releasing yearly open world experiences can be seen a strong one.
Actually, Syndicate “took two and a half years” to produce, executive producer Francois Pelland tells me down in the Wapping Station cellar near to where the gaming systems have been set up. I always end up talking about the writing when I meet Assassin’s Creed folks, from way back when Corey May worked on his first game. I was always fascinated with the attention to detail in historically-based media and how that translates into a game that asks you to keep on pressing buttons for dozens of hours. Essentially, I wonder what one sacrifices to honor the minutiae of history yet produce compelling, modern fiction in a sandbox open world milieu.
Corey May left the team this year, much to my dismay. Still, says Pelland, “he worked on Syndicate” before he departed. Far Cry’s 3 witty Jeffrey Yohalem stayed on. Together with a team of 11 other writers, Yohalem and May brewed a cauldron filled with bits of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” various historical tomes and stealth gameplay — peppered with a brief dashes of humor. At one point, when I was driving a carriage badly and knocking over gaslight lampposts, a passerby with a bass-voiced cockney accent yelled, “Hey! Watch where you’re going.” I laughed out loud – and I rarely laugh out loud during games. That’s partially because someone on a motorcycle had earlier called me a “cunt” when I crossed the street against the light. He actually sped up to try to get me. So, well, it resonated. This cockney gent’s humor took me out of the Syndicate experience, but not for long. It was just enough for me to blink once or twice, to get a breath of fresh, non-gaming air, and to move on revitalized.
When I do meet Charles Dickens, he has that signature beard but he’s more loquacious and extroverted than I would have imagined. He suggested that I come to visit “where the ale is warm and tempers are hot” if I needed some help. Basically, he said it in a “Dude, come hang” kind of way. As I thought about it, Dickens wrote serial novels and journalism, often for newspapers. So he wasn’t the kind of writer who would shrink away from the crowds of Victorian London in order to write. At his peak, he was so famous that people ripped hair from his head and tore his clothing when he went around in public. Since he was paid by the word, he wrote long, sometimes blowsy sentences in newspapers, to make more money. He appeared at theaters to read his work aloud, even for the Queen, almost like an actor would perform. So the Ubisoft Dickens is a well-researched Dickens.
Research was just so key to the experience, says Judith Flanders, author of The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ London. She also said her job as historical consultant “was the best job ever.” I thought that might have been utter b.s., but she says, “I had done work for historical dramas on television and was treated like the enemy. Here, I felt needed and a part of the development team.” That didn’t mean she liked every idea Ubisoft had for Syndicate. “I was very tough on the script. I would find something on every page.” She says, “There were so many thousands of details that we never think about that had to be dealt with. How do you get into a carriage, for instance? Do the doors open in or out?” The material that took her the longest to research “was the most incidental like the ‘overheards’ for the characters on the street. What someone said when they would be knocked over. Was a newsboy crying ‘read all about it’ anachronistic?” (Due to a song she discovered near to the time in which the game is set, it was conceivable that newsboys did use that time worn utterance.)
But, Flanders says, “This world did have to fit with gameplay world. “So, for instance, the streets are wider (in the game) than they would have been then.”
At The Tower of London, I walked with Jonathan Dumont, whose title is the powerful-sounding world director. We stopped at the age-old Chapel of St. John, the building of which began in 1078 by William The Conquerer. Here, King Henry VIII’s daughter Mary was married to Philip of Spain, which caused a large protest, basically due to a countrywide fear of Philip’s Catholicism. Dumont said that Ubisoft meticulously recreated the chapel and used it as one of the settings for a peak moment with Evie. She stealhily assassinates a Templar within the quiet, holy place. We talked about the minute details Ubisoft cared about: How carriage wheels looked, how people walked, even how many people walked on a particular London street at particular times of the day. It wasn’t just about moments in history. It was about everything history stands for, architecture, engineering, population study, psychology, social studies.
But Dumont had the candor to admit he is too close to the game to see if there were any issues with it. I take the position that in every open world game, even the best, there are going to be small bugs. I found some issues with game control early on when trying to ascend a tower, but only at that point. Later, one of the non-playable characters became stuck. He was trying to go through, not around, a table during a mission in which I had to free children from a factory. There, the children were toiling like slaves. And when the game suggested that I carry a hostage to a carriage on a busy street, the carriage wouldn’t take him. I was told by a public relations representative that the right carriage was supposed to have a beacon to identify it. So I tried again. The beacon didn’t immediately shine. By the time the beacon lit, the London police had discovered me. But I lifted the hulking brute and his dead weight into the vehicle.
Overall, though, I was intrigued to the point of wanting to absorb more of London, wanting to spend more time in that smoky, foggy Victorian world and, in a kind of odd petulance, wanting to stay in the city for a full month. I enjoyed being stealthy in London, more than I did, say, in Boston or in Paris with previous Assassin’s Creed games. That’s because I feel that London, now almost 2,000 years old, holds more mysteries, more accessible mysteries, than do those other fine cities. It’s also perhaps because I was once told by my mother that I’m related to Horatio Nelson, the British admiral. “Your father’s mother was a Nelson,” she said. I didn’t think much of it until I read Robert Southey’s 1902 biography shortly after college which told me Nelson was “wildly popular with the British public,” and “had a consistent habit of victory.” In any case, my love for London had already begun because as a child I had a fascination for the so-called anatomy of murder in the case Jack The Ripper. (I think this early fascination later turned into my need to write a book about serial killers.)
Our motley crew traipsed through the back alleys of London on a Jack The Ripper walking tour. The leader was a bad-smelling man who had had some acting lessons. He tried to act as eerie as possible, smacking his lips like he’d had a pub meal after detailing a gruesome Ripper disembowelment. After 45 minutes in the cold, a few of us had had enough of his creepy lip-licking and peeled off into the night.
While the Jack The Ripper mission wasn’t available to play, I hit the hotel room, planning to watch the trailer that Ubisoft put up on YouTube earlier that day. I fell hard asleep but was woken by a younger, drunk colleague puking, hour after hour, in the room next door. It sounded like death throes, so I imagined Jack The Ripper was next door, disemboweling the evil that had so rudely woken me. Awake, I watched the trailer. That downloadable content will be a highlight of Syndicate. The dank, foggy nights in Whitechapel, the grim back alleys of 1888, the flickering shadows of death illuminated by gaslight, sharp, pointy dirty knives and terribly butchered bodies. The mood is right as you track down what arguably history’s most notorious serial killer.
But the main game isn’t about Jack. It’s, once again, about Assassins versus Templars, this time featuring a female assassin. Evie is part of a male/female, brother/sister team of twins who have decidedly different personalities. Jacob wants to form a gang called the Rooks and move immediately to trounce foes. Evie wants to be more carefully thoughtful. She deals in facts and tactics. Very early on, they meet a British Assassin named Henry Green, also known for creepy effect as The Ghost. Physically, he’s reminiscent of the hunky Sayid character in ABC’s landmark “Lost.” Immediately, Evie and Green make eye contact and I gleaned that some kind of romance or sexual tension would be forthcoming. I felt this setup was too obvious, that the ‘attraction/love at first sight’ trope could have been dealt with, well, at least a bit later than during the first meeting. These, after all, are assassins who should be on their toes and wary – even around those assassins like Green who seem to be on their side.
Yet overall, the world was captivating. I spent too much time simply wandering around this virtual Victorian London, stepping uninvited into homes and factories, walking down crooked streets and alleyways. It was as if it were virtual time travel. In a sense, it was meta. I was both virtual tourist and real tourist. The game changed how I walked the streets of London when I was away from the group, away, and feeling more comfortable away. Walking alone, I could feel the grim ghosts of history with each step. At night walking over a bridge, I felt I could hear the ghosts’ muffled laughter and drunken harangues.
Back in Syndicate, I could somersault off a tower and into a hay wagon, always fun to do when you’re generally a couch potato. I could grapple up buildings quickly, kind of like a fast rat. It was hard to be stealthy at all times, but creeping up on your foes and murdering them with a special move was satisfying. Still, as an assassin or not, I would again and again walk the game’s cobblestone streets, leaving the missions and goals, looking closely at the garb worn by townspeople, how they walked, and how the reacted to me. I watched the poor and infirm limp along. I watched the rich look down upon them. As Dickens said in “Household Words,”
“Close under the Abbey of Westminster there lie concealed labyrinths of lanes and courts, and alleys and slums, nests of ignorance, vice, depravity, and crime, as well as of squalor, wretchedness, and disease; whose atmosphere is typhus, whose ventilation is cholera; in which swarms of huge and almost countless population, nominally at least, Catholic; haunts of filth, which no sewage committee can reach – dark corners, which no lighting board can brighten.”
If Ubisoft can recreate that feeling, the eloquent Dickensian feeling of disgust, dirt and desperation, they’ll not only have done their job. In ancillary fashion, too, they’ll have made a great game in Syndicate, one that will be remembered.
Harold Goldberg is the founder of the New York Videogame Critics Circle. He has written for The New York Times and other publications.