Review code for the PC version of Assassin's Creed Syndicate [official site] activated this evening and I've spent the hours since playing through the opening sections and fiddling with various settings to see how it all holds together. In short, it runs beautifully and looks a treat. Details and early thoughts about my trip to the Big Smoke are below.
My favourite thing about the game so far is the way that the subtitles occasionally provide a translation for a bit of British slang. “Don't lose your bottle, boys”, a guard yells. The subtitles provide an assist for anyone who might justifiably be confused about these thugs and their attachment to blown glass. “Don't lose your bottle (nerve), boys” is printed across the screen. I think Ubisoft should have taken this further. “Don't lose your bottle (nerve), boys (fully grown adult men)”.
That the slang translations are my favourite thing is not intended as a slur on the rest of the game though, I'm just odd like that. While it's not quite as much of a breath of fresh sea breeze as Black Flag, this is far and away the most I've enjoyed any other Assassin's Creed game. There's less clutter, and both the sneaking and the combat are much improved. So far, and it is very early days, there are not only plenty of things that I want to do, but I'm actually having fun while doing those things. That's a change of both pace and execution given my experiences with all of the Assassin's Creed 2s and the brief time I spent with Unity.
And it looks great. I've found the extremely stylised steampunky London hilarious in some of the pre-release footage and marketing, and not always in a good way, but in-game it's delightful. The city and the people in it feel like a sort of West World Victorian England, a theme park take on the period rather than an attempt to capture anything real. It's silly and colourful - packed with smokestacks, stovepipe hats and screaming steam trains – and feels like the right setting for the silliness of the game itself.
During the tutorial missions, I was a little taken aback by the lack of response from bystanders as I hopped, skipped, jumped and clambered through the factories they were working in. Nobody seems at all startled by the appearance of one of the twin playable assassins suddenly leaping into view, or dropping from a rafter and landing right in their line of sight. Unless they're guards, that is, in which case they start to chase and to hunt when you slip out of view.
That lack of sensible or appropriate response from civilians is a threat to the credibility of the entire world and no matter how impressive that world looks, it's the sort of thing that can shatter the illusion. In fact, there's an argument to be made that increased visual fidelity makes unconvincing behaviour even more jarring; if the city looks so real then unresponsive animatronic NPCs stand out like a sore thumb on an otherwise perfectly manicured hand.
Syndicate doesn't look real though. It looks like an imaginary place, drawn from fiction rather than history, and the entire future-story framing device helps to support the idea that this is a game within a game. I'm not going to give the wider Templar vs Assassin plotline credit in any other way – the introduction, set in AC's present day, registered as nothing more than a brief gobbet of gibberish – but as a device to summon up historical settings and treat them as playgrounds, it's perfectly satisfactory.
I'm hoping that Syndicate recognises that and doesn't interrupt my adventures in that playground too often.
Combat feels closer to the slick freeflow melee of Rocksteady's Arkham games than it has previously, and while that might not be exciting in and of itself, getting into a scrap isn't simply an annoyance. The animations, particularly for lady assassin Evie, are a satisfying blend of brutality and elegance, which helps. She controls and behaves as if she's an accomplished brawler and killer rather than a person in a hood trying to punch through porridge.
The stealth side of things has some of the problems I've always associated with AC sneaking, prime among them being that it feels like the inferior option most of the time. Given that Jacob and Evie can slice through their opponents with grace, style and ease, skulking around in the shadows seems unnecessary. That the controls incline more toward free-running than creeping in cover only emphasises how cumbersome a reliance on stealth can be. Jacob and Evie always want to take flight, but getting them to stick to cover without waggling in and out of view is a chore.
At this point, I'm not sure whether I'm hoping for that side of the game to become more important as I progress, proving that it can be an accomplished part of the design, or hoping that I'll never have it forced on me.
That said, I've spent my first few upgrade points on stealth abilities and now that my Eagle Eye allows me to tag enemies through walls, I'm having a better time of it. The weird non-reactive nature of NPCs is certainly more of an issue when sneaking about and causing chaos from rooftops though – people have a tendency to shrug and walk away from the chaos unless it's striking them right in the jugular.
I'll have a full review as soon as I'm done with the game and it is, of course, entirely possible that the open world will quickly become wearisome. This feels like a much cleaner Assassin's Creed game though and one that will hopefully remain as light-hearted as its two leads have been so far. They're enjoying life (and the taking of life), quipping as they go, and the game feels much less laboured and weighed down with distractions and diversions.
Structurally, I can't judge it yet though. Only time will tell, and then so shall I.
On the technical side it's been flawless so far. Maybe that staggered PC release was a damn fine idea after all? I've taken a couple of screenshots, showing the graphics menu and the HUD menu. The latter isn't a technical thing, sure, but it's pleasantly customisable should you want more of a challenge while exploring and hunting objectives.
I'm running on a GTX 960 and, as you can see in the screenshot, the game reckons my 2GB of memory won't be up to the task running on high. That hasn't been the case though – it looks great and is running at a steady 60FPS with no stuttering or slowdown. I've got 8GB of RAM and an i5-4690 running at 3.5GHz, and even when I can see a district stretching out in front of me, packed with guards and civilians, all is well. No FOV setting though and the view does feel awful cramped at times, particularly when perched on high for a spot of reconaissance. It's odd and a little frustrating that one of the series' trademarks is hampered by the lack of an option to show more of the world at any one time.
I've tried running on Ultra High settings as well, at which point the menu screen splutters along at just under 10 frames per second but the game itself is still a fairly even 30, though with barely tolerable stuttering when large areas of a borough are being rendered. Nothing about the look of the game on those ultra settings makes me particularly hungry for them though - it's noticeably prettier, but I don't feel like I'm missing out.
No glitches yet, though. Again, this is all early days but the port certainly isn't an omnishambles. And, so far, the game is extremely promising to boot. It's not a revolution by any means and if you've played an Assassin's Creed game before, I'm not sure it's going to surprise. It's probably fair to say it's unlikely to convert anyone who has played one of the series before and hasn't found anything to like, but if this is as lean and efficient a take on the formula as these first hours suggest, it might be a winner for the rest of us.
Back to London for me now. Here's hoping I'm this happy thirty hours down the line.