We’re not sure whether Assassin’s Creed Syndicate owes more to Oliver Twist or Grand Theft Auto. Set in 1868 at the height of the Industrial Revolution, we’re almost thirty years too late to be running around in Dickens’ world of workhouse London, but when Syndicate places you at the head of your very own gang of Rooks, it’s hard to not to imagine that protagonist Jacob Frye isn’t actually an adult Artful Dodger in disguise.
He’s not the only Assassin you’ll be playing as in Syndicate, though, as his twin sister Evie also takes equal billing in Ubisoft’s first modern Assassin’s Creed title. We didn’t get a chance to see how Evie differs from her brother Jacob when we went hands on with the PS4 version of the game in London this week, but each character has their own unique weapons and characteristics to keep you on your toes. Evie, for instance, has a cane with a hidden sword inside it, while Jacob uses a Nepalese kukri blade. Jacob also has a nasty pair of brass knuckles to dole out meaner, harder punches, a revolver, throwing knives and hallucinogenic darts.
Of course, Victorian London means there are also plenty of horse-drawn carriages wandering the streets, and it’s here where Ubisoft’s love of GTA really shines through. Of course, we’ve seen the company tackle Rock Star’s infamous franchise before in Watch_Dogs, and while hijacking carts and carriages isn’t anywhere near as violent as holding a driver at gunpoint, the principle is essentially the same.
So naturally the first thing we do when we’re let loose in the City of London underneath the towering shadow of St Pauls is haul the nearest driver down to the street and gallop away in our stolen landau. Naturally, horses aren’t quite as manoeuvrable as the latest Fords and BMWs, so you’ll need to take corners with quite a wide berth. Fortunately, the streets are plenty wide enough in this part of town, but that still doesn’t stop us from going head-first into another carriage and crushing an iron-wrought lamp-post in our wake.
You’ll also find rival gang members patrolling the streets in various types of curricle. As ever, you can either remain out of sight to avoid detection, or you can confront them head on. Try and take their carriage, though, and they’ll put up a mean fight to claim it back, hunting you down across the streets of London while trying to ram you from your seat. Fortunately, you can ram those carriages right back or snap the reins to make your steed power down the cobblestones even faster.
However, there comes a time when running only accomplishes so much, and in these instances you’ll want to give the Circle button a quick tap to take the battle up to your carriage roof. Here you can fire off your revolver, throw a knife and even brawl with your assailants. Alternatively, you can jump between carriages to give them the slip. Just make sure you don’t attract the attention of local policemen, though, as they’ll quickly open fire if they see anyone causing trouble.
Once we finally stop horsing around, though, it’s time to get on with our mission. It seems Ubisoft has raided the Cockney English dictionary for Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, as we’re tasked with infiltrating the infamous Blighters (yes, really) who are led by none other than (you guessed it) Bloody Nora. We’ve yet to hear anyone start talking about apples and pears, but it’s surely only a matter of time.
To sneak into the enemy stronghold, we take full advantage of Jacob’s newest toy, the rope launcher. Part grapple hook, part line launcher, this handy tool lets Jacob scoot quickly up the side of buildings as well as tightrope between buildings, giving you plenty of opportunities for aerial assassinations across big open spaces. It’s not particularly subtle, so you’ll need to take out scouts and lookouts first to keep your whereabouts under wraps, but it certainly beats having to scramble up walls all the time.
Combat, on the other hand, has been revamped for close-quarters brawling, as the spears, axes and long swords of Assassin’s Creed Unity are, so far, nowhere to be seen. It’s still a case of punching and countering at the right time, but this time you can also press X to stun your enemies as well. Our favourite tactic, though, was to fire a hallucinogenic dart into one of the nearby fire torches and watch from the shadows as a resulting cloud of heady smoke worked its magic.
Defeating rival gangs also means you can claim their territory as your own, increasing the Rooks’ hold over London. It sounds like you’ll have to keep fighting for your hard-won territory as well, as we were told that rival gangs may try to steal it back while you’re away.
We might have been confined to the streets of St Pauls for our demo, but Ubisoft has said that everywhere from Westminster Palace to the Bank of England will be playable locations, including Buckingham Palace and Victoria Station to name just a few. You’ll also be able to ride on the back of trains as they stream through the city, but sadly we’ll have to wait until a future demo before we can try this out for ourselves.
Syndicate has plenty of old blood running through its veins, but this is the first Assassin’s Creed game since Black Flag where we feel like Ubisoft has finally given us something new to play with. The carriages are a great addition and the new rope launcher gives our hero a certain air of the Dark Knight about him as well. With trains and steamboats at our disposal as well, we can’t wait to get our hands on the full game this October. Roll on Grand Theft Carriage.
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate will be launching on PS4 and Xbox One on 23rd October 2015, with PC following shortly after in the autumn.