Innovation is dangerous. It’s a lesson that Ubisoft should be well familiar with by now. As one particularly and magnificently hairy Jeff Goldblum said in Jurassic Park, they were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.
Consider that the very first Assassin’s Creed was lauded for it’s fresh parkour traversal system (and, to be fair, it’s fascinating pseudo time travel conceit). In fact, that was just about all it was lauded for. And it remained largely the same for the next dozen or so games. Instead of refining its single biggest component, they became obsessed with innovation, often at the cost of excising additions that wholeheartedly worked.
There was a brotherhood mechanic of training and raising new assassins into the order; there was a vastly expanded property management system; there an interesting dip into two different types of multiplayer in two different games; and a lot more. There was pretty much only a single instance of refinement in the transition from Assassin’s Creed III to Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag with the naval combat.
Now, like clockwork, we stand on the precipice of another entry into the franchise based on excessive ambition and innovation. Yesterday morning saw the official announcement of Assassin’s Creed Syndicate (I guess we really are done with the colons in the titles). It’ll throw us into the Industrial Revolution in London as Assassin Jacob Frye.
If you watch that archived bit of announcement stream, you can see a lot of interesting bits that are worth mining. The first is a protracted segment lauding the single greatest folly of the franchise. The next is a categorical admission of the failure of Unity while simultaneously shifting the root cause of the problem from rampant, unfettered innovation to overflowing ambition.
They’re similar qualities, but the nuanced difference is the key here. It wasn’t that they saw a world far more grand than they could build (the world they built was actually a saving grace for the game), but rather that their failure to refine caught up with them the invention was thrust upon them. Unity was the first of the series to be totally on the next generation of consoles, so time spent drumming up new things went into making sure the old things still worked.
The loops were still as tired as they ever was. Enter a new area, climb a tower, ignore all the icons on the map, and start a mission. And during the mission, you would climb a building, sneak around, get spotted, and fight your way out. And during the fight, you would mash a button, counter, and then mash again. The random events in the water surrounding Nassau transformed into interpersonal encounters on the streets of Paris and your real estate endeavors carried a miniature narrative, but it’s mostly old mechanics trying to find value in a world built beyond their scopes.
With a settling into the new consoles, Syndicate is free to fall back into the trap. While it feels more considered in this turn—if the developers’ words are anything to go by—we’ve been burned before. Combat was never a highlight of the series, so it’s great they made it faster, keeping everything closer and more brutal. It still looks like it takes way too long to beat a brute into the ground.
The new grappling hook system allows for even more facilitated ascension, no longer restricting the skyward zip to cutting loaded lines and hauling up. But there’s still the problem of getting back down, something Unity moderately addressed but never quite resolved. And external locomotion sounds cool, but riding that horse in the smothering confines of Florence was an absolute nightmare. How is a full-blown carriage supposed to handle the increasingly narrow streets of 1800 London?
Without a doubt, though, the absolutely most impressive thing the franchise has consistently pulled off has been integrating their Assassin-Templar war into the real world. This has a great deal to do with the artistic direction of the assassins themselves. Connor’s garb looked unquestionably colonial and Arno’s kit was decidedly eighteenth century French. (I don’t know how, but even Arno’s running looked French.)
The spectacular trend appears to continue in Syndicate. Jacob and his sister Evie Frye both look 100 per cent like nineteenth century scoundrels. Better yet, while integrating Arno’s quest for vengeance into the French Revolution was cool, Syndicate seems to be building its systems directly into the settings.
From the Gangs of New York-ish street fights to the segmented districts of wealth and poverty, it world has hopefully and finally transcended the mere place of deciding what clothes should look like. And speaking of Evie, it seems like that much deserved derision from excluding women from Unity as made an impact. She will be a playable character alongside Jacob, utilizing a sort of Grand Theft Auto V-type switching mechanic.
So it seems like after eight main series releases in as many years, they’re finally learning. But the question is if there’s even room for this kind marginal kind of growth. The framework is old and creaky that surely stuffing it with more grandiose ideas would surely cause it to crumble. It’s still standing atop eight-year-old systems of annoying traversal that only sometimes provides moments of “god damn that was cool.” It still forces a laundry list of activity down the player’s throat that has been hated since 2007.
Is there a fear of true change? At the end of the first Assassin’s Creed, it was assumed (or, perhaps, just hoped) that the next game would throw us into solely the modern age. Assassin’s Creed but with guns and a greater exploration of the Abstergo conspiracy? Oh hell yeah. But then we were only tossed slightly forward into the fifteenth century Renaissance. Granted, the Ezio trilogy was fantastic, but it wasn’t the monumental shift we’d all hoped for.
Now we are so tantalizingly close to the true modern era. The Industrial Revolution is basically the catalyst for much of what we take for granted today as token conveniences instead of the world-shattering advances that they were. How much further can the series comfortably go until they are forced to take the plunge into today or beyond? (Yes, the Desmond stuff was the future, but it was superficial.)
But how much more patience does the public have for Assassin’s Creed? By virtue of switching between drastically different eras and studios that tell relatively contrasting stories, Call of Duty has lived far past its Old Yeller time. But Assassin’s Creed has been lead by a single creative vision and a single studio since 2007. It is exhausting.
Not just for the developers but also the players. We finished the Desmond saga and now it feels…gluttonous. Maybe not that. Perhaps just excessive. Like a shotgun blast of ideas that never quite made it when the lone view was laid out. Only last year with Assassin’s Creed Rogue and with Syndicate do we see new studios try their hand at leading the hooded charge.
Rogue was somewhat more well-received than Unity and it was led by Ubisoft Sofia instead of Ubisoft Montreal. With Syndicate, we have Ubisoft Quebec taking the lead instead of just contributing and porting. There’s a pang of hope in that exchange. Ill-advised or not, only time will tell.
I don’t want Syndicate to fail. That would just be crazy. It’s far more fun to have more stuff to like in the world that stuff to hate. But free of the veil of cynicism, there is skepticism, earned and valued, just as there is reason to hope. Based on the reveal, though, there isn’t as much as you’d want. Let’s all find out on October 23rd.