Less than a month from release, Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed Syndicate is likely to be judged as much on its own merits as on how well its publisher listened to fan discontent about the flagship series and what it's been willing to change. Companion apps are out. Platform-exclusive DLC is back. The overall plan for the game and its various add-on components is nearly as complex as it has ever been and shows that Ubisoft is largely moving full steam ahead.
Syndicate will be out soon and is deep into its preview hype cycle. Several reporters and YouTubers recently got a look at two missions from the 19th century London-set game and have been posting written and video impressions. Fan sites, the AC subreddit and YouTube channels are filling up with possible Trophy/Achievement lists and speculation about whether the game will have a substantial section set in the modern day, a series staple all but dropped in Unity to mixed reaction.
The game will finally come out on October 23 for Xbox One, PS4 and PC. The differentiating factors this year appear to be the setting, the GTA-style system for stealing and driving horse-drawn carriages, the swappable twin protagonists, Jacob and Evie, and the Batman-style rope-launcher that is used for grappling up buildings and tightroping between them. It played well at E3, but, really, they always do.
It's impossible to know in advance of release how good the game will be -- or if it's another clunker like Unity -- but it is possible to at least look at how Ubisoft is setting it up and where the publisher's priorities seem to be.
The fact that Syndicate is even coming out this year is a signal that Ubisoft remains aggressive about the franchise, though the disappearance of two other planned Assassin's Creed spin-off games suggests the company might be dialling back a tad. Some fans and critics -- including some of us at Kotaku -- have suggested that Ubisoft needs to give the AC series a year off, but that's not happening this year. For any other series, Ubisoft's 2015 plans for Assassin's Creed including the release of at least two new games in the series would in fact seem like overdrive; these plans are restrained only in contrast to what has come before.
So far this year Ubisoft has released the AC Unity expansion Dead Kings in January and the sidescroller Assassin's Creed Chronicles: China in April. Both were unremarkable. The latter was supposed to have started a new 2D trilogy and be followed by games set in India and Russia. Both of those games have been slated for 2015 but we haven't heard anything about either since June and neither has a release date. Presumably Ubisoft wants all AC fans' eyes on Syndicate for now.
Dead Kings was released for free to all Unity players, as part of Ubisoft's attempt to recover from an overly ambitious 2014. Ubisoft had begun 2014 with its sails full from the warm response to 2013's Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag released an incredible four major Assassin's Creed projects: a remake of the portable Assassin's Creed Liberation, a well-received ACIV expansion called Freedom Cry, and two massive fall games, the calamitous Unity for Xbox One, PS4 and PC and the excellent, unsung Assassin's Creed Rogue for Xbox 360 and PS3. Then they stumbled. Unity slipped from October to November, was slammed by critics (the only AC game to get a "No" from Kotaku) and was such a creative disappointment and glitchy technical mess that an apologetic Ubisoft decided it would offer Dead Kings as a consolation bonus.
Late last year, Ubisoft was loosening up its add-on Assassin's Creed content as a make-good to disgruntled series fans, but this year they're back to chopping it up to maximise sales opportunities. Warning: what follows might seem like a maze. Don't get lost!
Ubisoft has already announced a slew of DLC for Syndicate including a 20-years-later paid expansion involving Jack the Ripper.
In addition to the Ripper expansion, there will be Penny Dreadful missions, a series of interactive mysteries available only to PlayStation owners -- at least at first -- for no extra cost. This is one of the publisher's favoured marketing moves with the AC games.
Ubisoft has been offering platform-exclusive DLC for Assassin's Creed games since 2010's Assassin's Creed Brotherhood, the Renaissance-era Rome game that had an additional eight missions involving Copernicus (they weren't very good). They did that again with bonus PlayStation missions for ACIII and ACIV, at least offering those also for PC.
Last year's Unity was the first AC game to seem to lean, marketing-wise toward Xbox and was part of a special Xbox One hardware bundle, but last year there was no platform-exclusive DLC at all. This year, it's back as the series leans back toward PlayStation. It's unclear if this DLC will come to PC as well or if it will ever hit Xbox One -- the PlayStation YouTube's own trailer for the missions shows them as coming "first" to PlayStation. We asked Ubisoft about this a couple of times last week. They did not reply.
There is also, yet again, pre-order DLC. Unlike the platform-exclusive DLC, this tends to eventually come to all platforms. Ubisoft has been offering pre-order-centric DLC for games in this series since Assassin's Creed II, when it parceled a trio of enemy strongholds initially only to people who had pre-ordered the superb 2009 game from specific retailers. Well before that game's release, series creator Patrice Desilets told Kotaku that those small bits of DLC would be available to all players at some point. "Eventually, everyone will have the entire game," he said at the time. Those strongholds were sold to all players several weeks after the game's release.
For Syndicate, the pre-order DLC features missions involving Charles Dickens and Charles Darwin. This pre-order DLC was first hyped by Ubisoft on the day the publisher officially revealed the game in May -- six months after we published information and images of the game leaked to us.
Aggressive as all this is, Ubisoft has pulled back elsewhere, saying in May that there would be no companion app for Syndicate. There had been phone/tablet apps for ACIV and AC Unity, the latter using a connection with the app to open certain treasure chests in the game. One of Unity's myriad problems was that its companion app did not reliably sync to the game, nor did the Assassin's Creed Initiates website, which was also tied to certain treasure chests in that game. There's been no word on whether there are Initiates connection requirements or opportunities with Unity, though Ubi has given the impression that Syndicate will be less encumbered by peripheral services. In May, the publisher had told Eurogamer that there would be no companion app for this year's Syndicate because the forthcoming game's "team wanted to focus all their efforts on the core experience." Unity's companion app and Initiates site had been such debacles that Ubisoft eventually untethered the game's treasure chests from both services. Initiates appears to be moribund.
Among AC Unity's peculiarities was that it allowed players to purchase a $US100 bundle of virtual Helix Credits currency to spend on in-game character upgrades, but didn't seem to offer $US100 worth of stuff. The game's microtransactions were optional, and players could attain the best weapons and armour without spending any extra money, but the publisher did offer its wealthiest and most impatient customers a chance to spend to be a great assassin faster. It is unclear if these microtransactions are back. The recently-updated app for Ubisoft's Uplay service offers players a bundle of free Helix credits in AC Syndicate, "to exchange for in-game currency, crafting resources and other time savers," but we can't be sure if those Helix credits are obtained entirely in-game or if they can be purchased with real money. We asked Ubisoft about that a couple of times last week. They did not reply.
Our review of Unity focused on the game's creative failings: dull missions, an uninteresting story and questionable stealth controls. Whether Syndicate improves on those things will largely be proven only once the full game is available to play and review. But for many gamers, Unity's worst failings were technical. They lambasted the game for glitches and choppy framerate. That game ran on a new engine, one that Syndicate's developers have had an added year to work with. Ubisoft's said nothing to us about how they have addressed quality control this time out (again, we asked and they didn't reply), so it's hard to say what'll come of this.
Previews of last week presented differing views. The folks at Video Gamer played two missions in Syndicate and said the game "feels instantly like Unity... with constant stuttering and a wildly fluctuating frame rate [and] demonstrable input lag." But critics at Eurogamer played the same stuff and said "it's also clear that another year of technical knowledge and fine-tuning for the game's engine has produced a far better and more stable result. In the early build we played, Syndicate ran smoothly at all times." These are previews, of course, on presumably non-final copies of the game, so who knows.
Syndicate is the ninth major Assassin's Creed release since 2007. The series has been around so long and had so many ups and downs that plenty of analogies are available. It arrives after a poorly received AC, inviting comparisons to AC II and AC IV, arguably the two best games of the series and each immediate successors to a much-hyped AC game (the first and AC III) that disappointed a lot of fans. Both of those games built on their predecessors' new game engines to create more stable and creatively interesting games, something Syndicate could do with the tech built for Unity. Another comparison: Syndicate is the product of a studio, Ubisoft Quebec that is graduating from leading development of AC expansions to being only the second AC game, after last year's Rogue, to not be lead by Ubisoft Montreal. Rogue was led by Ubisoft Sofia, which was graduating from making portable AC games and its first shot at the big time was terrific.
Syndicate, though, might also invite comparisons to AC Revelations or Unity or, well, any other franchise game that in retrospect seemed to exist in the year that it did strictly because its publisher must have a major Assassin's Creed every year, even if more development time might be required to make it a better game. It is already decked in DLC and marshalled for marketing. It's got many strings attached. In a few weeks we'll find out whether, aside from all that, there is a great game there and whether Assassin's Creed has rebounded, as its publisher and its fans surely hope it will, yet again.