Assassin's Creed Syndicate's new Jack The Ripper expansion is a compelling if rough-edged remix of the base game that cleverly works in one of history's most famous killers. It pulls off another trick, too, going to extraordinary lengths to engender empathy for a group of people who don't get much of it in video games: prostitutes.
The inclusion of prostitutes in the Ripper expansion was inevitable as soon as its creators at Ubisoft chose the subject matter for this expansion. They game is set 20 years after Syndicate's Victorian London adventure in the squalor of Whitechapel, where Jack The Ripper famously murdered prostitutes.
But Assassin's Creed Syndicate seemed to be avoiding prostitutes. The main game had already ahistorically omitted sex workers, who'd been included as "courtesans" in many previous games in the series, where they served as a recruitable characters to be dispatched to flirt with and distract enemies. They had also occasionally been presented as victims of violence to motivate righteous players, a move astutely criticised by feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian in a widely-viewed video in mid-2014.
Assassin's Creed players, however, don't sign on for controversy aversion. This series that has had multiple installments about the slave trade, multiple installments starring non-white heroes and that has offered ample criticism of America's founding fathers, Renaissance-era clergy, and the Crusades.
As such, Jack The Ripper not only gives players the primary goal of hunting down the infamous murderer of prostitutes, but also offers numerous sidequests that present protagonist Evie Frye as a crusader for women in that career, busting up crooked brothels and defending abused sex workers.
The expansion presents prostitution as a career for the downtrodden and encourages players, in a short series of "Lost Women" missions, to rescue those in the profession who are mistreated. "Many destitute women have no choice but to turn to prostitution to survive," the game explains. "They get no respect and have no protection -- somebody has got to stand up for them."
To Assassin's Creed Syndicate players, the "Lost Women" missions will be a new take on the main game's carriage hijackings, now with a little detective work and safer driving mixed in.
In another set of side missions, Evie busts up brothels run by a crooked madame and her thugs. "Those thugs won't be beatin' us or stealin' our ha' pennies anymore...thanks to you, Miss Evie." After clearing one of those missions, I was immediately notified that my support from prostitutes had increased. You can once again use them to distract enemies, which I proceeded to try. Notably, Syndicate's new-found use of female enemies has an added wrinkle, as I was only able to dispatch my ally prostitutes to distract male thugs, but not female thugs.
Crucially, Evie isn't rescuing these women from a life of prostitution -- only from those who would seek to exploit them or do them harm. Jack the Ripper manages to mostly sidestep the more common (and commonly criticised) approach of making a villain out of prostitution itself; the game's implication is that these women should be free to do whatever they want for a living, including sex work or whatever else.
A sceptic might say that Jack the Ripper's screaming virtual women in those Lost Women carriage missions are simply more inspiring cargo for a player to protect, that the game designers tossing the player a victimised woman instead of a plundered bag of gold is just another exploitation of violence against women to motivate a player, the same thing for which Sarkeesian criticised the earlier AC games. It doesn't come off that way when the expansion is viewed as a whole. The Ripper designers' dedication to sustaining empathy for sex workers throughout the game suggests that the empathy itself is their goal, and that they're not simply going for a psychological trick. (They don't, however, ever present any sights or sounds of actual sex, though, which is on odd sanitisation of subject matter that's otherwise earnestly explored.)
The Ripper "Walk of Shame" missions are another remix, modifying the main game's not very fun kidnapping system by adding a shame meter and adding the context of sex worker abuse:
The inclusion of all of this stuff like this is extraordinary in a medium whose most notable reference for prostitute-based gameplay is Grand Theft Auto's now notorious refund-by-murder.
The core part of the Jack The Rippper expansion is the 10-mission effort to figure out who the Ripper is, why he is killing, and how this fits in with the conflict between Assassins and Templars -- since according to this series, just about every famous moment of real history does. The prostitution elements are a big part of it but far from the only notable element.
You mostly play as Evie, though you also play as another person (that link's a spoiler, FYI!). Evie is older now, which itself is a case of Assassin's Creed breaking seldom-cracked ground with a middle-aged female protagonist. She's back from her new home in India with a modified weapon set.
Each recent Assassin's Creed games has gotten one "major" expansion that plays around with new ideas. The expansion for Assassin's Creed III played with the idea of giving the protagonist super-powers. The expansion for ACIV boldly and a little clumsily built gameplay systems around liberating slaves. This expansion's core theme is fear, and Evie marshals it with fear bombs (video games, people!), scary spikes and her ability to shift enemies through three stages of fright.
Here's a clip of a side mission called "From Hell," from a small series of missions that involve tracking down people who are taking credit for the Ripper's murders. (Johnny Depp does not appear at any time during the mission. I was disappointed, too.) I use the expansion's new "brutal takedown" move to immediately bump some enemies from "calm" to "frightened", right past the "anxious" stage. Most of the red-marked frightened enemies run away. You'll notice that the brute enemy is unaffected. Brutes can't be scared and, cleverly, can calm scared enemies. I pin the brute to the ground with a fear spike. The other guy who doesn't run away is my target, who is programmed to wait for me to confront him.
Evie's ability to scare people can be upgraded. Her fear bombs can have a wider effect. The fear she spreads can propagate further. That all is very video game-y, but also what can make an expansion worthwhile, as its designers tweak the systems of the game on which it is based to see if some changed or added elements can be as interesting as what they stated with.
Evie also gets to play detective, another extension of gameplay from Syndicate (and 2014's Assassin's Creed Unity before it) as well as yet another case of this year's Assassin's Creed riffing on gameplay ideas seen in the Batman Arkham games. It all works well.
The shame of a lot of this is that it should all work just a little better, which leaves Jack The Ripper occupying the same status as much of the rest of the Assassin's Creed series. These games are invariably bold in their themes, moreso than the releases of any other major gaming franchise. They will touch on sensitive topics, they will bring difficult material out of cutscenes and into playable sequences. They will also repeatedly tweak core gameplay elements of movement, stealth, and fighting enemies.
But they will also be crusty and janky. They will have guys sitting on chairs that don't exist like this guy from one of the missions in the expansion.
These flaws might be the price to pay to enjoy the daring decisions made in a series that never slows down quite enough for exemplary quality control. Instead, they hit those marketing deadlines and hope to sell enough copies to get ready for another release that, odds are, will take at least a few more chances and do a few more interesting things.