Assassin's Creed: Syndicate
US: 23 Oct 2015
Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate loves the city of London, and it wants you to love it too. The Assassin’s Creed games have always excelled at creating virtual worlds that feel alive, stuffed to the brim with people going about their daily lives—relaxing, working, or having fun in period appropriate ways. However, the Assassin’s Creed games are also about climbing up buildings, running across rooftops, and parkouring your way through a city as if the ground was hot lava. It’s hard to appreciate all that impressive historical mundanity when the gameplay keeps pushing you up and away.
This might seem like a conflict of desires within the design of the game, but I’d argue otherwise. The pace of a game is set by the gameplay, and Assassin’s Creed wants to move at a brisk pace. If you slow the gameplay to slow the pacing, you end up with a game like Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, which oppresses player with painfully slow pacing. It’s actually far better to go the Assassin’s Creed route. Keep the gameplay fast, but use the story to make players want to slow down.
One of the sad things about Assassin’s Creed: Unity, and I say this as someone who quite liked the game, was that by the time that I had finished the story, I had not yet seen all of Paris. In fact, I’d only seen about half the city. The rest remained undiscovered. I still haven’t seen those sections of Paris because why would I go back when the story was already done? I liked Unity‘s virtual Paris, but according to the story I had already seen all of the city’s most important locations, so why stay just to see the lesser attractions? That was the sense that I got when I turned the game off for the last time. The story was my tour guide, and for some reason, that tour didn’t travel the whole of the city.
The story of Syndicate is a much better tour guide. London is split into seven sections (Whitechapel, City of London, Southwark, Lambeth, The Thames, The Strand, and Westminster), and the game is structured to ensure you become familiar with each one.
Syndicate revolves around you taking back control of London from Crawford Starrick, a Templar whose influence is felt all cross the city. The story begins with you helping those most vulnerable—the lower class of Lambeth. Starrick controls the distribution of a Soothing Syrup, a tonic sold as a cure-all for any disease, but that is really just an opium drink. Once we take care of that sham, we move up the socioeconomic ladder, taking over public transportation in Southwark, protecting the bank in the City of London, and assassinating a corrupt politician in Westminster.
What’s important here is that the plot always takes the setting into account. The slums of Lambeth require a different means of control than the more industrialized Southwark. Each of our assassination targets controls a different pillar of society (factories, hospitals, transportation, banking, politics) and each of those pillars supports a different socioeconomic group. The game correlates these three things—assassination target, city location, and socioeconomic group—to make each section of the city feel unique. By the time that we reach the end, we’ve seen all sides the city, from its poorest hovels to its manors. We know it intimately.
But it’s more than just a matter of story progression. The whole game is actually structured in a way that purposefully pushes you towards every corner of London.
Each section of the city has a level associated with it that represents the strength of the enemies within. These levels are used to signify the path that the developers want you to take. Whitechapel is the starting area at level 2, The Thames is level 4, The Strand is level 8, and so on. You can still enter these sections of the city (the game doesn’t physically cordon off anything), but a level 2 Assassin can easily be killed by even a weak level 6 thug.
Completing missions will help you level up, but completing all of the story missions in a section of London won’t level you up enough to match the next section. The game doesn’t want you to just play the story missions, it wants you to stick around and do some side quests, to hang out in this area until you’re familiar with it, so this structure encourages you to remain within a part of London past the completion of story missions.
Syndicate is paced and written in such a way as to emphasize the diversity of London, and the metagame is structured to prevent you from moving too quickly through the city. Syndicate wants you to learn all about London, and to love London.