In a recent gameplay demo for Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, my target is a Templar woman with information about a Shroud. The Shroud is the latest in a long line of interchangeable AC artifacts and probably has something to do with the enslavement of humanity, but the truth is that I’m far more interested in how I got here than I am in the MacGuffin.
I spent some hands-on time with Syndicate at Fan Expo in Toronto, and the most striking thing about the game is that it’s far more about process than it is about outcome. The gameplay demo features Evie Frye, one of two player protagonists in Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate (the other is her twin brother, Jacob).
“We’ve had two protagonists from the very beginning,” said Hugo Giard, the Mission Director for Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, when asked about the decision to split the story between Evie and Jacob. “We were interested in exploring the emotions between siblings as opposed to lovers or enemies or something like that. It’s a relationship dynamic that’s never been explored.”
Or at least, it’s never been explored in an Assassin’s Creed game. Prior installments have revolved around relationships between lovers (Unity), parents (Assassin’s Creed III), or mentors (Assassin’s Creed), so Ubisoft was bound to get around to siblings eventually. The twins have a handful of distinct abilities, but the standardized Assassin’s Creed gameplay ensures that there’s little dissonance between the two.
“Jacob and Evie, they’re both Assassins,” said Giard. “They’ve been trained by the same person and ultimately their objective is the same. It’s just the way they go about it that’s different.”
In other words, Assassin’s Creed is still Assassin’s Creed. Both Jacob and Evie can scale buildings, blend into crowds, and sprint across rooftops before diving into conveniently placed piles of hay. The difference is that while players have traditionally only seen half of the relationship, players will now be able to experience Victorian London through two distinct sets of eyes.
“We didn’t have to really cater the world to one personality or the other, or one’s skills or the other,” said Giard. “We created a world and we let the player express themselves depending on which skill set, which character they like better.”
That’s what makes Syndicate genuinely fascinating. While there are a few missions designed exclusively for one twin or the other, most missions are compatible with either sibling and you can switch between them with two button presses while exploring London. Their relationship won’t have as much texture until you experience it through gameplay.
“It did make our life a little more challenging,” said Giard, admitting that two protagonists created balancing issues at the mechanical level. “When we’re dealing with both protagonists playing the same mission, we have to make sure that we cater to both skill trees and make sure the story still stands.”
The payoff for the extra work is that the twin protagonists should expand the game’s appeal for those dissatisfied with the more restrictive (and overwhelmingly white male) character options in previous installments. If you don’t like one twin, you’re free to play as the other.
More importantly, it also means that how you get there is far more important than the goal, especially as it relates to character development. In the demo, the final result is the same regardless of your approach. The target is dead and the story moves on. But the game gives players an astonishing amount of freedom to determine the personalities of Evie and Jacob through the gameplay before that moment.
“We wanted to add opportunities. The bad guys, as well as the locations, all revolve around a unique theme, and we wanted to make sure the opportunities we were creating were specific to that context,” said Giard.
That’s very much the case in the demo, which presents the player with a fortress and then provides multiple routes for infiltration. You could force your way in – killing everything will always be a viable gameplay option in Assassin’s Creed – but the other strategies have more nuanced narrative implications. You can steal a key to sneak in through a back door to attack from the shadows. You can also work with a friendly guard, who will pretend to arrest you and march you directly through the building for an audience with your target.
I went with the latter option, eventually triggering a cut scene in which I was able to execute my target before she was aware of any danger. The journey to that moment made the conclusion plenty satisfying. I surveyed the landscape, came up with a plan, and carried it out in an elegant and efficient fashion. It felt like I was working with a more intelligent version of Evie’s character, one that suits my particular style of play. I could just as easily have stormed through the building declaring war, but I prefer the tactical approach and I appreciate the fact that both are valid options.
According to Giard, those moments – those instances when the mission structure, the setting, and player choice combine to tell a story – are what he’s seeking to build with the missions in Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate. Every mission starts and ends the same, but the middle is fluid and players will have many chances to influence the game world with unique, contextual decisions.
“That’s the type of story that sticks a lot more than maybe a cinematic does,” he said. “When you’re playing it, you learn something about a character. That works a lot better for me when it’s in gameplay.”
Syndicate still has cut scenes and the relationship between Evie and Jacob will have a pre-existing outline. But within those confines, players can choose not only which character they prefer, but they can choose which version of each character they prefer. That’s an exciting prospect because it allows for a wider array or relationship dynamics. How similar are the twins? Is one more hotheaded than the other, or are they both meticulous planners and careful assassins? It’s all determined through gameplay rather than dictated through cut scenes, and it makes Syndicate more appealing for a more diverse audience looking for many different kinds of experiences.
It’s a difficult trick because the missions and the narrative have to flexible enough to accommodate all of the possibilities, but Giard and his team seem to have pulled it off based on my first impressions. Syndicate appears to be a far more confident game than last year’s Unity, and I look forward to seeing how multiple perspectives change the audience’s relationship to Assassin’s Creed.