It’s fair to say that the latest installment in the Assassin’s Creed franchise has a mountain to climb. Most players will be going in with a certain apprehension following the widespread disappointment caused by 2014’s Unity. The only thing a developer can do in that situation is put it all out of mind and focus on making a fantastic game, and that’s exactly what Ubisoft have done.
The two player characters have slightly different agendas. Twins Jacob and Evie Frye both want to see London liberated, but while Jacob has a more gung-ho approach of rousing up the locals to form The Rooks and battle rival gang The Blighters, Evie is focused on a mystical Piece of Eden, a supernatural artifact which you encounter briefly at the beginning before it takes a back seat.
Modern sections make a return and are much unchanged. Essentially playing yourself playing a video game (meta), you relive the Twins' memories to uncover information useful to today's assassins. As usual, this context means that rather than dying when the baddies get a bit too much, you merely ‘desynchronize’.
the experience is extremely fun, the characters refreshingly likeable and the setting visually stunning.
The balance between drawing in new players and offering something for veterans is difficult to achieve, but Ubisoft seem to have succeeded this time around. The interface is easy to pick up for the former and virtually unchanged from Unity for the latter, for example, and most missions maintain the optional secondary objectives to stretch pro players, whilst noobs needn't apply. They also add a good element of variety and encourage you to stray somewhat from your established play style and comfort zone.
With two characters does come twice the amount of character management however. Each time you level up you find yourself having to consciously remember to upgrade the character you aren’t currently using, since you could be suddenly forced to play as them when you launch the next story mission. In theory the two twins different personalities would suggest very different play styles: Evie favouring subterfuge and lurking in the shadows, while Jacob calls on his Rook followers (an idea not exactly lauded by Evie in cut scenes) to bring the muscle in a straight up fight. In practice though, both characters have access to the same moves, the same skills and the same gadgets.
You might say this gives players more freedom to develop their characters how they like, but when a prompt comes up on screen suggesting a firearms upgrade, when you’re focusing on stealth, for example, you can quickly find yourself in a vulnerable position.
This lack of focus comes across throughout the entire game, though it isn't always bad. It begins in a relatively linear way to set the story up, before unleashing you on an unsuspecting London and the broadened setting offers an overwhelming amount to get stuck into, and you can go about things in any order... to an extent.
Different boroughs have enemies of varying levels, so if you fancy liberating the likes of Buckingham Palace early, you may find it isn't realistic until you've levelled up your character. You quickly find yourself progressing through the boroughs in a fairly regimented fashion - other than when story missions drag you into different areas.
As was touched upon, Jacob and Evie disagree on their approach and the tension between them in story missions doesn’t marry up with the ability to quickly switch between them, or occasionally have them tag along on missions - and though from a gameplay point of view these are the most fun, they fall short of setting up elaborate double team sections which you might expect after playing titles such as Batman Arkham Knight.
In fact, as we seem to be saying quite a lot at the moment, the gameplay has a lot of similarities to the Caped Crusader. As well as similar combat, the newly introduced rope launcher has a lot in common with Batman’s grappling hook. Though it does make traversing areas considerably quicker than simply free-running around, it sadly doesn’t always behave at crucial moments, like when you want to escape combat, the gadget is too reliant on you pointing the camera exactly where you want to go, and even then some surfaces just refuse to be grappled.
Other gameplay elements share this inconsistency, with some Blighters spotting you despite being safely in cover, and others blissfully ignorant to assassinations happening only steps away - not to mention enemies occasionally refusing to be kidnapped, so you’re forced to brutally kill them.
Just as Batman got a fancy car to play with, your assassins have some new transport too, in the form of carriages, which not only help you zip around London, but they also provide a mobile hiding place. In fact once you’ve invested in some gang upgrades, they become a force to be reckoned with as The Rooks lurk on almost every street, ready to back you up. There are also races that basically take the form of demolition derbys, with horses and flimsy wooden carriages behaving as though tanks - it's unrealistic, but fun all the same.
Despite its problems, the experience is still extremely fun, the characters refreshingly likeable and the setting visually stunning. The one thing which threatened to overshadow the release, the copious bugs experienced in Unity, are in fact refreshingly absent here.
The plot may throw about historical figures like they were on buy one get one free at the local tobacconist, but is otherwise fairly light touch, letting the gameplay take centre stage. Really the biggest disappointment in the game is that Jacob’s trademark top hat from the trailers and marketing is suspiciously absent.
When a series is this established and has so many layers of complexity, with character customisation, microtransactions and, arguably, a still unbeaten free-running mechanic, to deliver this level of quality is extremely impressive.
For those feeling burned by Unity, this title is more than good enough to rekindle your love for the franchise, while for beginners (especially those from the UK) there’s an incredibly rich world to dive into here and have an awful lot of fun with.
Now, where did I put my top hat?