A few days ago, Ubisoft announced Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, the latest in their long-running and popular game franchise. However, what was once a thrilling open world action/adventure/stealth series is now instead a loot-and-quest-filled RPG that shamelessly borrows from The Witcher 3. The last two entries of this generation, Origins and Odyssey, started that design trend. Valhalla looks to continue and expand upon it with a bigger world, new systems, and a more customizable character.
There’s nothing wrong with that on the surface. I love a good action RPG, and I think that CD Projekt’s Witcher series is a great design template for the genre if you’ve got to pick a game to follow. Assassin’s Creed Origins and Odyssey are both excellent fun to play if you’re into that sort of thing, and each packs in far more high quality content than most players will ever actually see.
However, the older template for the Assassin’s Creed series had so much good to offer…and most of it has been left by the wayside. The “classic” design of Assassin’s Creed featured cinematic free-running, allowing you to traverse the environment with the deft skills of an acrobatic expert. It had dynamic choreographed combat, making each fight scene feel like it fell out of a big budget action movie. It had a more linear Rockstar-style storytelling setup, with well-animated side characters whose arcs carried through multiple missions instead of quest givers with exclamation marks who just want their jewels back before they leave the game forever.
The older games did all of this while still packing in plenty of open world thrills, side missions, and sometimes even fun adventures on the high seas. Your skills mattered just as much as what gear you were carrying, and a full stealth playthrough was just as viable as an action-oriented approach.
The last game to use these older design tropes was Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, released in 2015. It tells the story of twin rogues Evie and Jacob Frye, as they make their way through a battle between the Templars and Assassins to control Victorian-era London. The game is infused with a Steampunk industrial vibe. Instead of the upgradeable village of other installments (and the upcoming Valhalla), the Frye twins ride around on their own fancy train, working together to take down the many different criminals and gangs that have overrun the city.
Syndicate had a tough act to follow, and not in a good way. 2014’s Assassin’s Creed Unity marked the debut of the still-in-use AnvilNext 2.0 Engine, and although it brought amazing graphics to the table, it stumbled in terms of game design and polish. Unity is fairly functional right now, but on launch it was a famous disaster, notable for a bug that rendered character faces inside-out.
For the follow-up, more focus was put into making the game actually work, and they also sought to amp up the gameplay. Syndicate’s city is less of a faithful re-creation of history, and more of a video game world. London’s neighborhoods are built out of distinctly game-like level areas, and connected with wide streets that allow for fun chaos on horse-drawn carriages. Crowd densities and interior detail were reduced to allow for better performance. Combat and traversal were both dramatically sped up, with a variety of new weapon types and a fun grappling hook rope launcher gadget.
Throw in a story full of fun characters, delightful constant banter between the twins, and plenty of customization options for both appearance and personal playstyle, and suddenly Syndicate was a shining example of the tried-and-true Assassin’s Creed forumla. The missions are quick and fun, and often have different paths to victory. Though side activities still litter the landscape, they’re also tied into the larger meta progression system through new weapon unlocks and little character-driven story interludes.
None of this competent design ended up mattering. Syndicate had some of the lowest sales at launch in franchise history, and although things sped up a little in week two, the game was ultimately ranked as a disappointment by Ubisoft themselves. These lackluster sales lead not only to the slowing down of the franchise’s release schedule, but also a full reboot of its core design as an action RPG.
The RPG installments have had no issue blowing past the 10 million units sold marker, so I know that’s the future of this franchise’s design for years to come. On the plus side, though Ubisoft is doggedly pursuing the Witcher/Skyrim audiences and somewhat succeeding in making them their own, they haven’t totally forgotten their past. Several Assassin’s Creed titles have received competent remasters this generation, and Syndicate even got a PS4 Pro patch to run at a much higher resolution…though no such support exists on Xbox One X.
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is a fun, breezy, well-written and well-paced game that was fun to play from day one. It has a memorable cast of characters, features dynamic combat and stealth systems, and it’s packed with great content and visuals. It’s pretty easy to find it for a cheap price these days, and well worth seeing if you skipped over it.