London calling - hands on with Assassin's Creed Syndicate

The first thing that any respectable Assassin does when arriving in a new city is ignore the story marker entirely and clamber up the side of the nearest building. It’s basically in the Creed next to ‘nothing is true’ and ‘everything is permitted’, and it’s exactly what I do when I get hands on with Assassin's Creed Syndicate. Bloody Nora can wait, thank you very much. I’ve got a rope launcher to play with.

My demo starts the same as the announcement playthrough, as criminal Assassin Jacob Frye heads to a gang stronghold to claim it for The Rooks. But it’s actually getting to grips with the game itself that’s the biggest test. How will the rope launcher feel? What’s the carriage driving like? How can I ever hope to look as dapper as Jacob Frye?

Before I even reach the nearest wall it’s clear how different Victorian London is for the series. The streets are wide, carriages clatter along the cobbles and pedestrians are now relegated to the pavement. Gone are the overpopulated streets of Unity’s Paris. Instead, NPCs wander on spacious avenues past huge posters advertising W.H Atkinsons ‘Champion Plate Polish’ (‘sold in six penny boxes’). It feels fresh for the series, and with buildings stretching higher into the sky than ever before, it manages to tease another horribly explorable playground.

As I approach a building, the prompt immediately appears for the rope launcher, and with a tap of L1 and a satisfying cranking noise, Jacob hurtles up the wall in his scuffed yet stylish leather jacket. Somewhat surprisingly, this doesn’t just feel like a clone of Batman’s grappling hook. There’s a physicality here as Jacob bounces up the side of the building in a reverse abseil. It’s thankfully nothing like being yanked through the air by millions of dollars of Wayne-tech.

In this current alpha build the prompt to fire the rope launcher doesn’t appear quite as fast as I’d like, but the tool still manages to feel like a natural fit. I use a mixture of rope launcher and Jacob’s nimble climbing to reach a church spire before firing down to a building across the street and zooming down a zipline, taking in the charming sight of smoke spewing factories in the distance.

There are a few noticeable control tweaks from Unity. The new parkour up and down controls have been brought over from Unity but where the French Assassin Arno would crouch with the left trigger, Jacob now uses X to replace his top hat with a tweed Assassin hood. It’s an easy enough switch once you’re used to it but I spent the first few minutes hunting the enemy gang while sauntering casually about in dapper head gear. What do you mean you can see me?

Ubi Quebec has made a big deal about the combat upgrades now that swords are out and knuckledusters are very much in, and it’s immediately apparent from Jacob’s first bout of fisticuffs that things have got much more up close and personal. Skulls crack, arms break and teeth fly as I hammer the attack button. There are no revolutionary changes to Creed combat here - it’s still a matter of attack and counter - but the close combat is a brutally entertaining change of scenery. Even when he’s not armed with the Kukri, Jacob is a joyously violent individual.

Hunting from rooftops also gets an enjoyable update, as you make the most of your throwing knives. Aiming for headshots means an instakill so I try it out. After launching some skull bound blades I go down and check out my handiwork to find each enemy still with a knife firmly embedded in their noggin. Nice. Taking down the gang stronghold is nothing particularly new for the series, but it’s enjoyable to stealthily trial Jacob’s hallucinogenic dart by firing it into a flame and watching the surrounding NPCs go slowly insane. Hey, don’t look at me like that.

It’s upon leaving the stronghold that things get really interesting, as Jacob leaps into a carriage to chase the imaginatively named Bloody Nora. With a crack of the reins and a squeeze of the right trigger, I’m suddenly hurtling through London’s streets. Driving is suitably chaotic, as the police take chase and start to slam the carriage in an attempt to drive me off the road. The streets are manic and horses aren’t particularly nifty when it comes to avoiding obstacles but thankfully there’s a clear guide of where you’re meant to go.

I don’t get a chance to battle anyone atop the carriage, but make the most of the boost button on offer (presumably an injection of horse caffeine) and make it to my destination without destroying the carriage entirely.

Only a longer demo will truly reveal the capabilities of the Creed’s vehicles, but in a quieter section of my playthrough, I hijack a merchant’s cart and take to the streets. While it feels like a new way of seeing the city, the rope launcher and rooftops are far more attractive. That’s despite Jacob charmingly quipping “Who’s a good horse? You are..” as he steals said equine and attached cart.

Once again, the Creed isn’t skimping on its world-building here. Drunks groan from alleyways off the main streets. Brightly coloured posters cover the walls, and architecturally this is an environment very much built around the concept of the using rope launcher to reach new heights.

The next step will be seeing more of the city. If the atmosphere here is anything to go by, the darkness and filth of true Victorian poverty will be suitably fun to explore. Syndicate’s new toys are already tantalising, but the addition of Evie as our other playable Assassin and a glimpse of some new environments are the next test for this Creed. So far, so good but, just like Oliver Twist, I want more.

Louise Blain

Louise Blain is a journalist and broadcaster specialising in gaming, technology, and entertainment. She is the presenter of BBC Radio 3’s monthly Sound of Gaming show and has a weekly consumer tech slot on BBC Radio Scotland. She can also be found on BBC Radio 4, BBC Five Live, Netflix UK's YouTube Channel, and on The Evolution of Horror podcast. As well as her work on GamesRadar, Louise writes for NME, T3, and TechRadar. When she’s not working, you can probably find her watching horror movies or playing an Assassin’s Creed game and getting distracted by Photo Mode.