I'm sat up a tree in one of Assassin's Creed Syndicate (opens in new tab)'s lovely London parks. It's nice up here. The sun is shining, I can hear Big Ben chiming in the distance, and a string quartet is playing some classical number in a paved area next to the road. The street itself is bustling pleasantly. Carriages slowly roll past, ladies and gentlemen hurry between buildings, and children dart through the crowds playfully. It's a perfect slice of peace.
I draw out my revolver and point it at a portly fellow strolling through the park with his lady companion. He starts to scream and sprints towards the road. A carriage swerves to avoid him, and starts careening through the park, smashing through the string quartet and destroying their instruments. One of the musicians has died in the carnage and the children are now gathered around his unnaturally-twisted corpse, talking excitedly about finally seeing a dead body. Across the street, a bunch of Blighters start to knife fight with a band of Rooks, and a nearby policeman wades in only to be scythed down by one of the gang members. I watch it all from my tree. It's a perfect slice of chaos.
It seems open-world games are very en vogue this year. Batman: Arkham Knight (opens in new tab), The Witcher 3 (opens in new tab), Fallout 4 (opens in new tab), Just Cause 3... even Rise of the Tomb Raider (opens in new tab) and Bloodborne have open-world elements, designed to make their environments less linear. Yet, for me, Assassin's Creed trumps them all because - while it does have its problems - Syndicate's London is the most alive and complete. More importantly, it captures the essence of being British in ways that go much deeper than ‘just looking like London’. It's one of those rare open worlds that exists with or without the player. You almost believe that its inhabitants continue to live out their lives, even when your console is switched off. Stop to watch and you'll see they have jobs, places to be, people to meet - everything stubbornly persists, even in the face of futility.
And this vitality is all important when it comes to the thing we love the most in open world games: chaos. See, with games like Just Cause, GTA, and Fallout you're expected to cause trouble. Their wonderful environments are ripe for exploration, and built on the idea that the player is the centre of attention. Everything revolves around the protagonist, and to an extent the world is designed to accommodate the actions the player takes. Mount Chilliad in GTA 5? You're meant to base-jump off it. The roaming thugs in Arkham Knight? They're yours for the beating to reveal Riddler trophy locations (opens in new tab).
This intent on behalf of the developers is admirable, and it often makes for a better game. Marrying world and player agency just makes sense, right? But I find that the best user-created entertainment in any game is when you become an agent of chaos in a world that simply doesn't expect it. You're the anomaly; the bloody human finger in the child's birthday cake. Gamers as a group love to break things; to test the limits of the games they play. Look at the delight Guardians take in cheesing Destiny's Raids (opens in new tab). See how Fallout players take their entertainment from videos of quirky bugs, rather than actual side-quests and hidden Easter eggs. Give a hardcore player a copy of The Sims, and they will (within minutes) have worked out how best to creatively torture their virtual human into an absolute shell of misery.
Sure, we love games and will choose to play them normally most of the time, but there's a genuine thrill in feeling like you've somehow bent an interactive world to your will. You've deviated from what you were supposed to do and discovered something unique and exciting. You have been naughty. Assassin's Creed Syndicate's world is a playground for naughty people precisely because everyone else in it is so well behaved. They're designed to be normal, to act like real people, to keep calm and carry on... and you're there to see how you can ruin their day using the tools at your disposal. How best to sabotage that perfect family portrait being taken by the lake? Is it possible to throw a corpse onto the top of a passing bus? Can you shoot a horse and flip a carriage onto a passing human being? Answers: crate of explosives, yes, yes.
Strangely, though, any chaos caused in Syndicate's version of London rarely ruffles the game's feathers. While the virtual victims react accordingly, and give you a certain amount of macabre pleasure as they flap around yelling, you always get the sense that the world around you is persistent; that life goes on in 19th century London. It’s just not very British to cause a fuss, and through accident or design, Syndicate perfectly encapsulates this spirit. The trains are still running (late, obviously), the fire engines will arrive soon to put out the inferno, and the gentleman you threatened will be reading about the incident tomorrow over a pot of tea and a copy of The Times. And that's perhaps the greatest achievement of Assassin's Creed's latest living city - it carries on, regardless of our attempts to break it, yet still provides hours of impish distraction. For all the talk of bugs and 'game-breaking glitches' in recent Creed games, Syndicate's is a truly brilliant, extremely robust, and wonderfully British open-world.