Each Assassin’s Creed installment brings its own twists to combat, whether it’s the original game’s counter-kills, Assassin’s Creed II’s customizable arsenal, or Assassin’s Creed IV’s dual-wielded swords and free-form gunplay. Of course, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is no exception, adapting and transforming AC’s familiar fighting for a more modern, civilized age – and somehow becoming even more brutal in the process.
Assassins used to be able to walk the streets bristling with obvious weaponry, but that kind of thing simply doesn’t fly in the more genteel society of mid-19th century London. The implements of death favored by Jacob and Evie Frye are built with concealability in mind; their cane swords are secret weapons by definition (and they pack an extra hidden blade in the shaft, because this is Assassin’s Creed), while their revolvers and kukri knives have the potential to deal immense damage despite their compact size.
The centerpiece of Jacob’s arsenal in the E3 demo, however, is a simple pair of brass knuckles – and where hand-to-hand fighting in previous Assassin’s Creeds was a way for pacifistic players to leave enemies alive, here a few well-placed combos are more than enough to kill them dead (largely because Jacob likes to mix Hidden Blade strikes in with his punches). Jacob’s a pretty quick boxer, too; getting into scraps feels like a faster version of the swordplay in Assassin’s Creed Unity, with Jacob able to bust out punch flurries and dodge (rather than parry) his enemies’ knife strikes with a quick tap of a button.
“The team worked really hard on having a visceral, hand-to-hand, very close combat that demonstrates the brutality of the period,” says Francois Pelland, Senior Producer. “When you’re in a face-off with a rival gang, you want the player to feel like they’re really in control, that they’re really powerful within that kind of fight. It’s within those guidelines that we developed the fight system.”
Set ‘Em Up, Knock ‘Em Down
As good as the fighting feels, there’s a satisfying depth to it as well. The stun move from earlier games is back, and while it’s still great for stopping your opponents from blocking, it also gives you an opening to safely turn away and weaken their friends for a few crucial seconds. That’s important, because getting two or more Templars near the point of death lets you unleash a cinematic multi-kill finisher that cuts down both at once.
Setting up multi-kills takes a little practice. When you see Jacob sharply yank an enemy’s head forward, staggering them, that’s your signal that they’re at your mercy, even after they snap out of it and start shuffling woundedly toward you. The hard part is then backing away to focus on another enemy, but if you can deny your killer instinct long enough to get two or more near-death enemies close to each other, being able to deliver several final blows at once is fun to watch.
Of course, if you don’t have that kind of restraint, you’ll still get to see a lot of elaborate executions. Simply whaling on an enemy until they’re dead will produce a handful of these – Jacob might snap an arm before stabbing his enemy in the throat, for example, or bash their heads to the ground and extend his Hidden Blade in one motion – but if you experiment, you’ll uncover more. Approaching a staggered enemy from behind, for example, kills differently than an approach from the front. You can also lure enemies near a wall, at which point you can break their limbs against it and smash them face-first into the bricks. And if you’re near an open hazard, like a ledge or a furnace, you can kick them toward it and let the environment do the rest.
If you’re impatient, you can simply end a combo with a gunshot or a thrown knife to send your enemy sprawling to the cobblestones. They don’t even need to be on the ropes for that to work, although using Jacob’s revolver for an execution is much more dramatic than just shooting a thug who’s still got some fight left in them.
You’re not safe from finishers yourself, though; if you run out of medicine and let some Templar stooge get the best of you, you might have to watch them plunge a knife into the top of Jacob’s skull, or pick him up by the throat and cleaver-chop him in the ribs until he stops struggling. And if one of London’s police officers should club you over the head a few too many times, they’ll actually drag Jacob’s prone form away by the arm, presumably to face arrest and imprisonment.
London’s carriages, omnibuses and hansom cabs are another big part of the demo. They’re everywhere, they’re easy to steal and the demo’s climax involves a lengthy chase at the reins of one of them. Carriages aren’t just stand-ins for cars, though; they have a distinctly rickety weight and feel, and they’re surprisingly useful in a fight. Templars on foot can simply be run over, for example, while you can use Jacob’s ram move to shove any pursuers into walls. What makes the vehicles especially interesting, however, is that they’re moving platforms for hand-to-hand battles.
“An Assassin is someone who can jump on anything, they can climb everything, and they can fight everywhere,” says Pelland. “Because most carriages have a hard top, we thought it would be amazing to go from one hard top to another, just navigating. And if the player can do it, why not NPCs or enemies? If you’re driving, you can go on top of the vehicle, you can fight there, you can jump from one vehicle to another. It was a true innovation breakthrough for the team to make it work; to make it fluid, simple and very rewarding.”
Fighting on top of carriages isn’t all that different from fighting on the ground; you have access to Jacob’s full range of weaponry, and you’re able to do the same moves, even though you’re brawling in a tight space. Booting defeated foes into traffic and taking their place in the driver’s seat is uniquely satisfying, though, especially if their ride isn’t as banged up as the one you just abandoned. If the fight isn’t going your way, you can temporarily escape by jumping down to the street as your confused enemies speed away – but if you find surviving in a carriage tough, you may want to bring some friends along.
“One thing that’s pretty cool is that you can hire friendly gang members,” says Pelland. “They will join you in your cart, but if there’s too many, they’ll steal another cart and they will follow you. So if you do that, you can very easily think, ‘I’m hiring allied groups, and I can go attack that stronghold.’ And the resolution of how I capture that stronghold is going to be very different if I do it like that. It’s a powerful and creative tool that the player has to resolve conflicts and puzzles.”
Whether on a moving vehicle or solid ground, fighting in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is fast, brutal and fun – and it’s coming to PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC on October 23.
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