As someone who's played nearly every Assassin's Creed game - I think I've avoided the portable titles and that's about it - I was very surprised to find a chase sequence in Assassin's Creed Syndicate's E3 demo when I played it last week.
Putting one of the most universally panned and progressively more reviled elements of Ubisoft's flagship series in your big coming-out party? That's either totally tone deaf, or very confident.
I'm a little surprised to say that it felt like the latter, and that confidence doesn't seem ill-placed.
Let me back up a little here. When I reviewed Assassin's Creed Unity last year, what struck me weren't the glitches or even the performance problems, so much as deeper mechanical problems that the series just hasn't seen fit to solve.
Assassin's Creed 2 had traversal clumsiness and unpredictability in 2009, and it's only gotten worse in every subsequent game. It got particularly bad in Assassin's Creed 3, whose revolutionary-era America pushed hard on horizontal, ground based traversal and didn't give protagonist Connor the feet to keep up with it. In Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag, jumping from ship to ship or navigating rigging was a nightmare.
Unity was supposed to be the first Assassin's Creed game on new hardware, the game to theoretically fix the series problems, but it wasn't up to the challenge.
This, more than Unity's depressingly predictable story and underutilized Animus elements, or even its technical problems, is what hurt that game for me. Assassin's Creed's environments have gotten progressively more beautiful and increasingly more painful to navigate.
But Assassin's Creed Syndicate might change that.
Syndicate's E3 demo appears to be the same mission that Ubisoft Montreal chose to showcase when the game was announced in May of this year. It follows co-lead Jacob Frye as he frees some Rooks, gets in a street fight straight out of Gangs of New York, and closes with a chase. I was immediately struck by how much cleaner Jacob's movements were on the ground than just about any Assassin's Creed game previously. It's a subtle thing, but it's noticeable how much more together Jacob feels than Connor, Edward or Arno.
Once I ran to an alleyway and looked up, Syndicate's more superficially apparent traversal improvement became obvious. Borrowing a page from Batman, Jacob has grappling hook tool that can be used to more quickly ascend buildings if they've got the right kind of overhang to latch onto. But the real improvement here is where you might not expect it.
Getting up buildings in Assassin's Creed has always been the fun part, but getting from one building to one that isn't directly adjacent has generally been some variety of annoying. Ubisoft has gotten better over time at signposting good transition points from structure to structure, but Syndicate is making a wonderful endrun around the problem with the grappling hook. Essentially, you can fire across gaps, making your own ziplines, which in turn share the same utility that these have offered in every Assassin's Creed game since Revelations, including air assassinations.
There's a definite focus on the more utilitarian meat and potatoes in evidence, and it makes for a game that, at least in my very brief time with it, felt less like a chore.
And this seeming focus on basic systems extended to the chase I mentioned before, which involved a carriage - which I hijacked from its original driver on the street in an entirely emergent manner, no cutscene involved - chasing another carriage through the streets. In previous Assassin's Creed games these kind of moments felt barely held together, assembled using the developer equivalent of duct tape, ready to shake apart at any moment and more fun to look at than play. But there was a very new basic competence, and I didn't feel like I was struggling against a game world that wasn't built for what it was asking me to do.
I would qualify all of this by saying that what I've played of Syndicate was an E3 demo, a polished vertical slice, and there are still plenty of unanswered questions about the game. I wanted to know more about Evie Frye, Jacob's sister and co-lead, and E3 demos aren't always indicative of the final state of game - I'm morally obligated to awkwardly point out that Polygon gave an Editors' Choice award to Assassin's Creed Unity last year. But so much attention to basic quality of life issues that have plagued the series for years has my attention, and I'm more hopeful than I thought I'd be for Syndicate's October 23rd release on Xbox One, PS4 and PC.