Assassin’s Creed Syndicate: Jack the Ripper is the franchise’s best DLC expansion since Black Flag’s Freedom Cry.
Jack the Ripper was not developed by the core Assassin’s Creed Syndicate team at Ubisoft Quebec; it comes to us from Ubisoft Montpellier, best known for Rayman, Valiant Hearts and ZombiU.
Maybe that’s why it feels like a whole other game – or perhaps like an old-school RPG module add-on. Setting the DLC apart in its own game shell allowed the development team to tell a self-contained story without having to shoehorn narrative and gameplay hooks to the main game’s content, and as I’ve argued before, Assassin’s Creed works really well when it focuses on self-contained stories.
It’s a return to the spirit of the earliest Assassin’s Creed games, in which kills beyond primary targets were sternly discouraged. This is something of a theme throughout the DLC, and highlights one of its most interesting and arresting aspects: the distinction between Evie, an Assassin, and Jack, a murderer.
Although it recycles a portion of the London map for its main open world, Jack the Ripper has to be loaded in from the game’s title screen, and progression is not continuous across the two sandboxes. It’s something like the WWII missions in the base game (which themselves felt like they could have been spun off as add-on DLC) but the character isn’t just a reskin; the older Evie Frye has her own skill tree and a distinct set of gear to buy, collect, craft and upgrade.
It’s pretty cool to be able to play as an older woman in a video game. The games industry in general is pretty pants at everything but straight white action hero men, and every effort to expand representation to the rich tapestry that is human existence is much appreciated. As a first effort Evie leaves a little to be desired; with no change in voice direction or base character mesh, the only real differentiator between the two models is a pretty uncanny bit of facial sagging. It’s weird, but still – awesome.
The extra gear isn’t especially exciting, merely bumping up stats to meet the raised level cap, but the new skills are quite interesting, giving the player new options for enemy encounters beyond “run” and “kill everyone”. According to the backstory, sometime after the events of Syndicate Jacob and Evie travelled to India and learned a bunch of new, non-lethal tricks from the local Assassins, most notably the ability to inspire terror with bombs, combo takedowns and “spikes”, which tether opponents on the ground. Some sort of drug or similar agent explains the effectiveness of these measures, apparently.
While these (mostly optional) tools don’t gel especially well with the existing Frankenstein sandbox, they work well in this little standalone story, and it’s terrific to see a return to the spirit of the earliest Assassin’s Creed games, in which kills beyond primary targets were sternly discouraged. This is something of a theme throughout the DLC, and highlights one of its most interesting and arresting aspects: the distinction between Evie, an Assassin, and Jack, a murderer.
We’re all pretty familiar with the dissonance of games that leverage violence as a primary mode of interaction with the world but try to tell stories where bad guys are bad because they kill people. The Assassin’s Creed games have always coyly sidestepped this problem by making the shades of grey between the Assassins and the Templars a secondary theme, to the point where the lines between the two organisations are getting pretty damn blurry, but as gameplay has opened itself to action players and reduced emphasis on non-lethal stealth, it hasn’t managed to avoid this common pitfall.
By handing Evie a set of non-lethal tools and providing plenty of encouragement to use them, the Jack the Ripper DLC allows room for players to feel truly oppositional towards Jack, which develops into a central theme of the DLC’s story. It’s a welcome attempt to address the silliness of the core series, which has become ludicrously (ah ha ha) unselfconscious about the juxtaposition of theme and gameplay, as with Syndicate’s amazing “take down capitalism by forming a monopoly” Borough system.
This conscious foregrounding of the horror of violence, not for pure gratuity but to explore its impact, is bold and unusual – especially when so well-integrated with both narrative themes and even gameplay mechanics.
It also gave Ubisoft Montpellier the chance to make the too-often romanticised Jack a truly despicable figure. The segments in which the player takes control of the historical serial killer are deliberately disturbing.
If you pride yourself on being desensitised you may not be so strongly affected, but I personally found playing as Jack extremely uncomfortable. This conscious foregrounding of the horror of violence, not for pure gratuity but to explore its impact, is bold and unusual – especially when so well-integrated with both narrative themes and even gameplay mechanics. It’s applause-worthy.
It was also very unpleasant, of course, but lots of good art is. It was a bit embarrassing to have my dad walk into the room and witness, as well; these moments do not hold out when isolated from the DLC as a whole, and really need the broader context of criticism of violent video games to be properly appreciated.
It’s that last bit that worries me, to be honest. While I would love to sit down with some of my near and dear and deconstruct the way the Jack the Ripper DLC addresses questions pertaining to violence in video game design and story telling, I couldn’t help but imagine a lowest common denominator that plays the Jack the Ripper sections and just gets their jollies. I went out and sat on the river bank with a beer, and had complicated thoughts about the responsibility of artists, audiences and critics, and whether I should not just move to Mars and leave the vast majority of you behind to peck each other to pieces.
Outside the story there’s a couple of great new assassination arena locations, a whack of new open world content including collectibles and brand new mission types. Some of these are great; the ones where you stop a man hitting a sex worker and then publicly shame him are a terrific development on the pretty underwhelming Kidnapping missions of the base game. There’s easily a couple of days of content in there for those of you looking for a new open world checklist to run down.
Ubisoft’s multi-studio approach to Assassin’s Creed has had consequences good and bad for the franchise, but the Jack the Ripper DLC is definitely one of the upshots. A neat little bundle of new ideas inside an envelope of self-contained storytelling is much more welcome than some attempt to extend the base game’s plot or an isolated slab of more of the same open world busywork. Jack the Ripper is good enough that Ubisoft could have sold it as a standalone digital title (as it did with Black Flag’s Freedom Cry add-on), and I wonder if its existence doesn’t have something to do with the publisher’s recent diversification into smaller projects, giving teams a chance to flex their creative muscles outside of the burdensome expectations of big-budget triple-A projects.
Unfortunately, the rest of the Assassin’s Creed Syndicate season pass DLC looks to be pretty rubbish, with the usual line up of extra missions and add-on gear; only The Last Maharaja Mission Pack seems to have the potential for anything meaningful, and I’m not too optimistic since Ubisoft hasn’t described it in the same terms (“campaign”) as Jack the Ripper.
This is a real shame as Jack the Ripper demonstrates that Assassin’s Creed – and open world gaming in general – can support more manageably-sized content drops (like Saints Row: Gat Out of Hell) and perhaps even an episodic release approach (as we may see with the new Hitman). With more content like Jack the Ripper, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate might have been the first game ever to justify the whole season pass thing.
Jack the Ripper is available now on PC, PS4 and Xbox One, either as a $15 DLC pack or bundled with the $30 Assassin’s Creed Syndicate season pass.