Well in fairness you can’t build a game set in Victorian London and not do something with the city’s most notorious serial killer now can you?
Jack the Ripper (PC, PS4, Xbox One [reviewed])
Base Game: Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate
Released Dec 2015 | Developed / Published: Ubisoft
It is London, 1888 and 20 years after the events of Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate. Evie Frye and Henry Green are both long gone from the city, having gone to India to rebuild the Brotherhood there. Left in London to lead their fledgling Brotherhood is a smarter and cooler Jacob. The loading screen lets us check out Jacob’s new character model, and the intro cutscene sees him survey with horror the gory remains of two of the murderer’s victims. He clambers up onto a rooftop, names the Ripper as a former Assassin, and swears revenge on his former pupil.
But Jack the Ripper starts with an excellent bait-and-switch. After all that, and as the camera pans around behind Jacob, we sit ready to take control of our hero. But the game has other ideas. The camera pulls back and back until we see who we really play as – Jack the Ripper himself.
Interface screw is in full effect when we take control of Jack. Scrawled messages flash across the screen like glimpses into his feverish sadistic mind, creating an effective ambience of horror, albeit one where you are the creature to be feared. Indeed, fear plays a major part in the game. Jack can commit brutal takedowns, which are quick-time event-laden versions of regular assassinations, showing him tearing and stabbing with wild abandon. He also has terrible tools to use – he can ram railway spikes through victims and (bizarrely) he can also let out a banshee-like wail. All of these work to change the mental state of enemies, who begin encounters as calm but escalate to terrified quite quickly, causing them to flee or beg for mercy. Technically we’ve seen this before, way back in games like Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood where killstreaks made surviving enemies leg it but it’s explored somewhat more thoroughly here.
A month after his hunt for Jacob, the reign of the Ripper has had dire consequences. The Rooks, devoid of leadership, have devolved into a gang as merciless and bloodthirsty as the Blighters who preceded them, preying on the weak and defenceless of Whitechapel. Evie returns to London in a hurried state, desperate to find her now-missing brother and bring an end to Jack. Naturally she meets Frederick Abberline, who has now become an Inspector at Scotland Yard and leads the investigations into the Whitechapel murders. Unfortunately for Evie, her relationship with Abberline becomes more and more strained as the officer struggles with the revelation that a former Assassin is on the loose, and Evie finds London and her former network turning against her.
Like Jack, Evie also makes use of fear but this time to combat the Rooks and her quarry. Evie has access to the same tools as Jack, nodding to the shared past they have. However, Evie naturally opts for non-lethal uses of them; her railway spikes are used to pin enemies down rather than impale them, for example. Both characters can utilise fear grenades, a new addition to the Assassin arsenal; they are absurdly useful, as a fear bomb dropped into the middle of a group of enemies can immediately take them to an anxious state, if not to all-out panicking once Evie or Jack drop down in their midst. The other tools of Syndicate return but I found myself ignoring them more often than not; the ever-useful throwing knives remain a powerhouse weapon, but only the fear grenades and spikes engage with the fear mechanic and successful manipulation of that is the key to surviving Jack the Ripper.
By completing a small set of challenges, Evie can unlock perks which give her various passive abilities, such as being more efficient at frightening enemies. The equipment system returns from Syndicate but in a significantly more stripped down and linear fashion, similar to how Freedom Cry approached upgrades compared to Black Flag. Evie can once again earn EXP points to unlock skills, though naturally there are far fewer to gain than in the base game.
Clearing the districts of the city makes a return. This time it’s framed as helping various characters such as Abberline to clear the remnants of the Rooks from London and subdue the waves of crime which have taken place since the murders began. Evie can also aid Nellie, a prostitute and friend of Jacob, to rid the Rooks’ terror-laden control of Whitechapel’s brothels, as well as help the local newspaper publisher, Mr. Weaversbrook, to convince other journalists not to give more attention to Jack’s crimes. These missions offer a fine distraction from the main plot but aren’t necessary and I suspect if you’ve not long played Syndicate they won’t be compelling enough to draw you into doing them.
Though he is a playable character, Jack is a bit of a gimmick. He has no available upgrades and cannot alter his equipment; instead, he is limited to playable in only a scant handful of missions. Given the focus of the DLC is squarely on stopping him this does make a lot of sense, though the quirky interface and entirely different tone of his missions make him quite fun to play as. There is never a penalty for playing Jack as a bombastic terrorist; at least two of his missions begin by allowing you to simply walk up to guards and tear them to shreds and send their comrades running in blind panic. You can of course play it stealthily, but despite the high levels of enemies, they’re unlikely to pose much of a threat – a couple of well-placed spikes can send all but the hardiest foe into a scrambling dash. Naturally though the game does make you put down the reigns of Jack the Ripper and return to Evie. It’s not really a problem – she plays identically to Jack, and can also mostly opt for decidedly un-stealthy approaches to missions though as with Syndicate stealth is much more encouraged.
The choice to figure Jack as a rogue Assassin is a fine one and gives some personal weight to Evie’s fight, but I’m not sure it’s that necessary. Jacob is missing already and that ought to be enough to motivate Evie; the added connection between Jack and the Brotherhood mostly just creates the tension between Evie and Abberline, and otherwise isn’t much fleshed out as a character point. The brief nature of the DLC means we get a breakneck and surface-level look at Jack’s character, but even that eradicates the mystery of London’s most infamous killer. The fear-based gameplay is quite fun, particularly when you get the hang of it and use it effectively – breaking up entire mobs of baddies and watching them run screaming after a couple of precision attacks creates a very powerful feeling which other entries in the franchise sometimes struggle with. Jack the Ripper is certainly worth your time to play if you want a bit more Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, or if you fancy letting the franchise try and craft a slightly more unsettling atmosphere than it’s ever done before.
5/7 – GREAT. Damn fine stuff, a game that doesn’t quite make the top echelon of games but sparkles regardless and holds the interest expertly. Make the time to give this a play.