Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is finally here, following a year’s worth of agony and annoyance over the performance issues in Unity. Things are a lot different this time around and we don’t just mean in terms of location and story changes. Ubisoft Quebec is at the helm instead of Ubisoft Montreal. Co-op multiplayer been removed in favour of a purely single-player experience. Rather than this being Ubisoft’s debut effort with AnvilNext 2.0 (which was Unity), Assassin’s Creed Syndicate benefits from a longer understanding of the engine and its potential on current gen platforms like the Xbox One and PS4. Following up on our initial analysis, we’re curious about whether Syndicate surpasses Unity in terms of performance versus visual fidelity, how does the game look on its own terms? Can it compete with the best sandbox titles of this year? Or is it simply another yearly iteration that fails to really improve on its predecessor’s issues?
When talking about Anvil, Ubisoft’s proprietary engine for the Assassin’s Creed series, it’s important to understand where the publisher was coming from. During development of Prince of Persia: Sands of Time back in 2003, Ubisoft had been facing issues with data corruption. Source control was bottle-necking the entire production process, teams waited for their chance to submit assets and it very much put the delivery of the project at risk. After the success of the first Assassin’s Creed, Ubisoft began to devote more resources and time to managing its data assets, first seeking a custom solution and then using Perforce, going so far as to integrate it into their own engine. The engine itself was considered as Scimitar but Anvil was the official name and served as the presentation layer while Guildlib was taken to be the data exchange layer.
Over the years, Anvil saw significant changes especially as franchises like Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry grew. Day and night cycles, better draw distance, improved vegetation, enhanced lighting, reflection effects and much more began to be implemented overtime. The game changer was AnvilNext though, which was introduced in Assassin’s Creed III (and unsurprisingly, that title had a number of development issues and bugs) and would serve as a sort of template for next generation ventures with its ability for a more dynamic sandbox, large crowds of real-time NPCs, a more efficient renderer and more post-processing effects. As time went by, AnvilNext 2.0 sought a different approach of sorts – Ubisoft was now looking for the ability to create large, intricate buildings and structures without expending too much time.
Head to head comparison between Assassin’s Creed Unity and PS4, Xbox One versions of Assassin’s Creed Syndicate. Select 1080p and 60fps option for best possible video quality.
AnvilNext 2.0 put a lot of stake into using all these new technologies to affect the way players interacted with the world at large. For example, the ability to easily generate buildings in Unity allowed for a 1:1 scale of their size and interiors, thus allowing deeper exploration and expanded movement opportunities (which were the idea anyway). HDR, volumetric lighting, fog and advanced reflection mapping could be seen in Unity along with thousands of real-time NPCs flooding scenes at a particular time.
Of course, the release of Unity was rife with performance issues, graphical glitches and whatnot. It served as a strong benchmark for what current gen consoles could be capable of with physical based rendering, global illumination, skin shaders, advanced tress effects, HDR and more. This was at the cost of the frame rate though which was unstable on both platforms even with a default 30 FPS.
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate takes a rather interesting approach to the technologies seen in Unity. A lot of effects have been reduced in Syndicate, though the tress tech and skin shaders still look fantastic, especially when combined with custom global illumination and physical based rendering in objects and environments. Fast approximate anti-aliasing (FXAA) can be noticed which doesn’t weigh too much on resources and helps reduce jaggies. Depth of field, blur, HDR lighting, parallax occlusion and screen space reflections are all present and accounted for. Despite lacking Unity’s “moving painting” effect, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate still incredibly good.
Both the PS4 and Xbox One versions of the game run at 1600×900 resolution and 30 frames per second with V-sync enabled. Frame drops can be noticed during cut scenes though in less demanding scenarios, vehicular sections, combat and normal exploration, the frame rate stays stable throughout. Though the cut scenes are scripted, it’s likely that they utilize much of the rendering budget, thus resulting in crisper details. The aggressive level of detail from Unity has been toned down, resulting in less but visible pop-in issues though the lack of larger crowds is the main reason. Draw distances are fine but details can be blurred by an odd fog effect that only looks worse when traveling via horse cart. If the engine streams too quickly, then pop-ins tend to occur but it’s still not as bad as Unity.
There are still shadow dithering issues though but we’ve somewhat come to expect that this generation. Texture filtering is fairly decent and once again on par with Unity, and parallax occlusion makes a return. It should be noted that reflections, be it objects or characters’ reflections in puddles, are low quality. Overall, while performance is better than Unity, it’s still a bit of a shame that the 30 FPS frame rate isn’t locked – we’ve just come to expect as much this generation.
Also, it should be noted that the aesthetic feel is somewhat dull. Of course this is a personal preference – many may actually like the gritty, Industrial-era atmosphere that Syndicate captures.
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate uses much of the same tech as Unity and it feels like the game the latter should have been. Performance shows a significant uptick and it will be even better if Ubisoft can lock the frame rate to 30 FPS in future patches. Though Syndicate performs well, Unity was on a different visual level. It’s a case of performance versus fidelity and the reduced effects do bring better performance…and we can’t argue against that. Hopefully the PC version will bring forth a solid 60 FPS frame rate but we’ll have to wait and see.