In the 21st century, it often seems that the less merit something possesses, the more popular it becomes (look at the likes of One Direction, The Only Way Is Essex and anything with the surname Kardashian if you seek proof of that), and in recent years, Assassin's Creed has been threatening to join such dispiriting ranks.

Last year's Unity was a buggy, glitchy mess and discerning gamers began to wonder whether Ubisoft's enduring flagship franchise was reaching the end of its natural life. Thankfully, AC Syndicate strongly suggests that the French publisher thought long and hard about the sort of drastic action that was required, and put an effective plan into action.

The first step towards rehabilitating Assassin's Creed was to step back and initiate a back-to-basics approach, so AC Syndicate, sensibly, has removed the recent games' extraneous multiplayer and co-operative modes.

Next up was addressing a problem that afflicts all long-running franchises: that the iterations eventually become indistinguishable from each other. Syndicate solves that by putting you in control of two switchable characters, brother and sister Jacob and Evie Frye.

And finally, with a historical game, setting is all-important, and Syndicate takes place in the best one yet: London. Which all puts Assassin's Creed back on the map as one of the finest titles to release in the gaming calendar. Cor blimey gov'nor.

In many ways, Assassin's Creed Syndicate's thoroughly convincing evocation of 1868 London is the game's true star. Indeed, it might just be the best cityscape ever to grace a videogame. It's broadly correct in geographical and architectural terms, with a few liberties taken for the sake of gameplay. But any modern Londoner will find it recognisable and fascinating just to explore.

Plus it teems, brilliantly, with life: Dickensian, industrial and dodgy in the eastern areas, top-hatted and posher in the centre. Occasionally, you fleetingly encounter the odd solecism – there are some names that even Dickens would have rejected as improbable, and the odd jarring phrase is directed your way as you patrol the streets. But the sense it conveys of a living, breathing city going about its daily life is thrilling.

Story-wise, the Fryes are starting out as assassins in the footsteps of their late father. London, naturally as any Assassin's Creed game goes, is in the iron grip of the Templars, with the shadowy Crawford Starrick the éminence grise running the city as his personal money-making fiefdom, aided by a bunch of characters such as the scary occultist Lucy Thorne.

Initially stranded in the backwater of Crawley, the Fryes come up to London with different objectives: Jacob wants to smash the Templars and ultimately take down Starrick, while Evie is on the trail of artefacts known as Pieces of Eden. They team up with another assassin, Henry Green, swiftly wrest control of Whitechapel and acquire a train which operates as a mobile base.

Those basic elements combine to form gameplay which, while identifiably that of an Assassin's Creed game, feels fresher than it has in any of the recent releases. There are countless story and side-missions, with the motley crew that assembles on your train providing plenty of the latter.

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Jacob's plan to liberate London involves setting up a street gang called The Rooks, so there is a gang upgrade engine which lets you do things like pay off the police, buy pubs for extra income and recruitment purposes, train your vagabonds as fighters and reduce the cost of replenishing supplies.

Beyond the main and side-missions, Jacob must take over London borough by borough, which involves finding vantage points and scanning for local gang-leaders to kidnap or assassinate. Taking over boroughs reduces the prospect of external interference when you're taking on the tougher missions, so is worthwhile.

As ever, a host of historical characters crop up, and as in the previous games, that's where Syndicate takes the most dramatic liberty. You encounter the Charles Darwin and Dickens, Florence Nightingale, Alexander Graham Bell, Disraeli, Gladstone and many others – most of them acting considerably more interestingly than, one suspects, they did in real life. But that has always been Assassin's Creed's modus operandi, and the dialogue is pretty good.

There are some notable and useful new gameplay elements in AC Syndicate. Both characters get a rope-grapple, which really lets you flow between rooftops even if wide streets are in the way – we suspect it will become a subsequent feature of future Assassin's Creed games. And the ability to jump into horse-drawn carriages adds a GTA-style air to proceedings, albeit a somewhat sedate one. Low-speed chases abound, along with some driving and shooting.

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The hint of RPG-style character upgrading from previous games has been accentuated, since Evie and Jacob have separate skill trees to go with their subtly different attributes: Evie majors on stealth, whereas Jacob is more of a brawler, and you can choose to accentuate those characteristics or make them both into all-rounders.

The brawling engine has been revamped effectively (inevitably inviting comparison with that of the Batman: Arkham games), and both characters get some useful projectile weapons such as hallucinogenic darts which drive enemies to attack each other.

You're able to recruit random people to the Rooks during the course of missions, which can come in very handy indeed. And there's a mercifully simple crafting system; you quickly realise that in order to make the most of it, it pays to seek out the hidden crates around the city containing raw materials and cash.

Bug-wise, AC Syndicate isn't 100 per cent blemish-free, but is several orders of magnitude better than Unity. For starters all the characters appear to have skin attached to their faces.

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You do encounter the odd example of weird AI-controlled behaviour, but Unity's more egregious visual and collision bugs appear to have been eradicated, and never once did the game crash as we played through it.

Any ambitious game with a variety of AI-controlled systems is bound to exhibit the odd bug, but in Syndicate, at the very least, they are sufficiently few and far between that they don't detract from the overall enjoyment of playing the game.

Verdict

Playing Assassin's Creed Syndicate is enormously pleasurable. Victorian London is a great place in which to immerse yourself, and the game revels in mining every Gothic possibility that the setting allows. For example, there is a dark and surreal side-mission in which you encounter the mythical Spring-Heeled Jack.

AC Syndicate has loads of personality – you could argue that the historical characters often behave in out-of-character ways, and Jacob is something of a cipher, but it provides plenty of moments that stick in the mind.

Its core gameplay is better honed than ever, while the peripheral elements that were stuck onto the Assassin's Creed franchise over the years have been excised. Syndicate, in fact, is exactly what an Assassin's Creed game should be: it might just be the best iteration since the original game.