You’re forgiven if you have avoided Assassin’s Creed Syndicate altogether, thinking it would turn out like AC Unity. Regardless of its graphical quality, Unity was marred by glitches, bugs and frame-rates issues in both its single player and experimental multiplayer modes; the less said about it the better, really. But, this time around, with Ubisoft Quebec at the helm, the franchise is in better hands. Players are transported to 19th century England, where the effects of the Industrial Revolution are in plain sight. Child slavery and poverty run rampant and hope turns to the Assassin Order to liberate London from the clutches of the Templars.
If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Syndicate plays a familiar tune to previous titles – with AC Brotherhood being a prime example – where Templar influence must be eradicated from a region. The game takes all of ten minutes introducing players to the setting, main characters and their overall goals – so it’s good everything is quickly laid out in front of you. Here, the franchise has opted for duel protagonists, siblings Jacob and Evie Frye, to establish a foothold in London for the Assassins. Whilst Jacob’s persona is similar to his combat style – off-the-cuff mixed with a hint of arrogance – it’s Evie who not only fits the role of a great female protagonist but steals the show as Syndicate’s lead character. She’s kind and precise in her planning but also doesn’t shy away from getting her hands dirty or instigating confrontation.
The decision to have two main characters in the game works well. Jacob and Evie have polarising views on most topics and both have their own plans for London, which is evident when Jacob takes advantage of establishing his own gang labelled The Rooks. They are the main competition for the Templar’s inner-city muscle, The Blighters, and are quite handy in the main story and side quests.
Before too long you’ll be familiarising yourself with Assassin’s Creed’s gameplay staples: Synchronising from viewpoints; opening chests; collecting collectibles; liberating districts of Templar influence. Each district, or ‘borough’ as they’re now called, contains a variety of activities to help diminish Templar control in the area.
Syndicate looks and sounds really good. Even though it doesn’t have the same graphical fidelity as AC Unity, it is sound from a technical standpoint – which makes up for it. With the added transportation option of horse and carriage, the game is very eye-catching when driving through London streets after a downpour. A burst of gold from the sun lights up the town and the accompanying sound effects on street level adds another level of immersion to the game. On a side note, it’s nice to hear Ubisoft have got the accents of the townspeople right this time, as the shout of “Extra! Extra!” from the paper boys pulls the player right in.
While Syndicate has implemented the usual Templar Hunt and Fight Club scenarios, it’s the Child Liberation missions that are particularly synonymous with this heavily industrialised setting. These can prove to be quite challenging, requiring players to free child workers without setting off warehouse alarms. Blighters are dotted inside and outside these buildings, giving players prime opportunity to use environmental hazards, such as a pile of hoisted barrels, or delve into their own inventory of Assassin gadgets.
Eradicating a borough of Templar influence will trigger a Gang War. You, along with support from The Rooks, must challenge the Blighters for complete control of the area. It gets fun here, as veterans of the franchise will be well-accustomed to throwing knives, pistols, poison darts and smoke bombs, providing a good spread of offensive and defensive gameplay.
Yes, you heard me correctly – the melee combat in Assassin’s Creed is now actually fun. While Unity finally had the audacity to scale up the AI difficulty, there were always moments when you’d be idling for a counter-kill prompt. In Syndicate, it has been completely re-worked to provide a quicker and more intuitive form of gameplay. Though it can lead to button-mashing, heated encounters now incorporate more finishers as well as a streamlined ability to chain moves together. The constant ability to counter kill as been thrown out the window because, in this iteration, players can leave several enemies in a ‘limbo’ state whilst damaging an additional enemy to trigger a quick multi-finisher cutscene; it’s pretty awesome. Revamping the melee combat has worked wonderfully and it’s extremely satisfying seeing Jacob or Evie at work in these moments.
In another tweaked design choice, players have the power to decide the sibling Assassins’ strengths and weaknesses. Players are rewarded with skill points over the course of the game by completing in-game tasks build the individual skill trees of both Jacob and Evie. You can allocate points into combat, resulting in increased health and weapon lethality; stealth, lowering the noise of your footsteps and the effectiveness of knives; or ecosystem, greater environmental detail with eagle vision and driving ability. Here, our protagonists have certain abilities locked that are reflective of their personal combat styles, which is a nice touch. However, seeing as how these differences only account for three skills, Jacob and Evie virtually offer the same play styles – it’s a shame, really. It would’ve been great if Ubisoft Quebec had given the two assassins completely unique skill trees with detailed abilities for their strength and stealth aspects respectively.
Of course, the character customisation menus from AC Unity make a second appearance. Here, players can micro-manage their inventory where knuckledusters, curved knives and cane swords are your primary weapons – the latter being particularly lethal and effective in combat. Furthermore, you can craft items that are suited to your Level – ranging from 1 to 10 – but acquiring its schematic from a golden chest is a must. If that wasn’t enough, Syndicate has given an upgrades section to your gang – The Rooks. Divided into Ringleader, Insider and Swindler trees, it’s here gamers can dive into gang recruitment and shady activities to multiply potential economic benefits.
There’s also a perk system at play, too. For example, completing set amount of double assassinations or multi-finishers will net players with increased damage. It’s fair to say there are more RPG elements in Assassin’s Creed than ever before and is an interesting game design choice. While it is a nice distraction for players, this franchise has always been about the narrative and less about the role-playing aspects. This over-abundance of RPG mechanics is off-putting and detracts from the norm that makes Assassin’s Creed; it’s a design choice Ubisoft usually balances fairly well, but not in this instance.
But the greatest asset players will have in Syndicate is, by far, the zipline gun. Are you running across rooftops and a street stops your progress? No problem. This device attaches to the edge of a building within a certain height and length from your current location. But the height issue is forgiving and players can launch the zipline gun across great distances, so much so that you can almost reach the top of Big Ben in one shot. Jacob and Evie bounce off walls and wooden platforms with pin-point accuracy and there’s a sense of exhilaration when whizzing past townsfolk on the streets below. This new mechanic is extremely useful, effective and is probably one of the most ingenious inclusions to the whole Assassin’s Creed franchise.
Having no multiplayer component of any kind in Syndicate is strange, seeing as how it’s been a part of the series since AC Brotherhood back in 2010. Despite the copious amount of technical holes in Unity’s co-operative mode, running around with a group of friends and completing mission objectives was a large part of what made it so enjoyable. But here, we get a sense that Assassin’s Creed is re-branding itself as a single player-only game – not a bad thing.
But, despite the zipline gun’s burst of ingenuity, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate flounders in the stock-standard approach of the entries before it. It’s a more stable experience than last year’s Unity, but there were numerous occasions in the opening few hours where I felt as though I’d played Syndicate a couple of times over already. Despite the slight improvements the game has made, nothing made me say “Wow, I’m so glad I got this game!”
Players can have a huge amount of downtime in-between campaign missions in a GTA-style environment, on a quest for loot as well as useless flowers and posters. Despite rubbing shoulders historical figures like Alexander Graham Bell, Charles Darwin and Florence Nightingale, my limited knowledge of British history failed to muster even a tinge of excitement when in their presence. Furthermore, where has all the interactivity from the streets – the open doors, first and second story windows – gone from AC Unity? Or the split second action cutscenes that kicked in as you bounded through someone’s lounge room in ACIII? It’s difficult to explain, but there’s a certain atmosphere to the game that’s extremely subtle or been locked away altogether.
Three or four years ago, this would’ve been a very good entry into the franchise. The large open world that comes with this type of game is always welcome, but I felt as though its size was only to accommodate the immense amount of collectibles crammed into buildings and back alleys. It’s exhausting even looking at the over-populated map filled of side-quests, story missions, chests and other nonsensical trinkets.
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate doesn’t do a whole lot wrong, but Ubisoft have been delivering the same gameplay for so long that even slight improvements do little to excite. The present day story between the Assassins and Templars appears to be reaching a critical point, but the best thing for the franchise right now is to take a year off and reassess what needs to be delivered in the next game. Syndicate has restored some faith but, after Unity, is another stepping stone to the next breakthrough entry in this over-saturated marquee franchise.
Hayden played Assassin’s Creed Syndicate for over 30 hours for this review, where he got an unexpected thrill from hijacking supply convoys and robbing steam trains.
Business As Usual
Despite a breakthrough zipline mechanic, Syndicate is headlined by an all too familiar formula.