Another day, another entry in a long-standing game series! Yes, we’re nearing Christmas, so it’s time to get those marquee sequels out the door and under the tree. Today we’re going to talk about Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, a game that’s all about London during the Industrial Revolution. I’ve got my newsboy cap on, a dreadful cough caused by years of working in a factory and a taste for fish and chips, so let’s take a look.
Syndicate follows Jacob and Evie Frye, twin Assassins from London in the Victorian Era. They’ve got two goals: The first involves finding another Piece of Eden, the usual techno-Macguffin that powers these games along, while the second is the destruction of Templar head honcho Crawford Sterrick. You’ll get these jobs done in the usual Assassin’s Creed style, so expect plenty of stabbing, sneaking and climbing about.
The most notable thing about Syndicate’s presentation is the drastically reduced focus on the “real world” framing segments that the series is known for. This is almost merciful, given the steadily decreasing quality of the framing story since ACIII, and it allows you to get into the meat of the action much more quickly. While a solid hour or so of the past several games is spent on setting up the plot, you’re stabbing and climbing within fifteen minutes in Syndicate. It’s nice.
As for our new heroes, I didn’t find them especially endearing; Jacob tries way too hard to be witty and charming like Arno and Ezio, while Evie’s straight-man position just makes her seem like a stick in the mud, and the dialogue fed to them both is cringe-inducing at times, even more so than usual. I found myself missing Rogue’s Shay Cormac, who continues to be the best hero this series has had despite technically being a villain. Fortunately, this is compensated a bit with the presence of historical figures like Alexander Graham Bell and Charles Dickens who are vastly more personable than the Assassins.
As for gameplay, it’s the usual, with leanings toward Unity’s lighter and more flowing style of movement and combat. You can switch between Jacob and Evie largely at your whim, though they’ve each got their own missions that require you to play one or the other. Jacob is allegedly more combat-focused while Evie is supposed to focus on stealth, but in reality I found you can use either character for any playstyle and they’ll work just fine. I found Jacob to be my preference when I had the choice because of his ultra-dapper top hat, but it’s up to you.
New gameplay elements include the presence of horse-drawn carriages that can be stolen and driven about, the ability to kidnap enemies and hold them hostage and a gang that you can build up and recruit on the streets when you need a little extra muscle. There’s a skill system available that offers a variety of upgrades, such as boosted stealth and the welcome ability to automatically loot assassinated foes; a highly upgraded character feels and plays very differently from a newbie, which is a nice touch and a definite upgrade from Unity’s skill system.
Perhaps most noticeably, early on you’ll receive a grappling hook that allows you to scale to great heights with ease; this functions as a combination of the grapple and the Line Launcher from the Batman: Arkham games, so you can use it both as a mobility aid and as a source of tightropes from which to easily ambush unsuspecting guards. There’s also a new crafting system, because it’s 2015, Minecraft made a mint and now every game needs a crafting system, but this largely boils down to “find the chests scattered around London, open them up and spend the contents on upgrades.” Black Flag did this right, but it feels a little tacked on here.
The focus here is less on changing what Assassin’s Creed means and more on nailing the fundamentals. It feels like Ubisoft’s trying to build this series back up after the PR disaster that was last year’s Unity. There aren’t a lot of significant changes to the formula, but what’s been done before is done well. Combat in particular feels very nice and features plenty of gloriously brutal animations, while zipping about with that grappling hook is a great time.
Speaking of Unity, I’m happy to report that Syndicate runs much better out of the box than that title. Playing Syndicate on PS4 has convinced me that Unity’s iffy performance on that console was not, in fact, just because it was running on console; while the framerate isn’t quite silky-smooth, it’s good enough. Audio’s solid as well, with Jacob and Evie sounding, uh, as convincing as they can given the silly things they end up saying; this is London, so expect your fair share of gloriously British accents and dialects from both player characters and NPCs. Control-wise, Syndicate uses the same scheme as Unity, so parkour is a bit more automated than previous titles and you can focus more on where you want to go instead of how you’ll get there.
Oh, and let’s get this out of the way real quick: this is an Ubisoft game, so yes, it’s a full-priced retail game with microtransactions. This gold mine’s open, so expect everyone to just keep on digging. At least you aren’t forced to play a ridiculous mobile app or endure other players’ fumbling during cooperative play to unlock everything. In fact, there’s no multiplayer at all, which is unfortunate news for players who enjoyed the sneaky competitive aspects of previous titles.
If you don’t care for this game series, Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate isn’t going to change your mind; it’s more of the same with a new coat of paint. I don’t feel like this is the death knell for the series that some hysterical critics might, but it’s a thought worth keeping in mind. Syndicate is worth a look if you’re a fan of the series, of course, and one that hits the right notes for long-time players. To be honest, I think we’re on the way to seeing a reboot of this franchise sooner rather than later, and when it happens that might be the best place for new players to get into Assassin’s Creed.