“We work in the dark to serve the light . . .”
It’s hard to deny that a very loud core of gamers are burned out by the Assassin’s Creed franchise. The monstrous mess that was Assassin’s Creed Unity did nothing to assist matters either. Past games were guilty of remaining static, or worse yet, meddling with parts of the formula that didn’t need altering. This left the new Assassin’s Creed Syndicate with the difficult job or re-establishing a balance between the new attractions and all that makes an AC game what it always has been. The end result, while by no means a perfect game, is just plain, unadulterated fun.
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate takes place in 1868 London where siblings Jacob and Evie Frye attempt to carry on the work of their father, as well as the Assassin brotherhood, by freeing the city from Templar oppression. Years of corruption have seen the city suffer under the hands of Templar Grand Master Crawford Starrick. With abundant crime, child labor and abuse, and inhumane experimentation on Londoners, the city beckons for liberation.
While this sounds like an appetizing setup, the narrative is, by and large, a mixed bag. The Frye twins serve as the most likable protagonists in the series since Ezio Auditore. Jacob is the lovable goon who much prefers settling matters by introducing thugs to his beloved brass knuckles while Evie seems to be more mindful of bigger things at play. The humorous interaction between the two personalities lays the groundwork where any sort of pre-narrative background fails to exist. On the other hand, while the game gets its point across that London’s salvation is priority, there is no deep rooted, personal motivation behind player actions. Players will often get a rundown at the start of each sequence explaining why the new target is evil as well as why he or she needs to be put down. It simply boils down to this: Assassins are good. Templars are bad. Put them down. Save people. At least the prime assassination targets have some semblance of a background, but the same cannot be said for the Blighter gang ringleaders who amount to nothing more but duplicated character models for you to slay. It made me yearn for the personal investment that Ezio Auditore or Connor Kenway had in the conflict.
However, within the open sandbox of London, there are plenty of activities and room for growth that allow players to create their own memories. While the topic of jest early on, Jacob indeed gets to realize his dream of running a gang called the Rooks. The game area is broken down into several controlled areas (typical Ubisoft) that can be liberated through a variety of activities ranging from liberating child slaves to outright slaughtering large groups of thugs. As neighborhoods are liberated, former Blighters will begin to follow Jacob and Evie. Players can then upgrade various facets of their gang: members with different areas of expertise, new methods of income, and even black market connections to obtain low cost prices on all transactions. You can arm your men and women to the teeth, making it easier to send groups into hot areas to do the killing for you.
Just as your gang can level up and improve, so too can the game’s protagonists. Jacob and Evie level up via an experience points system. These points are obtained by completing any activity in the game, with the amount obtained depending on the type of activity performed. Once a certain threshold of experience is crossed, players earn skill points to use on various techniques and upgrades for each character. After a designated number of skill points are spent per level, the Assassin will increase in level, allowing access to a new tier of abilities. All of this, however, is a bit disappointing as Jacob and Evie’s skill trees are identical aside from three unique abilities per character. Evie, for example, can obtain her unique Chameleon skill which allows her to be invisible while standing still in stealth mode. Jacob, on the other hand, gets several bonuses to open combat actions. At the end of the day, they feel relatively similar as both are capable of filling the other’s shoes. It was a missed chance to take a risk and achieve something new and fresh with two very different playable characters.
Where Assassin’s Creed Syndicate really shines is picking up what Unity attempted with unique and original assassination missions. It’s kind of important given that the game is about assassinating people. Ubisoft stripped away the needless crowds of citizens and environmental spectacles to focus on a clean, open environment where you can kill how you like. In the first mission of this type, Jacob remarks, “How to do it?,” oh so fittingly. Side objectives such as stealing objects, freeing prisoners, or killing bonus targets will appear, giving players the option to change their plans mid-operation. Adapting on the fly and finding success is all the more satisfying when all goes according to plan, and your mark is left bleeding out on their back.
Additionally, many of the side quests are quite clever and give insight into historical personalities such as meeting Karl Marx or joining Charles Dickens ghost-hunting club. It makes it feel as though more things are happening London, rather than being purely subservient to the Assassin-Templar conflict. Unfortunately, the rest of the city is not built to match the unique characters. Many of the NPC’s come across as vacant who seem to be incapable of responding appropriately to any given situation. While it could be way worse (such as Unity’s game-breaking bugs or slowdowns), murdering thugs in front of a crowd only to receive no reaction seems a bit off-putting. Even the enemy gang apparently receives divine information regarding who Jacob and Evie are even though they just appeared in London and no one has seen them before. It’s incredibly frustrating to peacefully move down a street only for a group of Blighters to come after you for no particular reason. Also, don’t plan on defending yourself without angering the cops as well, because in London, practicing self-defense is unlawful.
A final point regarding gameplay pertains to the free-running and climbing. After eight years of Assassin’s Creed, it is certainly the hope that the focal point of a game would perform flawlessly and comfortably. This is not the case, of course, as this game, like all others before it, feature far too many instances of jumping to the wrong ledges, falling off at inappropriate times, or dropping to your untimely death all because Jacob or Evie were incapable of understanding my controller inputs. Ubisoft seems to address the experience by introducing a rope launcher which allows players to scale buildings or jump to and fro with the click of a button. While it is certainly welcome help, it seems to circumvent the issue rather than address the fact that Assassin’s Creed‘s mechanics are still unpolished. I guess it beats countless game-ending bugs or insufferable frame rates.
While everything is pulled back in scale from what Ubisoft tried to achieve with Unity (as none of it worked), Syndicate remains aesthetically pleasing in every way. London as a city possesses so much charm with its bustling train stations, factory smokestacks, and carriage-laden roads that it simply never grows tired. Character models, aside from the lazy, insignificant duplicates, are beautifully designed and memorable. One area that Ubisoft undoubtedly excels is maintaining 100% faithful accuracy to the time and setting it chooses. Coupled with Austin Wintory’s masterful score, London is the best setting in Assassin’s Creed to date.
Brace yourself for what’s coming, Ubisoft naysayers: Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is a good game. While it still suffers from frustrating movement mechanics, as well as an underdeveloped narrative, the core experience being offered is downright fun. Assassination missions have come a long way since the series’ fruition, and offer great satisfaction upon succeeding. The side activities offer a healthy range of clever experiences ranging from various story bites to checking off boxes as you clear out territories. There’s a little something for everyone here. All in all, it’s still the same old Assassin’s Creed, but it does what it sets out to do, and does the job.