Assassin’s Creed is a series characterised by peaks and troughs. Since Assassin’s Creed 2 released in 2009, the series embarked on a bumpy road with a new release every year. The series has, for the most part, progressed in an incremental fashion, with small tweaks and additions adding more options and approaches to the gameplay, with the exception of the engine change that Ubisoft introduced with Assassin’s Creed 3. Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is the most recent culmination of the annual efforts, and it’s something of a return to form for the series that manages to avoid feeling tired.
Set in London in 1968, Syndicate follows Assassin twins Evie and Jacob Frye in their efforts to liberate London from the Templars’ grip by cutting a bloody swathe through their ranks and hired gang, the Blighters, establishing their own gang- the Rooks- in place. In other words, it follows the same basic framework of every Assassin’s Creed game since AC2, for better or worse. Many side quests are tied to taking territory away from the Blighters and eliminating their leaders, each of which have a distinct personality and appearance, Shadow of Mordor- style. Completing main and side quests unlocks extra gear and XP to upgrade both of your characters so that they can tackle areas of London populated with enemies of a higher level.
This is the first AC game to feature dual protagonists, with Jacob favouring a confrontational approach while Evie is more cautious and stealthy. This is reflected in their separated skill trees; while your XP is shared between the two characters, you can spend their skill points to level up different areas of their respective trees. This is great because you can min-max each character at the start of the game to enjoy two different play styles rather than missing out on half of the experience until late in the game.
Speaking of the two main characters, I personally found Evie to be far and away my favourite of the two. While lots of people outright hate Jacob, I merely find him a slight annoyance at times. With his cocky swagger and relentless painful quips, it’s easy for him to get on your nerves. Evie, however, is a much more compelling and original characterisation, and while the characters’ main motivations seem to be “we want to kill the Templars because they’re nasty and mean and we don’t like them”, Evie’s efforts to live up to her revered father add a modicum of depth to her motivations which endeared her to me quite quickly.
Syndicate’s gameplay is no far cry from previous years. You still brutalise enemies in open combat with a mixture of attacks, block-breaking stun attacks, and reversals. You still have an arsenal of different weapons including knives, brass knuckles, canes, throwing knives, and guns. You can still approach objectives stealthily, using either verticality, social stealth, or distractions to navigate around and dispatch enemies. And you can still free-run and climb up and over any building or obstacle, with the major change in this game being the Arkham games- style grappling hook you can use to scale walls and pass between rooftops quickly. You also have an upgradeable workforce and hideout, which is this game takes the form of a train that you acquire early on. I think that the train is a perfect base of operations not only story-wise with the obvious use a renegade underground organisation has for a mobile base, but also I always felt that having more elaborate houses and mansions was more of a pain than anything else in previous games. In games all about freedom of movement, I was never endeared to the more sprawling home bases I acquired, frustratingly spreading out all of my bases’ amenities, and I couldn’t care less about the upgrades which made them nicer places to be because I never spent any real time there. With the train, all of my home base needs are contained in a nice little space within which you can’t get lost or forget where things are because it’s about as linear as an environment can get.
I think that of all the problems this game, and modern Assassin’s Creed games in general, the game’s handling mechanics are the most problematic. The free running has felt “off” since the switch to the Anvil Next engine, and Syndicate suffers terribly from the affliction. Free-running feels sticky and holds your hand too much; I’ve experienced innumerable instances of the game not letting me jump from a wall or cross a certain obstacle because it’s either not “safe”, or because the game’s context-sensitive traversal system hiccuped. In older AC games, you had much more freedom of movement, and could leap from rooftops and walls at will. You might have been more prone to injury that way, but the system felt more free and real. When the player wants to eject horizontally from a wall and none of the buttons that they know to achieve this are doing anything because there isn’t an AC Regulation Safe Landing Spot opposite them, it’s incredibly frustrating and limiting for them.
I’m also not a fan of the combat system of AC games since AC3. The move to a more simple control scheme for fighting was likely inspired by the success of the Batman Arkham games, but I don’t think the faster fighting style works for AC. When you had to hold down a trigger to block and parry attacks, the combat felt more deliberate and had a good, thoughtful flow. You had to outsmart your enemies as much as you had to overpower them. Combat in Syndicate has been streamlined to essentially hammering on enemies with near reckless abandon, occasionally interrupted by hitting dodge, parry or defence- break buttons and occasionally making use of your wider arsenal of ranged weapons. The combat isn’t necessarily bad; it just feels messy, loose, and above all, I don’t feel it fits the game.
Story-wise, Syndicate is just as close to the AC formula as it is mechanically. Assassin’s Creed games have for several years struggled to draw me into the time zone and keep me interested in the characters, and in this area Syndicate has more success than most. Previous games, while depicting vastly different eras and cultures, have evolved a kind of “sameness” in my eyes; a similarity of design that’s unmistakeable “Assassin’s Creed”, whether I’m running around Constantinople or Boston. However Syndicate’s London really does feel like a new and exciting locale to kill people in, and many of the characters are delivered with a fervour to make them distinct. Even the modern-day sections of the story are more compelling, which is unusual because it’s the least interactive they’ve ever been, since they occur exclusively in cutscene form. To be honest, given the continual feedback from fans about the dissonant and monotonous nature of these parts of the stories of past games, it’s about time Ubisoft improved on these sections.
While Assassin’s Creed Syndicate falls into many of the mechanical and story-based ruts featured by many of the AC games of recent years, there’s something about it that sets it above them. London is a delight to see and explore, the story maintained my interest in spite of its rigid compliance to established Assassin’s Creed story structure, and the underlying quality of the gameplay mechanics shine through their somewhat frustrating simplification. Syndicate is far from perfect, but if you’ve not grown overly tired of the tried-and-tested AC formula yet, it’s enough of a breath of fresh air that you should give it a go.
Image credits- theverge.com