Assassin’s Creed Syndicate Review

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.

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The Two Main Groups of Action Combat Mechanics and Their Uses

Like any self respecting obsessive, I like to plonk stuff into categories. I’ve been thinking lately about action games, and how I think most fit into one of two main groups, which I like to call “Loose” and “Solid”. Most people will have a preference of one over another, myself included, but they both have their place.

First, we have the “Loose” action games. These are your more arcade-y hack-and-slashers: your Dynasty Warriors and Bayonettas and God of Wars. I call them “loose” because they interpret your button presses loosely; inputting X, X, Y or some other simple combo will have your character flipping and pirouetting through enemies in a ballet of violence.

“Solid” action games, however, are more precisely controlled. Your attacks are more reserved, slashing once per button press. This is the mechanic type used by Assassin’s Creed, Dark Souls, and Chivalry: Medieval Warfare. Controlling your character is more slash-by-slash, hit-by-hit. It’s often a more precise and grounded method of control, hence “Solid”.

Loose action games are more useful when you want a game to be easy to pick up, but hard to master. They tend to have a floaty, fast and furious tempo, and it’s often possible to get through with button mashing and a little bit of forethought. It’s a more immediately gratifying play style, because you can often hack your way through swathes of enemies in just a few seconds. However, for me the dissonance between input and action often leads to disconnection from the action, so the game has to grab my attention using other means to keep me engaged. Dynasty Warriors- style games don’t grab me enough with their story or objectives to make me care about playing them for much more than maybe an hour at a time, tops. God of War and Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, however, had strong enough stories and environments, as well as varied enough objectives, to keep me invested.

Two main types of action games 2

Solid action games are more my cup of tea. I enjoy carefully parrying and side-stepping attacks, pressing the assault blow-by-blow when the enemy leaves an opening. It’s a much more effective way of letting me engage with my character, because I’m more intimately controlling their actions. As much as the parkour, world and mission design of the Assassin’s Creed series was greatly improved since the first game, I think Assassin’s Creed Uno has a really good combat system for creating engaging, difficult, thoughtful battles. As much as I like the kill chaining mechanics that the series introduced later on, the foundation of the combat has always been cerebral and effective.

My favourite game, Dark Souls, is a logical progression of this style of play. Your position, the arc of your weapon in space, and the positioning of enemies are all very precisely represented by the game’s engine. It really feels like you’re controlling a character in that space on screen, and the way that your attacks connect with enemies gives the world a very tangible presence, which I think is the most impressive hallmark of From Software’s Souls/Borne series.

I think the reason why the Arkham games’ combat style has become to ubiquitous of late is because it’s a balancing of the solid and loose aspects of action game combat. Combat retains the blow-by-blow nature of solid action games, while offering smart target lock-on and combo moves from loose action games. This leads to an interesting system in which you have the tactile solidity from one side, with the accessibility and spectacle from the other. Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor built on this foundation rather nicely with the addition of your wraith powers and bow, seamlessly adding a potent ranged option to the mix.

Perhaps, then, we need to add a third classification to the mix- games that fuse together elements from the two different camps. Like “Fusion”, that sounds cool. Of course, this means that the title lied to you. Well, welcome to the real world, tiger.

Brazen Stealth: I Love Disguises In Games

Whether you’re sneaking past guards unseen leaving nary a slumped body in the bathroom, cutting a silent bloody swathe through unwitting enemy forces, or cowering in a convenient closet as some terrible invincible stalker pursues your newly ripe scent, stealth games are a cornerstone of modern video games. I think that stealth is often a more satisfying approach than straight action when given the option between the two, because you’re not just eliminating or navigating threats- you’re outsmarting them. Observing movement patterns, slipping in between weaknesses in the patrols, and removing threats to your infiltration, it’s a more cerebral approach than swatting out a roomful of enemies with a big gun.

A lesser-used aspect of stealth is the use of disguises. Most prominently used in the Hitman series, but also notably turning up in the Metal Gear series and ingeniously in Team Fortress 2’s Spy class, disguises allow you to pass by NPCs (and other players in TF2’s case) unnoticed, so long as you don’t start to act too out of place, like sharpening a knife and asking if anyone wants a free back rub over there. It recently occurred to me that it’s a criminally underused mechanic, both in single player and multiplayer games.

I think my biggest problem with Hitman: Absolution is that it introduced the concept of the “instinct” resource being used to “sell” your disguises, which is represented onscreen through Agent 47 looking down and to the side, gaining a kind of “keep it cool keep it cool” saunter, and generally acting as suspiciously as possible. Part of the atmosphere of previous Hitman games that I loved was the ability to acquire disguises and wander into appropriate areas unmolested by NPCs. If you were caught showing an FBI agent your piano wire throat massage technique, you’d have to show Agent Jones your bullet lipstick, but if you managed to change unseen and hide your outfit donor somewhere safe then you could go wherever the outfit let you. There really is a kind of perverse glee in just striding on by guards without anyone questioning your presence.

Team Fortress 2’s use of Spy disguise to trick enemy players into thinking you’re on their team. You use your disguise device to pick a class to emulate, and to the enemy team you appear as a member of their team, in their colour, and your name shows up as a random member of their team’s. Of course, if the person whose name you’re assuming spots you, they’ll realise you’re a squishy enemy Spy and introduce you to the wonders of cheese grater cosplay. You really have to try to emulate movements that the enemy would make in that class- but you can’t shoot the weapons that the enemy thinks you have, so you need to avoid being spotted not shooting your pals on the frontline. It’s a really interesting method of play that’s totally unlike any other class.

This mechanic seems like it’ll be explored further in Compulsion  Games’ upcoming survival game, We Happy Few. Set in an alternate dystopian England, most of the populace takes a mind-altering drug, Joy, to keep them content and under control under the powers that be. The player is a “Downer”, that is a member of a resistance movement that refuses to take Joy, and wishes to escape town. The general populace doesn’t like downers very much, murderously hunting them down when they notice they’re not tripping Joy. So, the player has to act like they’re high on Joy to navigate unmolested, scavenging food and supplies from the environment and navigating the game’s procedurally-generated world. Aside from the very promising premise and inspired art style, We Happy Few seems to expand on the “Acting” mechanic to really make players think on their feet and avoid detection. Needless to say, We Happy Few seems like it could be a very interesting game.

Stealth in plain sight is so potent in games, I think, in its delicate balance of empowerment and tension. When you can brazenly trespass in restricted areas, yet feel like one wrong move might be your downfall. It’s been used so well in Hitman, Assassin’s Creed (especially online) and TF2, and I’m glad to see new games like We Happy Few picking up and running with the concept. I think that as A.I. evolves and we can start programming for more complex reactions from NPCs, disguises and other plain-sight stealth mechanics will see more use. And they should, because used right, they’re damn fun to play with.