I debated with myself the merits of posting a review this long after release date, but two things persuaded me. 1) the PC version isn’t out yet, and as such there’s probably a large portion of people who have yet to decide on whether or not they’re picking this up. And (perhaps more importantly), 2) I’m willing to put money on the fact that last year’s Assassin’s Creed Unity burnt many franchise fans; enough so that you aren’t willing to take a gamble on another new release a mere 12 months later. That’s not even considering those who haven’t picked up an Assassin’s Creed in a few years; is it worth you lot jumping into Syndicate as well?
The great news is that Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is good. The caveat here is that it inherits many of the problems that have been a part of this franchise for years. While it’s a much better game than last year’s Unity, it’s still quite a way off from the series’ highpoints of Assassin’s Creed II and the more recent Black Flag. That being said, Syndicate shines in other areas.
By this stage it’s safe to say that if you’ve played one Assassin’s Creed you’ve played them all. In that regard it’s a lot like Call of Duty; each year we get a new one and each year you know exactly what to expect. Overarching gameplay mechanics never change; instead of a first-person perspective with guns, we have a third-person perspective with stabby things, and nothing ever really changes all that much. With this in mind I’ve started to judge Assassin’s Creed titles in two areas: the lead character (or in the case of Syndicate, characters), and the historical setting. Syndicate excels in one of these areas; you can probably guess which one.
The playable characters of Jacob and Evie Frye are the best Assassin’s Creed characters we’ve had since Assassin’s Creed II’s Ezio. In fact I’ll go so far as to say that Evie Frye is my favourite assassin in the series to date. She’s a bit of a nerd; she’s frighteningly intelligent; she has the ability to slice her way through thirty enemies without breaking a sweat; within the opening hour of the game she’s punched a train’s carriage connector until it’s snapped. She takes no shit. She’s a she. That part is important. It’s important likely due to the enormous online kerfuffle caused by last year’s “female NPCs are too difficult to animate” comment that hung around the launch of Assassin’s Creed Unity like some unflushable stench in a public toilet. Don’t ever say that Ubisoft doesn’t pay attention to industry zeitgeist. They clearly listened to fan feedback (and general Internet offense-takers jumping on a bandwagon) and as a result, Syndicate is loaded with characters of colour (Mr. Green is wonderful), strong female leads, and not an ounce of a patronising/pandering tone to be found anywhere. It’s rather refreshing. And Jacob is kind of cool too, I guess; even if he’s really just there to show off how much cooler Evie is. The banter between the two siblings exhibits some of the better writing and voice acting we’ve seen in the series, and I relished in the cut scenes that placed brother and sister together so that they could knock sparks off each other thanks to their fundamental differences in demeanour and areas of interest.
And Victorian era London then? To be honest I went into Syndicate not all that invested in the historical setting Ubisoft had chosen. It didn’t take me long to get into it though, and its plethora of historical figures who play a role in the narrative. Dickens, Darwin, Alexander Graham Bell (who is really well done), and even Florence Nightingale all get entangled with the assassin duo at some point in the story.
Insofar as the city’s presentation is concerned, this is where Unity outshines Syndicate. Last year’s French Revolution era Paris was a spectacle; it was one of the most detailed and gorgeously rendered video game cities I’ve experienced, but as wonderful as it was, it was also the reason for Unity’s horrific framerate stutters and crashes. The result is that Ubisoft has very noticeably scaled back their attention to detail. Victorian era London feels flat and, oddly, a little rushed when compared to Unity’s Paris. Syndicate is still capable of showing some flare at times; I was, on occasion, stopped in my tracks in certain instances when the lighting was just right behind Big Ben, or the smoggy, grimy streets captured that essence of Victorian London that always seems to be conjured whenever one thinks “chimney sweeps” and “child labour”.
One thing is certain however, and that’s the amount of fun traversing the city can be. The fun factor is entirely owed to the new rope-launcher mechanic that you unlock fairly early in the game. This rope-launcher completely revolutionises the way you scale buildings and get from point A to B on the game map. It’s extremely well implemented, slick, and heaps of fun. Thinking about it, I’m positive that going back to an older Assassin’s Creed will feel like a massive step backwards in game world traversal thanks to the lack of rope-launcher. I loved this addition.
Sadly the game’s combat has deteriorated quite substantially, and it all plays out like a watered-down Batman: Arkham Asylum clone. You’ll spam one attack button, and occasionally have to counter an incoming attack in order to maintain your combo multiplier, or break a stronger enemy’s block by stunning them. It’s all very button-mashy and that’s a pity. Combat has never really been a strong point in the Assassin’s Creed series, but it felt noticeably worse in Syndicate. That being said, it looks better than it ever has. Character animations are incredibly well-done, and the choreographed movements are stunning, especially with some of the finishing moves.
Unfortunately the whole “gang warfare” part of Syndicate is a little underwhelming. You need to take over the various London boroughs by liberating different areas from gang-leader control. Different areas have different “conquest mission” types for you to complete in order to take over that territory, and eventually the whole borough. The conquest missions range from clearing out enemy gang strongholds, to assassinating Templar targets, or liberating child labour factories. The one nice thing about these side missions is that they’re pretty quick to do; they almost follow a handheld gaming template: short but punchy pieces of gameplay that steadily contribute towards a greater achievement.
Once you take over all of a borough’s territories, you’ll trigger a gang war showdown against that borough’s gang leader. Once you’ve bumped off the leader, the borough falls into your control. Certain story missions require a specific amount of boroughs to be controlled before you can continue.
Speaking of story missions, they’re still split into “sequences”. Each sequence culminates in the assassination of a specific Templar target. These assassination missions are very well done and offer multiple means of taking out your target. They’re satisfying and represent some of the game’s strongest mission design.