Hello, and welcome back to the Geek Infusion. Before I jump into my review of Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, I’d first like to apologize for our lengthy absence. As much as Mike and I enjoy working on the site, right now we can really only do that in our free time. Which is hard to come by, for a variety of reasons I won’t bore you with.
In any event, we are glad to be back. So without further ado, let’s talk about one of my most anticipated games of the year, Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, which I played on PS4.
In approaching the game, my biases should somewhat cancel out. On the one hand, it takes place in London, so I recognize most of the major places from, y’know, having lived there. Based on this, I’m incredibly biased and predisposed to thinking highly of the game.
On the other hand, Syndicate is Ubisoft’s follow-up to Unity, so I’m also predisposed to thinking it’s going to be rubbish.
As it turns out, Syndicate is actually an above average entry into the AC series. It’s no Black Flag, but then what is? It’s certainly miles better than Unity, which is great.
As mentioned, this time around the game’s set in London, specifically the Victorian era, where you play as a pair of twins, Jacob and Evie Frye. The twins, acting independently of the pesky Assassin high council, decide the Templars in London, headed by one Mr. Crawford Starrick (who looks for all the world like Snidely Whiplash had a baby with a hipster), must be taken down a peg, and the best way to do this is by stabbing people. A lot. And also crawling on rooftops.
The core “sneak around and kill people” gameplay should be familiar to anyone with a passing familiarity of the AC series, so let’s talk about what’s new this time around.
Firstly, you have a grappling hook. This item is introduced very early on in the game, shortly after Evie and her man-bear of a brother arrive in London. Its main function is to enable you to cross the admittedly broad streets of London’s boroughs without breaking the gameplay’s flow. It’s also used to scale buildings. Sometimes (in cases like Big Ben, or St. Paul’s Cathedral or Tower Bridge) this is very handy. Those environments are monstrously large, and would take ages to climb, even using the climb leap technique.
But the grappling hook is almost too useful, in a way. You can use it to easily propel yourself to the top of a row house, or render any guard ineffective by zipping away like Batman. This removes all sense of danger from the game, to the point where the only time I died was when I deliberately handicapped myself by not resorting to an Arkham style smoke bomb/grapple to safety escape.
This isn’t to say the combat is difficult if you choose not to just grapple away. Far from it. The new style of AC combat still has the familiar counter kills, but it also incorporates stuns and multi-kills up to four at a time, a la Arkham Knight. Oh hey. Another Batman reference.
The other major addition this time around is the ability to craft your own gang, known as the Rooks – presumably because calling them the Crows or maybe the Bats was too on the nose, even for Ubisoft.
This part of Syndicate takes the old tower conquest system from Brotherhood and magnifies it tenfold. Instead of one tower to oversee a section the city, there are several side missions you must do, each connected (of course) to an associate. You do the mission, draw out the leader of the local gang for the borough, then kill the leader and take out the rival gang in a very Gangs Of New York-esque street battle, thus claiming the borough and giving you, well, very minor changes and rewards. There are no fewer Blighters (the local gang) roving around, but you do at least unlock some of the better weapons in the game for completing these activities.
Compare this to Brotherhood, where removing a Borgia tower would allow you to recruit more assassins, which would in turn open up more crafting and revenue avenues, and allow you to call upon them during battle.
In Syndicate, I can do all of this without liberating any of London’s neighbourhoods. All gang upgrades, weapon crafting, and gear upgrades are completed via menus that you can access anywhere, thus rendering the whole gang system virtually moot, with the exception of the aforementioned better weapons you can unlock.
Notice I say “better” and not “best”. The best weapons are armour are unlocked either by completing story missions, or find the schematics in one of London’s 300+ chests. This is hardly good game design.
Not that a collect-a-thon is anything new for Ubisoft, but this time around things seem especially ridiculous. There are chests, gold chests, illustrations, flowers and beer (because we can’t have England without beer tasting notes apparently) and music boxes. And aside from the collectibles, there are a host of side activities like carriage racing, underground fight clubs (shit, I broke the first rule), train heists, escorts, robberies, and foiling smugglers along the Thames. The map screen for Syndicate is positively littered with icons.
The sheer number of side quests needed to free each area of the city makes the game seem almost schizophrenic in its narrative. It takes far too much time to go through, and it throws off the pacing in the main story.
This is a shame, because Jacob and Evie are interesting characters, with well-written character arcs. They grow and change both as a pair and as individuals.
Evie in particular is well designed and casted. She is sexy, funny, intelligent, independent yet willing to work with others, and just an all-around joy to play as, especially during her character-specific missions. Unfortunately, these only amount to around 40 per cent of the main story line. The rest taken up by her badger-bodied brother, Jacob.
On the surface, Jacob’s story is less interesting. He starts out fitting into the familiar mold of previous Assassin’s Creed protagonists like Arno and Altaïr – flagrantly disregarding the rules to acquire glory, and doing as he sees fit. Later, he starts to resemble Ezio – driven and serious about his goals, but not lacking for humour and personality. He doesn’t surrender all to the creed.
He’s basically Edward Kenway if Edward Kenway were also a massive twat and much hairier. Everything we’ve seen before, and nowhere near as likable.
But herein lies the rub. You’re not supposed to like Jacob. The player is, I think, supposed to identify with Evie, which is why she has less missions.
AC players already know the score going in. We’ve seen what happens when you rely too heavily on the Creed. We know how Templars get to be the way they are, and we know what Evie’s (likely) eventual outcome will be.
What we don’t know, however, is why Jacob chooses to be the way he is. In other games, it’s just taken as fact that your Assassin is a bit of a douchebag because he’s young, or wasn’t brought up in the Order.
But Jacob was brought up in the Order. Yet he states early on there are parts of the creed he flat out does not subscribe to. And so his journey is more one of personal insight. He tries to figure out why he believes what he does. Which is different enough from the usual “find what you’re fighting for” motif the series has going on.
Jacob knows what he’s fighting for, and knows how to do it. What he doesn’t know is why, and this presents an interesting level of development.
Then we come to the “present day” story line. It’s been much maligned in other games, but it’s finally starting to go somewhere and seems to be setting up the inevitable modern AC game we will be playing at some point. Returning characters include Bishop from Unity, Shawn Hastings and Rebecca Crane. Also returning are Otso Berg and Violet DeCosta from Assassin’s Creed: Rogue.
I actually found myself hoping, after each assassination, I’d be treated to a bit more of this story. Sadly, there wasn’t enough, nor do you get to interact with it in any way, which is sort of a missed opportunity.
Also, spoiler alert, Juno is back, being obnoxious as usual. But she does finally do something interesting to the player which I won’t reveal here. Just look for the anomaly to form on the east end of the Thames. You’ll be presently surprised.
And of course, no Assassin’s Creed game would be complete without appearances by actual historical figures. But their impact on the game is rather downplayed this time. You have the option of interacting with and helping the likes of Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin, Alexander Graham Bell and Karl Marx. But Bell is the only one who figures in the story in a significant way. Like Leonardo da Vinci in AC2, he supplies you with gadgets. The others merely offer side quests.
Curiously absent from almost the entire game, which again, takes place during the Victorian era, is the queen herself. When she eventually appears, it’s only in a brief cameo as a quest-giver. A huge disappointment and a massive missed opportunity.
It’s worth noting that as far as the story goes, Syndicate assumes you’ve accepted and understood all the plot points from the previous games. As such, it spends exactly no time explaining all the Templar-Assassin talky-talky bull and just jumps right in. This is great if you’ve played the other games, terrible if you’re looking for any kind of self-contained coherent narrative.
From a technical perspective, Syndicate looks stunningly gorgeous. It does away with the unnecessary, frame-rate murdering crowds from Unity, and is much better off for having done so. It’s not a perfectly smooth ride, but the bugs I did experience tended to be more humourous than game-breaking, like the wonderful wall-walking lady I encountered.
I’ll never forget her. You see, I sneaked up on her to remove her from the world of the living. Upon stabbing her, ye olde assassin style, her model proceeded to go ape-shit and glued her feet to the building next to me. The model then remembered it had physics and slapped her, back first, against the wall where she did her best impression of a Roman crucifixion. Fun stuff.
Overall I’d say fans of the series should pick it up. It’ll get rid of the sour Unity taste in your mouth from last year. But non-fans of the series would be advised, as usual, to either play the games which game before it, or skip it all together. You’ll be lost without the background. If you’re looking for something that works better as a one-off, try Black Flag.
Score (out of 10)
Graphics: 8 – It looks great, but the engine is starting to show its age.
Gameplay: 7 – It plays exactly like you’d expect AC to, but the addition of the grappling hook makes a lot of the free-running redundant.
Story: 4 or 8 – If you’ve never played AC before, good luck. Otherwise, it’s exactly what you’re looking for.
Innovation: 3 – Some new elements, like the train heists are fun, but the rest is a dull, dreary grind made necessary by the cost of the upgrades required to not spend the game being woefully under-powered.
Overall: 6 – Worth playing only if you’ve played the previous games from AC II onward.