I think Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate marks the point where I’m starting to get extremely bored of Assassin’s Creed games.
I’m a self-confessed fanboy of the series so that’s really saying something. I don’t think this is particularly the fault of Syndicate itself – mechanically speaking, it’s about as good a “classic” Assassin’s Creed title as it’s possible to make. Like its immediate predecessor, Unity, Syndicate retreats from the high-seas adventure of Black Flag and Rogue and sets itself in a single city, in this case 1860’s London. Unlike Unity, Syndicate displays far more intelligence in how it structures the city and the activities within it, and also deploys two extremely charismatic and likeable protagonists in the form of Jacob and Evie Frye, headstrong Assassin twins who, after receiving a plea for help, decide to decamp to London to liberate it from the clutches of a Generic Templar Villain. There’s gang members to recruit, city districts to take over, and the usual host of side activities and collectibles you can find infesting any Ubisoft game. It all feels very polished for the most part, and in general can be viewed as the best bits of all the Ezio games bolted together into a single title with a lot of quality-of-life improvements layered on top.
And therein lies the problem, I think. Black Flag and Rogue were good because they dared to shake the concept up dramatically by taking AC 3’s boats and promoting them from bonus feature to core gameplay component. Unity by contrast regressed things considerably by cutting the gameplay back to running around a single city and played much like the very first Assassin’s Creed, a game that’s now very close to celebrating its tenth birthday. And for all that Syndicate is much better game than Unity, for all its polish and for all the wit and charm of the Frye twins, when you get right down to it it’s just as regressive as Unity was. It’s the same concept, fundamentally unchanged, and while I found Victorian London a little more interesting to run around in than Revolutionary France it’s not a patch on the Renaissance Tourism Simulator of 2, Brotherhood and Revelations. The environment can’t really justify my playing the game on its own. Perhaps if this were the first AC title released in a few years I’d be slightly readier to accept it on its own merits rather than viewing it as hopelessly derivative, but Syndicate is the seventh annual release for the series (and let us not forget they doubled up in 2014 with Rogue) and so it’s no wonder I’m suffering from burnout when there’s so little about the core concept that’s changed.
Gosh, I got that backwards – that reads more like a concluding paragraph than it does an opener. It does also sell Syndicate rather short, since it’s a game that does an awful lot of good work; it’s simply unfortunate that it’s releasing at the end of the current generation of AC titles rather than somewhere in the middle where I might have still been fresh enough to appreciate it more. I’m going to save some time by assuming everyone reading this review will know, roughly, what an Assassin’s Creed game is – if not, there are several reviews of other titles in the series peppering this blog that describe the basic gameplay of free-running and fighting. Syndicate doesn’t add anything particularly revolutionary to this formula, but it does make semi-decent use of the setting to smooth over some of the bumpier parts and bulk out its repertoire a little bit.
Your eventual goal, as with most city-bound AC games, is to take over all the districts of London. There’s nine of them, each populated by enemies of increasing level and toughness, but the activities you do to take over each district are the same, mostly revolving around killing Templars or their gang proxies. Syndicate’s metagame is themed around a conflict between the red Templar-aligned gang, the Blighters, and the green Assassin gang, the Rooks; as you complete activities and free up districts you start to see more and more Rooks hanging around who can be recruited and brought along to your street fights. Functionally they’re just the same as the Assassins from Brotherhood — NPCs who can be sicced on your enemies to save you the hassle of fighting twenty disposable goons — but there’s a nice line of upgrades for them that increases their level, adds in tougher gang members and gives them the ability to open every fight with a volley from their pistols, which scythes down opposing gang members in a most ungentlemanly manner. But then whoever said gang warfare was fair?
This being Victorian London the technology level has moved on somewhat from previous AC titles. Both of the Frye twins have access to a variety of revolvers; so do your enemies, of course, but while the Human Shield ability from Black Flag remains missing in action Ubisoft have at least added a rudimentary “press Y to dodge incoming fire” ability back in that makes this far less of a pain in the ass than the Unity guards’ flintlocks. Since the game is set in the 1860’s society has progressed to the point where walking around with a sword strapped to your waist would have been rather conspicuous, so Syndicate instead plumps for the Victorian equivalent of “concealed” weaponry – sword canes, brass knuckles and kukris, which all seem to be equally as effective at disposing of goons, making your choice of weapon a case of which murder animations you prefer1.There’s a few new utility gadgets like electricity bombs that you’ll never use because shooting people in the head (or hitting them with a throwing knife if you’re being stealthy) is so effective that it’s pointless wasting time with anything else.
There have been a couple of changes mobility-wise too. Horses have been replaced with carriages, mostly so that you can have low-tech demolition derbies in the streets of London; however you’ll rarely find yourself using them because of Syndicate’s signature gadget: the grapple gun. This functions much like Batman’s grapple gun from the Arkham series in that it’ll automatically lock on to anything immediately above you or any high points in your field of vision that are in range, and then a simple push of the left bumper is all that’s required to scale a wall or cross from building to building. While this does circumvent the free-running a little bit I feel like it’s a necessary change to speed the game up; Assassin’s Creed was starting to feel positively cumbersome compared to the mobility options on offer in games like Arkham or Just Cause, and while those games went a little too far and reduced their environments to background that you flew over rather than places to explore I think Syndicate’s grapple gun strikes a decent balance between the two extremes.
The other big change Syndicate makes is having not one, but two protagonists. The Frye twins represent a return to the good old days of Ezio as they’re written to be impeccably likeable; Jacob sadly contracts a particularly severe case of Plot Stupidity about halfway through that undoes a lot of his excellent characterisation while Evie gets lumbered with a rather cliched romance subplot, but they’re never less than charming and each of them gets their fair share of cracking one-liners2. In gameplay terms they’re less differentiated than I might like, unfortunately; they both have access to almost exactly the same set of skills and you’ll have bought every single one by the time you get halfway through the game. Nominally Jacob is supposed to be the brawler and Evie the stealthy one and each twin has access to 3 exclusive skills that are supposed to accentuate this, but that’s only 10% of the total pool and the exclusive skills don’t have that much of an impact anyway – Evie is perfectly capable of slaughtering goons with astounding ease, while Jacob’s only handicap to being stealthy is that he doesn’t have quite so many throwing knives secreted about his person compared to Evie. You can switch between the twins at any time outside of a plot mission; the plot missions themselves force you to take a specific twin, usually because they tell the story of Jacob being an idiot and Evie having to go around London cleaning up after him, but that’s not so bad because otherwise I wouldn’t have used Jacob at all — not because Evie is better in any way, but because Jacob’s selection of outfits was utter crap. That’s pretty much the only substantive difference between them outside of the cutscenes.
Other than that it’s the same old game — do side activities to get money and XP, tool around London for a little bit with some well-known historical personalities from the period (in this case Alexander Graham Bell, Charles Dickens and Darwin), kill lots of Templars — wrapped in a modern-day metaplot that’s so vestigial and unengaging at this point that they might as well just abandon it entirely. Syndicate does at least pace its content sensibly – at no point is the map covered with an overwhelming number of mission nodes as it was in Unity, and while all of the side activities are completely disposable they’re the fun kind of disposable where you might legitimately choose to hijack a passing beer cart simply because it’s an enjoyable way to spend five minutes. Victorian London is perhaps not the most natural backdrop for an Assassin’s Creed game, but it works thanks to the effort that’s been made to blend the AC gameplay with the time period in question.
Sadly that effort doesn’t extend to giving the game a set of compelling baddies, a decent motivation to get to the end or a general point beyond just doing the same stuff you did in the previous seven games; it’ll well-constructed enough that it’ll entertain for a while, but you could feasibly stop playing the game the moment you got bored (which will probably come at about the halfway point) and you wouldn’t miss out on a single piece of significant content. Sure, this particular iteration on the AC mechanics is Good rather than Bad, but the fact that Syndicate is a definite return to form after the series nadir that was Unity doesn’t make it any less of a tired retread of a path that’s already so heavily-used it’s now a very deep rut in the ground. I think that, when even a mechanically-decent Assassin’s Creed game is starting to look and feel distinctly tired, Ubisoft have absolutely done the right thing by giving the series a rest for a year or two since it can no longer stand on its own two feet. It’s a question of evolve or die at this point, and hopefully they’ll take the opportunity to go back to the drawing board while they’re at it, perhaps including some of the recent innovations seen in games like Shadow Of Mordor and the Arkham series. It needs something to spice it up, something that will justify the existence of the next iteration beyond Ubisoft wanting their yearly infusion of Assassin’s Creed money. Syndicate is a decent enough AC game but ultimately it can’t come up with a good answer to that question; there is no good reason for it to exist, other than that it provides us with more Assassin’s Creed. And after eight games in seven years that’s probably the last thing that we need.
- The brass knuckle ones are especially brutal since the punches are spiced up with dirty fighting moves like eye gouging and ear ripping, as well as a lot of broken bones. Which makes sense in a street fight, but the animations are also used for the “boxing” match side activities that have Evie crippling upwards of thirty people in the ring in the name of making a quick buck. ↩
- My favourite being in one of AC’s standard post-assassination scenes where the target gets one last monologue before expiring; Jacob’s response to a particularly wordy victim isn’t the standard “Requesciat in pace”, but rather a much more apt “What a prick.” ↩