Assassin’s Creed Syndicate Review

The Assassin's Creed series moves to London for the next outing, so we don top hats and grab our cane-swords.

Release Date: October 23, 2015Platform: PS4 (reviewed), XBO, PCDeveloper: Ubisoft QuebecPublisher: UbisoftGenre: Action-adventure

It’s safe to say that Assassin’s Creed Unity didn’t go down too well with many. Ridden with bugs, frame rate issues, and some of the most hilarious glitches yet seen, Ubisoft was on damage control for a long time, a task many would say it’s still deep in the midst of. With Unity now a distant memory for a lot of gamers, who moved on to other titles quickly, we come to this year’s outing of the annual franchise, and this time it takes us to 1860s London.

In this new setting, we see a London that, although far from the city it is today, is still the most advanced urban sprawl in the world, and one that lies at the heart of the British Empire. As is stated in the game, whoever controls London, controls the world. Enter the Templars and the Assassins, who are at it once again in their never-ending fight. As always, this fight involves the mysterious pieces of Eden, as well as a healthy does of combat, stabbing, and espionage.

In this story, players take on the role of brother and sister, Jacob and Evie Frye. Two fresh-faced assassins who approach their work very differently. Evie is the familiar kind of assassin, preferring stealth and careful planning, whilst Jacob is more of a brawler, and prefers a straight fight instead of all this sneaking around.

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The game takes place largely in London, and for the most part you can choose which of the Fryes you wish to control. Some missions enforce one or the other, however, when the story dictates it, as Evie focuses on chasing down the pieces of Eden, whilst Jacob is more concerned with forming his gang, The Rooks, and taking over London.

The more things change

We’ve come to expect plenty of familiarity with Assassin’s Creed over the years. Regardless of how much Ubisoft attempts to make us believe then next instalment is going to be a revolution, save for Assassin’s Creed 3 and Black Flag, which actually shook up the formula, other releases haven’t fared so well. Unity, whilst I found the core gameplay to be solid and decent, was a definite back step, and Syndicate, whilst it improves upon the series, plays it safe for the most part, and isn’t exactly a huge leap forward.

Luckily, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and it’s clear that Ubisoft has noted the issues with Unity and has attempted to prevent a repeat of the previous game’s woes. Again, I can only speak from my experience, but in my time with the game, I found it to be pretty solid, with no major bugs or glitches. On the face of it, things appear to have improved in this regard. Of course, there’s a day one patch for the game (a great deal smaller than Unity’s mammoth patch), a common trend now, and this may have fixed some last minute problems.

Regardless of how bugs were eliminated, the out of the box experience is a good one, and bugs are minimal. The frame rate is also fairly solid, whilst the game retains the same visual quality of Unity, with the obvious improvements that come from an extra year of experience with the PS4’s architecture. Again, Assassin’s Creed is one of the better-looking games around, and the effort that’s gone into recreating the 1800s London is as impressive as ever. Whatever your opinion of the Assassin’s Creed series, you can’t deny that the teams behind it are great world-builders, able to craft some beautiful and realistic environments.

Great visuals are one thing, but it’s the gameplay of Assassin’s Creed that warrants the most investigation, as it’s a series that’s often been criticised for languishing in a creatively bankrupt rut, with little in the way of real innovation. Becoming a yearly series has only worsened this, leading to an almost Call of Duty-like stagnation. Syndicate does address this in a few ways, although it never takes the same risks the third outing, or Black Flag took.

The main trust of the game is nigh-on untouched, being much the same as Unity. There’s the same mix of combat and stealth, and the game has retained the stealth mode of Unity. Missions mix the same style of open world tasks and more intricate story missions, and as always there’s a raft of other side missions to tackle. This time, however, many of the side missions are much more interesting and important in terms of the story.

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The main side tasks involve Jacob’s ongoing war to dominate London. As you begin the game, London is under total control of the Templars, and the street gang, the Blighters. You can take on various missions to reduce this control and turn areas over to the Rooks, Jacob’s gang. These tasks include killing specific Templars, capturing wanted felons for a cooperative policeman, and partaking in gang wars to topple the local gang leader. It’s a feature that’s not entirely new to the series, but it does fit the theme, making the most of London’s often grimy, and crime-ridden streets.

Taking over territory makes the Rooks more powerful and also reduces Templar presence in an area, making it easier to get around the city without being accosted at every street corner. As usual, locating all of these missions requires the scaling of various landmarks so you can synchronise the map. This reveals items of interest in the world. Ubisoft just love this mechanic, so it’s pretty much expected in every game, Assassin’s Creed or not.

The story missions are where the game’s highlights are, of course, and it’s a decent mixture of tried and tested gameplay, along with some new elements that help to separate Syndicate from the rest. The dynamic between Jacob and Evie adds a great bit of levity to the otherwise overly serious series, as do some great guest appearances from historic personalities like Charles Dickens and Alexander Graham Bell.

It’s the London theme that really helps make Syndicate much more entertaining than Unity, though. The more advanced period in history allows for more room in terms of gameplay, including the ability to drive horses and carts, and the inclusion of one of the game’s major new feature, the grappling hook.

This new tool, once acquired, allows Jacob and Evie to scale and traverse the dense city in a way we’ve not seen before in the series. It’s very similar to the Arkham games, only without the ability to glide. Instead, the grapple allows speedy climbing of structures, and if used as a traversal aid, lets Jacob and Evie rope slide between buildings.

Activating the hook can be clumsy, as you can only do so when in range of buildings and when the game allows it. This is often indicated by an onscreen prompt, but not always, meaning you can actually grapple at times when you think you can’t. Getting to know the distances and general areas where you can grapple is tricky, and it’s just not as fluid or intuitive as Arkham, but it works for the most part, and makes some tasks play out differently.

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Simply chasing or tailing a target, for example, is now very different, as you can much more easily scale a building for a bird’s eye view, or get out of trouble quickly. Just getting from A to B is easier, and less of a chore. It even makes locating and grabbing collectibles, usually a groan-inducing feature, fun, and you have more options open to you in terms of getting into position to take out a target.

Crazy horses

The 1860s setting also means there’s another form of transport you’ll be utilising – horses and carts. The streets are full of them, any of which can be hijacked or taken, and used to travel quickly around the city, or to indulge in a bit of high speed vehicle antics, including combat.

It’s totally against the laws of physics, but as in Sleeping Dogs, here you can perform and instant side-swipe move to break and even shatter enemy carriages, and you’re able to jump onto the roof of carriages whilst in motion. This leads to some frantic chases, ones that are actually pretty good, and break up the usual gameplay nicely. Carriages are also used in certain situations, such as bounty missions, where you need to grab and shove your quarry into a carriage so you can deliver them to the police.

Just galloping around the often congested streets is fun using horse and cart, and whilst the grappling hook is great, this is the fastest way to travel around the large game world, save for your train, that is.

On a rail

Early in the game you’ll acquire your own hideout. This isn’t a run-down building, or even a lush mansion. Jacob and Evie make use of a train. Yes, just like the duo in Wild Wild West, the Fryes have their own train, which is constantly circling London’s rail system. It’s a clever little feature, and one that also makes sense canonically. What better way for the Fryes to stay safe and mobile than a train?

The train is where you’ll be able to find many important missions, as well as side quests, collectables, upgrades, and more. You can also fast travel to it at any time, or locate it in the world and just jump on.

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Two of a kind

The addition of a duo of protagonists makes for many interesting possibilities, especially as the game paints Jacob and Evie as totally different styles of assassin. It could open up totally separate gameplay options, depending on your chosen character. Sadly, the end result isn’t quite like this, and aside from a couple of differences, I found both Jacob and Evie to be pretty much identical. Both can be stealthy if you wish them to be, or both can be brutal fighters. There’s no restriction on gear and weapons usage, so everything Jacob can do, Evie can do too.

The only real exception is with a couple of unique skills to each character. As you complete missions and acquire skills points, you can spend them on various abilities, such as more health, more ammo, better stealth, and other benefits like longer combo windows, devastating attack finishers and more. Jacob has a few skills only he can learn that lean towards combat, whilst Evie has a couple of stealth-focused options. Even with these, however, the differences are fiarly minor, so you’ll only really have to switch between them when the game forces you to for specific missions or tasks.

Now, this isn’t a shortcoming of a great deal of note, and I actually think the chance to play as two characters and switch between them as you like a good idea, adding a little variety at the very least, even if only from a visual standpoint. Both a likeable and interesting characters though, with Evie being a good example of a strong female lead that doesn’t dip into cliché. As I said, the two also bounce off each other well, with good voice work, and this adds to the appeal of the story.

Missed opportunity aside, the game does tend to place Evie and Jacob in situations more suited to their talent and style, so you do get a distinctly different set of missions for each, it’s just a shame the actual character abilities were more unique, not limited to more health or less physical damage.

Going solo

A major change is one that I welcome wholeheartedly, and that’s the removal of multiplayer. Although previous games’ online components have occasionally been fun, let’s face it, most were just very short-lived diversions. Assassin’s Creed, by its very nature is a single-player game where you take your time planning your move, soaking up the rich world and lore. Doing this with others just isn’t the same, and Unity‘s attempt to force co-op gameplay to the forefront didn’t work.

Syndicate has shed this grindstone, and this has obviously freed up the development team to focus on the single-player story. The result is a far more polished game, and one that’s got a better campaign than most other Assassin’s Creed games, at least in my opinion.

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Every aspect of the game feels much more refined as a result, with a smoother and more responsive parkour system, and combat that’s far better than previous efforts. Unity did take steps in the right direction here, that’s for sure, but Syndicate has managed a more challenging combat system that feels much more fluid and responsive. You don’t feel stuck in the usual attack, counter, attack, counter chain you usually find yourself in, and enemies, especially if they’re higher level than you, are more of a threat and the combat itself is much more brutal. It’s full of impact, using some unique and interesting weapons and tools. The sword cane is a balletic show of violence, whilst knuckle dusters are simply brute force. Mix this with pistols, throwing knives, and other gadgets and you’ve got assassins that are closer to Batman than ever before. If Batman killed his foes, that is.

Forgive the ‘Creed

Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is both a great game and an apology to fans in many ways. Ubisoft has clearly learned from past mistakes, and it shows. Syndicate might not take huge risks in terms of advancing the Assassin’s Creed formula, but it does deliver one that’s solid, and ticks all the right boxes, adding enough new tricks to make it well worth checking out.

It’s certainly the best Assassin’s Creed yet, other than the still superb Black Flag, and it has one of the most interesting settings and stories seen in the series thus far.

What’s more, I’m actually very impressed at how well the London setting has been handled, and the team didn’t simply stick to the usual cockney guv’nor stereotypes, with a varied and well fleshed out cast of characters.

If you washed your hands of the series due to bad experiences with Unity, I’d highly recommend you give it another chance with Syndicate, as it’s a great title that makes up for past transgressions. I have to say, though, I really can’t see how long Ubisoft can keep things up with annual releases. As good as Syndicate may be, the formula is getting very stale. A move to a two, or even three yearly release would do the series a world of good. It’s not going to happen, though. Lets face it.