written by Justin Prince (@prince_justin)
It’s Fall; a time for Pumpkin Spice Lattes, knit scarves, and of course assassinating Templars. Since becoming an annualized franchise in AC2, the series has had some ups (like Black Flag) and downs (like Unity). As a fan of the series, I felt the core games had more ups than downs, so as a loyal fan of the entire Assassin’s Creed series I was incredibly let down by the whole Unity debacle. It’s safe to say that after playing Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, this year’s entry is definitely one of the high points of the series, arguably the highest it has been in years… so how bout we take a leap of faith into some hay and get this show on the road.
Syndicate follows the exploits of twin British assassins Jacob and Evie Frye as they try to liberate London from the grips of a well oiled and incredibly powerful Templar Order in 1868. Set during Victorian England’s industrial revolution, a ruthless Templar Grand Master, Crawford Starrick controls all industries in London; edging power away from England’s church and state. Not just controlling legitimate businesses; the Templars control London’s working class with violence and fear by means of the Blighters, a vicious street gang funded by order.
It wouldn't be an Assassins Creed title without figureheads of history. Along the way you'll receive missions from the likes of Frederick Abberline, Charles Darwin, and even Queen Victoria herself. The series likes to play fast and loose with history, but even then it still manages to be an entertaining ride.
Visually, Ubisoft doesn’t disappoint in Syndicate. London is beautifully recreated with towering buildings and a smart approach to level design. Character models looks gorgeous, while Unity was the first true current gen AC title, Syndicate improves on it ten-fold. A nice little touch was making the assassin hood an active animation. Just walking around you had your hood off while going stealth-mode toggled the hood on.
Like in previous AC titles, you can equip several legacy costumes from assassins past and depending on which costume you wore the, the character’s animation fit with the costume. Like if Evie was wearing Aveline’s garb, she doesn’t try to put on a hood that isn’t there.
The duality of the twin assassins make for one of the most enjoyable stories I’ve played in an Assassin’s Creed game in a very long time. Jacob can be brash, quick to toss a joke, but deep down he cares greatly for the oppressed working class and helps the best way he can… usually at the business end of a hidden blade. Evie is the more straight-laced of the twins, looking at the bigger picture as she hunts down the Piece of Eden London’s Templar Order desperately searches for… but at times she proves to be quite whimsical and just as quick to exhibit her snarky wit.
The core narrative follow two paths to one end, each branching path following one of the twins as they accomplish separate goals. Jacob hopes to unite the remnants of Whitechapel’s Clinkers to form a new gang, the Rooks, as his own personal unstoppable army to counteract the Templars and their Blighters. His missions involve hunting down most of the key people in Starrick’s organization, acting like the dedicated wet work agent. Evie’s quest line has her chasing down a Piece of Eden, an object of immense power that the Templars also seek. Her missions are more stealth based with hinging on infiltration elements making up much her gameplay.
The story is concise and runs at break neck speeds from start to finish, while other games in the series like to take its sweet ass time going from once sequence to the next, the story of Syndicate has the best pacing yet of any game in the series. Thanks to making the twins established assassins rather than going from a random citizen to assassin make the story more contained, but that doesn’t detract from the grand scope of the narrative. I hope the developers at Ubisoft recognize this and continue to follow it for future entries in the series.
Modern day elements are relegated to occasional cutscenes, like Unity, cutting out interacting with the modern world entirely. Personally, I missed the first person sidequests from Black Flag and Rogue; I even missed the ability to control a third person avatar like from the Desmond Miles years. It may be an unpopular opinion, but I hope future installments can better utilize the modern day element, especially since the overarching story involving Juno is continuing to progress, these brief glimpses into modern times make for a slow burn… contrary to the game’s main narrative.
While both of the Frye twins control nearly identical, their skill trees include three additional talents unique to each sibling. The firey of the two, Jacob, has skills that bolster his combat abilities while Evie’s skills allow her to be a more subtle infiltrator. Combat is revamped and feels the freshest its been since AC3. Fast and frantic, the combat almost mirrors that of the Batman Arkham series or Shadows of Mordor. Building a high combo is paramount when tackling large groups of enemies and it seems like aggro NPCs in Ubisoft games are finally getting the memo that attacking a deadly assassin one at a time isn’t the most sound of plans.
Whittling an enemy’s health down to a near death state rewards a flashy and visceral finishing maneuver, one you can chain into multi-kills that never seem to get old. Combat is a mix of grand battles and stealth operations. When fighting gets hairy, you can recruit up to five Rooks to follow you into battle. Getting closer to modern times, firearms allow you to shoot more rounds with decreased load times. Very similar to how both Edward Kenway and Shay Comac utilized mutliple pistols in Black Flag and Rogue, gunplay is fast and incredibly satisfying while also not detracting from the core gameplay that make Assassin’s Creed what it is. Unfortulately, your firearms are limited to just pistols. While it didn’t negatively affect the gameplay, I did miss having the option to use a rifle. Hand to hand weapons are the most inventive yet with three classes of weapons to choose from; the kukri, cane sword, and brass knuckles. Each class of weapon has its strengths and weaknesses and using one over the other are more so a matter of personal preference. Kukris are similar to the machete from Liberation, a short blade with high lethality; using these whittle an enemy’s health down quicker to pull off the ever impressive kill moves. Cane swords and knuckles aren’t as lethal as the blade but afford a higher stun ranking, meant more for those who chose to counter more often than attack. While I missed the rifles of previous games, I didn’t find myself missing the traditional sword as much as I thought. Using the cane sword was my favorite weapon for either twin, a good amount of lethality with an aesthetic charm so deliciously British.
What I felt the combat lacked was non-lethal approaches to engaging a foe. There were some missions which afforded higher rewards when you didn’t kill any policemen, and personally I always felt a bit bad when I had to cut down one of the boys in blue just for doing their job. The only non-lethal maneuver was a stealth move that forced you to sneak up behind a guard and incapacitate them, but if you were careless and got caught, you are forced to cut your way through a crowd of angry cops. I felt Ubisoft could have easily included an option to just switch to using your fists, or code in incidental combat depending on whether you are fighting an enemy or one of the guards.
The whole city could be used to your advantage; hanging barrels allow you to take out multiple enemies by dropping them, open fires help augment your hallucinogenic darts creating a mist that infect multiple targets, and simply forcing enemies to attack you in front of the police turn the city’s public servants into unlikely allies.
Traversal is more or less the same as previous entries, employing the conditional free running from Unity that allows you to either free-run up or down. While good, it still has a few frustrating moments when trying to grab a specific ledge. Greatly improved from last gen’s entries, it’s still far from perfect. The biggest change was the ability to deploy a grapple line from your gauntlet. This became the best part of the game for me, scaling tall buildings and navigating across rooftops felt fast and intuitive. I found myself rarely using the fast travel mechanic since zipping across London was quite fast and frankly more fun that sitting through a loading screen.
Stealth gameplay is greatly improved, switching to a low profile position is a toggle at the press of a button rather than holding down one of the shoulder buttons like in Unity. Eagle vision is back to being an ability you can freely use instead of an ability that required a short cooldown, a gameplay element that was incredibly frustrating in Unity. Coming back from Unity was the ability to choose utilize multiple branching paths when taking down an assassination mark, along with the unique assassinations. Back are the good ol animus confession moments, something that was missing from Unity and a gameplay element that feels right at home with the series… one that feels good to have back. The ability to pick up and hide dead bodies is returns from last gen, which add a considerable variety to luring away an enemy into a kill zone or simply hiding a body to keep the guards unaware.
Taking a page out of the GTA series, you can also hijack horse drawn carriages, and some of the game’s missions and sidequests put either Jacob or Evie in the driver’s seat quite often. Driving felt better than I expected, controlling the carriages was much like driving a car in other modern games. Combat allows you to crash into enemy carriages, jump to the roof to take out enemies, or simply shoot their horse (poor horsey) to flip an enemy’s carriage.
Story missions and sidequests played incredibly well together, while you could just go from story mission to story mission, the optional sidequests add a considerable amount of value to the narrative. From taking over Templar controlled sections of London borough by borough to hijacking enemy convoys, all sidequests can be accomplished by either Jacob or Evie simply by switching characters. Story missions are tailored more to the character involved, unfortunately it did feel a bit lopsided with Jacob carrying out the majority of the story based missions and assassination marks. I found myself utilizing Evie more often during sidequests to make up for her lack of dedicated story missions.
Your personal assassin hideout is a constantly moving train rather than a static location. After a certain point in the game’s story; the duo procure a train that they turn into their command center. This never felt gimmicky and there were some moments I got in over my head, if I noticed my train passing I’d simply jump on it and ride away to safety. Managing your gang is just a menu away, you can increase how much money you make or pour your resources into stronger and more experienced gang members to help you out in the streets.
It may be a bit of a spoiler, but I feel compelled to mention one little gameplay slice that surprised me incredibly. I don’t remember when this mission popped up or during which sequence, but a helix looking symbol appeared at the edge of the Thames; upon further investigation the player finds themselves in a whole new time period controlling an all new assassin. Lydia Frye, Jacob’s granddaughter takes up the family business during World War I Britain, rooting out Templar spies working with the Germans. Working with Winston Churchill, this whole sequence took up a pretty chunk of time and could have easily been sold as DLC, but Ubisoft felt the need to put it in the vanilla game. This little slice of Lydia Frye’s story felt like a fun little extra and something surprising from a AAA developer.
I haven’t had this much fun with an Assassin’s Creed game since AC2. Sure, I had fun with AC3 and Black Flag was an inspired take on a series that was beginning to go a bit stale. Last year’s Unity left such a bad taste many a gamer’s mouth even a mediocre entry would have been an upgrade. Instead we get a damn near perfect entry in Syndicate and one that could be expanded upon in future entries (please continue the Frye family). The choice not to include multiplayer is fine for me, I was never a fan of their MP gameplay and devoting resources to more important elements make sense, especially after last year. The Assassin’s Creed series has been accused of getting stale since it has gone the annualized route, but Syndicate keeps me optimistic for a series that even at its worst I still hold high hopes for.
+ Engaging narrative
+ Fun and inventive combat
+ Dual play works well
- Limited non-lethal combat
- Paired down "modern day" narrative