Remember when Assassin’s Creed was one of the most exciting series in gaming? Although it was mired in flaws, the original Assassin’s Creed combined together a whole bunch of gaming elements which I love (stealth, open world, parkour) in a unique setting. Unlike a lot of people, I loved the modern day stuff and was genuinely excited for the future of the series. Now, I approach every Assassin’s Creed with a sort of weariness, barely able to raise any kind of excitement. Unity was pretty much a disaster, so my hopes were not at all high for Syndicate, but thankfully it’s one of the good ones. Well, decent anyway; in my Assassin’s Creed rankings it comes in at the middle point (II, Black Flag, Brotherhood, Syndicate, Revelations, I, III, Unity).
Syndicate brings Assassin vs. Templar action to Victorian London. Jacob and Evie Frye are the twin children of a legendary English Assassin and have arrived in London following his death with separate aims. Jacob seeks to overthrow Crawford Starrick, a Templar leader who rules London from the shadows and does so by taking down Starrick’s gang, The Blighters, using his own, The Rooks. Evie seeks a Piece of Eden known as the Shroud, desperate to avoid letting it fall into Templar hands. There’s also a little movement in the modern day story, although not much.
I had many many issues with Unity, but the plot was one of the biggest. It was utterly incomprehensible, with nothing to latch onto apart from a fairly uninteresting central romance. Arno was the worst Assassin protagonist of the series and it managed to sideline the French Revolution, one of the most promising settings possible. Syndicate is certainly an improvement, with a compelling and charismatic villain in Starrick and a clear sense of building towards a goal. Unity and, to a lesser extent, Black Flag simply felt like a whole bunch of things happening with little to connect them, but Syndicate does hold together, with everything being in some way tied to the loosening of Starrick’s Templar grip on London. That said, the shift is essentially from ‘terrible’ to ‘mediocre.’ There’s nothing surprising or interesting in the plot and the best that can be said is that it is functional. There are some hints towards traction in the Modern Day story, but at this point I don’t know why Ubisoft still keep it around. The people who hate the modern day story don’t care and the people who like it don’t want it presented to us like this.
The use of historical figures is also pretty poor; we’re a hell of a long way from Assassin’s Creed II’s Leonardo da Vinci, or even Black Flag’s Blackbeard. Figures such as Charles Dickens, Karl Marx and Alexander Graham Bell show up, but are essentially caricature versions of themselves, containing no depth whatsoever and serving no more narrative purpose than for the sake of a lazy reference. Jacob is simply not a good character, being fairly unlikeable for most of the journey. I think they were going for a loveable Ezio-esque rogue, but he just comes across like an arrogant dick. Attempts at character development are clumsy, awkward and forced. Evie is the better character, but to be honest I think she’s been overhyped. We’ve all been so desperate for a female protagonist that I think that standards have been lowered when she comes up. She may be the first female character lead character in a mainline Assassin’s Creed and hopefully Ubisoft see the positive reaction to her and don’t make her the last as I think they could do a lot better. In classic Ubisoft fashion, the one story beat I actually got a kick out of was contained in some new game DLC PS4 exclusive bollocks. So, sorry Xbox One and PC gamers, you don’t get the best story moment of the game because of Ubisoft being Ubisoft. Modern gaming!
Syndicate’s core mechanics are essentially a refined version of Unity’s. Unity, for all its flaws, made some decent strides, particularly in its animations and ability to move downwards as easily as you move up, but the jankiness was overall even worse than in the earlier Assassin’s Creed games. This isn’t the case now and on a purely mechanical level Syndicate is the most comfortable game in the series to play for years. It’s still got nothing on games like Metal Gear Solid V or even Shadows of Mordor, but it’s better. The stealth has reached a point of being functional, if not actively fun and the combat has been refined too. It’s a lot faster and scrappier and even if it does absolutely nothing interesting, essentially giving up and becoming a slightly worse version of the Arkham combat, it is bearable and at times actually fun, something I haven’t been able to say for the combat in an Assassin’s Creed game…well, ever. There are a few nice fixes, like tapping a button to enter windows after the nightmare that was getting inside in Unity, but this feels like putting a bandage over a problem rather than actually fixing it. The core mechanics are rusty as hell and Assassin’s Creed still really needs to take a couple of years off and reboot all of its gameplay systems. Since that won’t happen, Syndicate does feel like the best it’s going to get.
Assassin’s Creed is a series known for introducing pointless new tools that you never use and marketing the hell out of them, but lo and behold the new tools in Syndicate are actually useful and fun. The most notable is the grapple launcher, which essentially allows you to Batman your way around London. I have mixed feelings on this; Ubisoft essentially admit with this tool that climbing, a core part of the Assassin’s Creed experience, has gotten stale. So rather than replacing it with something else of radically altering the mechanics, it simply eliminates the need for climbing. In practice however, it is fun and satisfying and it’ll be impossible to go back from this in future Assassin’s Creed games. You can also drive around carriages, which has been significantly overhyped as it’s essentially just an (even) more unwieldy version of the horseback riding seen in the earlier Assassin’s Creed games.
One area where Syndicate excels is in its side content and general breadth of things to do. London is split into districts under control of gang leaders and completing side activities such as assassinating or kidnapping Blighter lieutenants and liberating child laborers in factories shifts the balance of power towards the Rooks. These culminate in street fights which eventually allow you to liberate a particular area, lowering Templar presence and generally allowing everything to get a bit more safe. This side content achieves where Assassin’s Creed games often fail; they’re satisfying to complete, make narrative sense and build towards a sense of progression. There are also more story focused missions involving real life figures such as Charles Dickens and Karl Marx, which are generally quite interesting if rather shallow. There’s an extensive leveling system for both Assassins as well as the ability to upgrade your gang. Unlocking new abilities is undeniably satisfying, although the economy doesn’t really work. Getting money isn’t a problem, but many equipment and gang upgrades require materials which are most reliably found in fairly mundane side activities, like hijacking coaches, races and fighting tournaments. You never feel like you quite have enough, which the cynic in me wonders was to nudge people towards the microtransactions. I won’t harp on about those; they’re so repugnant and pathetic they’re essentially beneath my notice. You can play fine without them and if you have a single mote of intelligence you’ll steer well clear.
My major concern going into Syndicate was the technical side; the frame rate was probably the worst thing about Unity. Syndicate isn’t technically perfect, in fact it isn’t even technically good, but it has reached the minimum standard for acceptability, a relief after Unity failed even to hit that. The cost of that is that the crowds, so impressive in screenshots but unplayable in action, have been cut down. If you were to compare screenshots of Unity and Syndicate you’d probably think Unity the prettier game, but in motion Syndicate wins by miles. The frame rate dipped occasionally, but the flow of play was never significantly disrupted by the technical oddities prevalent in the genre. Syndicate actually looks bloody lovely and I’ll never get tired of the thrill of exploring a faithfully realised vision of world gone by. It’s the only real reason I keep coming back to this damn series. The voice acting is fine, with no real stand out performances. A pleasant surprise was in the music, which changes as you move through different London districts. I’ve never particularly noticed the music in Assassin’s Creed games (Black Flag sea shanties aside), but its actually threaded throughout in a canny and engaging way here. They brought in a new composer, Austin Wintory for this one and I really hope they keep him around.
Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate is no masterpiece, but it’s a playable and generally enjoyable historical adventure which is good enough for me. Perhaps my standards should raise, but I keep enjoying these games just enough to keep going. Every time they release an Assassin’s Creed I don’t like they follow up with one I do (III-Black Flag, Unity-Syndicate), which means I am not getting my hopes up for next year. If, like me, you still feel an inexplicable fondness for this creaky old monster of a series, skip Unity and come back for Syndicate.