Review: Assassin’s Creed Syndicate – Disarmingly Charming But Dimwitted
Assassin's Creed has strayed some distance from the path established way back in 2007 and has attempted to forge a new path on occasion to mixed results. Unity was intended as a soft reset of sorts but ultimately failed despite having the right ideas and arguably the right pieces. So we arrive at Syndicate which seems to grab the torch from Unity's lifeless corpse and finish the job. For the most part.
- Worth The Time?Indubitably.
- Things LovedThe gear is stunning enough to have players feel like they're playing dress up; London is gorgeously recreated with the soul and atmosphere of the era recreated; Marx and Dickens are fun to have around; side activities are relevant to the story and feel cohesive; the WW I rift gameplay is a treat; the grappling hook makes traversal so much more fluid; Evie is a breath of fresh air...
- Things Hated... however, Evie is also poorly utilised; Jacob is an obnoxious tosser; the missions still largely consist of tailing, escorting, stealing and the same old objectives; there are numerous bugs and glitches which sometimes require a reset; the framerate swings wildly from good to crawling; gameplay is pitifully easy and offers no challenge; the contrived present day side of the story feels obtrusive.
- RecommendationIf you're a fan of Assassin's Creed and have been unsatisfied with the offerings of late then Syndicate feels more true to the series' roots. Do not expect a challenge, do not expect a good story. Syndicate has neither and is worse off for it. Syndicate's strength lies in London. Exploring the city, engaging with its characters, this is where Syndicate shines brightest.
- Name: Assassin's Creed Syndicate
- Genre: Penny Dreadful
- Players: 1
- Multiplayer: N/A
- Platforms: PC, PS4, Xbox One
- Developer: Ubisoft Quebec
- Publisher: Ubisoft
- Price: $60/ R789 (PS4, Xbox One), $60/ R535 (PC)
- Reviewed On: PS4
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate does a lot right and much of what it does right is done well but underneath it still contains the genes that brought past Assassin’s Creed titles down. In some cases Syndicate exacerbates the problem. For the most part it is a fast-paced and cohesive romp through Victorian London that wafts charm in your general direction.
In Syndicate you alternately play as Jacob or Evie Frye, twins and children to a pair of assassins. Jacob is the brash, foolhardy stab first and ask questions later sort while Evie’s approach is more measured, less chaotic and ultimately less juvenile. At the outset we are thrown into a mission with each twin and both missions respectively culminating in the assassination of a target. It is perhaps the fastest and most lively opening sequence to an Assassin’s Creed game ever. Post-mission the twins decide to head to London instead of staying in their hometown of Crawley. They feel that more good can be done here as they attempt to relinquish the chokehold that the game’s villain, Crawford Starrick, has on London. We know that Starrick is evil because he has the haircut of a modern day douche with the twirling moustache of a classic villain.
Jacob decides that the best way to approach the situation is by starting a gang and taking the streets back from Starrick while Evie attempts to beat Starrick to The Shroud, Syndicate’s magical precursor race McMuffin. The twins go about their work separately but as the game goes on you’ll find yourself having to play through far more Jacob missions as he blindly attacks each arm of Starrick’s empire and subsequently brings each sector/ industry to near collapse in the process. Evie spends equal amounts of time chasing down leads on the Shroud and cleaning up Jacob’s mess.
It’s a poor use of Syndicate’s greatest asset. Whileboth twins are charming in their own right, Jacob is the cocksure and brash fool we’ve seen enough times in Assassin’s Creed. He is a tool, a tosser, a right twat. Evie on the other hand is calm, collected, considered and actually takes the lead when the two are together. She’s also inquisitive and far more of a classic assassin than Jacob. It’s a pity that Jacob steals the spotlight.
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The story to Syndicate moves at a charged pace but is brought down by pastiche, cliches and predictable character beats with even more predictable twists. It’s just barely serviceable.
Plenty of the missions have a unique feel but underneath many of them are far too similar in structure. Tail missions remain a pain. The assassination missions each functions as a spectacle in its own right with plenty of ways to approach the mission and a number of opportunities. However, each assassination has a unique kill opportunity as well as an easy entry opportunity in which players are guided step by step through the optimal method of going about the missions. It’s assassination by numbers and takes any fun, any challenge, any agency out of the equation. This ultimately robs the assassination missions of being anything more than mechanical. There is still some fun to be had there but not a lot.
The real fun in Syndicate is to be had in exploring London – something we couldn’t get enough of. London just so happens to be my favourite city after Cape Town and I adored my time with it in Syndicate. The city feels alive as you see rats scurrying about, kids playing kickabout in the park or thugs accosting a gentleman in an alley. The up-down free-running system introduced in Unity makes a return here but still has a few issues to be worked out.For the most part traversal is fluid and the addition of a grappling hook allows players to scale the side of buildings like a regular Batman or zip between buildings with ease. It really does make navigating the uneven rooftops of London a breeze.
If you’d rather keep your clothes clean then there are carriages to hijack in the most GTA way possible. They are surprisingly easy to handle and can even be drifted. Hell, they handle better than the cars in Watch_Dogs. There’s a variety of different carriages but you’ll quickly realise that only one type is worth knicking. The problem with driving is not so much the handling as it is that London’s streets can be quite narrow and the larger streets can be overcrowded such that driving feels more like the unholy fusion of a rollercoaster ride and bumper cars.
London is absolutely gorgeous with monuments and streets recreated in excellent detail. The textures and lighting are particularly great on the character models. Another thing you’ll notice is that a great amount of effort has gone into facial animations with microexpressions peppering every character’s face. At times their faces seem a little too animated and the lip-synching is dreadfully off-kilter at other times but for the most part it adds a layer of polish to cutscenes. There were times when I found myself staring at how well-rendered a cat was or how exquisite the textures are details on Evie’s outfit were.
The downside is that those issues which plagued Unity still tug at Syndicate. Ziplines will disappear, the game will freeze up, the framerate will thrash about wildly even if there isn’t too much happening on-screen (it started sticking once while I was scanning the map). The technical issues are mostly minimal.
This is just superfluous set-dressing though because after all Syndicate is a good old-fashioned video game and the meat of it is thus gameplay. Out is the iffy multiplayer that quite simply nobody ever cared much for to begin with; Syndicate has its lazy eyes set firmly on a focused singleplayer experience and it delivers.
Exploring London is a blast not simply because it’s right pretty to gawk at but because there’s no shortage of activities to keep you occupied. Now, this isn’t Unity where the map looks more overcrowded than Donald Trump’s vision of China nor are the side activities as disjointedly unrelated. There’s a lot to do but it isn’t all spewed across the map all at once. Some collectibles only show up when you’re near them or uncover them using Eagle Vision, a neat idea. Everything is also a lot more cohesive, aside from the arbitrary collectibles such as Helix fragments. Even collecting pressed flowers has some narrative relevance. The bulk of your side activities have to do with wrestling control of London back from Starrick to the benefit of you and your associates who have interests in child labour, transportation, gang activity or the law. Completing activities for each associate earns you more clout with them which in turn has several tiers to reach.Each tier has a form of remuneration attached to it for your efforts whether it be a rare material, schematics or inventory items. More on that later.
The most interesting side activities come from assisting the likes of Darwin, Bell, Dickens and Marx in their various efforts and pursuits about London. The former two are pretty much as expected as you help them with their work. Dickens presents the opportunity to go chasing down the sources of various ghost stories such as the infamous Spring-heeled Jack and more. It’s very Scooby Doo and rather fun. Marx asks players to help him in getting to meetings safely or to throw off spies etc. The most fascinating thing about Marx is how he serves as a counterpoint to Starrick and aligns Assassins with his ideologies while Templars represent the burgeoning capitalist culture of Victorian London. It’s a fresh comparison and in intriguing one at that.
Rifts to other periods in time make a return but in a very different,far more compelling manner. I shan’t spoil too much about it.
About those materials and schematics. Jacob and Evie earn skillpoints simultaneously which can go towards purchasing upgrades for stealth, combat or exploration. With a full skillset they are much the same but Evie is geared for stealth while Jacob is geared for gunslinging combat. Obviously. Chests will reward players with crafting materials with some also containing rare materials, schematics or items to be equipped. It’s a simple system with weapons, outfits, capes, gauntlets and belts being craftable as well as gear upgrades. It works well and offers incentive to complete those side activities for associates as well as search areas for chests. Players can also upskill the gang which the Frye twins control, The Rooks, in a number of ways. From creating shell companies to earn more revenue to bribing police to training gang members to be more effective in combat.
The sorry secret is that unless you’re going to rely on your gang to do all the work,this is all utterly unnecessary. At no point did it feel like I was in control of a gang but rather just working on my own. Is this what Michael Corleone felt? It’s probably how Thanos feels.
Then we get to the gameplay itself. As you arm yourself with skills you’ll reach new levels for spending a certain number of skillpoints. Some areas or missions will warn you that a gear upgrade is recommended because you aren’t adequately skilled to tackle it. That might be true if Syndicate wasn’t hilariously easy. Combat is very similar to that in Black Flag with an intense brutality and delicious execution animations. It’s also far easier and Black Flag wasn’t a tough cookie to begin with. Combat is a simple matter of countering and striking. That’s it. Mashing those two buttons makes it feel like the game is on autopilot as the same button presses yield very different attack animations. To its credit there are some fantastic contextual executions. For example, if you’ve got a cane sword equipped and engage enemies near a wall then Evie or Jacob will pin them up against said wall using the blades and bash them into oblivion. It’s glorious.
Stealth is no more of a challenge as the enemy AI is woefully dimwitted. In fact even the crowd AI has no effect. Murder an enemy in a room full of people with guards just outside and you’ll have no repercussions. Engage in a noisy brawl just around the corner from a watchman and they won’t notice a thing. Sure, you could be ultra stealthy and never get seen but it’snot as if getting seen really yields consequences. There is no risk associated with engaging enemies therefore there is no challenge therefore there is almost never incentive to be stealthy unless, like me, you want to. Or are aiming to get 100% synch on the missions that ask for stealth as a bonus objective.
In terms of the arsenal at your disposal, players can equip either knuckledusters, a kukri blade (my personal favourite) or a cane sword in addition to a pistol, throwing knives, smoke bombs, hallucinogenic darts and voltaic stun grenades. All pretty standard stuff.
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate does a fat lot right but it just does so many things wrong as well. Its story is predictable, its best character relegated to clean up duty as players are forced to put up with the insufferably asinine Jacob, its AI is atrocious, its missions an insult to player intelligence and its selling-point of controlling a gang utterly sundry. Not to mention the insertion of a present day plot that needn’t be there.
And yet in spite of all that every mission involving Evie is a refreshing break from the usual Assassin’s Creed machismo even if they’re generally generic. Exploring London is a delight, the game looks a treat, the supporting cast of historic figures is intriguing and for once an Assassin’s Creed game moves at a healthy pace from the very beginning. Syndicate is a leaner, more compelling and utterly charming affair that manages to recapture some of the magic that Assassin’s Creed has lost. It has the lustre that made exploring the Caribbean in Black Flag such fun. If only they could do fix the gameplay and story.