After having a setback with last year’s Assassin’s Creed Unity, I’m happy to write that Assassin’s Creed Syndicate brings the series back to form. While it may not be the definitive game in the series, it does revitalize the once dominant franchise by streamlining the experience and giving us a new and unique setting to explore.
The setting for this outing is jolly old Victorian-era London at the tail end of the English Industrial Revolution. As usual, you have to fight the Templars and stop whatever nefarious acts of evil they’re cooking up. This time however, you’ll get to play as two main characters: twins, Evie and Jacob Frye. Along the way, you’ll run into famous historical figures who will help you out in your overarching mission. You’ll also be murdering countless foes as well… since you’re an Assassin and all that.
While this isn’t the largest AC game in terms of map size, it is easily the most dense and detailed environment the series has ever had. Each borough of London has its own distinct appearance and atmosphere. The dilapidated buildings and disease ridden puddles of Whitechapel are a world apart from the pristine and opulent streets of Westminster. I’ve obviously never been to London, let alone Victorian-era London (blame that on my lack of funds and a proper time machine), but this game definitely made me feel as if this was a real place I was visiting. The Victorian-era is often visited in fiction and feels familiar. So in that sense, AC Syndicate‘s recreation of the London from that time seems genuine and true.
Getting across the world in previous games involved climbing up structures both tall and short. While that is still a prominent mechanic in this game (climbing Big Ben is pretty sweet!), you now have a new piece of gear that makes traversal much more efficient and fun. Early in the game, you’re given a grappling hook (by Alexander Graham Bell no less!) which lets you shoot rope to the top of buildings or which lets you cross gaps between buildings. It’s a gadget that Batman would be proud of and which makes getting around the gigantic city much easier. When all else fails however, you can always hijack a horse cart. The driving mechanics in this game are surprisingly responsive which was a relief since this aspect could have easily been a disaster. Just remember to drive on the left side of the road. This is England after all.
The city of London is controlled by the Templars and your primary goal is to take it back from them. How do you do that? Like the previous games, you’ll have to do missions in each sector that let you take control over them piece by piece. In Syndicate, these missions include capturing Templar agents and bringing them to the police, killing Templars outright, freeing children from factories, and taking over gang strongholds. After completing each task, you will have to do a gang war to kill off the gang leader of that area. There isn’t much more to say about this since it is virtually identical to the past games, but with era appropriate mission types.
London isn’t just full of enemies however. You’ll have allies as well, some of which are historical figures like Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, Florence Nightingale, and Karl Marx (among others). While it’s insanely convenient that all of these prominent folks just so happen to be in London at the same time, it’s fun nonetheless. Each one of them provide with you with missions which not only help flesh out the world, but also give you nice bonuses like armor schematics, or good old fashioned cash (pounds, quid, shillings, or whatever it is that the English use as currency). There are also other minor allies who provide you with activities which are scattered throughout London. These involve horse cart racing, boxing matches, or hijacking goods from The Blighters.
While the whole of London, even the wonderfully brown River Thames, is accessible to you almost from the start, you may want to stay away from some sections until you level up. It’s not a good idea to go waltzing into Westminster, a borough which is level 9, if you’re level 3. You CAN go if you want, but you’ll probably be easily murdered by the local gangs. Leveling up isn’t complicated however. All you need to do is complete missions, collect collectibles, do random events… basically just play the game and you’ll level up.
Just like you can with yourself, you can upgrade your gear. Outfits, weapons, belts… you can practically upgrade anything provided you have the money and materials to do so. Most materials are obtained from doing missions so they aren’t exactly hard to come by. Leveling up your equipment makes you stronger and more resilient, allowing you to survive encounters longer. As you progress through the game, you’ll unlock more powerful gear as well which you can also level up.
Combat has been streamlined somewhat, even if it has taken a bit of a step backwards. In the past, you could basically just stand in one place and wait to counter attacks. While this was diminished in the last few titles, it has returned here. The game does mix things up a bit by having enemies whose guard needs to be broken before you can attack them, or having you press the triangle or circle buttons at appropriate times to dodge bullets and attacks, respectively.
Even though combat is relatively simple, it is still extremely satisfying, especially since the kill animations are so brutal. The game even has extended kill animations when you kill multiple enemies at once. You can achieve this by beating several enemies to the brink of death and then hitting the attack button which will trigger an animation where you systematically, and violently, kill all of them. It’s something that is very enjoyable and never gets old.
Another important aspect of Assassin’s Creed that’s a mainstay is stealth. Unfortunately, though this game does have stealth based missions, it doesn’t exactly punish you for being aggressive. There were several “stealth” missions I did where I killed guards in front of people and I wasn’t penalized at all. For example, I tried to sneak into a ball and killed four guards by the front door and no one in the large crowd said anything. This happened constantly and it got to the point where I didn’t even bother to be stealthy. I know that you as a player want the freedom to approach missions how you want, but it took me out of the experience because I expect there to be consequences for failing to be stealthy in a stealth mission.
Having two main selectable characters does a lot to make this entry feel fresh and different. While the hot-headed, cocky, and impulsive Jacob and the logical, measured, and tactical Evie do embody certain character stereotypes we’ve seen before, they nonetheless are fully realized characters that I enjoyed playing as. The dichotomy between the two is not only entertaining, but also sets up some of the conflict of the game, even if it does feel a bit forced at times. I liked both characters equally and found myself always switching between the two, even if mechanically, they controlled exactly the same.
Ever since Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, the series has contained a multiplayer component to it. That’s no longer the case as this is a purely single player only experience. While some may regret losing the (admittedly) original multiplayer of this series (with its cat and mouse style gameplay), I’m not one of those people. Yes, the multiplayer could be fun, but it ultimately didn’t serve any real function other than having that extra bulletpoint on the back of the box. I commend Ubisoft for providing players with a pure single player experience but still managing to keep the game robust enough to not relegate it to a weekend rental.
AC Unity was lambasted (and rightfully so) due to its horrendous glitches, and many were worried that Syndicate’s performance would be just as messy. I’m glad to say that I never encountered anything overtly buggy in the game. Sure, there were some instances of people’s lips not moving in sync to the audio, or someone getting stuck in a wall, but this rarely happened. If you were worried about seeing characters who looked like they came from the set of They Live, you can put those fears aside. With some minor graphical hiccups here and there (as you would expect from an open world game), Syndicate runs as well as you could hope.
One last thing I should mention are the game’s microtransactions. If you want, you can buy maps that will let you see the location of Helix Glitches and London Secrets, or buy in-game currency in case you’re low on funds. Before you grab your torches and pitchforks to head to Ubisoft’s offices, I want to emphasize that none of this is forced. For example, you can earn Helix Credits (the currency used to buy things in the e-store) by playing the game. I earned enough on my own to buy one of the aforementioned maps, and I didn’t need the other since I found all of the Helix Glitches by just exploring the world as I looked for treasure chests. I know that some of you don’t like the mere existence of microtransactions in games (particularly $60 ones), but in this case, they aren’t as nefariously implemented as they are in other titles.
As a long-time fan of this franchise, it makes me happy to say that the series has returned to its former glory. Assassin’s Creed Syndicate may be a bit rough around the edges sometimes, and its main story may not be as grand or important as those of previous entries, but it is a thoroughly satisfying and engaging experience. If you’ve ever been a fan of the series but have fallen off it, this is the game that will get you back in. It’s bloody brilliant, it is.
This review of Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is based on a physical copy for the PlayStation 4 which was provided by Ubisoft.