Review: Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate

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2014 was the first year I had missed playing an Assassin’s Creed title. I bought Unity, but the rough launch combined with integrated co-op with the story was enough to keep me from actually playing the game. I can’t say that I won’t ever go back and play it, but chances are, I won’t. Stepping away from an annual franchise game has some pluses and minuses. Fatigue doesn’t set in as quickly with the feeling of just having played something so similar. The downside is if there are any revelatory story beats shown in the previous year’s game, you’ve missed them. (Fortunately in my case, Unity was very much a standalone story.) 

Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate is another standalone story in many ways, but what struck me from the beginning was the meta story and the characters that have returned from Assassin’s Creed III (Shawn and Rebecca). Their characters set the stage from an Assassin point of view as to why a new Initiate (the player) is searching through Victorian London for an object hidden in that time period, so that it can be retrieved in modern day to fight back against the Templars. Seeing Shawn and Rebecca instantly hooked me into Syndicate, because they are characters that I hadn’t realized I had grown to enjoy and expect in an Assassin’s Creed game, and suddenly they were back!

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Where Syndicate deviates from previous AC titles is the fact that you can control either Jacob or Evie Frye at almost any point in the game. They are twins who have been raised by an Assassin trained father and have come to London to find a relic before the Templars do. Of course Jacob and Evie don’t always see eye to eye–Jacob is much more chaotic whereas Evie tends to be much more thoughtful in her research and overall approach to achieving goals. As with previous AC titles, the game is split up into Sequences which involve multiple levels in which Jacob or Evie must chase after Templars to find answers to things or solve problems for people close to Templars as a favor. Ultimately each Sequence ends with a full confrontation assassination of someone close to the main antagonist, a progressive capitalist and greedy Templar named Crawford Starrick (who looks a lot like Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood).

London is divided into several neighborhoods which are initially controlled by a gang named The Blighters, and The Frye’s challenge is to clear out the Blighter influence by hunting down and capturing Blighter leaders, freeing child labor workers in factories, or wiping out gang strongholds. Taken one neighborhood at a time, the game doesn’t feel overly repetitive, but when the map is zoomed out and some of these activities need to be done two or three times each, the game can feel very grindy. Fortunately, the method of clearing out the Blighters is entirely up to the player. Evie is much more stealth focused, while Jacob is a brute and thus takes the physical approach to almost everything. My only real complaint is that I preferred to play as Evie because of her stealth prowess, but, strangely, most stealth-requiring missions forced Jacob to be used. Why offer two players in the sandbox mode if you can’t pick either for the actual story missions? Or even better, why not actually allow both to be used (from different perspectives) in each mission? (One of the final missions actually does this and it was a refreshing use of both characters in the same mission.)

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Past AC titles have not been exactly known for their stellar combat. Early games always felt like combat was a relative button-mashy affair and if things got too tight, dropping a smoke bomb would confuse enough enemies that they could easily be dispatched or escaped from, without much concern. Syndicate has really focused a fair amount on combat (which is a bit of an odd thing for a mostly stealth game), but aside from seeing Shawn and Rebecca early on, I found myself really enjoying the short combat encounters playing as both Evie or Jacob, as there was a much more deliberate rhythm to controller input. Countering, attacking, and stunning all feel weighty and the timing just feels right. Plus, building up a combo of attacks (and lining up low health enemies in a circle around one of the Fryes) means a special deadly duo, trio, or quad attack can be triggered to brutally finish off enemies.

Clearing a neighborhood of Blighters isn’t the only activity (besides the main story mission). Historic figures also introduce side story elements and include exceptional people such as Karl Marx, Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin, and Alexander Graham Bell. These characters provide a substantial amount of side quest activity that bolsters the overall environmental and social experience of Syndicate. There are also Penny Dreadful mysteries to solve, which offer a nice change of pace to the combat aspect of the game. Each Penny Dreadful quest begins with a dead body and a need to use Eagle Vision to look for clues or follow a trail of some sort and question suspects to unlock more locations and uncover additional clues. Once all clues are discovered one suspect must be accused to solve the quest. The wrong character can be accused and the mission will still end, but few experience points and money will be awarded.

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As a game world, I got completely lost in the Victorian era London sandbox created for Syndicate. World traversal is a bit different from past games as London is a bustling emerging industrial power and movement over rooftops alone would (and does) take forever to travel. Horse drawn carriages can be hijacked and steered almost anywhere, and as long as a point on the map has been selected as a waypoint a line appears on the road helping to navigate to that location.  There are times when the path will lead down too narrow an alley with other carriages already traveling in the wrong direction, and that can be a bit frustrating. While in a carriage, Evie or Jacob can shoot a gun or throw knives at either Blighters chasing after (or the horses pulling the carriage), or even move to the roof and surf on top while dealing with enemies. Climbing tall buildings is handled by Alexander Graham Bell fixing a grappling line, which allows for rapid ascent up, as well as providing a zipline across wide roads.

One of the aspects that also kept me coming back to Syndicate was Austin Wintory’s soundtrack. Most famous for his work with Journey, as well as other games like The Banner Saga and Monaco, Wintory’s score for Syndicate brings something vibrant and relaxing at the same time. An urgency of strings plays against the combat in a way that I wasn’t expecting after hearing Jesper Kyd’s almost electronica soundscapes for so long with many of the earlier AC titles.

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I beat the story, but I didn’t 100% the game (because I don’t hate myself). One of my biggest complaints about the newer AC titles is the inclusion of almost arbitrary secondary goals to complete during each mission which can be accomplished 80% of the time on the first attempt, but more often than not will be failed because the stated goal isn’t clearly explained or the actual mechanics don’t work as expected. Yes, player intention versus game interpretation of that intention is still a problem. Aside from earning 100% for each mission, there are hundreds of things to collect throughout the city. I have enjoyed my time with the game, but there comes a point where opening every chest in the city and collecting every glitch feels more like game-padding, busy-work punishment. Especially when the game doesn’t provide any indication that there is a reward for actually collecting everything. Previous AC games provided a bit of a carrot on the stick motivation for collecting glitches, but Syndicate doesn’t, so why bother if there is no story beat or armor at the end?

I’m glad I skipped Unity and took a break from Assassin’s Creed, because I was given a full year to forget my frustrations and be able to play Syndicate with a much less cynical eye (Editor’s Note: something the series will hopefully benefit from in the future now that it has been confirmed that the annual release cycle will end with no new Assassin’s Creed installment planned for 2016). Picking up a controller and diving deep into the world created in Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate was on the whole a great experience. The characters of Jacob and Evie Fry are fun and their story is an interesting one that ultimately pays off with a very satisfying ending. (Although the modern day ending left me wanting to know more!) Combat is fun, stealth is mostly well done (with Evie but no so much with Jacob), and riding around town in a horse drawn carriage is also way more fun than it should be. Plus, the music adds a strange mellow vibrancy that really brings the world to life. Syndicate has brought the fun back to Assassin’s Creed and fans of the previous games should definitely check it out. Players new to the series or who went on an AC hiatus can also pick it up without feeling like they need to have played the previous games.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Excellent combat
+ Fun world to explore
+ Story introduces interesting new characters, brings old characters back
+ Amazing music

Cons:
– Too much busy work at times
– Two characters isn’t always as fun as one

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PS4, also available on PC and Xbox One
Publisher: Ubisoft
Developer: Ubisoft
Release Date: 10/23/2015
Genre: Action-Adventure
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1

Source: Review code provided by publisher

Buy From: Amazon.com, Steam

About the Author

Tim has been playing video games for more than 20 years. He manages to find time to game in between raising three kids and working as a network administrator. Follow Tim on Twitter @freemantim.