“Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate” review

 

jacob frye and rooks

With the industrial revolution looming in London, child labor is at an all-time high, gangs roam the streets and the world takes tentative strides towards technological progress.

What does this mean for you? More Assassin and Templar shenanigans.

That’s all fine and dandy since “Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate” feels like a much fresher and well put-together stab at a current-generation installment in the titular series. It’s almost as if “Unity” was Ubisoft stepping out in new clothes and trying to show off while the tags were still on. Despite being carefully picked out, they were just a little too ill-fitting. Now, they’re just walking around without calling attention to themselves but the clothes fit and are really nice.

“Syndicate” throws you right back into the “story” (I’ll explain why there are quotation marks there later) almost immediately. There’s a little cutscene with your assassin handlers talking to you and showing some live drone feed of assassins doing assassin things. Then it’s cheerio, pip pip, and tea as you step into the shoes of Jacob and Evie Frye, a brother and sister duo out to make their mark on London and locate a Shroud of Eden before the antagonist Templars do. Jacob and Evie are likeable in their own right. Jacob the care-free bruiser who is hell-bent on disrupting Templar operations by murdering them outright and making a better gang. Evie is the smart one, but a little too focused on the mission and the ideology of being an assassin, and she is out to find the Piece of Eden.

What’s that? Huh? You want–you want a strong leading female character? BAM. Evie Frye is badass and dressed to kill with her kukri, cane sword and utterly-terrifying knuckle armor. Of course, Jacob can use the same weapons, but I feel Evie is just so classy with the cane as she runs her enemies through with it and then whacks their heads like golf balls. And she’s not just a gameplay element used for stealth missions, which was what I was afraid of initially. You can play as her for almost the whole game if you like, or seamlessly transition to her brother from the main menu. For me, I like doing certain missions as Evie and others as Jacob, ones that I think are more well-suited to their characters overall.

You have your obligatory conquering of the city that’s been around since “AC 2” and “Brotherhood.” To conquer the boroughs of London, though, you’ll have to round up criminals for the authorities, take down gang strongholds, kill Templars and free child-laborers. As you do this, certain contacts will reward you with gear schematics or special gear. While conquering the boroughs doesn’t do more than unlock gear, you can spend your hard-earned cash on gang upgrades for the Rooks, Jacob and Evie’s rag-tag London hooligans. These upgrades increase the cash you receive over time, make the enemies weaker, or lower prices of items at shops. Basic stuff.

Jacob and Evie have their own skills to increase as well. Every thousand points from various gameplay feats nets the twins a skill point that can be spent on stealth, combat or all-around utility abilities. Something I liked was that Jacob and Evie have specific skills that only they can unlock for themselves. For example, Evie can have Stealth III, while Jacob gains Gunslinger II.

Remember how we all hate horses in “Assassin’s Creed” games? Well in “AC: Syndicate” you’ll hate carriages slightly less than the horses in previous games. I say less because while driving has not been a thing that Ubisoft has done terrible well in the past, the carriages handle like they should. What I mean is that they drift a bit when taking a turn at full speed. They don’t turn on a dime, but get you from point A to point B faster than running. Honestly, driving a carriage is pretty easy to get into, and I enjoy some of the hijacking and defense missions. It reminds me a little of carriage driving in Rockstar’s “Red Dead Redemption.”

Carriages are a more manageable mode of transportation than in previous game in the series.

Carriages are a more manageable mode of transportation than in previous game in the series.

Don’t want to use a carriage? That’s okay, because you can traverse the city using the new zip-line that Alexander Graham Bell makes for our pair of Assassins. It handles sort of like the grapple hook from the “Arkham” games. It doesn’t launch you into the air but it certainly aids in getting across the wide streets of London. It also provides opportunities for new zip-line assassinations for Jacob and Evie.

Combat has been a little improved, too, since there’s a more solid way of doing the multi-kills that we all know and love. Sliding into open windows on buildings has been more streamlined to just one button in contrast to “Unity.” There’s a lot of subtle improvements, but there are still some holes here and there. I’ve encountered a couple of massive frame-rate issues, and one “fall through the world” bug. I want to say that I expected that to not happen, but I’ll be honest: I know that despite it being Ubisoft, there will always be bugs and down the line I just hope that they get better on these new systems with that kind of stuff.

I have, however, figured out what the issue is with the storylines that we’ve been seeing in these last four games in the new generation of “AC” games. I didn’t really understand it myself until really looking at it from a holistic and mechanical perspective. This is where I get to the reason why I quotation marked the word story at the beginning of my review.

“Black Flag” and “Rogue” have a player character who is (spoilers) recruited by the Templars to become an Assassin hunter. In “Unity” and “Syndicate” you play as an in-game consumer who has purchased a home Animus for gaming, and is approached by the Assassins to help them stop the Templars.

So why is this a problem? Well for one, we’ve had several games before these four with a main protagonist that we followed, learned with and experienced much of the world with. As these new “you” characters, you have no real agency that you normally have as a character that is supposed to be your avatar in a world. Take “Uncharted” or “Tomb Raider” for instance.  In those games, you play as a character that makes decisions and you experience the outcomes with them. Fun games. In games like “Mass Effect” or “Dragon Age,” you play as a character that is your avatar in the world.  That character is thrust into a scenario that you make decisions to navigate, and you live with the consequences of your actions.

“AC” used to have a Nathan Drake or Lara Croft character that we enjoyed following, if only for the connection to the other characters in the franchise. Desmond Miles’ connection to his ancestors made you want to do full synchronization on all missions to do give him more information and more connection with his family’s past. As an in-game player in these new situations, you have the unfortunate knowledge of prior games, and no decision-making power. What if I don’t want to be a Templar or an Assassin? I wasn’t given the option. They’ve made both teams so ambiguous now that I’m not sure who is right or wrong at times, but it seems clear when it matters. I can’t interact with the world I’m in, and I feel like a passive observe with people talking at me instead of a part of a larger story. It’s like I’m in a Choose Your Own Adventure book, but the book is telling me that I have two paths to take with two characters, and it’s only how I get to the fork in the road that is up to me.

“Syndicate” is what we wanted “Unity” to be. It’s better in a lot of ways, but there is still room to improve on Ubisoft’s part. For fans of the franchise, this is the taste of “AC” you want after “Black Flag” and “Rogue.” For those looking at these games for their current-generation exclusivity, these games are becoming more and more for the fans, but there is still an air of “drop in and play” that shouldn’t turn new players away since they’re still very early into whatever this meta plot really is.

You can pick up “Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate” for PC, PS4, and Xbox One now.