In more than one way, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is one of the best playing Assassin’s Creed games in years. Then again, such a claim isn’t really worth much, all things considered. The Assassin’s Creed games have always played considerably well, even when mired by awful level design, cumbersome control schemes and strict insta-fail stealth scenarios. Still, Syndicate manages to squeeze out the very best of Assassin’s Creed without stumbling too much along the way. It’s a fun game that’s a mix of self seriousness and outright absurdity that will have you asking yourself “why not?” instead of “why bother” all along your merry way.
This time, we’re doing the stabby-stabby business in Victorian age 1860s London. The Industrial Revolution is already in full effect, the class wars are as fiery as they’ve always been with the rich wanting to get richer by any means possible. That’s when the Frye siblings drop into town as two young members of the Assassins. Although their motives are muddled by a so-so story, we do learn that their father was a out of grace big wig among the order, and they’re trying to clear his name. Serious and no nonsense Evie’s after a relic that’s familiar to fans of the series, a piece of Eden, while Jacob, the more punchy of the duo, just wants to put together a gang and take the city away from the forces of Starrick, the evil Templar industrialist pulling the strings and who just happens to like to burst into songs every now and then. The Fryes play off of each other quite well within the confines of the weakly put together premise.
The cool wrinkle to Assassin’s Creed this time around is that you can play as both protagonists, with Evie being the more stealth oriented character, and Jacob the more fist to the face oriented of the two. It’s a neat mechanic that’s put to good use throughout the game, with character specific missions and free range to change between these during exploration. The further you level them up and buy new skills, though, the closer they get to playing almost identically, as their skill trees quickly turn quite redundant.
There’s only a handful of singular skills that are exclusive to each character under the three branches you spend skill points on. They’re pretty useful, though, like Jacob’s fast revolver draw instantly offs any bloke unlucky enough to be at the wrong end of his handgun, or Evie’s ability to turn invisible while skulking around in low profile. It’s a little baffling to see how these characters evolve skills-wise and become more alike than the expected opposite, but considering how fast evolution is in the overall progression of the game, you probably won’t care because you’ll be too busy zipping around rooftops using your grappling hook.
In the past, Assassin’s Creed attempted to bring in improvements to its traversal via new pieces of equipment. Such was Revelations’ hookblade, which allowed you to leap a little further while climbing, but it’s Syndicate‘s grappling hook that takes the cake and runs with it. It’s ridiculous, sure, but the minute a lovestruck Sir Alexander Graham Bell hands the gizmo to Evie and you start zipping around, you won’t care. After all, London is pretty much the biggest map any Assassin’s Creed has ever featured, and even with fast travel, it’s extremely convenient tool. And even more so considering the years we’ve spent slowly and carefully climbing up buildings in these games.
And yes, I did mention Alexander Graham Bell. Like past games in the franchise, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate makes liberal use of historical figures in the most absurd ways it can get away with. Be it old frail Charles Darwin sneaking around in factories or fan favorite Karl Marx planning and asking for a hand with his hijinks, you should be ready to turn a blind eye if you’re particularly sensitive to having History kicked to the curb and having its lunch money stolen in favor of silly videogame entertainment.
With that out of the way, it’s good to see less icons on an Assassin’s Creed game’s map. Syndicate’s progression is much more constrained and well balanced. Freeing London from Templar control is a matter of clearing each of the boroughs subsections. There’s a few mission types that are fairly unique to this title’s setting, like saving children from working in factories and shutting down shop, or clearing out a gang base and saving your own gang members in return. These takeover side quests are obviously meant to be played interwoven between story missions, given how repetitive they can be if played in succession. And of course, it wouldn’t be an Assassin’s Creed game without a fight club to knuckle your way through and races, because checkpoint time attack and open worlds go together like peanut butter and sausage.
But it’s worth doing the secondary and tertiary bits because they give you the bulk of the skill points you’ll need to level up the Fryes. They also strengthen your relationship with the city’s factions you’ll be running into. Leveling those up opens new schematics to build equipment with as well as different and otherwise inaccessible higher level gear and upgrades that involve your gang and train hideout. For once, progression feels okay in one of these games, bringing actual benefits to gameplay that go beyond mere counters going up.
And yes, that’s right, you have a train hideout. It’s probably the twenty third biggest silly thing included in this game. You can do practically everything you’d otherwise use menus for there, like changing your character’s outfits, arsenal and start new missions. It’s a completely unnecessary and it doesn’t really factor into the story a whole lot, but it’s cool distraction nonetheless. Trains are awesome, right?
The main story content, unlike the side stuff, is pretty well developed and makes smart use of the foundation laid by previous Assassin’s Creed games. They include a strong variety of locations and things to do, and better yet, are flexible enough to factor in the unpredictability of the world you’re playing in, giving you more room than any of the previous’ entries’ ever allowed you to play off rails and mess up. Any mistakes are made at the expense achieving 100% synch with the “memory” you’re playing, the last cling at the convoluted simulation storyline delivery the series is known for.
Regardless or the why’s and what’s, you’re going after specific targets within Starrick’s organization in each of the eight story sequences the game’s broken in. The very last missions in said sequences, in which you actually go in for the assassination are usually a little more involved, breaking up the level into sections and actually showing you different ways you can tackle it. It’s neat to try to play within the game’s rules for the first few of these, but the direct line of approach is hilariously enough far and away the best method, even though it’s probably the least in line to the aforementioned percentage you likely won’t care about — unless you’re after achivements or trophies.
Syndicate wouldn’t be an Assassin’s Creed product if its setting wasn’t impeccably recreated. Ubisoft have outdone themselves this time around. London looks absurdly detailed and gorgeously grim, with detail upon detail that really makes everything come together almost perfectly. Non-playable characters are still a little stilted, but behave in a far more realistic way in this than in any previous one. This is an Assassin’s Creed game that works well both over and at street level, so seeing that both have received this amount of care is reason enough to laud the many Ubisoft studios involved in shaping and giving this setting life and vibrancy. Without going into spoiler territory, they make smart use of their architectural work to up the awe factor in ways that go being just having you swan dive off of really high structures. This game also sounds gorgeous, which really makes everything feel extremely believable. Out of the entirety of the series, this game also features an excellent string instrument based soundtrack that’s subtly composed and performed admirably.
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is the best Assassin’s Creed game in years. It doesn’t try to overburden you nearly as much as previous entries did. Side activities ties in well with the overall progression you’d be doing anyway throughout the game. It’s an incredibly silly game, but its use of amazing set pieces and a meticulously recreated nineteenth century London is reason enough to once again don the cloak, pick your favorite top hat and dive into the nearest conveniently placed hay bale, at least until the next AC game comes around in 2017.