Reviewed on: Playstation 4
They’ve done it, they’ve finally done it. We, the people of the world, now have a cockney street gang simulator. If you’ve ever wanted to feel the rush of waving over your mates to come fight some guys, shout all the British slang you can think of and then burn their possessions, then my word is Assassin’s Creed Syndicate the game for you.
Yes, the latest Assassin’s Creed has brought the series to Victorian London, where the accents are glorious and the street brawls bloody. Focusing on not one but two assassins, twins Evie and Jacob Frye, Syndicate tells their story of trying to reclaim London from the grip of the Templars while also searching for another Piece of Eden, those troublesome artefacts left behind by the omnipotent beings who created mankind. These two objectives are a point of contention for the twins, with Evie being more driven to find the Piece of Eden (known as the Shroud) whereas Jacob wants to rally the people and “liberate” London from tyrannical rule. Meanwhile, in present day, Shaun and Rebecca are trying to find the Shroud and are waiting to hear the end of Evie and Jacob’s adventure so as to discover its resting place.
All this sound familiar? It should, because it is essentially the same kind of story the past few Assassin’s Creed games have followed: liberate [historical city], maybe come across a Piece of Eden. I found Syndicate’s story left me wanting, but I am one of those weirdos who loved the original Assassin’s Creed’s story, with its balance of past and present story-lines that both were pushing towards the same goal. Here, the present day aspects feel like an afterthought, and the twins’ story of ridding London of Templars lacked substance. Syndicate gets no points for its story.
It does get points for its characters though. Evie and Jacob are probably the best protagonist assassins since Ezio in Assassin’s Creed 2, and though their personalities of reckless brother/pragmatist sister are hardly new, their back-and-forth dialogue and voice work is incredibly enjoyable. Syndicate‘s other characters, particularly its villain Crawford Starrick, are quite decent, but the twins were definitely a highlight.
The only problem I have with the two protagonists is that I wish there was more of a difference in playing as either of them. They each have their own skill trees, but they both contain the exact same skills, with only some of the final ones being character specific. Jacob is said to be more combat focused, while Evie prefers stealth, but for a majority of the game they can both be equally as good at either with the right skills purchased. What’s more, each skill you want them both to have needs to be bought twice. So if you purchase lock-picking for Evie but forget to for Jacob and then do a Jacob mission where lock-picking would get him a special item but you don’t have the skill points to pick it up, well tough luck.
From a technical standpoint, Syndicate holds up pretty well, with only a few minor glitches here or there. We all remember the chaotic mess that was Assassin’s Creed Unity’s launch last year, but rest assured Syndicate is very much playable and looks great. The level of detail packed into the London city map is staggering, often causing me to stop running around and just admire the architecture. The same attention to detail is put into the character models and weather effects, the combination of which really brings Victorian London to life.
This level of gorgeous sadly does come at the expense of the frame rate. While Syndicate generally runs at around 30 frames per second, often when leaping from a ledge, sweeping around the camera or sprinting in a crowd, there were frame rate drops. Nothing so bad that it drastically affected gameplay, but they were there and it detracted from the stellar visuals of the environment. Perhaps we’ve all been spoiled by Metal Gear Solid V’s beautifully detailed, constant 60 frames per second open world, but after coming straight off that game into Syndicate, you really miss that stability.
Speaking of Metal Gear Solid V, I couldn’t help but make further comparisons when it came to the stealth gameplay of Syndicate. When you follow the intended strategy, the game feels really good, but for the most part being stealthy in Syndicate feels very restricted. There’s little freedom of approach when it comes to assassinating targets beyond which window to enter the building from. There’s also little choice in regards to distracting guards, at least that I could come up with, which led to much frustration when undertaking missions where dead bodies might raise the alarm. Often the best approach would be to let myself be spotted from afar then free-run my way out of there, with the very slim chance I wouldn’t be seen scaling a building.
On the building-scaling side of things, the classic Asssassin’s Creed free-running gameplay is back in full force and features the “free-run down/up” mechanic introduced in Unity. I hadn’t spent much time with Unity prior to Syndicate, so this feature was new to me but essentially instead of holding X to interact with ledges/walls, now you can choose between X and O, depending if you want to scale up the wall/ledge or down it. While this new addition to the core free-running does wonders for eliminating the previous games’ problem of your character leaping off ledges to their deaths, it introduces a whole new one: being inconsistent in its interpretation of what surfaces require the input.
As an example, I found many a time where I would be approaching a ledge that has a railing that I would like to swing over and free-run down the following wall. I would run at this ledge holding O to indicate I wish to traverse downwards and my character would just stop dead at the railing, because apparently it is just high enough that I should have indicated I wanted to go up the railing before heading down the wall. I could never find a consistent height to indicate when I needed to traverse up a railing, rather than simply run at it and hop up automatically, and it disrupted many an escape attempt.
Thankfully, Syndicate brings forth another addition to the climbing mechanics that help alleviate some of this frustration: the zip-line launcher.
The zip-line allows for Evie and Jacob to quickly scale walls or fly between buildings with relative ease, allowing for better reaching vantage points when it comes to attacking enemy outposts. It isn’t the most intuitive device, sometimes it would decide to pull me up a different wall to the one I thought it had selected, but it certainly comes in handy and makes traversing the gigantic map a lot easier. It may not be Batman: Arkham Knight’s grappling hook, but it is a welcome addition to the Assassin’s Creed arsenal.
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is mixed bag. It is beautiful to look at, but that beauty hurts the game’s performance. There’s more room for control when free-running, but that control is implemented inconsistently. The stealth focus is there, but with little room to move and often devolves into a slaughter. And, depending on where you stand regarding the past/present story balance, the Animus focused narrative is either a great/terrible thing.
But is the game fun? Yes, and especially so if you’ve had a break from the series. The combat is solid, there’s a lot of extra quests for completionists and the free-running is still fun despite shortcomings. I do feel the annualised nature of this franchise has stagnated it somewhat, but Syndicate is still a fun time.